Man of Steel: A Feminist Review (Yeah, Really)

Contains spoilers

Feminist review of a Zack Snyder film? There can be only one outcome to this piece, and it’s surely not pretty (HUMOUR KLAXON.) But back to Man of Steel.

I liked it. I thoroughly enjoyed the Superman-origins-story-fantastically-disengaged-from-urgent-issues-in-reality, complete with obscene, arguably offensive budget and wastefully pervasive marketing strategy as standard. All this was, of course, headed up by Zack Snyder, style-over-substance auteur-extraordinaire, at a time when the escapism-lovingest studios are pumping out superhero features with problematic-ideology-reinforcing regularity. And you know what? Man of Steel genuinely entertained and moved me. 

It would seem I’ve gone a bit wrong. Blockbusters in general, and recent superhero films specifically, are most often formulaic, cash-ridden and irrelevant to the point of inducing in me a formulaic, cash-strapped, and relevant anger. Further, dull veneration via identical 4 star reviews, and by the same masses who ensured that this video of chicks crawling around in transparent body-stockings was more widely viewed than this woman challenging the banking crisis or this discussion of morality, transforms my anger into a depressed lethargy. So far, so normal.

But have I? Have I gone wrong in my enjoyment of the latest flick? After a week of consideration, these new, less-ireful feelings are lost in the confusion that I came to them around the same time I watched a film directed by the Sucker Punch guy. (More on that slap-tickle of a dream-mare later.)

The more I work, the more I understand the fierce importance of story structure. (I know, it seems obvious because you’ve seen so many films; try writing a good one. See you in a few years, Me-from-the-past.) I have to grant Goyer & Nolan, their story was solid. Not amazing, groundbreaking, or a bewildering combination of these, but as good as, if not better than, your vastly average Hollywood blockbuster. Luckily they caught me on a day that I was willing to embrace a film about a really nice alien bloke who learns to live in a world with plot-facilitating representations of humans. I allowed myself to enjoy the suspension of disbelief to see if there was anything that I could in fact take back into reality from this one that wasn’t a feeling of chronic emptiness and craving for the despotic power to control the world’s political and cultural economy. And I was pleasantly surprised.

The character development arc is good, except for the fact that it all happens in the first half and then (!SPOILER!) sort of anomalously returns when he kills that innocent family at the end (was that enough warning?) The dialogue was better than average; the pacing was mostly very good (again, though, weighted in favour of the first two acts); the flying sequence was a viscera-shaking masterpiece of cinema that made me want to ravage the air around me with my fists. I’d recommend watching it every morning to get yourself on board for being the Most Super-You You Can Be (i.e. not as super as a superhero, but a super hero nonetheless, champ.)

The characterisation is really what enthused me. I’m by no means going to label Man of Steel a feminist film (NB: I believe there was one conversation between Lois and Martha in which they discussed something other than the Man of Steel, so Bechdel: check) but the female character portrayal was different to any I’ve seen from the tropes of superhero story. Now, Snyder both wrote and directed Sucker Punch, which, on the surface at least, looks and sounds like a pathetic glorification of sex, violence, and sexual violence. What I was shocked to find out was that there is a coherent argument for Sucker Punch in fact being a deeply subversive critique of the normalisation and glamourisation of sexual violence in cultural products, and to some degree its appropriation in third-wave feminism also… Yeah. While MovieBob half-way convinces me, I’ve never seen Sucker Punch. I can’t bring myself to. Even my Amazing Boyfriend, whose only true flaw is that he insists on enjoying films like Avengers Assemble etc., said it “just didn’t work”. (He didn’t comment on the stripping. He is wise.)

The female characterisation in Man of Steel deviated from the norm in the subtlest of the slightest of the most nuanced ways (as a female HSP I appreciated this very much; some , less sensitive types may not feel it was quite so deviant.) But the key is this: there were no references to the female characters being sexy. It just wasn’t on the radar. They weren’t patronisingly and misguidedly ‘strong and sexy’ or ‘badass’; they weren’t part of some fetishisation of being-female-and-in-danger (which, fuck you, by the way, Culture.) They were just characters, like the other proper characters. You know, the ones we identify with. Like, straight white guys.

It seems as though whatever gender representation commentary Snyder appears to have failed at engendering in Sucker Punch, he at least partly, and possibly inadvertently, revived in a film entitled Man of Steel. It is still andro-centric; it’s Super… sorry, Man of Steel, so the clue is in the name. Any gender representation beef is, essentially, with the 75 year old source material, which is older than James Bond told a Bond girl, 'Run along, now! Man talk!' before slapping her rear in Goldfinger (and yes, I do like my gender representation beef rare.) 

In 2013, however, Kal-El is a genuinely likeable, smugness-effacing, megalomania-rejecting, audience-relatable man (but also, y'know, alien.) Lois Lane is less ‘Superman’s girlfriend’, and rather a top reporter who doesn’t back down. Faora fights harder than, and has as much if not more screentime as, Zod. Clark and Jonathan are not portrayed as ‘real men’ because of their physical might or intimidating presence or ability to win at things, but because they espouse a moral compass - and Kal-El’s strength manifests via his frustrated, vulnerably childlike, reserved and gentle character.

Ultimately, gaudy ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ didn’t dominate the narrative as is insultingly usual, but was replaced by the production team’s concrete-pulverization fetish, bordering on addiction. It’s time to start walking the crumbling road to recovery before the sequel…