Sacrificing artistic vision to public pandering
By Jay Sizemore
With The Man of Steel, the latest release in a torrent of seemingly endless comic book adaptations, the genre has come full circle. From Superman and the Mole Men (1951), to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), this cyclical manifestation of ‘the American Dream’ has undergone great transformation. If Man of Steel is any indication, the dream has gone astray, and may be standing proof of the decline of the Hollywood machine (and America).
You can see the recurring rise and fall of these types of films if you look at the way the franchises have been built, and relied upon more and more each year. Steven Spielberg recently predicted the economic collapse of Hollywood because of the reliance on these tent-pole projects, but each year, people have flocked to the cinema to indulge in these formulaic retreads of the same stories. As long as there is a plot line of three stair-stepped escalations of conflict that ends in a destructive but victorious climax for the protagonist, the audiences will fill the seats. The problem comes as a franchise grows, and it is eventually competing with its previous installments, trying to exceed audience expectations so the studios can still record high profits, while increasing the budgets spent making these films. This is how, in the original Superman movies, we got Nuclear Man, and in the original Batman films, we got nipples on Batsuits and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The greed of the system will outgrow the need for quality. With Man of Steel, they just cut out the middleman.
With Marvel and DC comics having taken a vested interest in the way their characters are developed for the screen, the last ten years have seen a better-than-average output of this type of movie. We have had classic additions to the genre such as Watchmen (2009) and 300 (2007), which were both directed by Zack Snyder, and were made practically using the source material as storyboards. We have seen the Batman franchise developed into a very solid film trilogy by Christopher Nolan, who also had a hand in the production of Man of Steel. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was rebooted very successfully by Marc Webb (the writer-director of 2009’s sleeper hit (500) Days of Summer) in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man. And then there were the hits and misses that were Iron Man (2008), X-Men (2000), and The Avengers (2012), among others. There seems to be a constant struggle in this genre to tell compelling stories beyond those of origin stories upon which they are based. The difference between Man of Steel and previous films of the genre is that Man of Steel forgoes any attempt at artistic integrity, and instead emerges as a very thinly developed propaganda piece. When art sacrifices itself so blindly for the needs of its government, abandoning artistic vision for the narrow view of one group – in this case Conservative Christianity, as I see it, it has lost all credibility. And yet, so many people have fallen for this parlor trick, this sleight of hand that doesn’t even need to pick a pocket, because the public gives its money freely to the cause.
I won’t waste time by going into every detail of how this movie uses Christian symbols and ideas to promote the values and ideas of the religion in the least subtle ways possible. You can go to many other sites on the internet to see these points laid out. Nor will I waste time relaying all the ways in which the movie tries to positively portray the American army, rehashing the visual imagery of 9/11 to stir patriotic emotion in the audience. These things are obvious to anyone who looks for them. There have been many reports on how the film’s creators garnered approval from the Pentagon to get military support for the film. This influence was apparently pushed beyond merely having military equipment in the movie, as there was an entire ad campaign unveiled with its release called Soldier of Steel, in which the Superman logo and scenes from the movie were used to promote recruiting efforts for the National Guard and the Army. Recruiting booths were set up outside theaters in which uniformed soldiers were handing out Superman shirts and talking to young people about the benefits of being in the service. Talking points for the film were also sent out to Christian pastors all across the country to garner the support of churches in attending screenings. This is why the underlying themes of the movie are faith and morality and a willingness to make sacrifices for the good of humanity, while accepting that casualties of war are inevitable when fighting evil forces. This is why Superman allows hundreds of thousands of people to die during a battle, when traditionally his character would have done all in his power to prevent such careless destruction. Not only does it provide spectacle, and an opportunity for 9/11 imagery, but it also sends a message that in war, people will die. There is even a useless stab at the concept of evolution, portraying it as devoid of morality, and obviously pandering to evangelicalism of far-right conservatives. What all of this leads to is a movie that cannot stand on its own merit, with characters that mean less than the events portrayed, and a narrative that weighs less than its overwrought message, creating a film that is not only as big and round as a hot air balloon, but just as full of hot air.
These types of tricks may have worked in Man of Steel, as the movie is already proving to be a huge success, but my hope is that audiences won’t continue to fall for the same indoctrinating messages. The primary goal of cinema should be to entertain while making credible art, not to promote agendas for political gain. Some of the greatest movies of all time – Casablanca, The Grand Illusion and Battleship Potemkin to name a few – are considered propaganda, but they do not forsake their artistic merit for their message, which is why they remain powerful films today. If this artificial influence continues to grow in the film making process, it shows grave possibilities for what Americans will allow from their government, and even graver possibilities for what that government may be capable of, especially when most of the public is either too blind to it to care, or simply chooses not to. If more people opened their eyes to this clear attempt at brainwashing, then these attempts would fail, and Hollywood would be forced to restructure its system, allowing more room for real art to be made. These projects can’t succeed forever. Eventually, things will change. Let’s just hope they change for the better.
Jay Sizemore is Film Critic for the magazine.