Silence and Noise: A Song of Two Supermen

THIS IS AN ARCHIVAL PIECE THAT WAS FIRST POSTED IN JANUARY 2014

It speaks volumes that Man of Steel’s most affecting moment doesn’t feature the Man of Steel himself. Amongst the carnage of the final act, when General Zod unleashes his World Engine and lays waste to Metropolis, director Zack Snyder attempts to humanise the devastation by turning away from nameless Metropolis citizens who have constituted much of the human wreckage and towards characters we’re more familiar with: Daily Planet Editor Perry White and intern Jenny. She’s got trapped under rubble and White’s trying to get her out. As the laser from Zod’s machine inches closer to the pair though, hope fades, and both have to admit their fate. White offers the girl his hand, and together they share a moment of quiet, melancholic solidarity. Their time is up.

Superman, of course, comes to the rescue, stopping the World Engine before it gets to Perry and Jenny, but neither this fact, nor its inevitability, take away from the power of the moment. In a film that is, at its core, as much about humanity and our potential for good as it is about Superman and his sense of identity, this scene is one of the few that shows how we can “accomplish wonders” (to shamelessly steal Jor-El’s phrase).  It’s subtle, it’s quiet, it’s humane. It stands as a moment of genuine human connection in a film that too often sacrifices that for grandstanding speeches, overbearing music (1) and loud visual effects. It’s one of the few moments in Man of Steel that achieves the film’s goal and it’s just a shame Superman isn’t around to see it.

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Man of Steel is a film of noise. Amongst the debris of special effects and Zimmer’s booming music, there’s a good film that has good ideas desperately trying to be heard. Just as the Perry/Jenny moment establishes the kind of film Man of Steel could have been, another scene (this time involving Superman) typifies the film it is: the one depicting the death of Jonathan Kent. This is one of the few dramatic beats that Man of Steel and Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie share in common, and while comparisons between the two don’t often reveal much (they’re very different films tonally and narratively, and the Man of Steel creative team were right to try to move the series in a fresh direction), the overlap here is worth exploring. While Snyder’s film is loud and brash, Donner’s film is more understand and eloquent: it’s a film of silence. Nowhere is this better scene than in its depiction of Jonathan’s death, which in my opinion ranks as one of cinema’s all-time most powerful death scenes.

The scene is so haunting because of its simplicity. Clark arrives back at the Kent farm after using his powers to outrun the car being driven by the school jock. He doesn’t know Clark has these powers, of course, so he and his friends are baffled, but Jonathan does, and he delivers to his son a brief and relaxed lecture about the need to use his gifts responsibly and not be found out. Struggling for the right words to say, Jonathan offers:

“When you first came to us, we thought that people would come and take you away because when they found out, y’know, the things you could do… it worried us a lot. But then a man gets older and and he thinks very differently and things get very clear. And there’s one thing I do know son, and that is you are here for a reason. I don’t know who’s reason or whatever the reason is, maybe it’s because…er… I don’t know. But I do know one thing: it’s not to score touchdowns.”

This scene is powerful not because of what Jonathan says, but because of what he doesn’t or can’t say. The fact he can’t articulate his son’s powers into any kind of meaningful words, and that he tries and fails to explain why he has faith that his son is here for a reason, speaks powerfully to Jonathan’s confusion over the difficult position he and Martha have been put in. If Clark is the boy who can do anything with effortless ease, his father is the man who can’t even have the father-son chat he wants. The gulf between the two is profoundly moving as, without explicitly saying it and with remarkable economy, the film positions Jonathan as a good, everyday man out of his depths who nonetheless is doing all he can to help those he loves. The connection between audience and character is tangible. None of us have Superman for a son, but we’ve all been in Jonathan’s position.

The Jonathan of Man of Steel has a similar conversation with Clark, but the scene feels too bogged down in ‘importance’ to breathe as the one from Superman: The Movie does. Here, we’re told directly of Jonathan’s struggles to understand his son, and the scene is positioned not as a quick father-son chat, but a lecture of galactic significance. Donner’s Jonathan alludes to similar feelings (“you are here for a reason”), but without the cumbersome knowingness of the Man of Steel scene. Far from being just a concerned father looking out for his son and trying desperately to articulate his hopes and fears for him, Jonathan becomes a philosopher; the words arriving at his lips with too much ease. There are no pauses, no beats as he tries to conjure the right sentence. If Donner’s Jonathan was an ordinary man, Snyder’s is a character in a movie, conveying important thematic exposition to the audience with the brute force of one of Superman’s punches.

Telling its Smallville scenes in flashback (a fatal error I don’t believe the film ever quite recovers from), Man of Steel then cuts to the older Clark, not returning to his younger predecessor until later in the film. Superman: The Movie, on the other hand, continues the scene, using the momentum from the father-son chat to incredible effect. After challenging him to a quick sprint, Clark leaves his father and heads into the farm’s barn, but something’s not right. Jonathan slows to a standstill and clutches his chest. “Oh no,” he says softly. He falls to the floor as the heart attack hits. Clark rushes over, but there’s nothing he can do. The man who was looking to the future with such optimism just seconds earlier, is gone.

Donner’s handling of the scene is heartbreaking in its simplicity. Using primarily wide and mid shots that capture Smallville’s epic expanses, Donner gives the drama room to breathe. The sequence opens with an extreme wide shot of the Kent farm that comes just after the father-son chat. It’s at a slight low-angle shot, looking up at the farm with a certain degree of reverence, and captures the whole area, including the Kents’ tractor and their letterbox.

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A mid shot shows Jonathan’s slow realisation of the impending attack, before a cut takes us to an extreme wide shot that finds Jonathan falling to the floor, only the family dog at this point realising that something’s amiss. Another cut takes us to a mid shot of Martha noticing her husband’s problem, Clark lingering in the background in the barn, before a close-up of Martha registers her devastation. “Jonathan? Jonathan?!” she says – a rare bit of dialogue in a scene more or less entirely free of words. Donner cuts to a wide shot of Clark in the barn, bathed in shadow as he hears his mother’s anguish.

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He rushes out, sees his father (“Dad…?”), before Donner cuts to another extreme wide shot of the Kent farm, now even smaller against the vast landscape. The shot rhymes with the earlier extreme wide shot of the Kent farm, though now rather than including the whole farm, the tractor and letterbox are out of shot, and rather than being a low shot, it’s a high shot, the change of content and angle adding a certain distance and detachment – we are no longer looking up reverently, we are passive observers, as unable as Clark to do anything to prevent this tragedy. By doing this, Donner conveys visually what words could not express. The boy who was just minutes earlier rushing faster than a speeding bullet is now brought to a crashing halt – he’s nothing more a speck of paint on a vast, imposing canvas.

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Donner’s scene contrasts sharply with Snyder’s. Where Donner is slow, stately and silent, Snyder is fast, brash and noisy. The moment is told in flashback, with the older Clark offering Lois the story of his father’s death as they stand by his grave. It’s a fatal error that reduces this moment to a mere footnote and lends none of the momentum of Donner’s take. The last time we’d seen father and son together was in an earlier flashback, when Clark was in his early teens. Jonathan tells him about his origins, and delivers the “You’re the answer” line of dialogue. “Can’t I just be your son,” Clark says, fighting back the tears.

By the time Jonathan dies, however, their relationship has changed. Clark wants to stop playing it so safe with his powers and is arguing with his father over whether he will follow in his footsteps and become a farmer. The shift in their relationship comes from nowhere, but we’re asked to accept it anyway. It’s a cliche father-son argument, and it plays like an attempt to add extra tragedy to what will follow. Just as Donner did, Snyder emphasises the difficulty this man has had bringing up his son, but whereas Donner explored this through what isn’t said, Snyder’s Jonathan says quite directly: “We’ve been making this up as we go along. Maybe our best isn’t good enough any more.” Like the argument, it’s another line that speaks more of cinematic necessity than any kind of tangible emotional reality.

Spotting a tornado, Jonathan cuts the conversation short and does what he can to help people caught in its path. Still scared his son will be found out and persecuted, Jonathan insists that Clark does not use his powers – indeed, he ushers him away to safety as he helps a woman and her child and tries to save a dog from a car. The tornado hurls another vehicle onto the car, crushing Jonathan’s foot under its weight. Eventually, Jonathan frees himself, but his injury makes it impossible for him to walk. Seeing his father in peril, Clark readies himself to rush in, but Jonathan is adamant he stay way he is, his powers safely concealed. Clark abides my these wishes the tornado gobbles his father up. The story told, Snyder rushes back to the present day and Clark and Lois’s graveside conversation. “My father died because I trusted him,” Clark says. “Because he was convinced that I had to wait. That the world was not ready.”

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In this sense, the scene has a powerful idea at its core. If Donner’s Clark was devastated because simple mortality felled his father and there’s nothing that even Superman can do about that, Snyder’s Clark is devastated because he could have done something to save his father, but didn’t. Whether he should have or not is a matter of opinion, of course, and I’ve read as many people saying Clark was right to stand by his father’s wishes as those who are outraged by this scene. I fall into the latter category, but only because the film does little to earn this moment. If a father will tell his son not to save his life, and more to the point if that son will obey that wish, there has to be a compelling reason. Hindered by its flashback structure, Man of Steel doesn’t offer one.

We witness moments of bullying and the mother of one of Clark’s classmates protesting to the Kents about their son’s powers, but these moments are brief and under-developed. They barely give Clark enough reason to conceal his powers, let alone allow his father to die in the process. Like the argument earlier in the scene, these are vital dramatic beats that we’re asked to simply accept, despite their lack of resonance. Donner’s film, free from the constraints of having such moments rely on its ability to build a sense of paranoia about humanity, is free to simply and eloquently have Jonathan express an understandable fear. We believe that and we relate to it; we don’t believe in or relate to Man of Steel.

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Like so much of Man of Steel, Jonathan’s death scene is as much about action as it is emotion, and Snyder struggles to find a balance between the two. His camera work is shaky, his colour scheme artificial, his editing rapid. This is an action set-piece, and there’s something uncomfortable with the way Snyder draws out Jonathan’s death. We’re excited by this – the special effects are spectacular, the tension surrounding Jonathan getting his foot caught palpable. Some directors can pull this push and pull off wonderfully – think of Spielberg’s Jaws or War of the Worlds, or Ridley Scott’s Alien – but Snyder luxuriates over the scene in a way that struggles to convey the drama of the moment – wide shots aren’t there to convey scale, close-ups aren’t there to convey intimacy; they exist to give great coverage of a special effect. Attempting to pull it back when Jonathan’s death becomes inevitable, he drops the sound, pulling Zimmer’s music, reducing dialogue to an echo and having only a wisp of wind fill the soundtrack as Jonathan is taken by the storm. But it’s merely another level of artifice in a scene that never rings true.

It’s at this point that the two films diverge. While Snyder’s film picks up the present day story, Donner’s shows us Jonathan’s funeral and Clark’s decision to leave home. Maintaining the sense of momentum from scene to scene, Donner fades from the Kent farm to the Smallville cemetery, again using the landscape to convey the emptiness by panning from the rural hills to the cemetery itself.

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The slow pan takes in a huge range of countryside before finally resting on Clark and Martha. They talk, Clark lamenting that he couldn’t save his father despite his powers, and Donner again captures the emptiness by staging them to the right of frame. Dressed in formal clothing with his arm around his mother, it could almost be a family portrait, but someone is missing, and only the air can fill the space he’s left behind.

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Another wide shot follows as Clark picks a flower to give to his mother, and another one as they leave the plot. In this second shot, only six characters occupy the frame, the rest of the space taken by the blue of the sky and the green of the grass. The eloquent strings of John Williams’s music soar, marking the tragedy of Jonathan’s death, and they’re joined by understated brass, a nod towards the nobility of what Clark will become. Donner’s camerawork subtly reinforces this idea with a crane shot that slowly lifts up as Clark and Martha exit the frame. The gates of the cemetary close as the scene fades into the next (a night scene, so it’s effectively a fade to black). One chapter of their lives is over, another is just about to begin.

The following scene has Clark recovering his Kryptonian crystals and silently deciding to head to the Fortress of Solitude. A rare cut takes us into the next scene, and it’s the biggest wide shot we’ve seen thus far – an establishing shot of the Kent farm and the vast Smallville landscape. Another cut takes us into the Kent home, where Martha spots Clark standing alone in the distance. A close-up shows the audience she understands what’s going on in her son’s head and there are further shots as we see the Kent dog run off to Clark, and then cut back to Martha, first in a medium shot then in close-up (from behind). Donner’s use of space is, again, breathtaking as the emptiness once more silently emphasises the impending loss. One final cut takes us to Martha’s forlorn face silently looking toward her son, tears forming in her eyes.

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To conclude the sequence, Donner uses a shot that is perhaps the most astonishing in the whole film. It’s a crane shot that begins by looking over the fields of wheat and towards the Kent farm. Slowly, it pulls down as Martha joins her son on the horizon. “I have to leave,” he tells her, kicking off a brief conversation that’s punctuated by silences and pregnant pauses. During the conversation, Donner never cuts, instead allowing us to experience this melancholic farewell in real time. Indeed, it’s a minute and 25 seconds before the next cut comes, a remarkably long time for a single shot covering nothing more than dialogue to last in a blockbuster. The final shot of these Smallville scenes finds the camera sweeping across the field behind Clark and Martha, rising slowly up as Williams’s score swells. It’s an epic moment, but subtle enough not to overpower the characters or their dilemma.

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Donner’s use of the space he fills is no less remarkable than that of the space he doesn’t. Having the courage to trust his audience to make cultural and historical connections, Donner’s Smallville scenes conjore memories of the paintings of Norman Rockwell in their pastoral innocence and epics such as Gone With The Wind in their scale. Donner appreciates that Superman is a uniquely American mythology, and at the end of a turbulent decade of war and political scandal, he’s not just telling the story of Clark’s loss of innocence, but the loss of innocence of an entire nation. Of course, later in the film the might of America will be restored via the might of Superman, but as these Smallville scenes come to an end, Donner gives us enough cultural signifiers to recognise that a vision of America is coming to an end to ready to be replaced by the skyscrapers and bustling streets of Metropolis. (2)

Man of Steel shoots for similar cultural relevance, but like so much in the film it feels more forced and less effective. Before arriving on Earth, Zod sends a message to humanity telling us that we’re not alone in the universe and demanding that Superman surrender. Its crackling visuals very blatantly echo the look of terrorist videos, and while that’s a perfectly relevant connection for the film to make, it’s one made by the film, not the audience. Similar instances can be seen in the fate of Krypton, which seeks to expand over the universe due to overpopulation, and the numerous allusions to religion. (3) Such moments make the connections between the film world and the real world explicit and therefore less effective. In each case, Man of Steel speaks when it should be silent.

It’s a problem Superman: The Movie never suffers from. By allowing the drama room to breathe and the audience time and space to draw their own conclusions, Donner’s film emerges as a much richer and, despite its more cartoony approach, much more mature take on the Superman mythology than the reboot. Events are well-placed for a fascinating sequel to Man of Steel, but with Batman and Wonder Woman already scheduled to appear, and other iconic characters rumoured for inclusion, it looks like the second film will suffer the same problem its predecessor does. For all the bluster of his reputation, Superman never truly soars in such an overwrought environment. He’s a character as remarkable for his flaws and weaknesses as he is for his super strength, and to explore those, the calm and quiet of Donner’s version is of paramount importance.

FOOTNOTES

  1. It should be noted here that I love Hans Zimmer’s score, but it’s poorly used by Snyder
  2. The return to Smallville in Superman III is one of the reasons I like that film, despite its poor reputation. The Smallville of Superman III is a far cry from the one seen in Superman: The Movie. Now it really is a small town, a dead end. Time has moved on, but Smallville’s remained static, and anyone still there looks like they’re slowly having the life sucked out of them. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace concludes the downward spiral. Martha now dead, the Kent farm is abandoned and up for sale. Clark wants it to go to a small farmer who understands the industry, but the only potential buyer is a big businessman. Capitalism has conquered community, and there’s nothing even Superman can do to stop it.
  3. Clark seeks solace in a church, making a critical decision thanks to the advice of a priest, and is 33 years of age, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified.
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