Saturday, September 7, 2019

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Man of Steel Scene 1

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast features the beginning of our scene-by-scene analysis of Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer.

  • Setting the mood on Krypton
  • Kryptonian language
  • Hans Zimmer's approach to the Superman theme
  • Heartbeats, life, and pain
  • Birth motif
  • Introducing liquid geo
  • Holding life and hope in his hands

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Thesis on Man of Steel -

<Transcript below>

Welcome, fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. In this podcast, myself and a team of contributors -- Alessandro Maniscalco, who is @raveryn on Twitter, Rebecca Johnson, who is @derbykid, Sydney (@wondersyd), and Nick Begovich (@JLUpodN) -- we work together to analyze the DC Films produced by Warner Brothers studios.

The podcast started with a full scene-by-scene analysis of Batman v Superman, written by Chris Terrio & David Goyer and directed by Zack Snyder, and we have since proceeded through a full analysis of Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman. We are currently making our way through Justice League and Aquaman. But of course one key film is missing in this line-up --- the film that started it all, 2013’s Man of Steel, written by David Goyer and directed by Zack Snyder.

So with this episode, we are starting our full, scene-by-scene breakdown of Man of Steel. And if this is your first time listening to our show, I can just say that our style is to try to avoid the online drama and the fan wars that often accompany superhero movies. We try to focus on the substance and the creative content of these DC Films. Our analytical style tends to focus on character arcs and thematic development, but we throw in bits and pieces of filmmaking technique and directing decisions as well. We do not claim to be objective -- all of this analysis and interpretation is from our own personal perspectives and we recognize that other people may see very different things in these scenes, so everything we share here is meant to be simply our interpretations and our appreciations of the film, although we can say that we try to provide evidence and we strive to look for disconfirming evidence when we offer claims about the thematic content of the films.

We recognize that some of the DC Films from Warner Brothers have been quite divisive, starting with Man of Steel and its portrayal of Superman and his relationship with the Kents and with Lois Lane, and continuing with Batman v Superman and its deconstruction of Batman’s psyche and Superman’s relationship with the world. But we want to say up front that we, to a person, love these two films and the reason we are willing to put so much effort into analyzing them is that we really appreciate the depth and detail that the filmmakers brought to the table. So this is our attempt to honor those creative efforts and to grapple with the questions and ideas that they embedded in the film.

So with that, let’s get started -- Man of Steel, Scene 1, the birth of Kal-El.

The first thing we see is the WB logo, but even with the production logos, we are already being placed into an alien setting and a visual aesthetic for the film. The logos and the winding hallways through which the camera is traveling as we see them both have what we will come to recognize as a Kryptonian color and texture, and the crevasses here will be echoed later as we see the surface of Krypton which has been deeply mined for resources. And on the logos there is even Kryptonian language etched into some of the surfaces. Right away, we can see a great deal of care already being placed into a part of the movie that some would not even consider part of the movie yet. And there are no English credits or title card which would’ve distracted from the powerful introduction and the intensity that is coming in a moment, and the credits from our real world would’ve interrupted the Kryptonian immersion that is starting.

Now speaking of the Kryptonian written language -- and it’s called Kryptonian when it’s written, and Kryptonese when it’s spoken, by the way -- but Kryptonian will come up several times later in the film including on the walls of the room where the birth is taking place. It was developed by a linguistic anthropologist named Christine Schreyer, who was hired by production designer Alex McDowell. She did not base it on previous versions of Kryptonian, such as from the comic books, but rather invented it based on the Man of Steel story in particular. She said that the philosophy of the film was to respect to the canon but remember that this was a new telling of Superman’s history, so there was lots of room for new creativity. Schreyer decided on a syllabic writing system, since that would seem to match with at least the names and locations that are well known from the canon, and she also used the story of Man of Steel as an inspiration for developing the sentence structure. The vast majority of languages on Earth use either a subject-verb-object word order, as in English when we say “she watches movies”, or a subject-object-verb word order, as in Korean or Russian when a direct translation would be “she movies watches”. Dr. Schreyer decided that the Kryptonians should have a subject-object-verb word order because the verb is the action, and she thought that action should definitely come last. The Kryptonians in the story are afflicted with inaction; they keep postponing the action that they need to take to save their planet, and so the subjects and the objects come first, with action later. Now of course there is no actual relationship that we know of between a culture’s word order and its proactiveness, but this creative choice has some nice poetic merit to it. And there is a link between a culture’s language and their mindsets or possibilities they tend to envision for themselves -- if one’s thoughts are done through language, then the language’s structure and lexical possibilities can shape thought.

Christine Shreyer then worked with designer Kirsten Franson to create the actual look of the writing. And they made sure that it was consistent with the family glyphs that will come up later and that are a big part of the Kryptonian lore.

As this visual palette is sweeping past us, we can also tune into the music by Hans Zimmer. The opening cue is also placing us in the alien context of Krypton, and the soundscape introduced here will become closely linked with Kryptonian culture both in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, and even briefly in Justice League. Hans Zimmer, like production designer Alex McDowell, was operating under the idea of paying respect to canon but also exercising creativity in rendering a new telling of Superman’s history. Because comic books don’t usually have musical soundtracks, the main work that Hans Zimmer probably had to deal with was John Williams’ score from the Richard Donner films. One great connection between the two Superman themes are that they are both built on perfect fourth and perfect fifth intervals. These are very strong and majestic intervals, and they are fitting for the original, quintessential superhero. But the two composers went in very different directions with them. For John Williams, he had a very confident and fully-fledged superhero for the Superman portion of the film, so his theme comes across that way, even singing out “Superman” in the horn section.

Hans Zimmer, on the other hand, was composing music for a new version of the story where it is very much about first contact with an alien race, and Clark Kent is not really sure of his role in the world and does not fully become Superman until the end of the movie. So Hans Zimmer designed a theme that can be quiet and heartfelt, but can also eventually soar. And he started it in a very alien place, which was different than John Williams.

If you remember the opening sequence from Superman: The Movie, it starts out with the Daily Planet and then it moves into space and the flashy opening credits. Also, a large part of the latter half of that movie is about Clark Kent and Lois Lane as reporters for the Daily Planet. So John Williams took this and built up to his Superman theme with basically a news bulletin sort of motif. You can think of the old news reels with the rhythmic and repetitive announcement music, and then the big story is that Superman is here. For Man of Steel, on the other hand, we have an alien soundscape and a slow build for a character that will eventually become Superman, but he doesn’t burst onto the scene fully formed.

Let’s listen to the opening portions of both of those pieces of music -- first, the news-bulletin inspired Superman theme from John Williams, and then the alien-based Kryptonian theme from Hans Zimmer that eventually includes the perfect fifth of Superman’s theme. At first, Zimmer has perfect fourths to A-minor and F-major over the logos, and he saves the perfect fifth on a C-major chord for when we actually start the first scene.

<Audio sample>

And those samples are from the orchestral soundtracks, but in the actual opening sequences of the two movies, they both have swooshing sounds that are mixed in over top of the music. In Superman: The Movie, there’s a loud swoosh each time a credit zooms across the screen. And in Man of Steel, there are subtle swooshes as we pass through the winding corridor and past the logos. So that’s a nice little connection for those who enjoy looking for links between these films. We will have a great many more connections between Man of Steel and both Superman 1 and Superman 2 in future episodes.

Now, moving beyond the music, the first in-movie sound we hear is a heartbeat. And we hear it before we even see the first character on screen. To us, this seems like a very deliberate artistic choice. They are starting the film in black, with a heartbeat, and then the pain of a mother’s childbirth. This is probably not the first thing a general audience member would think of for the opening moments of a comic book movie or a Superman movie. But as we will see throughout this analysis, birth is a very important thematic element of the film. And right away, it also connects us to the idea that life is life, whether here or on another planet. It gives us a way to relate to the characters from the start, and we will soon find out that this natural birth is a very important event given Krypton’s culture.

We also see pain and sweat and raw intensity, which is setting the tone for how we can expect to experience things later on in the movie -- it won’t be glossy action or confrontations without consequences. This is going to be realistic and intense, and where there’s life handled so profoundly by the filmmakers, we should also brace ourselves for the possibility of death later on.

With regard to the heartbeat, specifically, this represents life and it is also somewhat poetic to hear and see Kal-El’s heart, because eventually we will come to see his heart metaphorically in terms of how he cares for others, how he can’t stand by while others need help, and how his heart eventually grows large enough to encompass all of humanity -- even though humanity doesn’t always treat him well.

The heartbeat also makes us think of a nice moment from the comic books -- in the Injustice story line, when Lois Lane is pregnant, Clark finds out because he hears two heartbeats.

In this scene, the first character we actually see is Lara as she is suffering through childbirth. The camera-work is interesting here because it starts out not fully in focus, then it kind of racks in and out of focus, which fits the moment because there is pain, vulnerability, and discomfort. It helps us as an audience, in some small possibly subconscious way, identify with Lara. And this also sets up one of the main themes of the film, which is that good things must often be earned through suffering. As Doc from Man of Steel Answers phrased it, the film sends the message that the pain of childbirth is worth the potential. More generally, we might say that you sometimes have to go through pain but it is worth it if it’s for a good cause. For Lara, the pain is childbirth and also the danger of going against the laws of her society, but she is doing it for something she believes in and she is providing new hope for her species. For Jonathan Kent, there will be pain in some of the difficult life lessons he feels he has to teach his son, but it is worth it because he helps Clark grapple with difficult choices and become a compassionate adult who can handle complexity and ambiguity. For Kal-El, the pain will be ostracization and hatred and his ultimate sacrifice, but it does save humanity and eventually lead to his earning trust from the public. For many of us who love Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, you might say the pain is sitting through the current version of Justice League but hopefully it will eventually lead to the Snyder Cut.

But with the characters in Man of Steel, the pain is not just inflicted from outside forces but stems from choices that they made. We will talk a lot more about the idea of choice, as that is perhaps the most important theme in our interpretation of the film.

Going back into the scene, we see that Lara does not have to go through this pain alone. She clasps the hand of Jor-El, showing that it can be the strength and support of others that helps us get through it. Later on, we will see that Clark is able to find this support from Lois, and in Batman v Superman, this idea comes back around as Jonathan shares that he was able to find it in Martha. And here, on Krypton, it is significant that Lara and Jor-El are in this together, because they are deviating from the norms of Kryptonian society. It is not just Jor-El, the scientist, trying to save the planet or save his son -- it is Jor-El and Lara, together, as co-equal parents, having their baby in a manner that harkens back to a time before Krypton had lost its soul, so to speak. And they want this baby, born naturally and full of unhindered potential, to be the future of Krypton.

In this sense, childbirth itself is a heroic act, worthy of being the focus of the opening scene of superhero movie. And Lara’s physical effort has just as much intensity as boss battles will have later, and here she is creating life, just as later Superman will be exerting effort to save lives.

And before we move on, we just want to mark the close-up shot of the hands being held. That might be a visual motif throughout the movie. It at least comes up later with Clark and Lois holding hands and when Perry White clasps Jenny’s hand as they stay together in the face of death, but it might be elsewhere, too. We’ll keep an eye out.

One thing that is definitely relevant for the remainder of the film, and which we’ve already alluded to earlier, is the idea of birth. This film is the story of the birth of Kal-El, the birth of superman, the birth of superheroes on Earth, and the birth of a cinematic universe. It is very fitting to begin the entire universe with the actual birth of life. And it also makes a wonderful pairing with Batman v Superman, which is the story of Superman’s death, and that film opens up with a funeral.

In future episodes, we will talk a lot more about the idea of birth and about Man of Steel as the story of the birth of Superman. We see birth and then adolescence, then young adulthood, and then finally Clark’s big step into full adulthood as he takes a permanent job and also takes up the mantle of Superman at the end of the film. The Reel Analysis YouTube channel also traced the idea of Superman’s birth through the entire movie. In their video called a thesis on Man of Steel, they show other aspects of the film that allude to birth and development, and they make the point that the planet Krypton serves as Superman’s metaphorical father, and then mother Earth is the other metaphorical parent, with Superman eventually emerging from what is essentially an egg on Earth that was impregnated by a seed from Krypton. When Superman emerges in his full costume for the first time, there is even a depiction of a damaged Krypton on one side of the doorway and an orb like Earth on the other side. And he steps out right in between them.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s finish up some thoughts on Scene 1 specifically. We see Kelex and Kelor for the first time, the service robots of the House of El. They are well-known characters from the comic books and they will play a nice role here with Jor-El and Lara and a version of this technology will also come back as a threat in the scout ship on Earth.

With regard to the baby monitor, we see the liquid geo that is the unique and versatile technology of Krypton. Zack Snyder was personally involved in the conception and design of liquid geo, and he said he wanted to avoid the transparent touch screens that have become somewhat cliche in sci-fi movies and television. Snyder wanted the liquid geo to be versatile in terms of presenting information and interacting with the Kryptonian characters, but he wanted it to be very tactile and organic rather than digital. This inspiration from organisms will connect with other aspects of the Kryptonian design, as we’ll discuss later. Also the fact that Kryptonians use live statues and manipulated metal rather than holograms to communicate and present information points to their attitudes toward strength and permanence. But anyway, this is a nice, quick way to introduce liquid geo, and it immediately stands out as it sort of reminds of us pin-art toys from the 1990s and it represents an advanced technology, juxtaposed with a very old-fashioned practice of childbirth.

As the liquid geo morphs from the heart into a representation of baby Kal-El, we see Jor-El out of focus off to the side. This represents the fact that the father is not as important during childbirth as are the mother and the baby, and it also indicates that this story will eventually be centered on Kal-El, even though Jor-El is here now.

Another subtle centering on Kal is the accentuated sound of the heartbeat and the muffled screams of Lara, suggesting that at times we are hearing through Kal-El’s ears. This too is significant in that it immediately puts us in the shoes of the protagonist and emphasizes his hearing which, at this point is still like our own and not yet enhanced as it will be on Earth. Later on the film, there will be other moments where the audience sees and hears through Kal-El’s senses.

Next, Jor-El and Lara look deeply into each other’s eyes, two as one, as the creators of this living creature about to be born, which is especially significant given Krypton’s adapting an artificial birthing system which we learn about later on in the film. This moment of connection between the two parents emphasizes the intimate and personal nature of this birth over the impersonal genesis chambers. It is also especially significant because Jor-El and Lara know full well that they have brought this baby into a world that is in perilous danger.

Lara continues to strain, and in her struggle we can think about how it’s been centuries since any women have gone through natural labor. She probably didn’t have extensive preparation for this, and couldn’t talk about it or learn from other mothers. Indeed, one thing that always gave my wife comfort as she went into labor for our three children was the idea that millions of other women have done this, and many of them have even done it even earlier the same day. But Lara does not have any of those comforting ideas. She really doesn’t know how it is going to turn out, and just has to keep working and hoping for the best.

As Jor-El prepares to receive baby Kal-El, we see that the room is empty with no other furniture or decoration. It is a representation of the solitude Kal-El will feel both growing up and as Superman. It also conveys the secretive, cold manner in which they are forced to deliver baby Kal-El into a conservative and frigid society. We can also begin to draw connections between this story and the story of Jesus Christ’s birth from the Christian religious tradition. Here, the humble and sparse beginnings for Kal-El parallel the humble birth in a manger of Jesus Christ. Both were also procreated in supposedly unnatural ways.

Baby Kal-El is born and then held in Jor-El’s hands -- a fact that Jor-El will mention in the next scene. The baby struggles to breath, like a typical newborn, not special or with any extraordinary powers. And later on Earth, we find out that he had to struggle to breath again, as he adjusted to Earth’s atmosphere. But at this point, he’s just a common baby yet to be shaped by love, hate, or experience. This is truly the beginning of his journey and his story. His birth was to represent the birth of hope for Kryptonians. And his existence was to represent hope for all beings.

Jor-El looks at his newborn son, a miracle and his legacy. He has passed on his own genetic makeup to a new life, without the Kryptonian codex and without Kryptonian conditioning. This is perhaps an important factor to who Kal-El grows up to become, though there is debate and discussion regarding nature over nurture in the development of children.

Baby Kal-El lets out a cry like a call of “I am here”, exercising his lungs and breathing for the first time.  That cry reverberates into echoes across the Kryptonian landscape, just as his existence and his actions will cause ripples in many people’s lives and in the history of Krypton itself.  The cry is joined by a roar of a Kryptonian creature as we get our first look at Krypton in a panning shot. It is colorful and full of life, unlike other interpretations of the planet. It’s chaotic and fluid nature is also a contrast to the formal and strict ways of their society. The sunrise is a nice parallel to Kal-El’s birth as dawn represents life. The beautiful blues and reds correlate to Superman’s costume in sort of a foreshadowing effect. There is also a contrasting mix of nature and technology as we seeing the silhouettes of flying ships as well as flying birds in front of the sun, which helps us to further grasp their technological advancement. The sun on Krypton is typically called Rao, similar to the Egyptian sun god Ra. And there is also a damaged moon, which connects to the comic books and the Kryptonian character of Jax-Ur, who’s destruction of the moon led to the banning of space travel.

It is somewhat remarkable that the scene ends with an establishing shot, where we see the house of El citadel tower and the broader Kryptonian landscape. Usually these establishing shots would be at the start of a scene, but for all the reasons described above, it made a lot of creative sense for the filmmakers to start very close and very personal with the birth of Kal-El and with the intense and brave choice that Jor-El and Lara have made. The fact that this was a choice on their part, by the way, will become very important in later themes in the film. Ending on the Kryptonian landscape also works very well as a transition into the next scene, which is at the Kryptonian council.

End of Episode

So that is our analysis of Scene 1 of Man of Steel. Thank you so much for your listening and for your support of the podcast. If you have your own thoughts or interpretations, or if you catch something that we missed, we’d love to hear from your either on twitter @JLUPodcast or on the comment board below this episode.

We’re certain that we missed something, because even though we have several sets of eyes on this scene, and we’ve all seen in many times, these filmmakers have just packed so much detail and meaning into it, that we’d love to hear your thoughts too. Even this scene, which didn’t have any dialogue for the first two minutes of the film, has a lot to dig into. And this dialogue-free opening is somewhat of a Zack Snyder trademark, by the way. He often opens movies with visuals and music, and it shows that he is placing trust in his audience to pick up on motifs and emotional beats without being explicitly told what to think. In the case of Man of Steel, we aren’t told yet who this baby is or what he means, but we can tell from the music and the visuals that this baby is someone important. And as we said before, with this scene, we have the birth of Kal-El, which will lead to the birth of superheroes on Earth, and it is also the birth of the DC Extended Universe. With regard to the Dawn of Justice trilogy, it also sets up a nice pattern where Man of Steel begins with a birth, Batman v Superman begins and ends with death, and then Justice League involves rebirth. And ironically, that rebirth occurs by means of a genesis chamber as with other Kryptonian babies -- though in a very different way than normal.

Anyway, thanks again for listening and next up we will see what Jor-El has to say to the Kryptonian council.

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