Saturday, September 21, 2019

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Man of Steel Scene 2

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on scene 2 (Jor-El at the Kryptonian Council) of Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder.

  • Organic and artificial in the establishing shot
  • Tribunal setting and costume design
  • Jor-El's warnings about Krypton's destruction
  • Look to the stars
  • The arrival of General Zod
  • Endless debates and potential backstory between Zod and Jor-El
  • Monsters, camera work, and music

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<Transcript below>

Welcome, fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Alessandro. In this podcast, myself, along with Sam Otten, Rebecca Johnson, Sydney, and Nick Begovich, work together to analyze the DC Films produced by Warner Brothers studios.  You can find us on twitter @raveryn, @ottensam, @derbykid, @wondersyd, and @JLUpodN.

We are very excited to have started our scene-by-scene analysis of Man of Steel. In this episode we are covering Scene 2 in which Jor-El meets with the Kryptonian Tribunal. If you enjoy this episode please be sure to check out our other scene-by-scene analyses including those for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman, and Suicide Squad.  We are also working on an analysis for Justice League and Aquaman. Speaking of Aquaman, congratulation to James Wan, Jason Momoa and all those involved in the film for breaking the one billion dollar mark. All of us at the JLU Podcast hope Warner Brothers uses the success of Aquaman to release the Snyder Cut of Justice League.

Before we start on scene two of Man of Steel, we just wanted to mention something about last episode. We had talked about the film starting with Kal-El’s heartbeat. Friend of the show, Omesh who is @PrimeEarthMook on Twitter, also noted that this heartbeat bookends with the final moments of BvS if you take the bass drum rhythms from the grave scene in BvS to be an indication of Clark’s heartbeat. So that is a very poetic way to look at it, with the Kal-El duology of films literally beginning and ending with his heartbeat.

But now, on to scene 2, where we begin with a wide shot of Krypton, which transitions nicely from the horizon shot that concluded Scene 1. There’s also an interesting juxtaposition where in the previous shot, coming off of the natural childbirth, we saw several creatures and some birds flying into the distance. Then the first shot in Scene 2 is mechanical towers and ships with flaming engines. It contrasts the organic and the artificial, which will be a key theme in the film, and just as the creatures were linked with the natural childbirth, the artificial and mechanical constructions will be linked with the hapless Kryptonian council.

And the establishing shot not only features hi-tech ships and structures but we also see a barren backdrop containing deep lacerations in the surface, denoting the harvesting of resources. Rebecca notes the Reds, Blues, and Browns which really pop in this shot. The color palette helps to place us in an other-worldly setting. There is also a lot of activity in this short establishing shot. It raises the question of how many Kryptonians know the planet is on the brink of destruction or if they are blissfully ignorant and going about their lives.

Meanwhile, within the Council room, the Tribunal is in session with Jor-El pleading his case for the survival of the Kryptonian race. The first line of the movie is “Do you not understand?” This line, the first spoken in the DCEU, is a profound one. It encompasses many of the story elements surrounding misinformation, misinterpretation, and misjudgement to come in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, such as the world’s distrust of Superman, their misjudgment of his deeds such as the killing of Zod or his intervention in Nairomi, and their misplaced fear. And on a metal level, it somewhat speaks to the misunderstanding by the audience of important scenes such as the death of Jonathan Kent, the Martha moment, and what Zack was doing with the DCEU in general.

Our first shot of the Tribunal is cropped by darkness as if to symbolize the Tribunal’s tunnel vision when it comes to the threat Jor-El is warning them of. The framing also gives the impression of the walls closing in, which is emblematic of Krypton’s predicament. We get our first look at Kryptonian armor, which Jor-El is wearing. The visual effects in this film are spectacular. All the armor was added later, but it would be hard for anyone to tell. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson has commented that it bears a family crest or “glyph” on the chest to denote their lineage, like medieval heraldry. Jor-El, of course, bears the symbol of the house of El which is the famous S on Superman’s chest. We will learn that the symbol means hope on Krypton. Designer Peter Rubin worked closely with production designer Alex McDowell on art nouveau elements in Kryptonian technology and glyphs including the S-shield. Rubin said they were open to anything and had created around thirty versions of the shield. They had wanted it to fit the aesthetics put forward by Alex McDowell which meant no straight lines, only curves.  Rubin considered it a challenge to make this version of the S-shield both new and a loving homage to the image of Superman he’d known his whole life. Zack Snyder and Alex McDowell instinctively saw exactly what Rubin saw in his design.

Wilkinson has also said the “ceremonial” armor follows the aesthetics of the planet by incorporating biomorphic lines and a worn, oily quality to suggest great age and alien material.

Meanwhile the Tribunal members are dressed in highly ornate garb with accessories to convey a sense of irrational adherence to traditionalism and conservatism. Phillip Boutte Jr, who worked on concepts for the Kryptonian Garb, said in an interview with Film Sketchr about the Moebius-style outfits worn by the Kryptonian councilors, (quote) “The initial point of inspiration, believe it or not, were the Skeksis from the movie "The Dark Crystal". We wanted to capture their pompous attitude. At one point, I remember asking the question of whether or not the Tribunal members were wearing their clothes or if their clothes were wearing them. The concept that ended up being the basis for all of them was very simple. We looked at traditional Renaissance forms of dress and turned them "inside out" creating an almost skeletal silhouette. What do those big puffy shoulders look like on the inside? How does this tie back into the architecture of their world?” (end quote). And we’ll put the link to Film Sketchr in the show notes, because that article also has a lot of really nice pictures to help you get a sense of what he’s talking about.

The Council Room itself is also very decorated. There are crystals behind the chairs and elaborate symbols engraved throughout.  Rebecca notes that these engravings resemble lacerations similar to those on the surface which is perhaps a link to their holding a majority of the blame for what has happened to the planet.  After all, it was through a reluctance to adapt and move on from old ways and their old home that prevented their survival, which seems in line with the Tribunal’s adherence to tradition. Sam also wanted to mention that this inclusion of shiny crystal behind the council members could be viewed as an homage to the crystal-based design for Krypton in the Richard Donner films. There might also be an interesting idea here about the Kryptonian council being tied to the traditional Superman films through the crystal motif, but also the meta-level idea of a too-strict adherence to traditional versions of Superman spelling doom for the character. Superman, like Kryptonian society, has to be allowed to adapt and evolve in order to survive.

Going on in the scene, we learn from Jor-El that Krypton’s core is collapsing and that they may only have a matter of weeks. He tells the Tribunal that harvesting the core has accelerated the process of implosion. It seems they had drained the exterior of the planet of its resources through an inertia of continuing with an unsustainable model and looked inside the planet for more resources. We think tying Krypton’s destruction to their own decisions and failure to recognize danger and adapt is a great take, with modern connections to Earth’s fossil fuels and slow response to climate change. This version of Krypton may have taken inspiration from John Byrne’s Man of Steel comic. In that mini-series from the 1980s, a chain reaction within the core of Krypton has caused vast pressures to build within the planet’s crust which Jor-El concludes will cause Krypton to explode. Lara tells Jor-El that they control the planet, having filled every nook and cranny, conquered and harnessed every force of nature. This sounds similar to how the Kryptonians in the film drained the planet of all its resources, which has led to the core’s implosion. The two stories also share a similar aspect of Kryptonian culture, “Sterility. A cold and heartless society, stripped of all human feeling, all human passion and life” as Jor-El puts it in the comic. It is perhaps that sterility that may have caused them to lose their creative spark, which left them with an inability to see the danger and change course as a society.

Jor-El gets his “I told you so” moment, stating that he’d warned them harvesting the core was suicide. Back in Superman: The Movie, Marlon Brando’s Jor-El also called what will happen to Krypton suicide before referring to it as genocide. So Russell Crowe’s Jor-El mentioning of suicide could be a nice throwback to that.  And while the Tribunal’s desperation for the people of Krypton led them to take actions deemed suicidal by Jor-El, at the end of the film Zod’s own desperation for his people too lead him to take actions which could be deemed suicidal in a sort of “suicide-by-cop” scenario. And looking ahead to Batman v Superman, Lex reanimates Zod’s body which would have been suicide had Superman not intervened to save him from Doomsday’s fist. And Superman obtains the Kryptonite Spear containing pieces of Krypton’s core to stab Doomsday in a kamikaze attack. So there seems to be a bit of a recurring motif here.

One of the Kryptonian counselors says their reserves were exhausted and asks what Jor-El would have had them do, as if to suggest they took the only course available to them. This is part of the tunnel vision they have. Jor-El saying “look to the stars” shows us how he is able to think outside of the box, or the planet as it were. I personally see this is a social commentary on our own civilization as well, showing that progressive thinking is required for progress while conservative thinking merely attempts to conserve what already was regardless of whether it’s sensible or not.

The comment about looking to the stars “like our ancestors did” and the reference to “the old outposts” helps to foreshadow later parts in the movie, such as the discovery of the scout ship, which was from Krypton’s long-ago space exploration phase. And there was also a Man of Steel prequel comic book that establishes that Kryptonians explored space in the past, which will be how Zod survives and finds Earth through the use of those old outposts. Jor-El also mentions habitable planets within reach, which is a nice nod to Earth.

One of the counselors asks Jor-El if he is suggesting they evacuate the planet. She is saying this in a sort of dumbfounded way, as if that is just beyond the pale. But Jor-El responds with even more doom-and-gloom than evacuation, instead suggesting that it is too late for them, but not too late for the future of their race. He tells the Tribunal that everybody here is already dead, which is a good use of foreshadowing given that in a couple of scenes from now they will all perish while those who have yet to arrive, namely Zod and Faora, will actually survive. Jor-El’s line about them already being dead can also be viewed in a metaphorical sense, as him saying that this form of society, with rigid reproduction and a failure to adapt, has failed.

But practically speaking, rather than think about saving a few lives, Jor-El is concerned with saving their footprint on the universe. Similarly, Jor-El’s own son will later prioritize saving the many over his own life several times to come. He asks the Tribunal to give him control of the codex. This is in order to preserve their DNA, the very thing that makes them Kryptonians. This is the first mention of the Codex in the film, and the first time the idea of the Codex is used in the Superman mythos as far as we can tell. We will find out in a couple of scenes what the codex looks like, and then later what it actually is.

When Jor-El says that he has held the hope of the survival of their race in his hands it almost seems as if he is about to reveal the birth of his son, Kal-El, which might have been a mistake as it could have jeopardized baby Kal-El’s survival since it would be viewed as a heretical act to have the baby at all. Ironically, although Zod’s insurrection may have been ill conceived, it could very well have been the one thing that saved Kal-El. This adds a bit of poetry to Kal-El being the source of Zod’s demise. It is also interesting that Jor-El refers to his son as hope in his hand given that his family glyph stands for hope, and Superman is supposed to stand as a beacon of hope.

In a surprise attack that would make James Wan proud, Zod storms, guns blazing, into the high council chamber. The Tribunal guards, like the Tribunal itself, are very slow and ineffective, and they are holding old weapons like spears, easily dispatched by the modern weapons used by Zod, Faora, Nam-Ek, and the others. Zod emerges from the darkness and smoke with strength and force, a powerful entrance into the film and a stark contrast to the council’s thought and discussions. We think it was a great filmmaking and writing choice to have Zod’s crew blast into the Tribunal right after Jor El’s “I have held that hope in my hands” moment. It’s the first instance of the antagonistic relationship that Kal-El and Zod will have. And the cavalier way in which he enters is the first example of how we feel Michael Shannon’s performance stands out, especially in comparison to Terence Stamp’s version of Zod. Here Zod actually comes across like a General, the way he commands his troops and speaks so boldly. The costume design of his armor also goes a long way to make him appear more threatening and more intimidating than in Superman 2

Zod announces that the Council has been disbanded. One of the Tribunal members asks on whose authority.  Zod of course responds saying his own authority, and he kills one of the councilors as an example to raise fear in the others who will face trial and to demonstrate his authority.  He is willing to kill his own people to achieve his goal, and his blatant pro-active behavior is the exact opposite of the slow and ineffectual deliberations of the council. We can also think about Zod in contrast to Jor-El. While Jor-El is still honoring Kryptonian law and trying to work within its system of Tribunals, Zod puts himself above it, assuming power and the leadership role. He tells the Tribunal members that they will be put on trial. Ironically it is actually Zod who will face trial and be sentenced to the Phantom Zone.

Jor-El approaches Zod as if they already know each other, and this sense of history between the two characters, which is alluded to several times but of course we never get the full backstory, is a great extra dynamic and it adds to the sense of world-building in this opening prologue --- the world seems lived-in, it has a history and ongoing debates, and characters like Jor-El and Zod have an implicit backstory. Jor-El asks what he is doing, calling it madness.  This phrasing may be yet another subtle throwback to Marlon Brando’s Jor-El who uses the word madness to describe what ignoring his warnings would be. Zod of course responds by saying he was doing something he should have done years ago. So this is something that he’s been wanting to do for a while, meaning he has the proclivity toward usurping authority. And this also brings up the idea of not only what are the right and wrong actions to take, but also when is the right time to act? When is too soon and when is too late? As we mentioned before, CHOICE is perhaps the most important theme in this film and so we will see several difficult choices being made throughout the story. For Clark, he will be faced with tough choices and there is always also a time component to them -- he has to not only decide what to do but he has to decide sometimes in an instant. In some cases there is a chance to deliberate, but in other cases, such as with the tornado or with Zod at the end, it really has to be a snap judgment.

Zod highlights this idea of timeliness as he talks of the lawmakers and their “endless debates” which have brought Krypton to ruin, which isn’t exactly untrue. But there is a right way and a wrong way to approach a situation. Zod’s answer to every problem seems to be force, whereas Jor-El tries to work around the problem as he tries to reason with the Tribunal for the Codex.

By the way, we will also see other lawmakers and some endless debates in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice over the question of whether the world needs Superman. But instead of attacking the lawmakers like Zod does, Kal-El follows in his father’s footsteps and comes to them openly and willing to speak with them. Lex, on the other hand, tries to manipulate the debates behind the scenes and then, when things might not be going his way, he takes violent action kind of like Zod does here. Overall, these situations may also serve as social commentary. One could argue that our own lawmakers often seem to engage in endless debates and there are times where it appears to be leading Earth, or at least individual countries, to ruin, especially in a partisan political atmosphere.

Jor-El tells Zod that if his forces prevail, Zod will be the leader of nothing. This shows Zod’s efforts are misguided just as the Tribunal’s were. Jor-El stands between the two, the sole voice of reason and balance. And on the two ends of the spectrum, Zod and the Tribunal both seem to be less concerned with the imminent destruction of the planet and more about ruling.

And though Jor-El and Zod do both concern themselves with the survival of their race, they each go about it differently. Jor-El applies his brains while Zod applies his brawn.  It is the brains that win out ultimately, with Kal-El being the last remnants of their race.

Zod offers for Jor-El to join him, just as he will later make a similar invitation to his son, Kal-El.  But this is an empty offer. Not only is Zod showing himself to be untrustworthy by overthrowing the Tribunal and Krypton’s very laws, but in both instances he is offering death and destruction.  Just as Lex says in Batman v Superman, devils come from the sky. Zod is like a devil in trying to entice both Jor-El and Kal-El with a metaphorical fruit from the tree of knowledge. And just like the devil, he wants to play god in his desire to sever the degenerate bloodlines that lead them to this predicament. Zod’s plan to create perfect people or to protect only the chosen few is Hitlerian, and Jor-El’s question of who will decide those bloodlines is a good one. There is nothing to suggest it was their genetic makeup that led to the poor decisions resulting in Krypton’s destruction -- it was various choices, some collective and some individual, that are to blame, but that also means that a return to the power of choice can mean new hope for Krypton, as embodied in Kal-El, born naturally and free from the societal restrictions. Zod’s position, still operating within the framework of genetics and bloodlines rather than choice, still shows an ignorance or a limitation on Zod’s part, or a disregard for truth.

Zod expresses that the last thing he wants is for him and Jor-El to be enemies, but that is exactly what does happen even though they are both fighting for what they believe is right for the survival of their kind. And once Jor-El is long gone, that enmity will continue on by extension with Jor-El’s son.

Jor-El puts Zod in his place in a way, saying that Zod has abandoned the “principles that bound us together.” And Michael Shannon’s performance even offers the possibility that these words do ring true for him, as it seems he looks down and gives pause for a moment.  When Jor-El refers to those “principle” it could be interpreted as meaning the principles that bound the two of them specifically, or the principles that bound all Kryptonians. Thinking again about that past relationship between them, we do wonder what that relationship was. Perhaps they had a friendship which is somewhat alluded to when Jor-El refers to the “man” Zod once was. And Zod’s order to take Jor-El away rather than killing him could be a further indication of that past friendship, or it could just be his desire not to waste talent or to be that monster Jor-El says he’s become.  But if Zod has become a monster, he is merely living how he was created with the Codex and bred within the society. Zod was trained as a warrior to protect Kryptonians, but he has now turned to killing them even if out of a need to protect the people as a whole. So one could make the argument that he himself is of a degenerate bloodline, especially since he is going against their principles.

The idea of taking up the sword against his own people will come into play when Kal-El is faced with the horrible decision to end Zod’s life. It’s a Catch-22 for Kal because while he and Zod are of the same race and therefore the same people, all Kal-El has ever known was Earth so to him those are his people. Either way, Zod puts him in a situation where Kal is forced to follow in Zod’s footsteps. And in a way, this is Zod’s ultimate revenge on Jor-El. We will also see the notion come up in Batman v Superman when the people of Earth believe Superman has taken up the sword against them as a result of Lex’s deceptions.

Regarding Jor-El’s line about men and monsters, it’s worth noting that Zod being called a monster will come back several times over. Later in the film, Kal-El, like Jor-El, will call Zod a monster. And in BvS, Zod will literally become a monster compared to the man he once was when Lex turns him into Doomsday.

Now, a couple final thoughts on the scene -- Rebecca has an opinion about the camera work in this scene. She thinks that while Zack Snyder’s and Amir Mokri’s choice to shoot this film using a hand-held camera, with some shakiness and snap-zooms that are reminiscent of a documentary style, really works for action sequences to make us feel like we’re experiencing what is going on, she doesn’t know that it works here in this scene. And Sam agrees that some of the shakiness is distracting in this setting of the council chamber, but Rebecca does concede that one way to make sense of that choice for this scene is to consider how the shaky-cam feel connects us to Jor-El’s feeling of uncertainty as he is pleading with the Tribunal to convince them that the threat of their extinction is real, and the turmoil of Zod overthrowing what used to be a steady and consistent seat of power.

We can all agree, I think, that the music in the scene is very fitting. We hear horns heralding the coming doom, and the quick strings emphasizing the sense of urgency that Jor-El feels. We also hear the brief sound that the world engine makes when Zod enters, as if to signal that he too wants to change the world, which he does as he tells Jor-El his plan to start anew.

End of Episode

That’s our analysis of Scene 2 of Man of Steel. Thank you so much for your listening and for your support of the podcast. This was a pretty loaded scene, and like any good Snyder scene there’s always more to discover, so if you have any thoughts or interpretations of your own we’d love to hear from your either on twitter @JLUPodcast or on the comment board below this episode.

Thanks again for listening and next up we will meet the true hero of this story, Kelex.

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