Saturday, November 30, 2019

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Man of Steel Scene 3

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scene 3 (Jor-El's escape) of Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder.

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<Transcript Below>

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

In this episode, we are going to share our thoughts on Scene 3 of Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder. This is the scene where Jor-El breaks free from Zod’s henchmen and makes his way toward the Kryptonian codex.

Before we get into this scene, I did want to mention one more thing about Scene 2 -- something we forgot to mention in the last episode. In that scene at the Kryptonian council, Jor-El pleads to the leaders to “look to the stars” like their ancestors did, because perhaps in the stars would be salvation for the people of Krypton. This idea of looking to the stars for hope contrasts nicely with Snyder’s follow-up film, where Lex Luthor, very much an antithesis character to Jor-El, also talked about looking to the stars. In BvS, Lex also talked about looking out there, among the stars, but for Lex, this is where he had called forth the devils from Apokolips, which is a destructive force from the stars rather than the hopeful possibilities that Jor-El saw.

Alright, with that, let’s continue into Scene 3. Zod has just disbanded the council and Jor-El is being led away by a few of Zod’s loyal soldiers. We see a bit more of the Kryptonian production design, which was largely based on insects and which avoids straight lines. Because straight lines are so ubiquitous in our Earthly culture, it helps to give us an implicit feeling of another planet by not having straight lines. The corridors and flyings ships that we see here will also have some implicit connections to the scout ship that we will see later in the film -- even though the scout ship was designed thousands of Earth years earlier, it still shows that it was from the same culture as these other Kryptonian designs.

There are quite a few lens flares in this scene, and this technique of hitting the camera with a bright light can be kind of annoying, but there is at least some sense to it here. This is a very tumultuous moment as Krypton is not only on the brink of destruction but is also literally in the middle of a military coup, so it makes sense to hit the audience with flashes to disorient us and to represent the violence and explosions that are happening outside.

Light also has symbolic value. We mentioned before that Scene 2 opens with a very dark hallway on the tribunal. So Jor-El is now moving from that darkness toward the light, and in the next scene he will move from the darkness of the birthing chamber and back into the light again, and then even move beyond the battle and to the relative calm of his citadel. Jor-El is a man of the light in the symbolic sense of life-giving power and enlightenment.

The physical blocking here of Jor-El being escorted through the hallway will be echoed later by the U.S. military ushering Superman through a hallway when he turns himself in. We will explore the underlying connections there when we get to that scene.

Kelex, one of the El service robots, arrives and we get to see the liquid geo technology again, as it’s basically the interface for the robot. Kelex asks Jor-El if everything is alright. This is probably a pre-programmed way for the robot to check for danger, and with Jor-El failing to respond positively, and then giving a slight nod to Kelex, Jor-El closes his eyes as he knows what will happen next. The fact that Kelex recognizes to perform this protective sub-routine gives us an early glimpse of how advanced Kryptonian Artificial Intelligence is. This helps us to understand the behavior of some later Kryptonian AI activity in this film and in Batman v Superman. The burst of light from Kelex stuns Zod’s men -- again, a nice little bit of poetic justice if you buy the symbolism of light as enlightenment -- and this gives Jor-El an opening in which to fight his way free. And by the way, Alessandro points out that all this and all that follows is thanks to Kelex, and if not for that AI, Jor-El would have never been able to send Kal-El off. So in a way, Kelex is the true hero of this story.

About the quick fight scene here with Jor-El, which is very well choreographed by the way. There are a couple ways to think about Jor-El’s performance here. First of all, we might assume that Jor-El, as a scientist in a society where people have basically predetermined roles and breeding, was not trained for high-level physical combat. If he wasn’t actually trained for this, it’s highly impressive what he’s able to do to fight his way free. He is acting beyond the scope of his role as scientist. This is fitting with the story because he is forced to change and adapt by breaking the mold of his breeding in order to save his son and the Kryptonians’ genetic code. This also helps us think about how Kal-El later is able to hold his own against Zod -- skills and training don’t necessarily trump determination and the impetus of what you’re fighting for. And of course, in Kal-El’s case, he is also more familiar with his powers on Earth than Zod is, especially in their first encounters.

A second way to think about Jor-El’s fighting ability is that maybe he actually was trained in hand-to-hand combat. This was the view of Doc on the MoSAIC podcast, that Kryptonian society was fairly fascistic and militaristic, given their choice of garb and combat-readiness, and even their scientists must be capable of defending themselves. Thinking of Krypton in this way, it would mean that they were breeding themselves and training themselves in efforts to avoid all kinds of harm -- they were trying to engineer their society so that it would be self sustaining, and they were training themselves for all sort of physical threats, so as a people maybe they are sort of fixated on combat and survival, and yet the irony is that they bring about their own destruction because of their blind spot related to their depletion of their planet’s energy source. And then we have to ask ourselves if this predicament sounds familiar. Here on Earth, and especially in the United States, we also cling to old-fashioned social structures that some of us are unwilling to recognize as artificially created, and we try to fool ourselves into thinking that it won’t really matter that we’ve burned over 500 Billion barrels of petroleum into the atmosphere -- sure, it took hundreds of thousands of years for all of that organic matter to accumulate into oil, but let’s just burn it all within a hundred years or so, what could go wrong? -- we also spend $600 Billion per year on national defense, assuming that that is actually a good way to protect ourselves. On this point, there are actually interesting case studies of Germany and Japan after World War 2. From the 1960s into the 2000s, Germany and Japan both showed incredible economic growth and prosperity. What did these two countries have in common that might explain their success in the second half of the 20th Century? Well, they lost World War 2 and so, as part of their surrender, they were forced to cut huge amounts of their military spending. So instead they spent that money on rebuilding their national infrastructures and on the education and healthcare of their citizens. And now, for example, Germany has the strongest economy in Europe.

So anyway, they point here is that on Earth, as on Krypton, it can sometimes happen that an overzealous or misguided attempt to protect one’s society can actually contribute to that society’s downfall. In later parts of the movie, we can also talk about this more poetically as a planet’s soul, because it’s not just about resources and culture, it’s also about Krypton taking away the element of choice, which may be central to a notion of soul. And in all of these environment or political or poetic messages, however you interpret them, we can just say that we really appreciate that they are embedded here in the film, ready for interpretation and debate.

Continuing on in Scene 3, after Jor-El dispatches the soldiers, he communicates with Lara on Kelex’s liquid geo display. Lara helps Jor-El by pointing out danger behind him, and this is sort of echoed later when Jor-El’s AI will help Lois on the Kryptonian escape pod, telling her to move her head to the side. By the way, the fact that Lara can see something dynamic in the background means that she is seeing greater depth and detail on her end than Jor-El is seeing on his end.

After shooting the two soldiers behind him, Jor-El tells Lara that she must ready the launch.  Lara’s head turns and looks down to reflect her disappointment in what she deciphers is the Tribunal’s resistance. She can’t know about Zod’s actions yet, but she may know that something is going on because in just a few moments we will see a war happening outside. Most likely she has already noticed this conflict.

Just as was conveyed in Scene 1 during Kal-El’s birth, Jor-El and Lara are a team. Having Lara start the launch continues to show that teamwork. It also suggests that Lara is just as educated and competent as Jor-El when it comes to aeronautics. And it shows great strength by Lara who just finished giving birth not long ago, probably days at most, and without the luxury of trained medical professionals. Furthermore, Lara readying the launch not only shows knowledge and physical strength on Lara’s part, it also shows emotional strength as she is ready to help to do what is necessary to save her son. This strength will also be seen later in a big way during the actual launch scene, when Lara has to take the heartbreaking step of sending off her son, just as Superman at the end of the movie must take the heartbreaking step of killing Zod. We see later that Lara is also central to choosing the planet and ultimately deciding to go through with the plan. So from the birth, to this brief moment here, to the launch at the end, Lara plays an active, not passive, role.

One brief distinction to point out is that Lara calls Jor-El “Jor” while Zod called him “El”.  It seems to be like calling someone by their first or last name. For Zod, who is a soldier, it fits with the military protocol of using last names. While Lara has a more personal relationship with Jor-El and would of course refer to him as Jor.

Jor-El now runs outside and we get the famous wide shot of all the violence occuring because of Zod’s military coup. And of course most of these explosions and impacts are from what is basically a short-term Kryptonian civil war, but they also represent a planet more deeply troubled and they foreshadow the eventual destruction of the entire planet itself. As Jor-El looks out at the state of his homeworld, and the camera pans across with an amazing depth of field and a flurry of activities, this camera shot is actually a calling-card of Zack Snyder’s. @ItsDavery on Twitter, for example, pulled together these types of shots from Man of Steel, Dawn of the Dead, and BvS, and a key is not only the pan and the destruction but also having a character in the foreground so we are sort of taking it all in along with that character.

So as Zod’s forces are in the midst of an all-out assault on the government, the music is very epic to match the grand, panoramic battle. And the drum choir that Hans Zimmer arranged also fits well with the violence and impact on screen. Here and as Jor-El flies on H’Raka in a moment, the music is based around General Zod’s theme because even though Zod isn’t visually present, all of this is Zod’s doing and of course later Zod is a direct threat to what Jor-El is trying to achieve with the codex in terms of preserving the Kryptonian race. During this wide shot, Alessandro also notices some more blues and reds as a foreshadowing of Superman’s suit.

Jor-El yells out for H’Raka, a four-winged female creature known as a war kite. The fact that Jor-El has this relationship with animals, contrasting with all the ships and technology raining destruction around him, connects with the theme of organic being better than artificial, just as we will see with the natural birth in contrast to the artificial birthing chamber. H’Raka flies over to Jor-El, which suggests that the creature might have some kind of super hearing. This reminds us of how the original Superman’s powers were explained by comparing them to actual creatures such as an ant which can lift 100 times its weight. Perhaps Superman’s super hearing in this universe is an extension of some of the abilities of the creatures found on Krypton.

Anyway, the fact that H’Raka seems to have a longstanding relationship with Jor-El will make the later moments even more devastating. But right now, Jor-El gets astride H’Raka and they fly through the destruction. Even though Jor-El can’t personally fly, this scene is a parallel between father and son.

During the flying shots, the snap zooms from the camera give us a documentary-feel, placing us viscerally in the action, allowing us to follow Jor-El as the main character, but also allowing us to effectively take in the action. There are several more wide shots of the Kryptonian environment and everything that’s happening, and we see more detail of the scarring and self-inflicted wounds on the planet’s surface, which are now being exacerbated by the self-inflicted war. It is painfully obvious that this military coup and civil war is counter-productive in terms of actually saving the planet, even though Zod is correct that the government as it was functioning was going to be ineffective in saving it as well.

By the way, we really appreciate that in this telling of Superman’s origin, it is the failure of Krypton’s own civilization and their misguided choices that have led to the planet’s doom. In past versions of the story, it is sometimes a physical and unavoidable event that leads to Krypton’s destruction, but if it were a physical force that is outside their control, then it wouldn’t connect very well to the main theme of choice in this movie. This decision to make things about choice rather than unavoidable fates will also come into play later with the tornado scene.

So Jor-El flies into and under the lacerations where the ground seems to have been excavated.  He arrives at a pool and asks Kelex if she sees the codex. Kelex informs him it is just beneath the Central Hub. It appears to be below the building which Jor-El was in, so it would seem the Tribunal was in the same structure where they presumably create new Kryptonian babies.

Kelex warns Jor-El that “Breaching the Genesis Chamber is a Class B crime” to which Jor-El responds “Nobody cares anymore, Kelex. The world is about to come to an end.” So a few things about this interaction -- first, note that Kelex concedes to Jor-El’s point. This is important as it establishes certain rules for the AI that we eventually encounter in Batman v Superman when Lex Luthor is warned by the Scout Ship’s AI that action to create Doomsday is forbidden.  Lex Luthor tells the AI to proceed after it acknowledges the Council of Krypton is destroyed, and it obeys.

Second, saying that the world is coming to an end is a nice way to prepare the audience for where all of this is leading -- the planet will be destroyed, if people didn’t realize that already. And third, this brief interaction lays out the notion that perhaps rules and laws must be treated differently in existential crises. Of course sometimes people in power try to manufacture or rely on false existential crises as an excuse for exerting special powers, but sometimes there are legitimate existential crises. In Man of Steel itself, humanity will face an existential crisis from General Zod, so we should follow the lead here and grant Superman some leeway later when he kills Zod to protect Earth from destruction. The world would’ve come to an end if Zod was allowed to continue, so desperate times can call for desperate measures.

Jor-El then dives into the water, heading to the genesis chamber, and if you’re trying to track as many parallels between father and son as possible, then you might connect this to the end of Batman v Superman when Superman dove in to retrieve the Kryptonian spear, a life-saving device that could stop Doomsday, just as here Jor-El is diving in to retrieve the codex, which is a life-saving device with regard to the Kryptonian species.

End of Episode

That’s our analysis of Scene 3 of Man of Steel. Thank you so much for listening and for your support of the podcast. If you have any thoughts or interpretations to share, 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 see the codex.

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