Saturday, April 4, 2020

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Man of Steel Scene 5

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scene 5 (Jor-El and Lara ready the escape pod) 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 and you can follow the show @JLUPodcast.

In this episode, we are focusing on Scene 5 which is the last few moments that Jor-El and Lara will have with one another as they prepare the escape pod for their son and before General Zod attacks the Citadel.

Prior to getting into Scene 5, we also wanted to mention a couple quick tidbits about prior scenes. First of all, back in Scene 3 we forgot to talk about Jor-El’s cape, which is a dark red and which swung around nicely during his fight scene in the corridor. Building the capes into the culture of Krypton is a nice way to explain its existence later as part of Superman’s costume. With regard to Superman’s cape, it is absolutely iconic and of course it has worked well for more than 80 years to help accentuate Superman’s flight and his action sequences in the comic books, but it also has its detractors such as the movie The Incredibles or people who say capes are impractical. In Man of Steel, however, it is set up well with these design decisions in the early scenes on Krypton and it will all come together nicely when we get to that point in the film.

The other thing we wanted to mention is about Scene 4 in the genesis chamber. We had never noticed this before, but apparently when Jor-El was retrieving the codex, the voice coming from the defense ship was none other than Henry Cavill, using his natural British accent through a mechanical amplification processor. Thanks to @splungekik on twitter for noticing that little easter egg.

But now let’s get into Scene 5, and this is a scene where Lara Lor-Van really shines, portrayed with great emotion by Ayelet Zurer. Having retrieved the codex, Jor-El now comes back to his family and we can see again the contrast between what Jor-El and Lara are trying to do versus what Krypton’s society is doing. Instead of the artificial genesis chamber, we have the natural birth of Kal and the true biological mother there, and indeed in this scene she will show the love and compassion of a mother. This artificial versus organic also echoes the contrast we saw in the last scene of the warships versus Jor-El and H’Raka. So as Jor-El eventually talks about the hope of Krypton, we can infer that he not only means the literal person of his son but also the hope that can come from the philosophical idea of the organic and the natural over the artificial. And as we’ll see, that natural perspective also includes the element of choice, as opposed to the rigid structure of the artificial.

Jor-El takes the codex---the encapsulation of Kryptonian genetic information---and he places it into a levitational state in the center of a machine. The codex once again emanates light as we saw in the Genesis Chamber, suggesting that it is transmitting its Kryptonian biodata into the machine. He asks Lara, “Did you find the world?”

It’s clear that Jor-El and Lara had talked previously, perhaps extensively, about the type of world that they were looking for as a destination for the escape pod. We don’t know exactly how specific their plans were -- perhaps Jor-El and Lara discussed some general parameters, or perhaps Jor-El had a very specific planet in mind and he had asked Lara to confirm its location. He did, for example, predict that there would be a planet like Earth orbiting a yellow star. But in any case, we see that Lara played a crucial role in finalizing the plan for the launch to Earth.

And we will also find out later that the Kryptonians did have prior knowledge about Earth, at least from the time of the scout ships thousands of years ago. The Kryptonians stopped space travel, but they probably still stored the information they had and Jor-El or Lara may have accessed that information. The Kryptonians also might have kept gathering information from space even when they were no longer traveling and establishing new outposts, or maybe Jor-El had his own means of gathering information from distant systems.

The prequel comic book also sheds some light on what Krypton may have known or not known about Earth, but we’ll talk more about this when we actually get to the scout ship.

Here in Scene 5, what’s most important is that Jor-El and Lara are clearly partners in this endeavor. And this is different than many Superman origin stories. Usually Jor-El is solely responsible for Kal-El’s escape, and Lara is just there to be at Jor’s side as they die with the planet. But Man of Steel gives her a more active role, and that agency for Lara will continue in the next scene, as well. And the idea of strong women together with the strong men of El also continues later with a Lois Lane who discovers Clark’s identity and joining him as a full partner both emotionally and in saving the planet. Martha Kent, too, is an equal partner with Jonathan and she plays a huge role in raising Clark, especially as we look forward to Batman v Superman. So it’s nice that Man of Steel made this a partnership between Jor-El and Lara and gave her some agency in this prologue, an upgrade with respect to some past versions of this origin story, but we should note that the animated series did at least have her initiate the launch preparations.

When Jor-El asks if Lara found the planet, Lara responds, “We have,” with the “we” probably referring to her and the House of El service robots, Kelex and Kelor. And this inclusion of the robots is nice because it shows that the service robots aren't just loyal to Jor. They answer to her as well. She has an authority in their house and she is able to work with the Kryptonian technology. It is also good that they could work together promptly because Zod’s attack on the council seems to have moved up their timeline for escape.

We also get a little exposition here about Earth’s characteristics and how those will relate to a Kryptonian like Kal-El. Kelex comments that Earth -- well, it doesn’t say Earth, but we recognize our own solar system -- and it says the planet is orbiting a “main sequence yellow star” just like Jor-El predicted. The yellow sun of our solar system is a young star compared to Krypton’s red dwarf star, which is the most common in the universe. Therefore, our yellow sun produces more energy and as Jor-El states, Kal-El’s cells will drink the radiation thereby making him a “god” to them.  This was well thought out by Jor-El to ensure the safety of his son. Presumably this absorption of radiation is exclusive to Kryptonians within the universe, otherwise there would likely be many more Supermen flying around the cosmos. It’s even a bit odd that there aren’t other Kryptonian Supermen flying around because, given Krypton’s prior space exploration efforts, they could’ve migrated to worlds orbiting a yellow star. As a side note, blue stars produce more energy than yellow stars. So why not send Kal-El to a planet orbiting a blue star? It could perhaps be explained away by saying that the type of energy from a blue star is not as good a fit for Kal-El as that from a yellow star, but it’s still curious that we haven’t seen any comic book stories exploiting this idea by having Superman travel to a blue-star solar system.

When Jor-El comments about Kal’s cells drinking the radiation, this is also a good moment to remind ourselves that, even though we’ve known about Superman in popular culture for decades, this is his first introduction in the cinematic universe, and Man of Steel is undoubtedly the first introduction to Superman for some of the audience members. And of course Zack Snyder and David Goyer took this responsibility of establishing the mythology very seriously. So this is a nice way to slip in one of the facets about the source of Superman’s powers. In the past, there was the idea that Kryptonians were just more evolved than humans, and then there was also the idea of Earth’s gravity being weaker than Krypton’s. The former does not really apply in Man of Steel with regard to Superman’s powers, but the idea of evolution will come up explicitly, for example, in the Smallville fight with Faora. The gravity is a minor factor that will be mentioned later in the film, but it’s not the main source of Superman’s power. It’s not a reduction in gravity that gives him laser vision or bulletproof skin, for example. Really, in Man of Steel, the radiation that is somehow absorbed by Superman’s cells will be the most crucial aspect of his powers, and Doc from Man of Steel Answers even produced a video where he shows that the movie very consistently treats Kryptonians as basically solar batteries. Even the parts about the atmospheres of Earth versus Krypton make sense with regard to solar batteries.

In looking at the choice of Earth as a target for baby Kal, and with the liquid-geo showing a human skeleton and a human cranium and brain, probably because humans are at the top of the food chain on the planet and also because they are the closest to Kryptonians in terms of physical traits, Jor-El comments that Earth’s population is “seemingly intelligent”. He doesn’t say that they are definitely intelligent, but he alludes to appearances and this implicitly acknowledges that appearances can be deceiving, something that comes into play quite a bit in Golden Age of the DCEU. And as we discover, Earth’s population is easily deceived, by Zod and then by Lex. But Jor-El’s basis seems mostly to rely on human biology. And speaking of that human figure, it’s homo sapien, not an earlier hominid, and it’s possible that these data on the homo sapiens could be from the scout ship, because the scout ship arrived about 10,000 years ago and homo sapiens were widespread across the globe around 40,000 years ago.

In thinking about their son’s future home, Lara’s maternal instinct becomes evident as she expresses her worries about several dangers and challenges that Kal might face on Earth. She starts by thinking about his social and emotional well being. She predicts that he’ll be an “outcast, a freak.” Then she extends this to his physical safety, as she says that they’ll kill him -- inferring that even a seemingly intelligent society is likely to hate or destroy that which is different than them. She shows some intuition here about human nature, or perhaps it is a universal truth about advanced societies.

Having identified these potential dangers, we can think for a moment about the parents sending their child off alone instead of going with Kal. Some subtext of Lara’s comments might be that she wishes she or Jor-El or both could go with Kal to Earth, to protect him and obviously to be with their son. But for some reason, unknown at this time in the film, they cannot go with him and will have to just trust that Earth’s population receives him and looks after him, or they have to hope for the best at least. Later on, Jor-El will say that he and Lara were doomed to the fate of Krypton just like everyone else there, but we’ll talk later about whether he meant this literally or metaphorically. But right now, Jor’s answer is that the humans won’t physically be able to kill Kal -- he’ll be like a god to them.

The use of the word “god” explicitly gives us an early clue about the symbology and mythology that will play a pretty central role in this film. Using the word “god” brings to mind several different aspects of the concept, not only omnipotence and invulnerability, but also the idea of a guiding light or a paragon of virtue. Both of these aspects will get explored later with the Superman character as a sort of modern mythology.

And by the way, this sort of exchange between Jor and Lara is not new, and not even new to cinematic Superman. In Superman: The Movie, Lara also worried about Kal being “odd” or “different” or “isolated,” and Jor-El talked about him being fast and virtually invulnerable. In both films, Lara is worrying about emotional well-being and how he’ll be treated by others, whereas Jor-El, the scientist, is thinking primarily about powers and physical abilities.

One thing that’s really nice about this quick exchange and Man of Steel in particular is that this really is some solid foreshadowing. We do see Kal-El on Earth getting ostracized by children and by parents, and we see him as an outcast or at least a self-imposed loner. We also see him  gaining the powers that Jor-El predicted and him actually becoming a godlike symbol to some people on Earth, but ultimately, he does get killed by Earth’s hatred, as Lara predicted.

After Jor-El’s comment about a god, Lara clutches her infant and turns away from Jor-El. This scene blocking nicely follows the ebb and flow of the dialogue, and with the escape pod back in frame, Lara points out the risks even before Kal gets to Earth. She says, “what if the ship doesn’t make it? He’ll die out there, alone.” So again she emphasizes his isolation, and again we feel that she doesn’t want to part with her child. She says, “I can’t do it.” Now that it’s coming down to the wire, she’s not sure she can actually send off her newborn into the unknown future across the galaxy. This continues the true heart and the parental emotions that are so strong in this prologue.

Jor-El, walking back over toward Lara, to try to close the gap between their perspectives, says that Krypton is doomed and escaping is his only chance. Jor-El is using his pragmatic mind and his tendency toward reason to point out that even if flying through space is a risk, and even if Earth may hold unknown dangers, it is still a better option than staying on Krypton with its certain destruction.

Lara regrets not being able to see him learn to walk, which is a bit of dramatic irony because as the audience we know that he will not only walk but will learn to fly. Jor-El again says that Kal-El, by leaving the planet, will live, even if they don’t get to share that life with him. And Jor-El also has nice line where he says that Kal-El will live “among the stars.” This mention of the stars contrasts with General Zod later, who will say that he crossed “an ocean of stars” to reach Kal, and so the vengeance from Krypton will still follow him even out among the stars. Looking ahead even further, we have Lex Luthor in BvS who also refers to the stars, ringing his bell after Superman’s death.

But here in Scene 5 of Man of Steel, there’s not only the personal, familial moment, but Jor-El also points out that Kal is traveling not just for himself but he also represents the final hope for the people of Krypton. Just as the word “god” set the stage for some symbolism later in the film, this word “hope” also sets a marker as a key theme in the film. Hope is defined not just by blind optimism or by a sunny disposition, but hope is what you have when you see some potential, some positive possibility even amidst danger and pain. So when Krypton is about to be destroyed, and when there is a violent coup going on outside, this is precisely when hope is needed. And later, on Earth, we don’t need a beacon of hope when everything is happy and slapsticky and rainbows, we need hope when danger is looming and when things are crumbling around us. So in Man of Steel, hope will not be just a hollow idea but the story will be built so that hope really means something, and Superman and his symbol representing hope will ring true.

Moving on in the scene, Jor-El says that he’ll upload the codex, Lara kisses her baby and then nods to Jor-El.  Jor-El takes baby Kal and places him in the cradle of the pod and rays of light merge and shoot down into baby Kal-El as the skull disintegrates. This is our first indication that the codex, or at least its data, is being transferred into Kal-El, though there’s a slight bit of misdirection here as a command key is also forged simultaneously, so some audience members may think that the data is in the key rather than the baby, and this red herring comes up a little bit when Zod is searching for the codex later. But it’s actually fairly important that the genetic information is fused with Kal-El himself. Jor-El is using his son to give Kryptonian life a chance to survive, not only via Kal’s own continued existence, but by sending the code that makes Kryptonians unique along with him. This could even be part of why Kal-El is able to be revived in Justice League using the scout ship’s Genesis Chamber.

Going back to the command key, its formation also gives us more insight into how Kryptonian technology works. It is a sort of liquid alloy which can not only form itself into shapes, but also harden instantly and store data. Presumably it is also magnetic, as it attracts itself to the keyhole on the side of the bassinet and later the command console. This magnetic action is not only visually interesting, but is also a setup for a key part of Act 3 later. The command key, with its liquid geo design, is also a creative new take on the crystals that were created in the Donnerverse and also used in Smallville.

The music here gives us an early sample of the Flight theme, which is fitting as baby Kal is being prepared for what is truly his first flight. At the end of the scene here, there’s also a subtle hint of a woman’s voice, humming and vocalizing along with the orchestral score. We can interpret this as a musical reflection of Lara's maternal feelings, and a similar tone will occur when Lara dies, but in that case, the theme will be played by the solo violin. And by the way, this use of the human voice is somewhat of a Hans Zimmer trademark during sad or tragic scenes. He does something similar in Batman Begins after the Wayne murder, in The Dark Knight Rises after Batman quote-unquote “dies” to save Gotham City, and he also uses a vocalist for the opening scene of Batman v Superman and a choir during Superman’s death. It’s a very effective musical technique because the human voice does cut to our emotions in a special way.

So the scene ends with another emotional moment as both parents lay their hands on their baby. Jor-El repeats the idea of hopes and dreams traveling with him, and they then back away as the bassinet levitates up to the ship and we see the crest of the house of El, etched into the bottom of the ship. This bassinet and escape pod ties into the traditional connection between Superman and Moses who, according to Judeo-Christian traditions, was placed in a basket on the Nile River to protect him from the pharoah. Here Lara and Jor-El are placing Kal-El in a sci-fi sort of basket to protect him from the destruction of their planet, and from Zod. Later on in the stories, both Superman and Moses will rise to prominence as heroes.
End of Episode
That’s our analysis of Scene 5. There was some important exposition about Earth, Kal-El’s future powers, and the codex, but for us the most profound thing here was seeing Lara as Kal’s mother. The maternal side comes through in a powerful way, and in the next scene that will be complemented by her continuing to be a proactive partner to Jor-El.

Next up is Scene 6, when General Zod arrives at the Citadel and tries to recover the codex. Thanks so much for listening and thanks especially to our patrons for their support.

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