Thursday, May 21, 2020

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Man of Steel Scene 7

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scene 7 (Zod confronting Jor-El on Krypton) of Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder.

  • Jor-El's Battle Armor
  • Visual framing of Jor-El and Zod
  • Zod and thematic "heresy"
  • Jor-El fights Zod
  • Lara rejects Zod's appeal

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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, and Nick Begovich, work together to analyze the DC Films produced by Warner Brothers studios. You can follow the show on twitter @JLUPodcast.

In this episode, we are focusing on Scene 7 of Man of Steel which is the second meeting of Zod and Jor-El in the film, this time in Jor-El and Lara’s Citadel, just before the escape pod is launched.

Like we mentioned in the last episode, the last scene ends and this scene starts with Jor-El coming out of a downward stream of energy and steam, foreshadowing a climactic scene that his son will play out later in the movie. In both cases, the El men are making heroic efforts to save their worlds. And in both cases they are depending on others, particularly their women partners, to be helping in the background.

Jor-El is wearing gold-colored, medieval-looking body armor designed to be worn over the standard Kryptonian wear. It also features the house symbol on the chest, as a nice bit of world-building that sets the stage for the iconic suit to show up later. As for the color gold, it’s associated with illumination, love, compassion, courage, passion, and wisdom: all traits exemplified by Jor-El, so it seems fitting that his armor should be this color.

We've already talked a little in episode 2 about the Kryptonian garb, including mentioning Wilkinson's desire to incorporate biomorphic lines and a worn, oily quality to the ceremonial armor. This is especially evident in Jor-El’s battle armor. And of course Zod and his men have an almost steampunk quality to their suits, reminiscent of the Fallout video games. Keith Christensen, concept artist for the Kryptonian armor, said this in an interview: "The hardest part was working out the Kryptonian 'look'. The costume designer [Michael Wilkinson] kept pushing for something strange and different, while referencing 16th century armor. He wanted a future/past blend that felt both alien and historical. You needed to feel like there was a culture behind the decadence… a real sense of history. After hearing that Art Nouveau was influencing the art department, I introduced the costume designer to the decorative motifs of Louis Sullivan, an early twentieth century architect that was a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright."

In this first part of the scene, as Jor-El and Zod approach each other for another confrontation following the earlier one in the council chambers, we see that Zack Snyder has decided to frame Jor-El and Zod very similarly. The characters are placed on the left third of the screen and in the foreground, and both of them have others in the background on the right. So this similar framing emphasizes that they are equal in stature, as a leading scientific mind and a leading military mind on Krypton. And they are continuing their showdown of ideas about how best to save Krypton. But the visual presentation here also hints at a key difference in their leadership style --- behind Zod he has his minions, standing still, subservient and awaiting orders. Whereas behind Jor-El, we see his partner, Lara, who has already been instrumental in choosing the world and preparing the flight, plus of course giving birth to the child -- the boy child -- and Lara is working even now, and she will be crucial in just a few moments when she makes her own decision to launch the pod. She has agency and her own will, which connects to an important theme of the movie and is also something that Jor-El respects, and which is much different than Zod’s relationship with his lieutenants.

As shown in Scene 4, Zod’s men saw Jor-El taking the Codex. Zod here acknowledges this by saying that he knows Jor-El “stole” the Codex. His choice of words is interesting because when Kel-Ex warned Jor-El that breaching the genesis chamber is a punishable Class B crime, Jor-El responded by saying no one cares anymore because the world is coming to an end, and yet Zod does care and acknowledges Jor-El’s crime. Zod, to some extent, is clinging to his rigid order and his rigid ideas rather than evolving with the situation as Jor-El is doing. As we saw in the council chamber, Zod has mutinied and claimed himself as would-be ruler, imposing his own militant laws on Krypton now. He offers Jor-El his life in return for surrendering the Codex to him, but that’s not something in his power to offer given the coming end of life for them all.

Jor-El tells Zod that Krypton has a second chance, and condemns Zod’s desire to play God by choosing which bloodlines have the right to live. Of course, this becomes ironic later in BvS when Lex argues that this is exactly what Superman does when he chooses who to save and who not to save. But here in Man of Steel, we are seeing an emphasis being built up on the importance of Kal-El as carrying the hopes of Jor-El and indeed Krypton for a better future, an idea that his mother will also voice right before she dies.

Zod replies to Jor-El, asking “What have you done?” He can only guess that Jor-El has done something like putting the Codex, the source DNA for Kryptonians, into baby Kal-El. BvS parallels this by having Jor-El’s son, Kal-El, say to Lex Luthor, “What have you done?” after Lex put his own DNA into Zod to create Doomsday.

Jor-El finally confesses to someone that he and Lara have had a child through natural birth, which goes further to inform us, the audience, that Kryptonians have been strictly bred artificially via the genesis chambers. And it gives a bit more context to the opening scene of Kal-El being born, and the pain Lara must have experienced on a planet ill-prepared for the labor of natural childbirth.

It’s also significant that Jor-El says his boy child will be free. “He will be free, free to forge his own destiny.” With this quote, Jor-El ties two important themes together. We have Kal-El, naturally conceived as an embodiment of the theme of the natural versus the artificial -- a theme addressed in great depth by the Man of Steel Answers podcast -- and there’s also the theme of freedom of choice. Kal-El won’t be assigned a role in Kryptonian society as is their way, nor will he be under anyone’s authority on Earth, due to his god-like abilities. Kal-El will have a chance to make choice in determining his own path, and Jor-El places a great deal of hope into that prospect. Had we seen Zack Snyder’s full Justice League story come to fruition, it would have been interesting to see the thematic connection of Superman in fact not being free, but under the control of Darkseid through the use of the anti-life equation.

But here in Man of Steel, upon hearing these thematic ideas from Jor-El, Zod is having none of it. He is physically angered by the mere thought of these things and calls it “heresy.” This is a subtle nod to the religious overtones in this Superman arc and General Zod, whose sole purpose is to preserve Kryptonian life and culture, see it as heresy because they are counter to the ways in which Krypton has operated for so long. Again, Zod is not able to adapt or evolve from the traditional order of things, nor to accept a lack of control. He orders his men to destroy baby Kal-El’s ship to put a stop to it and to claim the Codex for his own. Jor-El was prepared for conflict and uses some kind of energy-based rifle to shoot Zod’s soldiers. The weapon has a nice visual effect of particles lingering in the projectile’s wake, suggesting the blast may leave behind a residue or affect the particles around it as it passes through the air. Zod attacks Jor-El and the two get into a scuffle which results in Jor-El’s weapon cutting a big gash on Zod’s face that will leave a scar, creating a distinct look for the character throughout the rest of the film and even into BvS with Doomsday. The scar for Zod must also serve as a constant reminder of Jor-El’s heresy and of Zod’s failure to, as he sees it, save Krypton.

The fight between Jor-El and Zod continues and intensifies. And this is a subtle way of revealing the flaws with their job system of governing, as Jor-El, the scientist, completely out matches Zod, the warrior, who only lands one sucker punch at the start of the brawl. It could be viewed as undermining Zod’s threat level as a fighter, which of course matters quite a bit later in the movie, but it is nevertheless plausible that Jor-El could get the upper hand in a fight. As far as we know, many people on Krypton might train in hand-to-hand combat, including Jor-El it would seem, and just because Zod is a general and a leader does not mean that he is necessarily the best solo fighter. His emphasis might be broader tactics and strategies. Although it’s still fair to say that Zod’s military training puts him well ahead of Superman’s formal fighting abilities later.

A fun thing to note at the end of this fight is that it results in Zod kneeling before Jor-El. And as Jor-El and Zod were fighting, Lara had continued forward with the launch. Zod, having lost the physical fight, now tries to appeal directly to Lara, telling her that the Codex is Krypton’s future and orders her to abort the launch. Later on Zod will similarly entreat Superman not to destroy the scout ship as it will doom Krypton. Both mother and son make the same decision to oppose Zod and Krypton because, as Superman puts it, Krypton had its chance. Lara acted to protect her son while Superman acted to protect humanity. And Lara is siding with Jor-El’s version of how to save Krypton, hoping for a “better world,” as she will put it in her final scene.

Lara launches the ship, and as they look up to watch it depart, Zod yells with rage before extending his blade and stabbing Jor-El. This, of course, is echoed in BvS when a reanimated Zod/Doomsday similarly stabs Kal-El, killing him. And I must say that this is one of the many times where I really love Michael Shannon’s intensity. His yell of “Noooo” plus the look on his face gave me an early indication that he was going to be a great villain. Also, this yelling in agony on his knees at what he thinks is the end of his species’ future, has an echo later when Superman yells in agony at the end of the movie, having killed the person he presumes to be the last of the Kryptonian species besides himself. Lots of great foreshadowing in this prologue sequence.

This moment with Zod also reveals that he’s losing his grip. There was no longer any point in killing Jor-El in that moment. The pod was already launched, so it was just an act of impulse and anger, not a logical action. And it makes sense that he might lose it, because his world and his belief system is literally crumbling all around him. It is taking someone who maybe used to be a respectful if disagreeable person, and we are now seeing him become that monster that Jor-El referred to.

And by the way, I think that was a great stunt with Jor-El falling back and hitting his head. I’ve always loved that moment -- it just really stood out to me from the start as something that makes me shudder and almost makes the back of my head hurt. And after Jor-El falls to the ground, Lara runs to his side just as Lois will with Superman in BvS. Zod then asks Lara where she has sent her son. This is the first we hear of his name as she responds that his name is Kal, son of El. She adds that he is beyond your reach because she assumes Zod won’t be able to catch or find him in the far reaches of space to where she has sent him. This is taken as a personal challenge to Zod and of course a harbinger of the plot of the rest of the movie. And even though Lara says he’s beyond Zod’s reach, as we will later see, Zod is able to physically find him, but Kal will still be beyond Zod’s reach in terms of being a better man and something greater than Zod could ever hope to be.

For fear that Lara is right, Zod acts quickly ordering his men to bring the ship down before it gets away. One of the ships climbs up into the air and locks onto baby Kal’s ship, giving us another interesting look at how Kryptonian technology displays three-dimensional images by showing a radar display. However, before they can shoot at Kal’s ship, the military aircraft is shot down by the serendipitous arrival of Kryptonian forces who surround Zod and his resistance, ordering them to lay down their weapons. And by the way, I really appreciate how clearly they filmed that explosion in the sky, making it obvious to the audience that it was Zod’s ship that was destroyed and that the pod was still safe and made it’s jump out into space. Action movies with less skillful directors can often muddle these moments visually and audiences have to pick it up later or just try to infer what happened.

As the scene ends, we have a vengeful-looking Zod glancing up at the ships with the shot showcasing the cut to the side of his face. And the scene transitions with the blinding light shining at Zod from the hovering vessel.
End of Episode
That’s our analysis of Scene 7 of Man of Steel. It’s an important moment in the Superman mythos, with baby Kal-El rocketing out to safety from the doomed planet Krypton. Superman, this child of two worlds, has left Krypton the father -- a metaphorical seed released into space, on its way to find mother Earth.

Thank you so much for listening and for your patience with us as we get back into this analysis. We will continue in Man of Steel with the trial of General Zod. You can find bonus content on our patreon site and you can also support the show and help kick us into gear by donating at patreon.com/JLUPodcast.

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