Much was made of the Christian overtones of Man of Steel, to the point where the movie was advanced-screened to some churches, a point that some folk got outraged about but really just seemed silly to me. Thing is, after it came out – and sucked – I gave it a cursory examination, read some script excerpts, saw the critical reaction, the advertising and figured I wanted nothing to do with it. Then the greater analyses came out and wow was I justified in my observations of this piece of crap, this Jesus-as-Judge extrahuman narrative ordained by human military powers.
Today, I want to talk to you about one particular scene in the building of this narrative, because it’s an incompetently constructed sign of a fundamental misunderstanding of Superman the character and Superman the narrative.
For context, Clark does this wandering hobo-of-justice style narrative chunk where he roams the world, before he’s Superman but after he’s had Good Perfect Moral Values imbued in him by Kansas’ Perfect Moral Context. And then, this happens:
Now let’s talk about this scene as if it’s from a story with some sense of self. Let’s treat this as if it actually is an event that happens, and not a genre tickbox (more on that later). This guy, a drunk asshole, is not making these threats without some awareness. He clearly knows he’s dealing with a dude bigger than him, and he’s either psychic and thinks somehow he won’t face a consequence of his actions, or, more likely, he’s okay with the potential retaliation of getting an ass-beating.
Now, I think Dan Olson did a good piece on this where he points out the nonsense of the sequence. This guy’s not a threat, and Clark’s job description almost definitely includes ‘throw dudes out.’ It’s a bar, and Clark is not likely there because it’s a gentle inner-city place. They hired a guy built like Clark, carved out of a mountainside, almost certainly because they figured having a bloke like him around could be useful.
Simply put, there is an existing context for this exchange, and Clark, in the presentation of the story, is being ‘good.’ He is refusing to rise to provocation, showing himself a better, more moral, more centred person than we are, when we would take the opportunity to sock the dude.
This is where we get a bifurcation of events. In the universe this guy occupies, in his own head, in his expectations, he’s what… gunna get slugged, at worse, maybe have a fight he’ll win, and then get chucked out of the bar. He’ll sleep in his truck and he’ll wake up with a hangover and drive away and not see this place for months. It will be some bruises and embarassment and he’s willing to buy into that. Anything too hard? Chances are, as an employed contractor, he has some negotiated medical insurance. Whatever. He’s rowdy, he’s drunk, he’s an adult, he’s making a decision and he generally knows what he’s getting into.
Hell, he picks on a dude half his size again, chances are he’s not expecting to win.
Instead, Clark Kent, Superman Nascent, destroys his truck. And I don’t just mean destroys it, I mean he completely fucking wrecks it. He uses the guy’s own lumber as part of the decorative destruction and the destruction takes some time. It can’t even be portrayed as an outburst – it’s made into a demonstration, something to show off the power that Clark has at his hands.
For consideration: Let’s assume briefly that this dude does not own that truck and he’s just a driver for a company. Well, that company is now completely screwed on insurance because an investment that can run up to a few million dollars and its cargo just got wrecked by an act that no sensible insurance assessor will regard as ‘having actually happened.’ They are out money. The record shows he was responsible for it. If we assume the nicest possible incarnation of this, he is fired at least because now he’s associated with, basically a truck disappearing. If he tries to apply for a similar job – and trust me, transport companies fucking talk – he is screwed because he’s the guy who has a story about the truck he lost, while drunk, at a bar, which sounds like a wizard did it. So, no job, now, probably no medical insurance, and his work history’s just had a hole blown into it.
It can be so much worse! Because if he’s an owner-operator of that truck, Clark just basically destroyed this guy’s house. That truck is salvage now and trust me, those rates aren’t going to cover for the loss of work. His own insurance company is now going to come after him; he loses what medical insurance he had access to through doing contract work because he can’t work, and jesus christ this is just such a huge thing to do in a spite of petty dickishness!
Clark fucked this guy’s life up for weeks at minimum, possibly years.
This drunk trucker was stepping up, and willing, to get into one type of conflict. He probably thought he might win with alcohol in his system but he certainly was getting involved in an exchange that was going to leave someone with a bloody nose and a dislodged tooth or two. What he got, instead ,was at the very least wholesale destruction of his life, masked and framed as the less bad behaviour. And diegetically, in universe, from Clark’s perspective, this guy is not a threat.
Clark Kent, as presented in this scene, is a self-righteous bully. He knows he’s not under threat. He even has the authority to act in a way that will protect the people of this bar more in the future. Think this dude’s going to connect his truck getting wrecked with grabbing the girl’s ass? He has no idea what could have caused it. He might give up drinking, because he’s clearly hallucinating or losing memories or something? This is a story supposedly about a moral context for superman, and one of the things we see that’s meant to make us like the guy and that’s meant to humanise Clark is him destroying the life of someone who is literally demonstrated as powerless to hurt him.
That’s really shitty Supermanning, writers.
I’ve spoken in the past about the value of different perspectives providing different contexts. I’ve also been enjoying discussions about genre, about how sometimes having broad narrative beats to hit gives you freedom to do things as long as you create a certain standardised atmosphere. I’ve also talked about Replacement Media, where as a fundie youth, I was given replacement or duplicated versions of almost everything with ‘proper values,’ as determined by my church.
Basically, my context of media as a kid was this special sort of Christian Replacement Genre. This brings its own tropes and rules, and most of them are odious and awful. What does this have to do with Man of Steel, though?
Man of Steel is a really big budget Christian Replacement piece of media. The above scene is a big fat fucking thumb-print of that particular form. You can almost print this scene out and replace the names for Christian media, to the point of a bunch of narratives that will make a point of a Good Christian protagonist who works in bars (because ‘times are tough’) but never drinks anything at all (because ‘Christians don’t drink’). A similar scene is how one character will turn on a car radio and the protagonist will deliberately amend it to play something else, often country music. This will be met with – and I am not kidding when I call this a stock line – something along the lines of “I prefer to hear the words.”
Now, of course this scene with Clark is nonsense. The trucker isn’t a character. He – really, it – is a prop in a scene, a scene from a magazine with a coupon tearout he’s so pre-defined and standardised. He’s there to antagonise pointlessly and unreasonably, to be the perfectly acceptable squish target for our protagonist’s greater, righteous power, who then demonstrates magnanmity by leaving the douche alone, and then the hero takes some minor, petty, silly revenge, some lesser but nonetheless ingenius thing that isn’t as wicked a deed as punching him in the head. And this is a moral and ethical structure to highlight to us, the readers, that this hero is a Good Person, but also a powerful person.
That’s what this scene is. This scene is about the perfect encapsulation of modern Christian Replacement media; to act as a persecuted minority while powerful beyond almost all reason. The lie of being hard done by, the greater lie of being justified, is so important that it can take the structure of the story, and impose value on it.