If there is a half-way coherent theme in Zach Snyder’s polarizing mega-film, Man of Steel, it is the trauma of choice. More specifically, Steel relates the dichotomized inner-life created through the experience of immigration, where one simultaneously feels the pressures of nationalism for one’s current home, and vestiges of loyalty towards the individual’s original homeland, and then must choose where their loyalties lie. Now, despite what the internet says, where a multitude of commentators have offered strong – and for the most part inane – opinions on whether there is a pro or anti-immigration policy percolating underneath the film’s endless CGI fireworks, the philosophy that Steel espouses is not black and white, or even remotely clear-cut.
At best, Man of Steel’s stance on this incredibly topical (and wearisome) issue is riddled with ambivalence and ambiguity, much like the perspectives found throughout our real-life society. The film’s politics don’t absolutely embrace immigration as a positive force of social good nor do they demonize it. Instead its perspicacity produces this surprisingly mature thesis: America’s dominant social and political stratum views immigrants through the lens of perpetual unease. Steel’s story recognizes the fears that potentially underscore real-world dissenters to unfettered immigration, while at the same time highlighting American society’s grudging acceptance of its inevitability.
Existential angst pervades the first half of Man of Steel, a tonal quality that has justly drawn derision from critics, as it is responsible for sucking all the fun out of this mammoth production. However, the mood created by the film’s first scenes also serves as the introduction to the its exploration of the idea of immigration. It examines how uncertain acceptance by one’s nation creates a negative effect for both the immigrant and the nation immigrated to. Before Big Blue dons the classic patriotic costume that we all know (and love?) he is first depicted as a sort of wandering vagabond, part migrant-worker, part rip-off of Christian Bale’s burdened (and similarly bearded) Bruce Wayne from Christopher Nolan’s first bat-pic, Batman Begins. Man of Steel’s Superman cannot summon the resolve to reveal himself to society due to the fear of rejection, and so he remains in a quotidian state of self-imposed isolation, barely existing aside from on the fringes of society.
It is not difficult to understand the parallels here between the tribulations of Clark Kent and the real-world uncertainty faced by many of our epoch’s “Dreamer” children, who fear expulsion from American society despite having not been the ones who made the conscious decision to immigrate. The consequences created through this reluctance to join the American mainstream are extremely potent, as the adopted home of both real-world immigrants and the cinematic Superman are unable to gain from the enormous untapped reservoir of potential that their respective immigrants bring to society. If one were to take this interpretation of Man of Steel’s stance on immigration as the definitive opinion it would be easy to label Snyder’s CGI extravaganza decidedly pro-immigration. This interpretation gives Steel a didactic edge; it shows us how Kent is unable to live a normal, comfortable life and how American society can’t learn from him, or, as the trailer states “join him in the sun” because of he has decided to remain in the shadows.
Just when Man of Steel begins to flesh out this theme (or become interesting for that matter) it switches tracks completely. The film does continue its exploration of anxiety related to immigration, but from the opposing side, evoking anti-immigration sentiments revolving around the idea of an immigrant symbiotically consuming native resources (Superman’s consumption of Earth’s sun), or somehow creating a destabilizing effect on society due to their alien origin (the invasion of Zod and his goons). The society depicted in Steel certainly seems reflective of our current political climate, showing little in the way of hesitation regarding handing Superman over to the hostile Kryptonians. It even depicts a deranged xenophobic nightmare when Superman falls ill aboard Zod’s Earth-orbiting spacecraft and then has a hallucinogenic dream where the general reveals his designs for a new Kryptonian society, built on the bones and ash of fallen Earthlings.
The scene which seems to add further support for Man of Steel being a film which is uneasy, and even potentially aggressive towards the notion of immigration comes during the destruction of Kent’s hometown of Smallville, where pretty much every citizen dies in a fiery inferno due to the alien’s and the United States military’s use of wanton violence (with the exception of Supes’ ol’ pal, the IHOP manager). It is in this scene that Superman finally gains the acceptance of the American military, which Christopher Meloni’s crusty and cantankerous general communicates through the declarative statement, “This man is not our enemy,” to his battle-weary troops. The idea here is simple: an illegal alien cannot be given approval by the important institutions of his adoptive home without engaging in a direct form of social service. In this case, Superman has to prove himself by getting his head kicked in by Zod and the gang. Even then however, after nearly dying in the process of subduing Zod, Big Blue remains a source of controversy and suspicion, even prompting a misguided attempt at drone surveillance in the film’s final scene.
Because it affords equal screen time to both sides of the immigration debate, clearly articulating the plight of the immigrant while also spending ample time on the anxiety of the immigrant’s adopted world, Steel emerges with a refreshingly complex take on an incredibly complex issue. But what is its exact stance? Well, Man of Steel seems to articulate through its humanization and brooding attempt to provoke audience’s sympathies for Kent that the intentions of a majority of immigrants (particularly “Dreamer” children who were brought to America by their parents) are legitimate and positive. Yet the film also strongly suggests that the anxieties of the establishment, who believe that immigrants can potentially introduce a destabilizing effect to their society, may possess some merit.
However, perhaps the most critical scene for understanding Man of Steel and its relationship to the immigration issue is its final one, where Superman alights upon the ground to engage in some flippant banter with Henry Lennix (playing yet another tough-as-nails general). Their conversation elucidates the truth pulsating at the core of America’s tortured relationship with immigration, a relationship defined not by an open-armed sense of welcome; or a curt, dismissive refusal, but a strained, stoic acceptance of the inevitability of the process. This is what Steel accomplishes; it has the ability to reflect our own fragmented, ambiguous stance on the issue. Listen to Lennix in that final scene. Hear not only the uncertainty in his voice, but his grudging acceptance that Superman is here to stay. This is an intuitive moment for understanding both the cinematic world and our own. There won’t be any celebratory endorsement of immigration, just resigned, paranoid acceptance. At the end of Steel Superman may have been labeled the defender of truth, justice and the American way by the people of Earth, but the question remains: For how long?