Friday, June 14, 2013 review of "Man of Steel" details its minimizing of women

And what of Lois, played here by Amy Adams? Well, here's where things become really unfortunate: she's portrayed as a capable reporter, much more so than in previous screen incarnations, but I didn't detect much chemistry between her and Clark, even when you factor in the ungodly pressure they're both under. While Clark is dealing with his demons and the world's, she's uncovering a government conspiracy to hide evidence of a buried Kryptonian spacecraft, then struggling against her Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) for the right to publish the truth she can feel in her bones, even though she doesn't have all the facts to prove it. There are flirtatious moments between her and Clark, but they're few and far between, and I'm not convinced that the apocalyptic events surrounding the couple are the only reason for this.

The most striking and curious aspect of "Man of Steel" is the way it minimizes and even shuts out women. Lois is an important character, but only for how she furthers Clark/Superman's attempts to understand himself and claim his destiny; she's ultimately much less of a fully-realized, freestanding human being than the kooky, narcissistic Lois Lane played by Margot Kidder in the Reeve films, or even Kate Bosworth's Lois in "Superman Returns," a melancholy figure defined by her capacity to move on after the hero's abrupt departure from Earth. Adams' Lois is tough and smart but has no personality, only drive, and she's not as integral to the action as she seems to be on first glance; it's telling that this film gives equal or greater weight to the story of an understandably distrustful general (Chris Meloni) whose relationship with Superman lets him become the stand-in for a doubting Earth, a role filled by Lois in the 1978 film.  "Man of Steel" is driven almost entirely by machismo. Ma Kent is endearing, but she's simply not as powerful a presence in the story as the doomed Jonathan, and Jor-El's birth mother vanishes from the picture after the prologue, her absence explained in a throwaway line that Crowe seems embarrassed to have to deliver. The uncharitable might notice than when a stupid question has to be asked, or a trivial remark made, it's often delivered by one of a handful of women in a room full of burly guys; they may also note that while every significant male figure in "Man of Steel" is given an option to be physically brave under horrible circumstances -- even grey-haired Pa Kent and Perry White have their moments -- females exist, for the most part, to be saved, or to have things explained to them.

Considering that every previous "Superman" movie put the courtship dance between men and women at the heart of its action -- particularly "Superman: the Movie", "Superman II" and "Superman Returns" -- the fact that "Man of Steel" has a No Girls Allowed sensibility seems like a deliberate creative choice, a way to reassure young male viewers accustomed to the glib machismo of "Iron Man" and the dire self-pity of Nolan's Batman that this hero is very much in the same wheelhouse. There's no possible way anyone can mistake this new movie for a Chick Flick. (Zod's right-hand woman Fajora-Ul, Antje Traue, is a powerful presence, but she's even more desexualized than Lois; her character's main trait is a pathological hatred of men.)

Again, that's state-of-the-art, very much in line with the way superhero movies are done now. But this modernization feels retro because comes at the expense of an important and under-acknowledged part of Superman's appeal: virtually alone among big-name superheroes, he's a romantically and sexually mature man who seems to truly like and be comfortable around women. If you're wondering why I could say so many positive things about "Man of Steel" and only give it three stars, the preceding paragraph is your answer. In some ways this movie represents a step forward for Superman on film, but in this one significant respect, it takes the series at least two huge steps back. Viewers who predicted that Warner Bros. and DC Comics were trying to turn Batman into Superman were right, sort of. "Man of Steel" is in many ways an astonishing movie, but it won't do anything to quell complaints that the big-budget superhero genre is basically adolescent, that its creative development has been arrested for decades and might not budge anytime soon.

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