Godzilla began in 1954 as a quick Japanese rehash of the previous year’s Hollywood B movie creature feature, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the story of a long dormant dinosaur woken from hibernation by atomic testing, made more dangerous by radioactive mutation, which then rampaged down from the Arctic, finally wreaking havoc in New York. With a beast created by legendary SFX wiz, Ray Harryhausen, and based on SF legend Ray Bradbury’s story warning of the unknown consequences of nuclear testing, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was an instant Sci-Fi B movie classic.
Godzilla, despite its clunky special effects and production values, (Eiji Tsuburaya’s man in a rubber monster suit could hardly compare with Harryhausen’s hours of stop-motion wizardry), nevertheless had something more than the rampaging Rhedosaurus. Godzilla was no mere beast, Godzilla had mythology, Godzilla had motivation, Godzilla had malevolence, Godzilla had personality, and most of all, in many ways, Godzilla was quite human.
In Japan, long experience of earthquakes, typhoons, Tsunamis and eventually the atomic wreckage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bringing nightmares to the collective psyche led to the creation of Godzilla as a metaphor for atomic destruction. The Lucky Dragon 5 incident in 1954, in which 5 Japanese sailors were caught in an American atomic test, brought home the need for an embodiment of this fear so that people could in some way understand it.
Producer Shogo Tomiyama once likened Godzilla to a Shinto “God of Destruction” neither good nor evil, beyond human moral definitions. “He totally destroys everything and then there is a rebirth. Something new and fresh can begin.”
In later movies Godzilla is monster and yet also hero, fighting against other monsters in epic city destroying battles, destroying also arrogance, destroying false pride, showing up the failures of militarism. A power feared and attacked by authorities, yet often protective and allied with children.
Inadvertently threatened by humans testing atomic weapons, in pursuit of power with consequences that are only guessed at, Godzilla is unleashed, both the embodiment of those consequences, and wreaking havoc in justified self defence.
The 911 attacks have inspired gratuitous destruction porn of a different order in recent Hollywood blockbusters, reaching culmination almost orgiastic in Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s Man of Steel.
The original Superman was actually conceived as a super villain by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster while still high school students in Cleveland in 1933. The Superman appeared in a short sci-fi story in Siegel’s self-published fanzine, Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3, a bald megalomaniac with telepathic powers bent on world domination.
It was another five years, and several re-inventions, before the blue-suited, trunk wearing caped super hero we all recognize finally appeared in Action Comics No.1, in June 1938, fighting against tyranny and social injustice, and setting the template for all super heroes to come.
Throughout the comic books, the radio and tv serials of the 40s and 50s, the movies of the 70s and early 80s, the tv series of the 90s and 2000s, even in the darkest twists of the graphic novels, Superman has always stood for truth, justice, and however cliched, The American Way. Although alien, outsider, nevertheless defender and champion of Earth’s people. Not so in Man Of Steel. Here Superman’s role as a figure of adulation seems to be to reconcile the long conflicted American people with the military objectives of the American government.
The film is a curiosity, combining diverse elements. From the high epic sci-fi, in the prologue, depicting Kal El’s genesis and the destruction of Krypton. Spiring alien towers, riding on flying four winged dragons, outlandishly armoured figures wielding energy weapons, undersea alien pod embryo chambers, asymmetric spacecraft battling over over an alien landscape. The whole thing is a dream from classic 1970s Heavy Metal style cover art brought to ultra real CGI life.
And yet Clark Kent’s personal story, of his memories of Smallville, Kansas, his experiences trying to both remain anonymous and discover his origins in the far northern wildernesses of Canada and the Arctic again hint of the 70s, but this time a kind of bucolic American social realism. Later, after he has found himself, a more conventional action drama ensues, and the long awaited elements of the traditional superhero narrative almost reluctantly emerge.
These four seemingly very different elements nevertheless mesh together almost seamlessly. What then jars is the almost fetishized destruction porn of the climactic battle between The Man Of Steel and the forces of Kryptonian, General Zod. Here the spectre of 911 emerges in an unprecedented level of destruction. Metropolis is brought to ruins. Vast buildings collapse in smoking clouds of concrete dust to skeletal stumps and debris. Oddly enough, despite the preceding realist portrayal, amidst the massive destruction, people on foot are able to easily flee to safety. One must assume there are casualties beyond counting, but the consequences of the battle, cartoon-like, are muted.
Even General Zod, born as a soldier from Kryptonian eugenics, is acting out of a cultural, indeed a genetic imperative to restore his race, to recover the genetic codex which has been hidden in Kal-El’s cells. While Superman is defending the Earth, from attacks for which he is the cause, his motivations are merely personal. Lacking the mild-mannered paternalism born of physical indestructibility and down-home country wisdom, Man Of Steel is morally flawed, in that it does not have a moral.
The lessons of Godzilla are unambiguous. Inadvertently threatened by man’s reckless quest for power, an uncontrollable destructive force is unleashed. As with the classic, unashamedly cheesy, Superman movies of the late 70s and early 80s, starring Christopher Reeve, like Godzilla, they hold up a mirror to man’s greed, pettiness, arrogance, hubris, the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Despite these flaws Man Of Steel is compelling entertainment; Henry Cavill as Superman is charismatic, if a little too superior. Amy Adams as Lois Lane is rather less cynical and fiesty than previous incarnations, somewhat starry-eyed and idealistic. Michael Shannon as General Zod is powerful, driven. Russell Crowe as Kal-El’s father, brings both determination and a dignity in the face of doom worthy of Richard Burton. Jimmy Olsen’s now a girl. Yes, you heard me. Or possibly a middle-aged bald guy. I wasn’t too clear on that particular departure.
On the surface this Superman is much less about truth, justice and the American way than the tradition, and yet it is also less critical. The enemy is alien. The hero willingly submits himself to the US military authorities (though they have no actual power to compel him) to be handed over to his enemies, in a bizarre Christ-like messianic gesture. In this passion play, Pilate no longer has need to wash his hands. Other than a brief swipe at a military surveillance satellite, “I know you’re trying to find out where I hang my cape. You won’t,” presented as a moment of comedy relief, there is no mirror. What is Superman’s role, if not as a mirror to human follies?
Godzilla rises from the depths, a primal nightmare from the subconscious, a force of nature, a myth of destruction brought to life by hubris, destroying both physical and psychic enemies, false pride, arrogance, militarism, and yet through the love and hope of children bringing a promise of a benign future.
Superman in Man Of Steel descends from the space, bringing seemingly only the egoism of supremacy.
Fearing Superman’s power, General Swanwick asks, “How do we know you won’t one day act against America’s interests?”
Superman replies, “I grew up in Kansas, General. I’m about as American as it gets.”
Obviously not the Kansas of poverty and farm foreclosures, stagnant and decaying towns, of corporatized industrial farming, of Monsanto’s (or perhaps Lexcorp’s) government backed project to control world food supplies through patented GMOs. Now there’s an evil that really does need Superman.
We can only hope, in the next installment, going to work for the Daily Planet incognito as Clark Kent, our hero may learn that being a tool of an industrial-corporate-military complex is not compatible with fighting against tyranny and social injustice, and we will be served up a little more humble pie, perhaps with a little cheese on top.