Watching Man of Steel in Istanbul

Everybody needs a way to come down and calm down—to process stressful events and difficult days, the overwhelming flood of emotion that comes from caring too much. Considering Islam’s strictures, my options might be shorter than others’. Action movies, science fiction and fantasy especially, have happily always been able to medicate me; because I travel a lot, too, but because traveling always unsettles me (I’m a restless homebody, a provincial bourgeois Bedouin), I try to schedule blockbusters for foreign lands. Star Trek Into Darkness in Dubai, The Hobbit in West Virginia and, most recently, Man of Steel two nights ago in an Istanbul cinema.

Watching movies in such circumstances becomes more than usually rewarding. There’s a reason travel sparks creativity; sitting in the theatre, it’s not just me watching the movie, but me engaging in an exercise of empathy—how do the people around me process American pieties? (Consider what happened when I watched Star Trek in Dubai.) So climbing up onto Istiklal Caddesi, which burned more calories than I had, arriving at the main thoroughfare of Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood, at one end of which is Taksim Square and so too the Gezi Park protests, I wondered how differently I would appreciate Man of Steel in early 21st century Turkey. But appreciate is too generous a verb, because the movie was simply terrible.

Everything the trailers promised was left out. The dialogue was utterly embarrassing and unconvincing—“this ends one way, either you die or I die” (that’s two ways as I count it); or “I have so many questions,” Kal-El says, when he meets Jor-El, and you kind of die inside. The plot development was nonexistent, the animating tensions absent (we never feel why Superman is allegedly caught between worlds, or why he loves humans), the pacing rushed and languorous, accelerating when it needed to slow down and slowing down when you wished it’d just be over and done with, and no amount of popcorn could change things. You would have more fun repeatedly viewing the trailers and imagining the stuffing in-between tasted at least as good.

This of course began to make me mad. I was already upset, and desperately in need of superhero Xanax. International media coverage of Turkey made it seem like the country was falling apart and this deeply upset me; actually being in the country quickly refuted this emergency narrative and made me wonder how such hyperventilation would affect one of the Muslim world’s few success stories. After all, you’d hardly know the protests were happening from the size of the crowds, the throngs of tourists, and the traffic and energy all over the city; simultaneously, every Turk I met—and mostly, based on where I went and who I spoke to, these were more religious Turks—expressed some level of sympathy for the protests and protesters, a desire for deeper democratization and the need for healthy opposition.

This was not ‘Islam’ v. ‘secularism’ or anything so silly. If anything, in fact, is silly, it is how we have tried to force Turkey’s Gezi Park protests into the Arab Spring. (Imagine the average American in Superman’s spandex.) Indeed Gezi Park’s a cause for celebration: thousands of Turks are vigorously protesting in favor of decentralization, a greater say in urbanization, a rollback of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, and the preservation of green space, the spark which lit the fire which would have probably ignited otherwise.

While some on the Turkish far right, and also among the withered Kemalist establishment (which belongs politically nowhere, neither in orientation nor future prospects), have tried to hijack the protesters’ causes, the very protests themselves do not speak to the failure of Turkish democracy but its success and its contagiousness. Turks want more of it. They’ve rolled back the military and undone Ataturk’s cult of personality. And now they fight for it again, on their own, as they always have. What if we Americans had done that in response to Mr. Snowden’s whistleblowing, or America’s drone policy, or the PATRIOT Act?

So a sucky Superman was the last thing I needed.

Kal-El’s story that, like democratization, has been told so many times it should be easy to figure out, and easy for us to cheer. But we feel almost no happiness or excitement across the course of this movie, no strong or weak nuclear identification with Superman, who is as dull and listless as he is powerful and unhinged. (He basically destroys Metropolis in a fistfight; however, still he likes people and wants to fight for them.) Sitting there late at night, exhausted and out of my element, I was deeply upset with the quality of the film, until I began to see it in a different light—a regionalist one. And then I could make fun of it. And then everything was okay. When you cannot cheer, at least you can chuckle.

Zack Snyder, of 300 fame, is one of a supposedly superstar team behind Man of Steel. Probably like Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan he has accumulated too much power and cannot brook criticism, turning a promising story into something troubling and unsatisfying and even ominous. But in the superhero instance, I can at least derive some satisfaction for that. For Snyder’s previous film, 300, was an exercise in structural racism and a dream assignment for beleaguered Middle Eastern studies departments looking to convey how the clash of civilizations conversations is sustained—movies, as against books, are easier for our twitchy generations to process.

And now another one! Snyder has—how can I explain the wonderfulness of this?—probably entirely inadvertently incubated a movie whose animating tension was settler colonialism, racism, and genocide; giving away much of the so-called ‘plot’, let us just say that General Zod would like Earth to be terraformed to make way for the resurrection of the Kryptonian people, who can build black holes but somehow cannot survive the implosion of their planet. Zod would like Earth’s inhabitants to die in the process. Or, more accurately, he doesn’t care what happens to them, because his people take precedence over all others.

This is not hate so much as it is indifference.

This is the fundamental impulse of settler colonialism, the logic of settling lands by clearing out their autochthonous inhabitants, the people of Earth or at least American Earth transformed all at once into native Americans, whose great sin is not that they exist but that their existence is in the way of another people’s desire to exist. (Settler colonialism rarely recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to be where they have always been.) Seen in that light, Snyder is behind a film that explains the structural racism at least one of his other movies was bursting full of, but of course power is blind to itself—it does not open eyes so much as shoot lasers out of them, reducing everything the saner amongst us would be content to see to rubble.

Snyder would probably refuse the analogy. But who cares? Once you produce garbage, by your own logic we have the right to recycle what you have wasted all humanity’s energy to produce (in Man of Steel, Krypton goes to hell literally because they fracked their planet to death); you could say, then, that they turned their planet into a bomb and blew themselves up. How do we make sense of this otherwise? So I suggest Man of Steel as an exercise in the language of racism, the politics of dispossession, and the danger of too much power.

This is an advantage of watching a movie abroad—I highly doubt I’d derive nearly so much satisfaction from anywhere closer to home. Where then, I wonder, should I watch World War Z?

moghul@gmail.com'

RD Senior Correspondent Haroon Moghul is a Fellow both at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Haroon is completing his doctorate at Columbia University and is the author of The Order of Light (Penguin, 2006). He's been a guest on CNN, BBC, The History Channel, NPR, Russia Today and al-Jazeera.