Faore-Ul (Antje Traue) is a henchwoman. In most films, this would make her little more than a combination of punching bag and stepping stone, something for the hero to batter mercilessly on the way to the final boss. In Man of Steel however, Faore-Ul is actually a character, a beneficiary of the film’s laudable attempt to give its villains real personality. Unfortunately, though the attempt is laudable, its execution isn’t. As the film progresses, Faore-Ul devolves, from a character of promise to an incoherent mess of competing motivations. Yet this devolution is itself fascinating, because the successes and failures of Faore-Ul’s characterisation illuminate the good and bad traits of the film as a whole.
Faore-Ul is General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) second in command, so loyal that she follows him into coup and exile, and obeys his every order with swift precision. She also takes pride in toughness, trying not to show the pain of imprisonment in the Phantom Zone. Furthermore, she even has a recognisably military code of honour. When facing down the desperate, knife-wielding Colonel Hardy (Christopher Melani), Faore-Ul does not just shoot him, but draws a knife of her own to maintain the semblance of a fair fight. She also approves of his courage in facing her, telling him that this will result in a ‘good death’. Loyalty, toughness, fair-fights and ‘good death’ sentiment: these four traits combined, amount to a character visibly shaped by traditional military ethics.
So Faore-Ul has a philosophy. She also has feeling. Faore-Ul is a tough woman who takes pride in her toughness, but at the sight of her world destroyed, she publicly sinks to her knees and weeps before her superior officer. That collapse complicates her. From that point on, Faore-Ul is a multifaceted character, motivated by both a warrior’s reason and an exile’s sense of loss. That is fertile soil for compelling drama.
Unfortunately, though the seeds of an arc are sown, the soil is then abruptly salted. In the midst of battle, Faore-Ul suddenly takes a break to spout a stream of ‘we are the master race’ nonsense, inspired by a vision of Darwinism that only exists in a fundamentalist’s nightmares. Even in a film full of bafflingly awful dialogue, “evolution always wins” is a really stupid thing for someone to say. Still, idiocy I can live with. It is the impact of this sudden philosophising on the character, and the film as a whole, that is the real problem.
Faore-Ul already had excellent motives for her actions: a combination of her grief at the death of Krypton and her adherence to military ethics. This new motive does nothing but complicate matters. We have never seen Faore-Ul act according to a ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy, so this new motive feels tacked on and purposeless. Yet it is still there. Just as in an interview with Alex Jones, the information provided may be irrelevant, but its presence is still disruptive. Following her monologue, the character of Faore-Ul is left incoherent.
This incoherency increases when you realise that a loyal Kryptonian would never see natural selection as the proper order of things. From what we see of Krypton’s society, we can tell it operates as a caste system, maintained by genetic predetermination. Individual Kryptonians are programmed from birth to have the abilities and interests required by their social function: Zod’s mania for preserving Krypton is one such programmed trait. This then is a society without evolution. Indeed, the fact that Zod views natural birth as an abomination implies that Kryptonians see the random inheritance of genes as despicable. Krypton is a world where Intelligent Design both exists and is considered the only moral way to create new life. It makes no sense for a person devoted to Krypton’s resurrection to spew ‘survival of the fittest’ rhetoric.
Nor is the rant simply nonsensical: it’s also creatively irresponsible. In Man of Steel, Superman is Jesus. The symbolism is so blunt as to be ridiculous, so to have his foes start spouting a thuggish Darwinism sets up a contrast I consider to be repugnant. I am an atheist, but even though gods don’t exist I can still have faith in humans, or find a spiritual beauty in the vastness of the sky. What’s more, the essential truth of religion, that there exists a high standard of unselfish behaviour to which we should aspire, is as true as it ever was. Our ever-increasing understanding of the universe may be changing our religious lives, but that does not mean religion is locked in some light vs dark struggle with science. That way of thinking is the preserve of reductive fools, intent on manufacturing unnecessary conflict. Yet, by accident or by ridiculous intent, Man of Steel yokes an enjoyable alien punch-up, to a conflict just as fake but far less fun, and, in doing so, perpetuates a source of division that does not have to exist. At best, that’s lazy writing. At worst, it’s tone-deaf idiocy.
Faore-Ul is a henchwoman, and so much more. Antje Traue crafts a marble performance, cold, hard and elegant, with enough skill to be noticeable even next to the rage of Michael Shannon. The character she embodies has purpose and presence: Faore-Ul is no stepping stone, but a villain in her own right. Man of Steel achieves that much, and indeed, should be lauded for it. A pity then, that this character is also an incoherent mess of underdeveloped and nonsensical motives. A pity, that Faore-Ul is made the vector for a diseased idea. In her creation lies acting talent, creative ambition and a broken writing process. In her creation, the strengths and weaknesses of Man of Steel itself are thrust into stark visibility.