When the new Superman movie by DC Comics/Warner Brothers/Christopher Nolan/Zack Snyder, “Man of Steel”, was released in 2013 I felt about it the way many comic fans felt about it: the movie was nice to look at, but it sure wasn’t Superman. The Superman I know wasn’t humorless. He protected the people. And he surely didn’t kill anyone, no matter the reason why! My Superman was bright, colorful, and happy. He was the “big blue boy scout” that rescued kittens from trees and fooled his friends by wearing a simple pair of glasses. This movie did not do that character justice at all. And in the years since it was released Man of Steel has become a hotly debated film among those that liked it and those that thought it fell short. But recently a few things have happened that have allowed me to view it in a new light, one that ends up being much more favorable to this depiction of Clark Kent. And so this is my attempt to reevaluate the movie, and compare it to both the source material and figure out its place in today’s cinematic landscape.
Now, although I didn’t love Man of Steel, I didn’t hate it. I just found it very wrong-headed. I have had friends who have defended it from day one, but I could never quite seem to understand their point of view. But a few months ago I watched it again for the first time since seeing it in the theater, this time with my mother who enjoys all sorts of genre films. And not having the baggage of knowing the comic backstories, or clear memories of the Richard Donner/ Christopher Reeve movie from 1978, she enjoyed it quite a bit. And seeing her enjoyment made enjoy it a bit more, too. And it raised some questions in my brain that have bubbled up sporadically since then; why did this movie seem to be a rorschach test for those watching it? Which brings us to this past month, which saw the release of the full trailer for the next film in WB’s DC Comics cycle: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Not a sequel to Man of Steel, but instead a continuation of a larger story, the trailer seems to confirm that many of the events people had trouble with in the earlier film would actually be addressed. And might even retroactively color the first film, having shown some of those same events again from a new perspective. And finally, I watched the very thorough documentary “The Death of Superman Lives”, which gives an exhaustive look at what might have been had the Tim Burton/Nicolas Cage Superman movie been made in 1998.
All of these things led me to rewatch Man of Steel again today. And it was almost like seeing it for the first time: I noticed many things that on first viewing didn’t register. So here we go! But first, two things: one, I can’t discuss this without tons of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie go watch it and come back. And two, I can’t believe that the interpretation of the film that I’m going to detail and all of the events in it were not very purposefully put there by director Zack Snyder and the rest of the DC braintrust. I don’t believe any of it was an accident, even if it’s not clearly spelled out.
I started writing a recap here but it’s so convoluted I’ll instead point you to this one if you need a refresher on the plot. In general, the major complaint is that based on his behavior in this film, this IS NOT Superman. And for the most part, they’re right! He is not “Superman”. He is Clark Kent. Even though this is incredibly self-evident, even though the filmmakers said this over and over, it really did not sink in for me until this viewing: “Superman” is not in this movie until the very end. This is not a film about the character you love from the comics, it isn’t a follow-up to any incarnation you’ve seen before. It’s right there in the title: MAN of Steel. It’s a story about how a man finds himself. He never calls himself Superman and in fact no one addresses him as “Superman” directly. This entire movie is the lead up to him becoming “Superman” and all that entails. You may think I’m just playing with semantics here but read on. It’s almost become tradition that every reboot begins with a retelling of the hero’s origin story. At first glance, Man of Steel is no different. But I would call this almost a coming of age movie over an origin story. True, we see scenes of Clark Kent exploring his powers, growing up, and his first formative “adventure”. But we really don’t see him “get” his powers. The movie is set mostly in present day with a grown Clark who has not yet taken on any of the trappings of a superhero. And the flashbacks scattered throughout the film are there to explain his mind and motivations, not his powers.
One thing everyone can agree on is that Man of Steel is a reboot. But I haven’t seen it mentioned what it’s a reboot of, which is the very idea of a cinematic Superman. It’s funny to think of it, but Batman has been nothing but a reboot of the character every time he has appeared in movies and on TV. From the Adam West version to Batman ’89 to The Animated Series to Schumacher’s day-glo insanity to Nolan’s hyper real Batman Trilogy, every incarnation of the character has been a new one and not based directly on the comics in almost any way. These movies take TONS of liberties with every facet of the character and villains and audience never bat an eye. Ironically, the upcoming Ben Affleck version 1 looks to be the most faithful version to the comics that we’ve seen yet. (Side-note: I know many people will claim that Batman: The Animated Series was faithful to the comics, but it’s only faithful in distilling the spirit of the character rather than any specifics in look or plot from any specific comic timeframe). But every version of Superman so far actually takes it’s cues from the Golden and Silver age comics. It can be argued that Lois and Clark is more like the 1980s comics, but only in that Clark isn’t portrayed as a wimp. (Smallville isn’t like any of the previous incarnations, true, but then, he’s not “Superman” in that one either, is he?) And the end-all, be-all for Superman in the public consciousness is Donner’s Superman: The Motion Picture.
So the basics that people have in mind when they think of Superman have been re-enforced over and over for decades, and when that basic idea is confronted with something new people tended to react by claiming that “they got it wrong”. And again, I’ll point out that I was also in that camp! But the reality is that in comics Superman has been reinvented time and time again. Unlike Spider-Man, or Batman, Superman’s powers actually evolved over time. His origin changed over and over (and over and over again to this day!) Sure, the core idea always survived: Krypton explodes, baby rockets to Earth, grows up to be Superman, meets Lois Lane. But that’s it. His parents, occupation, powers, childhood…most of the details have changed over time. And that core is what Man of Steel has kept, leaving the rest of the details to be filled in anew.
What muddies the water a bit is that writers Zack Snyder and David Goyer are too in love with comics history to resist putting in multiple nods to the past and repurposing elements, rather than creating new ones. So it can indeed be interpreted as “getting it wrong” when you make “Jimmy Olsen” into “Jenny Olsen”, but it’s only wrong if it was meant to be Jimmy Olsen in the first place. These nods run the gamut of classic stories, from a brief shout-out to The Dark Knight Returns (don’t worry fans, Snyder is just getting started with that book) to bits from Birthright, Superman: Earth One, and various other tales, the one story that really informs this new reboot is the one big reboot of comic Superman: John Byrne’s 1986 The Man Of Steel mini-series and subsequent comic run. People forget that John Byrne’s reboot not only removed the convoluted history of the character, but was a shift in how Superman was portrayed and perceived by the populace of the DC universe. In a drastic change from the staid Boy Scout that came before, Byrne kept Superman’s moral compass but made significant modifications to everything else: He is now the sole survivor of Krypton, which has become a sterile, science based society that “grows” their children, Clark’s parents were now alive, he reveled in the use of his powers as Clark Kent, he didn’t become Superman until adulthood (his years as Superboy were wiped away entirely), the rocket that brought him to Earth still exists, he is less powerful, Lex Luthor is a powerful businessman instead of a scientist, Jor-El appears to Clark in adulthood as an interactive hologram to tell him where he comes from, and most importantly, Superman will face a genocidal General Zod that can only be stopped by killing him.
You can see the elements that Goyer and Snyder picked up for their version of Man of Steel. (Here’s a detailed rundown of the comic influences.) But they made one major deviation, one thing that would shape the entire film, and the continuity going forward: their Jonathan and Martha Kent WERE NOT like any incarnation of the adopted parents of Superman we had ever seen. This change is what is going to shape the movie. This is why he is only “Clark Kent” in the movie, and not “Superman”. It’s pretty much a constant throughout the history of the character that states Superman is the “boy scout” that he is because of his good upbringing in the heartland of America. It’s why there was an uproar a few years back when he seemed to renounce his American citizenship in the comics. What Man of Steel posits is that in a grounded telling of this tale, Jonathan & Martha Kent would be terrified of what would happen to their boy if people found out about him in this day of YouTube and Social Media. So the underlying lesson they impart to Clark isn’t “be a hero”, it’s “be scared”. I know, I know. That’s NOT what Jonathan Kent would do!! Except Jonathan Kent is an old man. He died when Clark was a child. He was a passerby that turned the baby over to an orphanage. He’s the one who designed Superman’s “S-Shield”. Actually, there is no one “Jonathan Kent”, there are only many versions of that character throughout the years. And this is just the latest one.
It’s a bold choice, though. I think part of why this was so poorly received is that too much of the Kents’ motivations are left as subtext instead of text. We don’t know what they are thinking, as most of their scenes are interaction with Clark due to the flashback structure of the film. This is really a fault of the entire film: there is something to be said for “show, not tell”, but when it’s not artfully done you need to make sure the idea comes across. Too much of the movie is spent detailing Zod’s motivation instead of Clark, not to mention many of the other characters. There are hardly any conversations in the film between two characters that are not exposition or counterpoints to an action scene. A scene between Jonathan and Martha debating whether or not they are doing the right thing in treating Clark like veal would go a long way to rationalizing their choices (and you can even have little Clark eavesdropping if you need to justify the inclusion in a flashback). These kind of connection scenes are sorely missed throughout the movie. And it’s pretty clear that Jonathan might never have told Clark where they found him; he only does so in reaction to Clark asking more or less if God was punishing him.
As is, their decision turns the character of Clark away from every traditional telling of his origin. He grows up apparently friendless, with his knee-jerk reaction to walk away from any conflict. He’s wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out where he fits in. This would be a good place for another scene of characterization; if we saw him at least keeping a journal during this time it would make the abrupt transition to reporter later easier to swallow. (Side-note: this type of thing is often described as making the movie more “realistic”, but the fact is that there is nothing remotely realistic about any genre film. I prefer saying that it’s a grounded or serious choice, instead.) So the entire movie is not “Superman’s first adventure”, but instead Clark’s journey to get to a place where he becomes Superman. He is not perfect. He is not the “boy scout” yet. He steals clothes, destroys property. He is saving people, but mainly because he’s in the right place at the right time. Most Superman origins show his reveal to the world because he’s making a dramatic save in public (helicopter, plane, space shuttle), but in Man of Steel he is called out into the open by the villain and has no choice.
His relationship to Krypton is interesting, too. The entire time he’s growing up, he’s an outsider. Even if he’s not sure he’s an actual alien, he surely isn’t fully human. When he finds the buried ship and learns his origins from Jor-El is about the part in the movie that you start see him smile from time to time. And then he meets Lois and makes a friend. The argument that “Superman” wouldn’t cause so much destruction and not try to protect people is true as these events seem to be what creates Superman in this reality. Without Jonathan guiding him to do these things, Clark hasn’t quite figured it out yet. And it’s obvious that while he loves his parents, he’s also been secretly hoping to find his “real parents” the entire time. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the turning point of him not really being in the game until Zod threatens his mother. I think it solidifies and clarifies in his mind that he is choosing Earth, not the thing he thought he had been searching for his whole life. Again, these ideas are all under the surface. I wish they had given the script another pass. But there are interesting ideas in there. And they drop hints of a larger history: the empty life pod on the ancient Kryptonian ship, Jor-El’s helper robots that are straight out of Byrne’s comics, and Superman’s relationship with the military, which we’ve never really seen before.
One of the most interesting things is that the traditional version of Jonathan Kent IS in this movie: it’s Jor-El. Jor-El is the one who has hopes and aspirations of Kal as a hero for Earth. He’s the one who tells Kal to protect them, and to be a better ideal. He gives Kal his iconic uniform. Goyer and Snyder even lift some of Jor-El’s speeches verbatim from the comics. And it’s through Jor-El’s interaction with Clark and his sacrifices that show Clark how to be that hero. Looked at it another way, for the first half of the movie Clark is a literal alien on Earth, but in the last half (after Jor-El shows him how to leave Zod’s ship) he embraces his humanity and starts on the journey to fulfilling his destiny as a hero. One thing that opened my eyes to this interpretation was watching Jon Schnepp’s fascinating doc on the aborted “Superman Lives”. Much is made over Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage’s view of Superman as the ultimate outsider, one who feels like an alien all the time. While not as extreme as Cage’s performance would have been, Cavill’s traditional look overshadows this characterization in Man of Steel. We see “Superman” so feel the disconnect. But imagine Nic Cage in the same role as written, and it becomes clearer. With Cavill, instead of quirky we get taciturn. But he is still removed from humanity until pushed by Zod and embraced by Lois. By the end of the movie, he’s learning and adapting to his new role. He doesn’t prevent the mass destruction that happens because he’s trying to figure out what to do. He’s not yet Superman, but he’s getting there. Watching the trailers for Batman v. Superman, you can see he’s wrestling with the repercussions, too.
Now, even with this new point of view, the movie is far from perfect. There are million tiny things to nitpick, but others have done that better than I will. And Goyer and Snyder tend to want to have their cake and eat it too; nowhere is this more evident than the closing scenes of Clark magically being given a job at the Daily Planet when we’ve never seen any evidence that he’s a writer or that he even went to college. In the comics and earlier films, his job as a reporter many exists to get him close to Lois. But she knows who he is in Man of Steel (another deviation that I completely agree with), so there is no real reason to place him there. Not to mention there is no way that the Planet would have already been rebuilt or that Metropolis’ streets would be cleaned up. It’s these little lapses that make the big ones harder to ignore. And Man of Steel has two really big missteps: Jonathan Kent’s demise and the Killing of Zod.
On the face of it, I don’t have a problem with the idea of either event. But the execution is botched so much that it threatens to derail Clark’s characterization and is part of what had led to the outcry against the movie. Jonathan Kent dying is nothing new. In fact, Donner’s 1978 movie set the bar for this, with an elegant script and performance by Glenn Ford that hammered home both the concept that Clark needs to be bigger than himself and than he is not a God, and can’t save everyone. But the ludicrous concept of a tornado appearing on a sunny day, exactly over their location, with the “Dog Ex Machina” keeping Jonathan at the car is just a convoluted mess. It definitely feels like Snyder’s enthusiasm for spectacle overweighed the dramatic potential. A better scenario would have been Pa Kent getting in a simple car wreck with Clark in the car and a crowd of people around. Then he could use his dying breath to forbid Clark lifting the car off him and getting him to the hospital. It would prove the same point and have a greater emotional impact. But as is in the film it is too unrealistic a scenario and one that it wouldn’t even take super powers to solve!
The killing of Zod is another thing that doesn’t make much sense as presented. I don’t have a problem with Superman killing in the right circumstance (although I don’t think they needed to shoehorn it into this movie) and there was a precedence in the comic (Side-note: in the comic his guilt was so extreme it drove Superman into multiple personalities and eventual exile in space). However, Clark kills Zod because he feels like he doesn’t have a choice since Zod won’t stop his rampage and is about to kill a family with his heat vision. That technically should follow his eyes, not his head. So (as many have said before) Clark shouldn’t be able to prevent the family’s death just by holding Zod’s head. But whatever. They also have a discussion in the middle of it, after apparently killing hundreds by knocking down half of Metropolis. So here’s where they try to play it both ways, and maybe this was by mandate of WB or Nolan, but as it’s shown in the movie, we never actually see Zod kill anyone. We DO see Clark snap his neck, though. Is it murder if they’re only thinking about a crime? This is what muddies the argument. Plainly put, Zod should have been shown killing that family. And another one, and another…SNAP! No discussion, just an agonized choice that had to be made. And it should be very clear that Clark is also making the choice that he will be the only Kryptonian, right after finally finding his people. Along those lines, we should have seen the consequences of that massive destruction. There is not a single body, and people are running away as the cars are being crushed by a “gravity wave”. Jenny Olsen should have died. Heck, it would have made a huge impact if Ma Kent had been killed by Zod, and shown Clark why he didn’t have any options. As is, Colonel Hardy and Dr. Hamilton might be dead, or might be in the Phantom Zone. The movie was pretty vague about all that.
All that said, I’m now on board with this DC cinematic universe. Man of Steel had some winning performances, and as far as look goes you’d be hard pressed to find a better Superman than Henry Cavill. One thing the movie was was consistent in its viewpoint, and Batman v. Superman only looks like more of the same. And I’m ok with that…now.