Man of Steel: A Thoughtful Film that Gets Superman Right

I have attempted to avoid spoilers in this review, but different people have different spoiler thresholds. Caveat emptor.

We all bring baggage of some kind into the art we experience, even if it’s not liking art or never having seen Mad Men because you’re lame. Sometimes it’s an intense identification with a character who’s celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday this year. But maybe you’re in the “don’t like ‘splosions” crowd or the “NO CHANGES!” confederacy or you really just like Batman uber alles. I get that. I’ve been some of those people.

I love Superman. As a kid, I wore Superman pajamas until they didn’t fit anymore, and continued for a while even after my feet burst

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve as Superman

through the soles of the stocking part. I watched Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie as often as I could, and Terence Stamp was my idea of self-important rebel leaders before I knew what that really meant. I watched whatever the hell Superman III and IV were supposed to be, and they kind of freaked me out (III came out when I was 2, so I probably saw it for the first time when I was 4 or 5. At least one scene in that movie is *intense*). I watched Supergirl, and a not so successful Superboy TV show, and Lois & Clark, a dull show with some inspired performances.

My main takeaway from what I saw in Superman in films and television and a very few comics read in the supermarket while Mom was grocery shopping, is that if we have the chance, we should help people. Even when the bad guy is the one who needs help. Maybe, if you’re the only one who can help but that help may kill you, you still help. Even if it seems impossible, you still try, no matter the odds. Superman does everything, and anything, he can, to help people who need his help.

Superman made sense to me. He has amazing gifts, but he doesn’t use them for frivolity like financial gain or athletics. He uses his powers to make a decent living for himself as a normal guy, and to help other people who wouldn’t be helped if he weren’t there. To make a difference.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve established a more complex view of how Superman’s powers work and should be used, and as I’ve been reading up on the modern era of Superman comics these last few months, I’m glad to see that comic book writers think with greater complexity on these issues, too. Superman is still a good man, who uses his powers to help people, and sometimes entire civilizations. I’m on board with that. But he is also a man: he makes mistakes, and he lives in a world where sometimes, the morally correct choice isn’t between the good and the bad, it’s between the bad and the awful, or the bad and the vaguely worse. He can’t always solve problems by being faster, stronger, or smarter than the bad guys. Stories don’t always have happy endings. Like the real world. I’m happy with this version of Superman: I like the big blue Scout, but a man of his stature surely encounters issues more complex than whether to save a kitten from a tree.

As I entered Man of Steel, I was a man who wears the shield of El as a ring on his finger every day, with the experience of reading thousands of comic books and dozens of graphic novels and a few scholarly essays on the subject of my favorite hero. Can Man of Steel live up to the Superman I believe in, a man who saves the world by helping people, by using his abilities in a good cause, by fighting when there is no fight left in him, while still acknowledging that even the powers of a god can’t solve every problem in a clean, positive way?

Happily, it managed to meet and exceed those wishes, and I am very happy for its success. It is complex, has substantial arcs for each of its three leads (who I take to be Clark, Lois, and Zod), and gets Superman right: he’s a great man. Flawed, but still great. [Warning: there may be spoilers beyond this point. I tried to avoid them, but there are some plot details you might not want to know]

Man of Steel opens on Krypton, the distant world where Kal-El, son of Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, is being born right that minute. Just after he’s born, we learn that Krypton is dying and that the Kryptonian Science Council has over-stressed the planet’s resources, which has caused the planet’s core to come near its breaking point; only weeks remain before the whole planet will fall apart.

Enter Zod. He leads a coup against the Council and insists that Jor-El should join him in his attempts to save Krypton. Even if they couldn’t save the living Kryptonians, there is a possibility of saving the genetic material used to create the next generation, provided they found a new planet to generate this new cohort of Kryptonians.

Two visions of saving Krypton, one man's destiny.

Two visions of saving Krypton, one man’s destiny.

This central conflict between Jor-El and General Zod is one of the key themes of the movie: how do you save your species if you’re faced with immediate, unavoidable extinction? Millions of lives are lost, on both Krypton and Earth, to determine the answer to this question. Zod is not some crazed mustache-twirling villain: he is a desperate man trying to protect the future of his race. What would you do if you had the means to ensure the survival of your species and one recalcitrant family stood in your way?

There’s another side to the planet-theme coin: what do we do when we find out there’s an alien living among us? That question is complicated somewhat because humanity finds out Kal-El is living among us from Zod; Zod threatens that he will make us suffer if Kal does not give himself over to the Kryptonians. Our first alien, and already other aliens have come to steal him away! Good riddance!

A nice scene comes in here, clearly a reference to the excellent story arc “For Tomorrow“, in which Clark asks a priest whether he should turn himself in to Zod, and whether he could trust Zod to let humanity alone if he did, or trust humanity to do the right thing if he turned himself in. I love this scene not just because it references one of my favorite graphic novels, but because it shows where Clark is in his maturation: with Jonathan Kent and hologram-Jor El unavailable to guide him, he still doesn’t have all the answers to a complex moral question. He doesn’t immediately know what the right thing is. So he goes to a priest, something many humans would do in just such a situation. He proves his humanity, his fallibility, but most of all that he’s still unsure of himself and needs guidance, even though he’s 33. This is his first apocalypse.

Off to see the general

Off to see the general

I think the film ends up winning because it keeps allowing for things like surrogate father figure priests, and questions about how we respond to things like aliens we don’t yet understand, and what happens when we run out of time, with individual lives or civilizations. The answers to questions and situations are not always clean, happy, or even answers the characters are likely to live with all that well. This may be my favorite aspect of the film, and it is very much in line with modern comic book versions of Superman, at least the good ones: Superman faces massively complex, life-or-death, armageddon-or-not situations, and sometimes, he creates those situations through his mistakes or his responses to those situations, while well-intentioned, turn out to be mistakes. For instance, early in the film, a character dies because Clark doesn’t do something to help – but it also shows that he’s agreeing with that character on an important subject, that the big things matter more sometimes. It’s a difficult decision that may not have been the right one, it is acknowledged as possibly the wrong choice while in the moment showing that it was a way of the characters coming to a final agreement on that important subject. The fact that the decision was so hard, and so affecting, has a chain of consequences later in the story. The film isn’t just a bunch of stuff that happened. Difficult moral choices happen, and then they matter. That’s definitely the strength of this film.

It is difficult to handle, though, that there is tremendous loss of life in this film. More than I’ve seen in quite some time. We only see a few key deaths on screen, but when the action is taking place in Smallville and Metropolis, it’s clear that people are being killed by the dozen in some instances, and then by the tens of thousands in others. It took my breath away when the full scope of that destruction was shown, and yet there was one more battle yet to go. Does Superman do enough to stop it? Did Zod intentionally cause that loss of life with strategic attacks? It’s hard to say, but the death certainly made Zod’s threats to humanity quite real. For comparison’s sake, I take into account that in Superman: The Movie, Lex Luthor detonated a high-yield nuclear device at a major stress point on the San Andreas fault. While Superman is eventually able to repair the main damage done to the fault, it’s several minutes after the earthquake begins, and there are major cracks in the Earth. Until I was a teenager, I actually thought all earthquakes caused cracks like that; knowing what I do now, the aborted continental shift could only have been at the expense of tens of thousands, and most likely millions of lives, even if the permanent destruction of California was averted. I think Man of Steel may have just been more explicit about the cost to humanity in this film than the original Superman was, but either way, it still is painful to see that our world’s protector may manage to save the day, but there are many, many lives he did not save.

What does the "S" stand for?

What does the “S” stand for?

When it comes to the final analysis, I’m tempted to just shout EVERYTHING WAS GREAT! WATCH IT! but I would like to call attention to a few things of note. First, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Michael Shannon’s fantastic performance as Zod, and I must share in the praise. His character was intelligent, powerful, intimidating, and, at the end, pathetic, and whether shaking with rage or quietly scheming, Shannon sold it. The highlight for me, though, was Lois Lane. For the first time in a Superman story, whether on paper, on a television, or on a big screen, I felt like Lois was genuinely the equal of Superman, as a reporter, as a hero, as a woman who took big risks. She was the engine that made this movie go. Amy Adams gave her the grit and courage of the hard-nosed reporter Lois has always been while keeping the humanity and sense of awe that Margot Kidder helped sell Superman in 1978. I loved Laurence Fishburne as Perry White: one key scene with him was my favorite of the movie. Finally, Christopher Meloni’s Colonel Hardy may have been the best character outside the Krypton-Daily Planet orbit. He may have been the best character, period. He stood up to the Kryptonian villains, twice, and really displayed the human spirit that inspires Superman to remain one of us.

In the end, was this a good film? Yes. It had a compelling story, with good action sequences that were shot comprehensibly. I will accept complaints about it being long, but every scene made sense to the story and didn’t feel added-on or like it was padding anything: this was the right movie filmed the right way. It compares favorably to, say, Batman Begins, which I’ve never warmed up to as much as I did the latter two films in the Dark Knight trilogy, which took on bigger questions about who Batman is and why Bruce has to be Batman (or not). We need Superman. Clark has to be Superman. This film explains it, and successfully.

But on the real question for this devoted Superman fan, did this movie get Superman right? Yes, it did. Henry Cavill places Clark Kent as a reluctant man who wants to do more for himself, for others, and for the world, but lives in fear that doing too much will expose his secret, a fear his adoptive father made sure he had, because humans fear that which is different or unknown. Throughout the movie, Clark increasingly asserts himself and his abilities into each situation, as he learns to control his powers, as he understands his heritage. His increased clarity of character especially shines through as he drops his confusion about his identity and realizes that his decision to protect humanity is righteous even if it ends up damaging his connection to his Kryptonian heritage because Zod’s way of resolving the problem may go in a direction too terrible to accept. Clark’s arc from vagabond to determined hero is powerful, even if there’s some heartbreak along the way.

Clark makes some difficult choices. People die who might not have if he had made different choices. One person dies as a direct result of something Superman does. It’s a difficult, harrowing decision. Batman had a very similar decision at the end of Batman Begins. The key to these choices is that they’re not obvious decisions: Superman in Man of Steel doesn’t live in a universe of black and white: he lives in our world, where you make choices that might or might not be right, or might just be less wrong, and you have seconds or less to make them. We could make reasonable arguments on either side of this decision and not feel like either one is obviously right or obviously wrong. This is a stark departure from how the Superman of the 70s and 80s worked – Superman knew what was right, you knew what was right, the bad guys knew what was right, and then Superman did what was right. The only real challenge was the degree of difficulty the villains were able to achieve in setting up the problem. The moral part was easy, no thought necessary. Man of Steel isn’t like that. Is this a man who never does anything wrong? Is that who you want Superman to be? Or do you want a Superman who fights for us, even when the weight of the world is literally pressing him down, who fights for justice over injustice, who finds the best outcome in a barrel of bad and mediocre ones, who can be an example in a world like our own?

Because that is the Superman we get in Man of Steel. He doesn’t go flying off into the sunrise with a smile after 10 million people die. He makes his plans to start doing this on a regular basis, so that the next time he fights someone as powerful as Zod, he’s better at it. Maybe he won’t have to do quite so much on-the-job training next time.

…but he was pretty damn good this time.

Clark Kent Flying over Africa in Superman: Birthright

Clark Kent Flying over Africa in Superman: Birthright

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