Man of Steel is a movie that was divisive when it first came out, mainly because the infamous scenes in which Jonathan Kent tells his adopted son Clark that he “maybe” should have left a bunch of other kids to drown, and later lets himself die when Clark could have saved him because people were watching. I suspect the point of the scenes was to suggest that Jonathan loves his son so much that he wants to keep him safe at all costs, but the execution was faulty.
Oh, and the Superman killing Zod thing, which wasn’t necessarily bad (yo, fanboys, Superman HAS killed Zod before. Remember Superman II? Because Supes killed Zod in that movie, and he didn’t even seem to feel bad), but which they kind of undermined by having him joking and messing around in the very next scene.
And yes, I have my issues with the movie. For instance, it drives me insane that they call that skull fragment a “codex.” It’s not a codex. A codex is literally a bound book. Don’t call things what they aren’t, Zack!
But the opinions really started going against the film when Zack Snyder produced the follow-up, Batman V. Superman, which had a lot of weird attempts to deconstruct DC’s classic heroes by having them all either be psychopaths or really reluctant to be superheroes. Retroactively, Man of Steel became the “bad” Superman movie (even though I’d argue that artistically in direction, writing and overall acting, it’s superior to most of the other Superman films — certainly Superman 3 and 4, and Superman Returns).
But honestly? It’s actually a pretty good movie. Yes, it has Zack Snyder’s tendency to overthink things and subvert iconic figures, but the movie does treat Superman as a truly inspiring figure who makes the world better with his presence. And while it is a slow build, it does provide a lot of interesting ideas that add to Superman’s mythos.
For instance, I really like the idea that Clark Kent had to essentially grow into his powers, and develop discipline in his use of them. After all, having the superpowered senses… isn’t entirely natural. Had he lived his life on Krypton, he never would have had them. So we see him struggling to cope with senses going haywire in seemingly ordinary circumstances, such as rushing into a closet to hide from the stimuli, like an autistic child who is getting overwhelmed.
Or how about his anger? I’ve seen people complain about the scene where Clark essentially crucifies a guy’s truck, that it was stupid of him to do that. But… think about it. Clark Kent is a guy who has never been able to express his anger when people treat him badly. He’s been treated as a freak, a weirdo, a victim, and lived his life in fear of others. He has never once fought back, no matter what, because he knows his strength would kill anyone he attacked. This is the only way he can express his anger, and he’s probably bottled up a lot, especially if he blamed himself for his father’s death.
This is something that not many Superman stories address. Clark Kent/Kal-El may be an alien, but his heart is very human. He can be angry. He’s allowed to feel anger. Anyone who is mistreated will feel anger. And yet, we see him as someone whose dedication to not hurting others leads him to stand there and take the abuse rather than exerting his power.
In a sense, it’s part of his arc, because we see him freed from his anger and misery when he finally discovers who he truly is. After Jor-El gives him his pep talk, Clark/Kal-El seems newly at-peace and happy for the first time.
Which brings me to another thing I like: Supes’ first flight. It’s not so much the animation of the flying itself, which is… you know, it’s good. What I like is Clark’s reaction to flying for the first time — we see him laughing giddily with exhilaration, like a child who has just learned how to do something. It’s really very adorable.
This is more a personal like than an objective point, but I also really liked the design work for the Kryptonian clothing and ships — they gave the feeling of immense complexity and technological advancement that had fallen into decadence and decay.
I’m not going to go into a full-length pros-and-cons analysis of Man of Steel — not right now, anyway — but I wanted to note the things that were, in my opinion, good from a storytelling perspective and a character development perspective.
I feel like a lot of the reactions to Clark’s development in Man of Steel is based on this idea that Superman is perfect, and wouldn’t experience doubts or anger or whatever. And that’s not really conducive to good storytelling. I’m not saying that pure-hearted, noble characters cannot exist and should be subverted whenever possible, because that is not the case. But you can have pure-hearted, noble characters make mistakes and struggle. It doesn’t make them any less good.
A good example is Captain America in the movie Civil War. The climactic battle is sparked off when it’s revealed that Bucky killed Tony’s parents many years ago, and — more hurtful to Tony — Cap knew about it and did not tell him. This is not done out of malice, but because Cap feared what Tony’s reaction would be, especially since Bucky was brainwashed at the time the murders took place.
So do we see Cap as less of a noble, pure-hearted figure because he did that? No, for two reasons:
- It was essentially a mistake, and a mistake that any one of us might make, because it’s in kind of a moral grey area. Should you reveal all and risk someone doing something terrible for revenge on an innocent person, or should you keep an important secret from someone who has a right to know? I don’t think there’s a clear-cut “right” answer.
- He apologizes. He admits wholeheartedly that he was completely in the wrong and he does not make any excuses.
And that’s kind of how I see Superman in Man of Steel. He’s noble and pure of heart, but it doesn’t mean he’s devoid of internal struggle and personal flaws. A person can inspire hope and be a hero while still stumbling and getting back up again.
At the very least, Man of Steel should be commended for at least trying some angles that previous adaptations hadn’t, and trying to think about how it would be to grow up with superhuman powers. I do not wholly embrace Zack Snyder’s approach to superheroes, except maybe in Watchmen, but I don’t believe his depiction of Superman is a failure either.