This is not a Man of Steel review. Not in the usual sense, anyway. This isn’t about the film as a work of art or a piece of cinema. This is about the interpretation of the Superman mythos in Man of Steel and why so many people don’t seem to like it. Superman has a publishing history stretching back to 1938 and has been reinvented and reinterpreted many, many, many, many, Supermany times since then in various media. This Man of Steel directed by Zack Snyder is just the latest cinematic iteration.
Whenever a new version of a familiar thing appears, we compare the new to the old. It’s how we humans understand the world. The sun lit the sky today? (Wow!) Did it do that yesterday? (Yes.) All is as it should be.
When something new arrives, we have several options. We can decide that it’s better (Superman doesn’t wear underpants on the outside anymore, I like him so much better now); we can decide that it’s worse (I can’t see Superman’s underpants anymore. I don’t want to live on this planet anymore!); we can even decide that it’s not important (Y’know what? I don’t care where Superman wears his underpants as long as he has a cape).
Now, if you’re a fan of Superman, then you probably like Superman for certain reasons. Certain features of Superman are important to your understanding and enjoyment of Superman-related material. When those features are absent or subverted then it can play havoc with your understanding of reality. This is why every film about an established character (whether it’s Beowulf or Sherlock Holmes or Clark Kent) causes uproar in the associated fandoms. It’s also why people who think that marriage should be between a man and a woman are outraged by same-sex marriage, why conservative libertarians are so against communists redistributing wealth through a powerful central government and why enthusiastic cosmopolitans are so shocked by casual racism. You may think those issues are all very separate from each other and (especially) from adapting Superman to film. You may be right. But your brain categorizes them all under ‘How the world should be’ and freaks you out when reality doesn’t line up with how you think it should be.
The Uncanny Valley is a related (or maybe identical) idea, usually mentioned in relation to robotics. Basically, the more human something non-human appears makes people happier and happier until it reaches a certain level of looks-human-but-somehow-off and then people are revolted and afraid, until it passes out of the valley and into acceptably human in appearance. My point is that if it looks like Superman but doesn’t act the way you think Superman should act, it can make you revolted and afraid.
Me? I loved this Man of Steel. I spent much of my cinematic experience smiling. It is the closest thing to ‘My’ Superman that I have yet seen in live-action film. Of course, therein lies the problem.
My Superman isn’t the same as everyone else’s. It doesn’t seem to be the same as Mark Waid’s Superman. Mark Waid is one of the foremost experts on Superman; his love of the character is famous and he’s written the Man of Steel’s adventures on more than a few occasions (his work almost certainly influenced Snyder’s film, by the way). According to his blog, the film under discussion broke his heart. See his opinion here: http://thrillbent.com/blog/man-of-steel-since-you-asked/
Many fans share his view-point. They could not see his Superman and it was traumatic. I saw mine and it was wonderful.
What’s the difference between me and all the commentators who were revolted by Man of Steel? I can’t really answer that definitively. Everyone has a different idea of what Kal-El should be. Besides “All generalisations are false, including this one.” I’m going to speculate anyway.
Age difference may be a factor. The more irate sections of fandom seem to be about 10 to 20 years older than I am and seeing Superman: The Movie (1978) was a major, if not the major foundation of their understanding of what Superman should be. I am a child of the 90s and my first contact with the Last Son of Krypton was in Superman: The Animated Series, a much darker and more serious interpretation of the original superhero. Why was the kids’ show darker and more serious than the adults’ film, you ask? Because Bruce Timm and company are awesome, that’s why!
That’s a very simplistic answer and there is no way it comes ever close to the whole truth. There are also plenty of people my age or younger who didn’t like Man of Steel. It’s something to consider though because early experience is usually considered key to later comprehension. Anyway, psychobabble is over; on to the film!
Here are the 4 most frequently cited problems with Man of Steel within fandom, based on my reading.
- Too Much Krypton
- The Assassination of Jonathan Kent
- Superman Lets Too Many People Die
- The Death of Zod
Too Much Krypton
His planet’s dead, he was brought up on Earth, who cares who his father is anyway? Fandom says that Krypton’s not really important to Clark Kent (he doesn’t go around calling himself Kal-El). I agree. He is the Last Son of Krypton but that has little importance to the character beyond a pseudoscientific explanation for his powers and a reason for his immigration status.
However, I think the prominence of Krypton in Man of Steel is appropriate because Clark Kent is not the only Kryptonian running around. If Zod is the villain, then Kryptonian culture is hugely important because Zod is Kryptonian militant nationalism and Krypton is his motivation. The more we see of Krypton, the better we understand Zod; what he’s lost, what he hopes to regain.
As to people who complain that Jor-El gets too much screen-time in the beginning, in what is meant to be a story of his son? All I can say is that I don’t mind. I like the sense of epic scale that comes with a story that crosses times and places and generations. The Silmarillion (constructed from the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien) is one of my favourite books and it’s a story that spans thousands of years with dozens of main characters and hundreds of minor ones.
The Assassination of Jonathan Kent
This refers both to the alleged character-assassination of Clark’s adoptive father and his eventual death.
Superman is usually held to have gained his moral compass from his adoptive parents in Kansas so when Jonathan Kent tells young Clark that “maybe” he should have let all the children die on the bus struck many people as deeply and profoundly wrong. Telling Clark to ignore people in danger could be seen as bordering on child abuse, if nothing else but worse than that, this is the man who was meant to be telling Superman about Truth and Justice doing more or less the opposite.
The “maybe” is a “maybe” and it didn’t bother me much because it was only a “maybe”, one option among many. Additionally, the whole question of where he got his moral compass from seems less important to me. While a parents’ behaviour is important to a child’s formation, they’re never the only influence; especially in this globalised world with so much other information available through various media, especially-especially when the child in question can hear what’s going on in the next state. I never really found Clark’s parents all that important to Superman, maybe that says more about me than it does anyone else.
The scene where Jonathan Kent is killed by a tornado because he tells Clark not to save him has come under fire because fans say that Clark should have saved him anyway. Yeah, I totally agree here. Clark should have saved his father and hang the consequences. This was something that revolted me during the film; happily the film was long enough and enough other things happened not to ruin my experience but I thought this was stupid and immoral.
Superman Lets Too Many People Die
“One death is a tragedy, one thousand deaths is a statistic” –Josef Stalin (The name Stalin comes from the Russian word for steel, making this moustachioed despot a Man of Steel himself).
Basically, fans say that Superman should have saved more people from falling rubble and the like, or tried harder to remove the invaders from where people could be hurt. That he didn’t do these things makes him incompetent or uncaring.
Let’s be clear, a lot of people must have died while the big machine was remaking the Earth and while Superman fought Zod. Here’s one estimate: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jordanzakarin/man-of-steel-destruction-death-analysis
I don’t buy it.
Imagine you have lived your entire life in a world made of cardboard where everyone but you moved at a snail’s pace. You’ve never been in anything like a fight and if you were it’d be over pretty quickly because you can kill these slow, virtually blind and deaf, cardboard people just by looking at them (but you never have, because you’re cool like that).
Then, one day, someone else arrives. They are made not of cardboard but of steel, they move faster than a jet and they are punching you repeatedly in the face. This is the situation Clark is in. It is reasonable to me that he was not in a frame of mind conducive to the calculation of casualties on his first adventure. Anyway, he did try to take Zod away from Metropolis (and into space) but Zod knocked him down again.
Any vision of Earth where beings with the power to crack a continent in half could throw each other around without civilians being caught in the crossfire would be suspiciously perfect and as anyone who has read Infinite Crisis will know “A perfect Earth doesn’t need a Superman.”
The Death of Zod
More specifically, the murder of General Zod by the Superman, Clark Kent. So, Zod’s goal is to commit suicide by Superman and kill a lot of puny humans in the process? Goal achieved: Zod wins. But why did Superman let him win? Superman does not kill. Superheroes don’t kill in general (Screw you Wolverine!) and Superman is probably the hero who exemplifies this more than any other in DC comics (except Batman).
But Superman kills Zod! This might have shocked me more if Batman (who adheres to the no-kill rule even more strongly than Superman) had not killed someone in every single one of Christopher Nolan’s films. Regardless, I did revolt. I saw it coming and I spent the few minutes leading up to Zod’s death thinking “No, no, no, no, no” but then they saved it. Superman broke down, he cried, he screamed, he was filled with horror and remorse at what he had done. I was mollified, I bought it. I could accept Superman killing in extremity, in the last defence of life, other options seemingly exhausted if he was horrified by his actions.
As long as he did it without celebration or callousness, as long as he did it with dismay instead of a stupid one-liner (Every time I watch Batman Begins: “I won’t kill you but that doesn’t mean I have to save you” says Batman, “Yes, you do”, I feel like screaming), as long as Superman understands it to be an utter violation of his being, I can buy it. As long as it doesn’t happen again in sequels, I can believe it.
Yeah, so I liked Man of Steel; what did everyone else think? Comments welcome.