WARNING: IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN “MAN OF STEEL” YET, TURN BACK! THERE ARE MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Before I get into the meat and potatoes of this post, allow me to clarify a few things. Most importantly, bear in mind that this is not a review for MAN OF STEEL. This is a discussion about the issues I had with the new Superman film, particularly those concerning the portrayal of the “man of steel.”
Henry Cavill was a smart casting choice for the role of Supes, and although it’s just another origin story (honestly, we know how 90% of DC and Marvel’s heroes or villains got their start, stop making origin flicks Hollywood!), I think overall they handled it quite well. Things were changed up just enough to make it interesting, plus we got to spend some time on planet Krypton for the first time since 1978.
Also, I have to note that I see Superman as the old school champion of “truth, justice, and the American way.” He’s a benevolent god hiding amongst us. Despite his seemingly endless array of powers, he still has a major weakness: He is severely empathetic. If he fails to save lives, or is forced to take one, it weighs heavily upon him.
He hails from a simpler time in our own history, where the differences between good and evil were black and white. World War II was underway, and we knew who the heroes (The Allied Nations) and the villains (The Axis Powers) were, and that translated over into some of the first superhero comics ever created!
With all that said, let’s talk about the new MAN OF STEEL, which features a darker version of DC’s most recognizable superhero.
The overall theme of MAN OF STEEL is that Superman/Clark Kent is looking for his place in our world. Growing up, his adoptive father Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner) raised him to be a good person, but also told him to keep his special abilities a secret. He actually comes down on Clark for rescuing a sinking school bus filled with children! Why? Because he believes that the world isn’t ready to accept Clark; he believes that they would panic and cast him out of society for being different.
Pa Kent drives this idea home when he’s about to become a tornado’s b*tch in one of the film’s many flashbacks. Clark prepares to save the day, despite being surrounded by terrified onlookers, but Jon holds up his hand and urges his son to stop before vanishing amongst the destructive winds of the tornado. Wait what?!
I get the point they are attempting to make, but Clark totally could have easily rescued his dad without anyone really noticing. (He can move fast enough to create sonic booms!) Most of the possible witnesses were huddled and cowering beneath a bridge and shielding themselves from the high winds and flying debris. Odds are they wouldn’t have seen anything! Even if they did, who would believe them?!
The beauty of Jonathon Kent’s death in the 1978 SUPERMAN film is that it was the result of a sudden heart attack. (Which resulted from a heated argument he had with Clark moments before.) Superman has a fantastic array of special powers, and yet he can’t do anything to save his (adoptive) dad. It’s a sorrowful, poignant, and humanizing moment where Clark realizes that his powers do in fact have their limits.
In comparison, Jonathon Kent’s death in MAN OF STEEL lacks the same emotional punch and seems almost cruel in retrospect. The heart attack scenario in the original film made the most powerful being on Earth feel completely helpless and guilty: Jon Kent COULD NOT be saved!
The tornado scenario on the other hand, is kind of a mind-f*ck. Though I’m assuming Jon Kent meant well by martyring himself, his decision to take the elevator to Oz obviously leaves Clark with a deep emotional wound. Instead of putting our hero in a situation where he COULDN’T save his dad, he’s now been put into a scenario where he’s told he SHOULDN’T. What kind of message is that?!
Jonathan Kent’s choice to die was more selfish than selfless in my opinion, and shows a real lack of faith in humanity. “Should I stick around and stand by my son when the world comes calling if he pulls off this heroic deed? Hell no, I’m taking the express train to heaven! That way, no one will know that he’s a super-powerful alien being that has moral dilemmas due to my awful parenting!”
Clark now has to live with the guilt of allowing his father to die, so it’s no big surprise that he becomes a drifter. He moves from town to town as a John Doe, committing random acts of heroism/kindness along the way. (He also commits an act of petty revenge by demolishing some jerk’s mack truck. Way to ruin the livelihood of a guy just because he slapped a waitress on the ass and poured a beer on your head Clark!)
Eventually Clark discovers the existence of a Kryptonian ship in the Arctic, enters it, and meets a hologram of his long-deceased biological father. Holographic Jor-El (an idealistic Russell Crowe) fills Clark (a.k.a. Kal-El) in on his own backstory, warns him about General Zod, and gives him the a pep talk about showing humanity how to strive for something greater. That’s right folks, the hologram of a dead guy proves to be a better father and role model than Jonathan Kent.
Around this point in the movie, all the buildup to Clark becoming Superman after years of soul-searching, is tossed out the window for an hour of non-stop, mindless action! General Zod comes to Earth seeking Kal-El, who is in possession of the “genetic codex” of the entire Kryptonian race. (a.k.a. The MacGuffin that has no other bearing on the story.) Superman (as he is eventually called by the military) won’t play nice, so Zod breaks out his enormous terraforming machines and launches them at Earth.
Said machines place themselves at opposite ends of the planet and create a gravity well that continuously expands. The result? An ever growing gravity shockwave that throws people, buildings, and vehicles high into the air, then forcefully slams them all to the ground below. Somehow this horrifying process will create a Kryptonian atmosphere on the third rock from the sun.
This is Zod’s endgame after he and his troops fail to defeat Superman in a battle that levels Smallville. Naturally, when super-powered beings engage in a struggle, collateral damage is going to result, but the problem here is that Superman never attempts to curb the destruction, or go out of his way to protect everyone that’s caught in the crossfire.
The most Superman ever does during this first incursion by Zod and his warriors, is tell people to get indoors. Oh, and he saves ONE soldier that falls out of a helicopter. Not once does Superman attempt to lead or drag his opponents to a more secluded/less populated battleground.
He also fails to shield the much weaker humans from the destruction caused by his foes, and the useless strafing runs of several A-10 Warthogs. As a result, there are probably dozens of civilian casualties, along with numerous (definite) military casualties. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Angered that Superman has stymied his efforts, Zod puts his terraforming engine to work. (Which in retrospect is kind of pointless, seeing as how Zod himself manages to acclimate to Earth’s atmosphere rather quickly, which means the other Kryptonians could do the same.)
Seeing as how Superman seems to be on humanity’s side, the U.S. military aids him in attacking Zod’s machines in order to halt the extinction of the human race. They also devise a plan to trap the evil Kryptonians in the Phantom Zone where they were originally incarcerated. You know, just in case they need a bad guy or two for a future film.
Superman speeds to the opposite side of the world to destroy the other half of the “dubstep terraformer of doom,” and engages in a dull and pointless battle with the machine’s defense mechanism: GIANT ROBOTIC NANO-TECH ARMS & CLAWS! Every second Superman wastes battling the claws, tens of thousands are turned to dust.
In the end, it turns out that all he had to do was go all “Independence Day” on the machine to make it stop. Superman stands beneath the terraformer, shrugs off the “poisonous” Kryptonian atmosphere and world-crushing gravity, and flies head first through the very bottom of the offending machine.
By the time Superman gets back to Metropolis after accomplishing his half of the mission, most of the city seems to be gone. Its towering buildings and bustling populace now reduced to rubble and ash. Instead of battling Zod and the other Kryptonians up in space, he allowed the fight to come to Earth, resulting in a mass genocide.
On top of that, Superman pretty much eradicates his own people as well, after he ends up destroying the “birthing pods” on the Kryptonian vessel that he found earlier in the film.
And yes, Superman does eventually kill Zod after a protracted battle through the remains of Metropolis. Zod attempts to melt a family of four with his heat-vision and refuses to back down, so Superman snaps his neck. I’ve seen so many people complaining about this, and all I can think is “WHY DIDN’T HE DO THAT SOONER?!” If killing one despotic supervillain would save hundreds of thousands of lives, I’m pretty sure Superman would have made the tough, but rational decision to end Zod immediately, right? Wrong!
Instead, Superman and Zod slug it out, neither one able to cause any major injury to the other. More lives are put in jeopardy, more private and public property is destroyed, and it’s all because the filmmakers wanted to throw more effects at the audience. In the end, Superman may have saved the entire world and got the girl, but he also allowed the deaths of countless people and the remainder of his own race.
And does he use his powers to help rebuild Smallville and Metropolis? Of course not! Why help heal the wounds he and his kind caused, when he can don a pair of glasses and get a job working for the Daily Planet instead?! GAH!
To wrap things up, here’s a summation of everything wrong about the “new” Superman:
1.) Instead of teaching Clark that it is his duty to use his powers for the benefit of mankind, this version of Jonathan Kent wants him to keep his abilities a secret no matter what. “A busload of kids is about to sink to a watery grave? Don’t save them! I’m about to be killed by a monster tornado right before your very eyes? Don’t save me! Your origins and special powers must remain a secret because the world will fear you and cast you out!” What a dick!
While it’s true that people often react with fear and negativity towards something they can’t quite understand, I don’t think that society would oust a good-looking guy who would fly around and fight crime. If anything, such a man would be revered and celebrated, would he not?!
2.) Superman in no way attempts to curb all the damage and loss of life caused by his own people. While he is obviously fighting to protect our world, he fails miserably at shielding the populace of Smallville and Metropolis (and some random location in… Malaysia? Hell if I know!) from the machinations of Zod and his followers.
Also, while his murder of Zod is more than justified, Superman also eradicates what very well be the last people of Krypton. Those poor little Super-fetuses never had a chance! Even if they were genetically predisposed to fulfill certain duties in Kryptonian society, they could have been raised here on Earth and helped Superman create a Utopian society! Instead, he pretty much wipes out the super babies to spite Zod.
3.) The all new contemporary Superman is kind of an asshole, though I don’t believe he means to be. Part of it is due to Jonathan Kent’s failure as a father, but I suppose the rest is due to the significantly different world this version of Superman grew up in. If the original incarnation of Superman was a representation of the America of the 1930s and 40s, then this Superman is very much a symbol of the America of today.
To me, the new Superman is symbolic of our government’s misguided attempts to bring democracy to other countries. They paint a picture of us Americans as liberators and heroes, and perhaps we are to a degree. But much like the reckless (chaotic good?) Superman from MAN OF STEEL, our “victories” come at a serious cost.
Also, Superman apparently knocks unmanned drones out of the sky when they get too close to “where he hangs his cape.” Each drone costs twelve million dollars; us taxpayers pay for those drones. Thanks for wasting our money you bastard!
4.) To everyone defending Superman’s actions in this film as being “rookie mistakes being made by a guy that’s in way over his head,” I’m glad you liked the movie enough to defend it. However, those “rookie mistakes” resulted in a high death toll and the near-extermination of two sentient humanoid races. Superman could definitely learn a thing or two from THE AVENGERS methinks.
MAN OF STEEL may have been a commercial success, and a sequel is definitely assured, but I think Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have an uphill battle in regards to appeasing hardcore fans of the classic Superman. While many have embraced this new Superman origin story, I’ve seen a lot of fans speak out against it on the web. One of the more high profile Superman lovers is screenwriter Max “son of John” Landis who uploaded video rant on Youtube.
While I don’t agree with everything he says, I appreciate his passion for the character. Give it a watch below: