“Man of Steel” is not an entirely flawed film. It’s certainly better than some recent blockbusters like “Transformers 2”. The casting is fantastic. Henry Cavill stands out in the titular role, but is matched by the likes of Michael Shannon as Zod and Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy (both of whom can chew scenery with the best of them). The action sequences are exceedingly well choreographed. I would even go so far as to say the film is visually masterful. Keeping all of that in mind, it is an awful Superman movie.
I’m not saying that anyone should dislike the movie (although there are more than enough reasons to, even without considering the rest of this article). I was intrigued for most of the first two hours and certainly don’t want to dictate taste. What I am trying to say is that for whatever the movie does well, it utterly fails in translating Superman and what makes the character both so iconic and incredibly important to Western literature and culture.
As I said before, the first 100 minutes of the movie contained components of a solid Superman movie. It has its issues: Pa Kent sacrificing his life for a dog (the real issue with Pa Kent being his paranoia and utter lack of good will though), a distinctive lack of chemistry between Clark and Lois, and some odd (read: unnecessary) time jumps. But beyond those issues, it strives to tell a decent story of growing up differently and working to find your way in the world as a good man. The first half of the movie isn’t outright bad. I actually thought the darker tone was treated better than expected. Darkness consumes the mood of “Man of Steel”, but it usually seems to be in the struggle to be better, to perform good acts, and it does occasionally break (like when Clark first launches himself into the atmosphere). The first couple acts of the film are not a bad Superman story.
But then the action sequences begin and it all goes to Apokolips (but not literally).
There are two major pitfalls in the final act of “Man of Steel”. First, the utter destruction created by the battle sequences. The best term I’ve heard to describe the annihilation created by Superman’s fight with Zod and his cronies is “disaster porn”. It’s over the top, exaggerated, and leaves the viewer numb. That’s just a criticism of the direction, not Superman’s role. The series of fights and total loss of life found at the end of the film puts it on par with the worst moments in the Transformers franchise. The death toll of the event must total in the hundreds of thousands by the end of “Man of Steel”. Superman’s best efforts result in an outcome that makes 9/11 look like a childish prank. His best efforts aren’t even that great either. When Faora comes to fight him in Smallville, he cannot even be bothered to move one whole block away into a corn field to avoid civilian casualties. Beyond that, Superman is actively involved in the destruction of Metropolis. As he fights Zod amongst the ruins of Metropolis, they plow through more buildings than can be counted, killing untold thousands of additional survivors. The protagonist acts as a protector in only a handful of token moments, saving Ma Kent and a couple of soldiers. Besides that he is engaged in fights that result in innumerable casualties. At best, it feels like this version of Superman may like humanity, but doesn’t care much for humans.
The second major flaw is the murder of General Zod. Superman does not kill. That can be said about a lot of heroes, but usually there are exceptions. Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, all of these heroes have been pushed to kill. Even Batman has a mythos that more readily accepts the idea of murder. The only superhero in pop culture that even stands close to Superman’s ethos and moral opposition to murder is Spider-Man. Yet he snaps Zod’s neck at the end of this film and with only one Vader-like scream is ready to move on to making snappy remarks to General Swanwick. He fails to consider any options but killing Zod or letting Zod kill, because it would have been impossible to fly up… The absolute worst part is that his actions prove Zod right. Zod tells Superman at the beginning of their fight that it can only end with one of them dead. And Superman agrees in the end. He doesn’t find a better way, but accepts Zod’s philosophy that violence is the only solution.
Ultimately all of the talk about hope and inspiring humans to be better turns out to be just lip service, subverted by the incredible violence at the end. I’m not even including how quickly Superman agrees to wipe out the rest of the Kryptonians. There is a lot that characterizes their fate as being… fatal, but I’m going to assume the best and take it that they survive in the Phantom Zone.
Many people have argued that this is not the first time Superman has killed. In John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” he murders all of the Phantom Zone criminals in cold blood. In “The Life and Death of Superman” he kills Doomsday with his final blow. Even in Richard Donner’s “Superman II”, he shoves Zod into a pit to meet his demise. This kind of pinpointing of certain stories misses the point. I’ll begin by saying that every one of the aforementioned stories are sort of (actually, really) terrible. Beyond that they are small grains of sand which form a mountain of Superman lore. This kind of logic would also mean Superman has roofied Lois and starred in a porno with Big Barda (Superman II and Action Comics #592). Using little bits of evidence related to much grander myths is the kind of specious reasoning that can make it so terribly annoying to get into an argument at a comic store.
Even worse than all this is the idea that this is a “modern” Superman. That this version deals in moral gray territories and that it’s a version of the character made to be more sympathetic or more relatable. Parroting the murderous, gritty tones of Nolan’s Batman Trilogy and the spectacle of Bay’s Transformers is not updating the concept. These ideas are not just wrong, they miss the entire point of who Superman is.
So if “Man of Steel” and these other stories are so off base, then what is Superman really about?
The only figure in all of Western culture that may be as recognizable as Superman is Jesus Christ and that’s a maybe. Without a doubt, Superman is important. He means something. This is not just hyperbole. When we think of Superman, certain self-evident truths come to mind. He saves lives and cares about life in all forms. He was provided his incredible wisdom and courage by loving adoptive and birth parents. He looks for the best in all people, no matter how far gone they may seem. He genuinely cares about everyone. He always finds a third way. Above all else, he does the impossible.
Marlon Brando’s Jor-El nails Superman’s purpose (supported by all the core concepts above) in society, both the fictional society of the DC Universe and our very real society, in the 1978 film, “Superman: The Movie”,
They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.
Superman is not made powerful by invulnerability, or his flight, or his super strength, or his heat vision. Superman is powerful because he believes in us. So in those darkest moments, when we need a symbol of hope, something to protect us, we can look to the skies and believe that we are always capable of good. When we have nothing left, Superman is a character that inspires us to believe in ourselves.
That’s where “Man of Steel” fails on a truly spectacular level. Superman is not an ideal capable of achieving anything. He fails to overcome great challenges and is unable to uphold a higher ideal for which we ought to aspire. The films ends with Superman surrounded by death and misery having broken his moral code. It’s not just a different type of Superman. It’s not Superman.
P.S. Thanks to Mark Waid (Birthright), Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie) and Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman) for inspiration while writing this. Their Superman stories are the reason I love the man of steel and consider him to be the greatest superhero ever created.