Art is subjective and Superman belongs to all of us and none of us. The Superman of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is not my Superman. Nor is the recent New 52 Superman. Even the widely hailed Superman of All-Star Superman isn’t one I’ve fully embraced. But I respect the efforts. Like all good art, the exploration of Superman in those works is intended to tell us something, usually about ourselves. I learn the most about myself from the John Byrne Man of Steel reboot. Your mileage may vary.
All this is to say I can’t get behind those who say “Superman is…” or “Superman isn’t…” He’s an avatar through which we tell stories. Personally, I believe Superman is a Kryptonian formed by an upbringing on Earth. Near-immortal but made vulnerable and relatable by his humanity. Heroic, but flawed. Anything you want to do inside of that is OK by me. Even Dark Knight Returns Superman might seem to fall outside of the above but he’s still within those guidelines, even if he’s corrupted by them. In every Superman story, I’ve been a sucker for both Jor-El and Lara’s mix of anguish and hope and Jonathan and Martha’s gift of sacrifice and big-hearted sympathy because that’s what central to his character.
[This post continues after the jump with spoilers so read at your own peril.]
As such, I found a lot to like in the film. Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent saying “You ARE my son!” with that break in his voice gets me every time. And all the bits inspired by Superman: Birthright hit the sweet spots for me. Jor-El’s deus ex machina appearance late in the film didn’t work for me but everything else Kryptonian did; it’s the first Superman film to get the Zod/Jor-El right as a struggle between two smart, powerful men who have the same goal but differing methods.
That said, most of the rest of the film is a Superman story trying not to tell a Superman story and failing on both counts. While the destruction for its own sake is getting most of the press, you could have subbed out any other character for Superman in the third act – which is a mindless, heartless mess – and it would not have changed the story at all. If I am watching a Batman story and I don’t get the sense that Batman occasionally needs to act like a criminal in order to stop crime, Batman isn’t much different than any other hero. If Superman doesn’t reflect the best humanity, he’s just a dude with laser eyes and chilly breath. That’s the central tenet of a Superman story, full stop. This Superman story goes so out of its way to avoid having Superman interact with other human beings once he becomes Superman – save for Lois and only then because you get the sense that the plot feels obligated to do so. The proof is in how the film gets back on track when Superman and Ma Kent share the screen later in the film or we get a glimpse of Pete Ross.
Ultimately, I didn’t like Man of Steel because it didn’t tell me who Superman was. I have a number of specific problems with the movie – I found myself nodding at most of what Mark Waid says here – but many of them are more plot holes than anything else (The atmospheric adjustment headaches Zod gets long after he arrives on Earth, pretty much every scene that takes place aboard an aircraft, more Christ imagery than your average Creed concert, etc.). But there are two character-defining things about the film that illustrate the larger problems with the way the filmmakers tried to tell this Superman story.
Jonathan Kent dies in vain
Here’s the big split I have with what Waid writes. This is a moment that’s supposed to Mean Something. As a young man, Clark Kent saves people. His father tells him this exposes his secret so maybe he might need to let people die…except, uh, someday he needs to determine the man he needs to be which will probably involve being heroic. So, anyway, figure that out, little kid.
Moving on though, Clark takes this lesson to heart and chooses the worst possible moment to not use his powers and because of this his father dies. This moment has such a profound effect on him that he implores Lois to keep his identity a secret when they meet at his father’s grave. Later, when Superman turns himself in to the military we are to surmise that this is a leap of faith on his part because who knows what the military might do…except…
Superman has been saving people for years prior to this in direct violation of what his father asked him not to do, literally moments before he died.
The oil rig, for starters. And the other mysterious events that Lois ends up tracking. He even saves Lois herself, a woman he has never met and has no connection to whatsoever. (No flying backwards around the world, no midwipe kiss this time.)
So yeah, the man who raised him and taught him to be the man he is? Sorry, pops, say hi to the Wizard of Oz. Hot lady with a stab wound? Let me take care of that for you!
The central tension of the character set up in the moment when Pa Kent dies is completely erased by Superman’s later actions and only becomes important when the plot needs it to be.
General Zod’s death is meaningless
Look, Superman kills. Anyone who tells you different is lying or doesn’t know the character. But Superman kills when he has no other course of action, when the death of one means saving the Earth. I’d say Man of Steel leaves that justification several exits back when most of entire cities are laid to waste and Superman chooses to fight Zod in what’s left of Metropolis instead of, say, flying him into space and fighting him there but for argument’s sake, let’s say killing Zod qualifies here.
As Waid notes, there’s no build to this. No sense that Superman will eventually have no choice but to kill Zod but also no foundation for the central idea that Superman doesn’t kill. That’s just bad storytelling. So when he does take Zod’s life, it doesn’t have any impact. We’ve seen plenty of “heroes” take a life. Superman doesn’t unless he has no choice. But we’re not shown that. Again, a failure of the film to tell a Superman story rather than a generic “hero” story.
But worse is the lack of impact this decision seems to have on what follows. After what should be a moment that’s destroyed a character we’ve come to root for – nevermind the movie hasn’t gotten us to that point – why in Rao’s name would you choose to make the very next scene after the killing of Zod – when the character utters a primal scream so taken with regret and anguish it practically shakes the building around him – one of light humor and banter in a tone completely missing from every frame of film prior to it? (Seriously, this is the most depressing Superman film since Superman III.)
Some have argued that this moment is supposed to set up Superman’s no-kill philosophy. Except it doesn’t because we skip right past it without a mention of the moment prior. Why not have the general say “Superman, how do we know you won’t kill one of us someday if you think it’s justified? Why should we believe you’ll always wield your tremendous power for good?” and then follow it with the line Superman uses about needing to trust him or have faith or whatever? There’s no sense that this will be an ongoing tension in a future film.
So there you go: the two big events in this Superman’s life and the film ignores their meaning later in the film, sometimes seconds later.
Like I said, I don’t mind when a Superman story isn’t a Superman I can relate to. I just mind when it’s not a Superman story at all.