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Man of Steel – Part 1: Ultimate Superman

This is not a review of the latest Superman film. For reasons too private to mention, the character of Superman and the stories he has appeared in are incredibly meaningful to me, so much so that I just don’t think I can approach any Superman film in the standard review format. Instead, this will be a look at the film through the eyes of a guy who’s worldview, attitudes, philosophical ideals, and emotional growth have been hugely affected by the stories he’s consumed, of which Superman was a major component.

Please read this only if you’ve seen the movie. SPOILERS ahead, and a lot of the things I will write about need to be taken into context with how certain ideas, themes, and filmic language and cinematic elements are utilized in the picture. 

I’m splitting it into two parts. First, I will address most of the arguments against the film that I’ve read online, as well as some of the issues that people I know personally have. I don’t aim to change anyone’s mind about the film, everyone’s entitled to an opinion after all, I just want to point out why they don’t bother me.

On a side note, I really hate how the internet seems to have enabled quite a large number of people to delude themselves into thinking they can negate someone else’s opinion through sheer force of typing. Just because I like/dislike something you like/dislike doesn’t make your opinion the only thing that matters in the world.

In the next part, I will write about just why I love this fucking movie so fucking much. 

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1. “Superman should be…”

A number of articles/reviews/angry forum posts/angry Facebook statuses have decried this movie as being wrong in how it chose to present the Superman character. I’ve seen things like: “Superman should be an unassailable moral pillar, impervious to doubt and willing to put everyone above himself”, “Superman should be like a god, with a perfect code of honour”, “Superman should be jovial, the light to Batman’s darkness. He should have no tortured psyche” and so on and so forth. 

Really, once you approach a film adaptation of any sort with that mindset, there is no pleasing everyone. I think the problem here lies in the fact that Superman is such an established icon of popular culture that many people think they instantly “get” him, whether it’s through familiarity with the books, movies, cartoons, or the general cultural zeitgeist. They don’t consider the fact that in addition to being a brand and an icon, he is STILL a fictional character who regularly appears in stories published to this day, and has been so for 75 years.

Who is to say what Superman SHOULD be like? 

Is it Siegel and Shuster who created him? Is their concept of the character the one everyone should embrace? Really? You want a Superman who can’t fly, bullies confessions out of common criminals by dangling them over the city via telephone wires? The Superman who works in the Daily Star, who treats everyone around him like they’re inferior toys (Seriously, read the 30’s comic strips… he basically uses his Clark Kent indentity to make fun of his coworkers)? The Superman who treats women like shit and makes a habit of disrespecting Lois Lane any chance he gets?

Oh and let’s not forget, Superman KILLS people in some of these strips. There’s one scene I remember where he picks up a foreign soldier, interrogates him, and THROWS him miles away to presumably die a horrible death when he SPLATS on the ground.

Or should Superman be the Silver Age Superman of Mort Weisinger and company? The one with no moral complexity, the one who flies across galaxies, shoving planets out of harm’s way (completely disregarding that doing so would wreck havoc on said planets’ gravitational fields, orbital stability, and essentially KILLING billions of sentient beings)? 

What about the post-crisis Superman? 

Starting with the reboot by John Byrne in 1986, this was the Superman I grew up with essentially, and where I think a lot of people’s concept of the character comes from (aside from the Donner films, which I’ll get to). So I see why people would claim this character as “SUPERMAN SHOULD BE…”) But even then, this Superman wasn’t the perfect paragon of justice. I remind you all that it was in this era that Superman was shown to KILL twice (but I’ll get to that). And yet again, which version of this post-crisis Superman SHOULD he be? Should we give him a mullet? Make him Electro Blue/Red Superman? 

Should Superman be always and forever the Donner/Chris Reeves version? The one who SPUN THE PLANET backwards to turn back time, developed super “forget my secret identity” kisses, fights Richard Pryor, and has “rebuild Great Wall of China super-vision”? This was the other Superman I grew up with. In fact, for some insane reason (and not by choice) I think I’ve seen Superman III more than any other installment. 

My point is this: the character is 75 years old, and he’s gone through lots of changes in that period. Each of those iterations have had incredibly cheesy bits to them, but each change meant something to someone. There is no definitive version of who the character is, because there just can’t be. Even this one… Zack Snyder is going to make his films, make a few more ones, throw in a Justice League here and there, and them someone will reboot. Hell, the comics change continuities all the time. 

Making and adaptation means that you have to find the core of the character and then cherry-pick elements that resonate with you and the story/theme you’re trying to tell from the decades of continuity. Marvel did this with their Ultimate Comics line to great success. So I like to think of Man of Steel as “Ultimate Superman” on the big screen. 

Looking through the entirety of Superman canon, the core elements are very simple: strange visitor from another planet, immigrant, loving small-town American family, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men (which vary by era, of course), and in the end does good things. Everything else is window dressing to be changed and manipulated as the editors, producers, and the culture insist.

Man of Steel, as an adaptation, hit all those core concepts. Then, they cherry-picked from (as far as I can tell) Birthright, Superman: Earth One, Superman: the Man of Steel, Superman: For Tomorrow, Superman Red Son and Superman: Secret Identity.

So that’s a loooooong-winded way of saying… there is no one way Superman SHOULD be. If they hit the important core elements, then there’s only one way he should be to serve the particular story being told in the era the literature is made.

Face it, the “big blue boyscout” that people want is not a character. He’s an icon, a statue to look at. That misconception is the whole reason most people either hated the character for being boring or thought he was difficult to write for. If they made a character that strictly hewed to the common conception, audiences would laugh. Hell, the closest we’ve come to that is Superman Returns which basically brought the Donner Superman to modern times. It didn’t click with people (although I loved that one too, warts and all!)

Is Superman all light and funny and jovial? Sure, if you’re reading the 50’s incarnation. Is he patriarchal and noble and righteous? Sure, if you’re reading the Jurgens/Simonson/Stern run. Is he a tortured introspective soul unsure of his place in the world? Sure, if you read For Tomorrow.

And is he a troubled introspective young man desperate to find answers about his identity, unsure of his abilities, his place in the world, and how people will perceive him? Sure, if you watch Man of Steel. 

2. “Superman doesn’t kill!”

As I’ve indicated above, yes… yes he does. But not lightly (in modern times, anyway). Disregarding the pre-crisis Superman who tossed foreign soldiers to their deaths and basically killed entire solar systems by playing marbles with the planets, the modern take on Superman killed twice, as far as I know.

The first time he killed is actually the whole reason I’m surprised people are in an uproar about the movie death of Zod. In an early John Byrne comic in the late 80’s, General Zod and his cronies DID invade Earth and did essentially present Superman with an ultimatum: either they die, or humanity does. Superman kills the evil Kryptonians by exposing them to Kryptonite, and only because he absolutely had to.

What I loved about this is that that act stayed with Superman the rest of his life. Numerous issues dealt with the torture that Clark felt each day knowing he killed… but knowing he had to because it was the only way to stop Zod. Now, who’s to say that the same thing won’t happen in future instalments of Man of Steel? The movie explicitly showed the anguish Clark felt at the act… and I’m certain we’ll see more introspection about that later on.

3. “Superman should have been saving more people! Too much collateral damage!”

There are several factors to this. First of all, yes, the movie could have been all about how Superman would use his super powers to save everyone in sight, blowing out fires while fending off super villains. But then, this kind of treatment runs right smack into the problem a lot of people have with the character: if he can do all of that, then there’s no fear that he’ll fail, the stakes immediately lower, and it’s difficult to write credible threats for him. He becomes less realistic, less of a character.

I actually like this kind of character, and I do think there are ways to present him well. But I have no problems with the way the filmmakers went.

This movie set him up in the role of saviour-by-inspiration. It’s right there in the Jor-El voiceover: “You will give them an ideal, they will run behind you, they will stumble, they will fall… but in the end they will join you in the sun” (or something like that). This is a Superman who won’t do humanity’s work for them.

Take note of the scene when 12 year old Clark was being bullied. The clue to what Superman is intended to be is the very deliberate choice by Snyder to put a book of Plato’s writings in Clark’s hand. Plato’s most famous idea is that of the Platonic Ideal, as represented by the allegory of Plato’s cave. Juxtaposing that onto the film, I take it to mean that once Clark finds himself, matures fully, and accepts who he is and what he has to do, he becomes that platonic ideal that casts shadows on the cave wall. Humans are the shadows lying in the darkness , but when they look up at him, at the things he does and the choices he makes, they too can “join him in the sun”. 

And besides the philosophical slant, look at it this way too. This is a Superman who literally JUST learned who he really is and what he can really do something like ten minutes ago. He’s not a combat specialist who’s trained for years under Wonder Woman or Batman, he’s just a farmboy with superpowers trying to survive. He’s doing the best he can, and I don’t think his best includes being able to dictate the battle with battle-hardened General Zod in a way that saves every single human life. 

In fact, at the beginning of the Smallville fight, he IS shown to grab Faora and attempt to leap away, only to be smacked down from the side by the bigger, better trained brute. It’s quite clear he was trying to take the fight elsewhere, but was just incapable of it. What do you want… you want him to stop and say “No! The People!” ala Superman 2? You want it spoonfed to you that he did try but failed? 

As for the collateral damage… what do you think would happen to a city if two god-like beings fought? If superheroes and supervillains existed in our world, I guarantee the damage would be even greater than depicted in this film.

Related to this is a point some online reviewers have mentioned regarding the Metropolis destruction. “Why did he stop the machine in the ocean first? Why did he not stop Zod’s ship in order to save more metropolis citizens first?” 

Seriously? It’s actually pretty clear that he had to stop the World Machine first. That’s where the terraforming was occurring, and that was the source of the gravity beam that Zod’s ship was reflecting back to it. Zod’s henchman (Jax-Ur) even said “We are slaved to the World Machine”. Anybody with a slight working knowledge of technology knows that if you’re “slaved” to something, you’re the secondary unit. Superman had to take out the World Machine before it completely destroyed Earth’s atmosphere, whereas Zod’s ship was only destroying one city. 

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Those were the three main issues I’ve seen bandied about online. There are a few more minor ones, but maybe I’ll save that for another post if enough people bug me about it. I’m tired of defending the film in this one post… in the next post I’m going to write about why I loved it. 

But hit me up in the comments or on twitter/Facebook if you want to debate more things.