MAJOR SPOILERS ahead for MAN OF STEEL and CHRONICLE; minor ones for the TV show LOST.
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My first reaction after walking out of the theater was confusion. I genuinely couldn’t tell if I loved Man of Steel or was disappointed in what I had just seen – a rare situation for me. I’ve since realized that my reaction is actually a reflection of the film itself: a mix of brilliant and cliché; earned emotional moments and wished-for ones; genuine character development and overwrought, self-indulgent action. Simply, the movie is uneven. Man of Steel is a spectacle, yes – beautifully shot in some places (while the CGI is lacking in others) – that attempts to say something profound as well. In some places, it does. As 2 hours and 20 minutes of story came to a close and the title card dramatically flashed (for the first time, since there were no opening credits), the obvious expected response was to be wowed. I wanted to feel as blown away as Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous score indicated I should. I wanted to have the same feeling that the 3-minute trailer gave me: a slow, steady build of hope rising from Krypton’s ashes and Clark’s inevitable inner conflict, punctuated by those deep, aching, rolling drums. I really wanted to go for that ride, because Superman is unlike any other superhero.
Kal El is not biologically human. Therein lies the entire dramatic arc and appeal of his story. To some extent, he must be humanized; he grew up in Kansas with human parents among the human race, and therefore possesses “human” values and morals (if there is such a universal thing). In Man of Steel, his earthly father Jonathan Kent foresees that Clark will one day have to choose what kind of man to be, and stand before the human race no matter what kind of moral character he chooses to embrace, either as dictator or protector. Pa Kent knows first hand – at least intellectually – that humanity will one day be at the mercy of this boy who has yet to discover his full strength. He also knows that Clark must choose this path for himself with the understanding that just because he can beat someone, doesn’t mean that he should. Restraint. Mercy. Crucially, Kal El’s humanity must exist in tension with the fact that he is, to some extent, pretending. He must always be capable and mindful of both. The temptation of directors and other storytellers is to overemphasize the human qualities because we are human ourselves. We are biased. This crosses a subtle but necessary line in the pursuit of relateability: Kal El’s inhumanity is also essential and must remain intact; otherwise his restraint, mercy, and self-control are rendered meaningless.
Zach Snyder did not strip Superman of his need to find balance. He chose to tell Kal’s emotional story against the backdrop of a literal bridge between two worlds: the Codex. Much like Lost’s simultaneous exploration of physical mystery and character arc (where the characters won out), Man of Steel could feel disappointing if the viewer understands the Codex to be the point of this whole exercise. Rather than biologically serve as a bridge between two civilizations, Clark defeats his enemy and saves earth’s inhabitants from extinction-via-terraforming. There is a clarifying moment where Zod reveals why he is so hellbent on perpetuating his own race at the expense of another: as a genetically engineered soldier tasked with Krypton’s protection, he loses his coded raison d’être should its civilization fail. Two things are presented in this moment. First, it is obvious that the fight that follows is kill-or-be-killed; and second, it is implied that Zod being engineered (and therefore apparently incapable of choice) makes him less “human,” i.e. less worthy of being spared. The audience, at least, is supposed to feel that when Superman inevitably kills him, it’s okay because Zod never would have stopped trying to destroy earth. Likewise, when Zod proves equal to Superman in every way (flight, strength, senses, eye-lasers) and begins zeroing in on a nearby family to mock Kal El’s attachment to humans, we are meant to say, “Well sure, Superman HAD to kill him because there was no other way.” Clark is sufficiently conflicted about killing Zod – he hesitates until the last possible second, wails afterward in sadness, and lets Lois hold him like a mother might comfort a child – and thus is borne our “gritty” Superman. But is this a fundamental violation of Superman’s character?
I don’t believe it is. Calling back to the earlier advice of his father, this is the moment that Clark becomes a man. Or rather, the moment Kal becomes Superman. Jonathan advised Clark never to reveal his true self – even if it meant letting a school bus full of kids die – because the world wouldn’t know what to do with that information. He advised Clark not to retaliate when a group of boys bullied him, instead urging him to ask where that feeling originated. “Will that make you feel better?” he asked, not antagonistically, but pragmatically. The truth is that in this adaptation, Jonathan Kent was well-meaning but ultimately driven by fear. There is an undercurrent of shame in his motivations that causes Clark to doubt himself, his gifts, and whether they could ever be used in the right way or at all (which kept happening anyway, as Lois accurately surmised). Clark’s decision to kill Zod was especially poignant because it meant ending a life and doing it in a way that potentially disappointed the memory of his father. But more than that, it signaled a transition.
Narratively, the destruction of the city didn’t violate Superman’s character because it was consistent with the internal struggle set in motion by Jonathan’s constant urging to be restrained. Morally, it occurred at the hands of Zod while Clark was clearly still working to understand the full strength of his own power; he was forced into a fight for which he was barely ready. Several scenes show Clark outmatched to a rather frightening degree; he spent a lifetime trying to downplay his strengths while Zod could quickly adopt new skills with relative ease thanks to his warrior identity.
I was reminded of the final fight in Chronicle where Matt is forced to chase Andrew around the city (with similar if smaller destructive results), clearly not wanting to fight but pushing the limits of his abilities because he had to. In the end, it’s all he can do to keep up with Andrew; the audience understands that it would be unreasonable to expect that Matt could simultaneously stop the villain while containing all resulting destruction. He rose to an occasion; in no way did he seek it. Clark and Matt are psychologically similar – neither understands the powers they aquire; as far as they both know, they’re just people with weird talents that require a special level of responsibility. The difference is that Matt, being a brand new character, could be seen for what he is while Clark is always seen by the audience looking backwards through the lens of what he becomes. There is a certain level of impatience for him to arrive at “Superman” so we can have our hero and watch him do cool things and save the world. What we seem to overlook is that Clark is the real Kal-El; Superman is a persona.
I watched this movie three times to analyze the last third of the film – specifically the fight between Clark and Zod. Though many were happy to conclude that the action was repetitive and overwhelming, I knew there was some subtlety being overshadowed by the action itself. The fact is that each conflict built logically from the last in accordance with Zod’s physical abilities and desperation. Faora stepped in when Zod lost the “Main Street” battle; Zod recovered and came back with the World Engine; and Clark was forced to take out Zod in a final hand-to-hand fight.
The escalation of conflict was always leading back to Clark. Even more importantly, it paralleled Clark’s inevitable journey towards acceptance of his identity. All of the hesitation, passivity, and introspection from our hero (that some claim made for an inactive protagonist, which I happen to disagree with) was essential to Clark’s transformation. His conflicted nature signaled his unwillingness to kill and his unwillingness to let people die if he could help it; killing Zod was necessary in the situation and was the culmination of his entire search for balance. Does this mean that during that particular fight, Clark couldn’t rescue every single person who might end up as collateral damage? Yes. But Clark’s transformation from reluctant and reactive to willing and proactive gives the filmmakers a good narrative incentive for Clark to adopt a policy of “no killing” (should they choose to go that way) moving forward.
Man of Steel is still a flawed film, but there’s more going on beneath the flashy surface than one viewing would allow you to believe. Most of all, it’s a great starting point for the inevitable franchise (much the way Batman Begins got the ball rolling for The Dark Knight). It took three viewings, but ultimately Man of Steel was everything I wanted it to be.