Why Man of Steel isn’t a Superman Story

 In Film & TV

To hear me discuss Man of Steel, check out my StoryMen podcast!

I grew up in Kansas, General. I’m about as American as it gets. — Superman

Man of SteelUnless you’re living on Themyscira, you probably heard that a new Superman film, Man of Steel was released over the weekend. Given the box office numbers, you probably saw it. Man of Steel is the first Superman film since 2006’s disappointingly bland Superman Returns, and I am happy to report that it’s a really good film.

To be fair, as long as Superman punched something, I was going to love it. And punch something he did.

Man of Steel has the best visual effects of the Summer so far (neck-and-neck with Star Trek Into Darkness) and despite retelling a story that probably everyone on the planet knows (he’s an alien?! What?!), the story feels fresh.

Let’s be clear: I love comics, but I don’t insist that comic book films hew rigidly to the comics. I loved Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy despite some massive deviations from canon. And the huge twist in Iron Man 3 didn’t bother me in the slightest. Change is good. Telling new stories is good. But you can go to far. At some point, you change a story too much. At some point, it’s no longer recognizable as the character you know and love.

Man of Steel changed the core of who Superman is, and as a result fails to be a true Superman story.

MAN OF STEEL

SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD!

What’s the problem?

ZodYes, I’m talking about the ending, when Superman executes Zod. And it’s not just the fact that Superman kills him, it’s the role that killing plays in the story.

Man of Steel reintroduces us to Clark Kent, who quickly learns that he’s not like everyone else. Clark, the clear hero of our story, wants to understand his place in the world. This is the conflict his hero’s journey must successfully resolve. The conflict is introduced when Clark realizes he represents the possible destinies of two separate peoples: Kryptonians and Humans.

Those two peoples need not necessarily be at odds. His Kryptonian father Jor-El advocates for a peaceful co-existence between the two worlds – Clark would become a bridge between two peoples. General Zod can’t imagine a world where Earth and Krypton can co-exist. In Zod’s worldview, only one can survive. Zod promises,

This only ends one way, Kal: either I die or you do.

Pa Kent is nearly no help at all, essentially only telling Clark that his decision is very important.

In Man of Steel’s third act, Clark embraces Zod’s broken worldview.

In a shocking, essential departure from 75 years of Superman stories, Kal-El succumbs to Zod’s worldview. He not only destroys the ship carrying Krypton’s future, he executes Zod, the collapses into Lois’ embrace, wailing in despair. Superman agrees with Zod that there’s not room for both races. He just chooses Earth instead of Krypton.

Superman resolves his hero’s journey by choosing one of two painful options at the expense of the other. He rejects (or fails to imagine) the world Jor-El hoped he would bring about.

Why is this bad?

FaoraFor years, comic writers have been putting Superman in unwinnable situations – when your hero basically has God’s powerset, it’s about the only way to make him interesting. But the joy of those stories is marveling at how Superman beats the unbeatable.

We face unbeatable situations all the time. We live in moral grey areas and issues that are too complicated for us to understand. We may not have to choose between two races, but we are constantly faced with impossible choices that we recognize in Man of Steel. We know the pain of a no-win situation. We often have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

There’s no such thing as a no-win scenario for Superman. That’s what makes him Superman.

EVEN SUPERMAN

EVEN SUPERMAN

This is what Man of Steel utterly fails to do. By forcing Superman to kill Zod, the writers embrace Zod’s dark worldview. Man of Steel’s Superman rejects the possibility Jor-El represents: a better, peaceful third way. This is an essential departure from what makes Superman work. Even in the very rare instances he has killed in the comics, it’s consistently judged as a bad thing, an abberation, a failure on Superman’s part. But in Man of Steel, killIng Zod is the final step in Clark’s hero’s journey. The strength to snap his neck is both physical and moral, representing Clark’s ability to “make the tough call”.

Superman is a myth. He’s unbelievable. That’s why we need him. We need to believe a man can fly. We need to believe that the world is more than a zero-sum game where only one of us can survive. We need to believe my gain doesn’t have to be your loss. The whole point of Superman is that he shows us that we can be better than we think we can be.

I don’t want Superman to be more like me. I want us to be more like Superman.
— Mark Waid

A Superman who can’t beat an unwinnable situation doesn’t reflect who we could be. He reflects who we are.

Who Cares?

Also, some subtle Jesus-imagery

If you look very hard, there may be some subtle Jesus-imagery

You may rightly be asking yourself if a silly summer blockbuster is really worth all this thought. But Superman has always been much more than that. He’s not only a symbol of Americana, he’s also an obvious Christ figure – something both Superman Returns and Man of Steel played up. So we should be deeply bothered that Man of Steel’s excellent writing team apparently couldn’t think of a single way for Superman to win that didn’t involve killing Zod.

Darren Franich at EW.com put it well:

The movie unforgivably tries to have its cake and eat it too, striving hard to make Superman “realistic” while nevertheless overdosing on Christ imagery. It’s a balancing act: They cover Superman in mud and then pretend his hands are clean. Maybe they think his hands are clean. Maybe Man of Steel is a Superman movie that doesn’t understand or even care about basic questions of morality. Maybe Man of Steel assumes that killing is just something heroes do now.

Superman wins not because he’s smarter or more noble or better in any way. He wins because he’s stronger. This is the ultimate statement that might makes right.

Man of Steel says killing is ultimately okay. As long as we don’t really want to do it, and as long as we feel really bad about it afterwards, we can enact what ever violence we deem necessary to accomplish our ends and it’s not just permissible. It’s moral.

He feels bad, so it's okay!

He feels bad, so it’s okay!

I understand that plenty of people believe that violence is justified in certain situations. Unfortunately even many Christians advocate violence as a preferred solution. But look at the stories we’re telling today: our “Jesus” embraces violence as the ultimate end. Rather than conquering sin and death by sacrificing himself, he becomes judge, jury and executioner.

We need a better hero than this. We need a hero who can show us how to be better than who we are, not who just shows us who we already are.

Bottom Line: Man of Steel is well-worth seeing, but it strays to far from the core of who Superman is to be the Superman film we’ve been waiting for.

YOUR TURN: What did you think of Man of Steel? How did you feel about the ending?

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  • Duvaldude

    Excellent and cerebral commentary!

  • graceisunfair

    I really enjoyed much of the movie. But my stomach turned when he killed Zod. Part of me was waiting for the Tribble to come back to life.

  • Philip Tallon

    JR – I’ll journey into heresy here and say that “failing to be a true Superman story” is, for me, one of the movies strengths. I liked that they took him down a few pegs.

    Of course, I loved the Christopher Reeve films as a child, but re-watching them now, the superhero elements were either somewhat inert or silly involved really complicated machinations (e.g. SUPERMAN II’s removal of Clark’s powers). (Confession, I am not a Superman comic reader, except for JLA and graphic novels that tinker with the mythos like KINGDOM COME and DARK KNIGHT. So I’m mostly talking about the movies.)

    Anyway, not to sound a like a shill for DC comics, but I think that pulling Superman down to earth is dramatically necessary. If we want more movies, we need a less-powerful, and more conflicted Superman.

    To whit, some of the things you praise, like Superman’s ability to do the impossible, kind of work in the Reeve movies (and maybe the comics too). But even in those movies they were pretty silly when you really think about them. In SUPERMAN I he turns back time by spinning the earth in reverse!

    So, because of the lack of external obstacles, all Superman’s real struggles are internal, right? But these internal struggles don’t make much sense either. (cf. in SUPERMAN he has to decide whether to be a citizen of earth or not. But why is this a struggle? His home planet has blown up. Why wouldn’t he help earth? It just seems like a fake dilemma.)

    The only real drama centers around Superman’s secret identity and its effect on his relationship with Lois. And I liked that stuff as a kid. It’s still charming now, largely because of Reeve’s brilliant portrayal of Clark (something no one else has been able to recreate). But this is also a very silly conceit. Anyone with face-identification software would be able to figure out the two guys are the same person immediately. So it make sense to cut this element too, which they have wisely done in MAN OF STEEL.

    But back to my main point…. it seems to me that MAN OF STEEL drags Superman from the realm of the mythic into the ebb and flow of this-worldly violence in a way that is helpful dramatically, if not symbolically. Superman faces opponents that force him to make compromises because he no longer has the kind of omnipotence he does in other stories. While I find Supes’ mythic equation with the divine conceptually interesting (it becomes a kind of forum for thinking about theodicy), how would that be sustainable over the course of this whole expanded universe DC is gunning to create? Doubtful.

    That said, there are some annoying things here, like the fact that Superman seems unconcerned about mass destruction, in his hometown or a densely populated city. That’s troublesome. But given that this is a coming-of-age story, it makes sense that he would have to grow up a bit over the course of the series. It’s good to make some room for that.

    Yeah…I have more stuff to say, but I’ll stop and let you holler back.

  • Meredith and I had a sustained conversation about the very issues you bring up in this review after seeing the movie Saturday night.

    It really really bothered me when Supes killed Zod as he was about to murder the hell out of that family (that represented all of humanity).

    The writers of Superman stories have been writing Supes impossible situations that are Kirkable, if you know what I mean. And the writers in this story didn’t allow Supers to Kirk-out.

    I liked that Supes, on his first day on the job, is presented with a situation he can’t win. And just like in Superman Vol 2 22, he is forced to kill Zod (and his crew).

    My hope is that, in much like the comics, Supes is shaken by this and uses it as a basis/lesson for his morality in the future.

    So, as I think about it more, I like that Superman didn’t come out a fully formed Jesus and that there is room to grow.

    And, I can’t tell you how much I love the fact that Supes isn’t a Jesus stand-in (as much as Hollywood and Christian Culture want him to be) because Jesus doesn’t throw that first punch (or the second).

    When you ask a golem to be a messiah, you get a golem.

  • Andy Kohnen

    I agree with you about Kal rejecting Jor’s idea of a bridge between the two worlds, but looking at it from the perspective of the universe that the film set up, I think that that hope realistically died with Jor-El. This may be just me, but I though the film did a really good job in explaining and rationalizing Zod’s actions (from his own point of view), while simultaneously telling you early on through that explanation that this is a man so focused, so fanatic in his goals, that nothing short of death will stop him. I mean, he basically spells out that even if Superman stops his machine, he will kill every single human being on the planet with his own hands, or at least make the attempt, in order to do what he thought needed to be done for his people.

    Of course, this goes hand-in-hand with me totally buying the whole backstory of artificially born citizens with their roles pre-determined and, I’d assume, hardwired into them through years of training and conditioning. If an ant colony got destroyed, but the queen and some soldiers survived, and they found another colony of similar but weaker ants, they’re not going to try to peacefully coexist with them. They’re going to kick ’em out and steal their stuff. (Also, I never thought in my life that I would ever compare Kryptonians to ants, but there ya go.)

    In short, I love when superheroes are able to refrain from just outright killing their enemies, but I felt it was justified in this film for three reasons: 1) The way they portrayed Zod left no other option to stop him, 2) From a purely storytelling perspective, it effectively eliminated the last traces of Krypton from the universe (as far as Superman knows), allowing Supes to fully embrace the Earth as it’s protector, and 3) It paves the way for a different villain in the inevitable sequel(s).

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  • Andy,

    I totally agree with everything you said. The film accomplished exactly what it was trying to do. That’s why I argue that the writers fundamentally don’t get Superman. We’re not watching a documentary. They chose to force Superman to kill, and they don’t seem to have any real problem with that. Killing seems morally acceptable to the film (as long as you feel really bad about it and it’s a last resort).

    That said, I would *love* to see this be a set-up for sequels. If there’s major fall-out from his execution of Zod in MoS2, I’m totally fine with it.

  • Agreed. If this is all sequel set-up, then I’m more okay with it. But the film sure doesn’t seem to treat it like that…

    And don’t you think the film wants him to be a Jesus stand-in? Between the Church scene and him flying as a flying crucifix as Jor-El says, “You can save them all”, it seemed very heavy-handed to me…

  • Phil,

    I totally get what you’re saying from a film-level. It’s TOUGH to pull of Superman as the big blue boyscout without an ounce of cynicism. But it’s been done well in the comics. Repeatedly. And I think David Goyer is smart enough to do it too.

    What bothers me (and the EW article I linked above really nails it) is that the film doesn’t seem to notice the quandary. The message seems (to me) to be that killing is okay, as long as you feel really bad about it.

    Give Superman an internal conflict. I’m all about that. Make him choose between impossible options. But let me see him win. Because that’s what makes him Superman, not just me.

    I hate being THAT GUY, but all the very legit problems you raise – from his secret identity to his places as a demigod in the Justice League – are addressed and handled very well in the comics. They’re not ignored and they’re not without precedent.

    I think Snyder, Goyer and Nolan are scared of the cynicism of our age. They don’t believe that we WANT to believe a man can fly. But I think we really do. And if they’d give us that film, I bet they’d be rewarded!

    Maybe we’ll see more in the sequels. I hope so.

    YOUR TURN!

  • Philip Tallon

    I think my lack of exposure to canonical Superman comics might be a limitation here. It sounds like you are saying that part of the meaning of the Superman comic is that he’s able to face impossible challenges and yet still find a way to (non-tragically) resolve them. I think Hegel said tragedy is the conflict of good with good. And Superman faces these conflicts, but manages to square the circle and achieve both goods. It’s the dream of ultimate justice, right? And that’s a good dream to have.

    But here’s my question: why is it that a lot of commentators, like Mark Waid, get stuck on Kal-El’s killing of Zod?

    Even Kal-El is quite broken up about snapping old Zod’s neckbone.

    As you cite above, Superman doesn’t (or rarely) kills, and never without consequence.

    But why?

    Why is forced killing of Zod perceived to be a cynical or tragic end of the story?

    a) Zod killed Superman’s dad.

    b) Zod was trying to exterminate all life on earth.

    c) Zod was trying to burn some poor family with his heat vision.

    To me, from my side of the desk, this suggests that Zod totally had it coming.

    Now, the Kryptonian justice system seems to be based on an exclusively rehabilitationist model of punishment. Zod and his crew are sentenced to 400 years (or whatever) of re-education. In SUPERMAN II they are just sentenced to live in the forbidden zone, for what seems like forever. Kryptonian justice is anti-killing in the way that a lot of Western justice systems are.

    So maybe that cultural influence makes it hard for Superman to kill the occasional super baddie. It’s probably good to feel sad at the loss of a life, but he shouldn’t feel guilty about it.

    Zod was (excepting maybe for that odd quirk about his genetic programming) basically the worst villain in the history of the world. The fact that Superman killed him doesn’t make me trust Superman less, it makes me trust him more.

    Now, I suspect that you have a sophisticated comeback to this, probably having to do with the specific way that Superman represents an ideal that we can’t normally achieve in the normal goings on of puny, human justice. But it still seems to my semi-sanctified heart that this looks a lot like uncynical, old-fashion justice to me.

  • Matt Slater

    Wanted to let you know that your post helped inspire a post of mine regarding why not getting Superman right might help us out in the church in the long run. I’m no superhero purist, so I enjoyed the movie immensely and will in the long run see it being better for us rather than the old Superman (but that’s just me). Thanks for your post! http://preachinmoose.com/2013/06/19/why-man-of-steel-is-good-for-jesus/

  • I guess my question is, why is there no such thing as a no-win scenario for Superman? Isn’t that only true because it’s written that way? And doesn’t that make it a kind of false thing? A true fiction?

    Is Superman really better than us, or does he just have better writers?

    And if that character is only those great things because his whole world is orchestrated in such a way that he can be great, then what hope do I really have of being like him? When I am in this real world and faced with a no-win situation, what then does that neatly arranged Superman really have to offer me in the way of real guidance and hope?

    Mostly I’m just playing devil’s advocate, but I can’t get that idea out of my head. Still, I totally get what you’re saying, and I wanted that Superman in this movie too. I wanted a true Super Hero that makes you want to do the right thing and be a better person. I actually said something like that on a Storymen comments at one point. And if I felt more strongly about the character, I would totally be on your bandwagon.

    I liked the movie too, in general. But the bottom line for me is that they built up my expectations with “you’ll do great things” statements shoved down our throats through the first two thirds of the movie. But the writers did not deliver on that promise. They could have done it easily, but they didn’t. I think it had to go the way it did once they started down the wrong road. But I hate that they took that wrong road.

  • EGB

    The idea that superman has to kill to be accessible to modern audiences is nonsense. I really like darker and deconstructive works.. like say “miracleman”, but that’s just not what i like about superman. I think there’s plenty of room for both cynical and idealistic stories today. I’d prefer to see a film where superman act the way he does in “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” Or “all stars superman.”

  • I woke up this morning thinking, “If someone re-booted Harry Potter and he killed a guy at the end, what would you think?” I’d think, “liked the movie, but that’s not really a Harry Potter story.”

    And most likely I’d be up in arms, like in a storm the castle with pitchforks, everyone must be told that’s not the real deal kind of way. Because Harry is so great, and you guys aren’t being told how great he is.

    Superman waters are certainly muddier because of how many times and ways his story has already been told. But now that I get it a little better, I’m even sorrier they didn’t fulfill their promises in act 3. It was a fun superhero movie, but my previous Superman comments lost some of their punch in my sleep.

  • The Killing of Zod

    The producers have come out saying that him feeling as though he had to kill Zod will become the moral crisis that transforms him into the hopeful hero we love to Monday morning quarterback.

    I’ll take a superhero that is transformed by his failures any day of the week vs. one that comes out of the oven perfect in every way.

    Isn’t that the knock on movie Superman (and perhaps on comic Superman)? He’s too powerful, he doesn’t ever have to make any difficult choices?

    Well here we had young Superman faced with a being as powerful as himself with no way of being imprisoned, no way of being “brought to justice” no way of being de-powered, vowing to kill “all the humans”.

    Evenly matched, no way out… no choice a good choice here….

    All on day one….

    Now that is interesting!

    More interesting than “magical depowering” (and then murder) like in Superman II, “magic time travel” and Superman I, or Superman vs. “the Kryptonite Mountain and back child support” like in Returns.

    And Scott, I was heartbroken and shocked when Supes killed Zod. When the writers didn’t leave him an easy out.

    And that makes for an interesting Superman story and makes for good questions going forward.

    (And since I keep Superman and Jesus firmly apart, I don’t get all worked up when Superman doesn’t act like I want Jesus to act – see below).

    Superman and Jesus
    Did the filmmakers try for the Supes / Jesus angle? Oh hell yes they did and they even hired a Xian marketing firm to write sermons to give to pastors.

    And this fails terribly. And I love that it fails terribly. And I jettison it as I “read” the film.

    In another way, however, Superman as American Jesus is far more interesting. That is what I think the Church should be talking about when they move to analyse the film.

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  • I agree with you that the film portrays Kryptonian justice as not much different from our systems. But again, that’s an example of a writer failing to imagine a better reality.

    What bothers me more is that Jor-El’s vision for peaceful coexistence and mutual flourishing loses out to Zod’s conviction that only one can survive. Granted, Kal makes sure it’s Earth, so yay for us? But in the end, he fails to reach for a better, third option.

    That essential failure demonstrates that either !) the writers don’t understand Superman or 2) they decided to make Superman “more relateable”, i.e. more human, i.e. flawed. (And according to interviews, the latter seems to be the case).

    That misses the function of the Superman myth. To quote Mark Waid (awesome-sauce Superman writer), Superman shouldn’t be more like us. We should be more like him.

    I just don’t think we need one more flawed, tragic hero. (and, to more pointedly respond to your comments, any death is tragic, IMO) We need someone to give us hope that Death and violence aren’t always the final word. That there’s a better way to win than just being the strongest person in the brawl.

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  • Steph

    It’s hard not to judge this movie. Superman was a huge beacon in the
    storm for me when I was growing up. His example was one I tried hard to
    keep to. It got mighty dark for me as a kid and I could have wound up in
    jail or worse, more often than not. It probably sounds stupid to some
    people but that’s the gist of it, Superman helped keep me alive and
    upright. I am 40 now and doing great, stable career, strong volunteer
    ethic, good people that love me. I like to think – no, I know – Supes
    had a hand in getting me here in one piece.

    The viewing left a bad taste in my mouth, even though the movie was overall
    entertaining summer popcorn flick as they go anyway. I walked out of the
    theater kind of unsure of how to feel about what I’d just seen, and it
    kind of stuck in the back of my head for a while bothering me just a
    little bit. I think Superman is essentially a dark character, but it’s
    the fact that he always does right, and represents the ideals of our
    best hopes, that makes him a hero. I wonder if maybe the creators of
    this one thought he had to be a lot more human and a lot more fallible
    in order to make moviegoers connect with him.

    In fact it’s the opposite of what made me connect with him when I saw him embodied in Christopher Reeve, George Reeves, and the comics, when I was a little kid. His extreme differences and the fact that he still struggled, but always tried to do the very best thing and stay true to his heart, was what made me connect with him. But then I was about 7 years old, so maybe that’s what I wanted out of the world. Superman was a hero that was an underdog and an outsider and lost, and against the worst foes the universe could conjure, but tried hard to still stay a hero that earned the hope that people pinned to him.

    I guess when I walked out of the theater, that’s what was bothering me.
    There was no more hope in Superman. He’s just as screwed up and hopeless as everyone else.

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  • Tom

    As a fan of both Superman and hope in general I see your point. However, Superman always represented Truth, Justice, and the American Way and this movie hold pretty well to the modern version of those things.
    Truth is the easy one here, truth is truth and Man of Steel’s Superman doesn’t shy away from it. Justice and the American Way however have changed considerably in the post 9/11 world. Justice has now become retaliation and the American Way seems to be about making sure that any other ways are eliminated.
    Zod and his Kryptonian brethren represent an uncompromising enemy that will only settle for the complete destruction of humanity and freedom (a common theme in post 9/11 TV and movie plotlines) and the only way to stop it is to destroy it first.

    I think of Man of Steel as more related to Superman: Red Son than the Superman we expect to see. It’s a “What If” story asking “What if Superman grew up after 9/11?”

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