Though it seems strange to say, over the past few years I’ve acquired an appreciation for Superman. Especially in contrast to other DC characters; many of my favorite comic books feature Superman not as the main protagonist, but as an icon the other heroes measure themselves against. They look up to him, they’re jealous of him, some even hate him, and sometimes all at once.
Superman is a mythical creature who signifies a mythical age. A man who can bend steel in his bare hands, but who also bends over backwards to be kind and good to his fellow Earthlings all day every day? Sometimes we can barely find those qualities in a real-life person, even without the bent steel part. Superman may draw his superpowers from our yellow sun, but he draws his gravitas from our nostalgia.
If we watch Man of Steel hoping for just a flashier update of Richard Donner’s acclaimed series, we’re bound to be disappointed. And that’s what I was, for a while. We often think of Superman as the brighter side of a dichotomy with Batman; hope vs. fear, compassion vs. vengeance, blah blah blah. For the first few years after their debut, Batman and Superman both lived and worked in Metropolis, but occupied different thematic venues (i.e., night and day). So there are certain things we expect from a Superman movie, and very few cultural icons carry as much baggage as the Last Son of Krypton. But that’s okay. He can handle it. Or can he?
“Bright” Man of Steel is not, and that can be pretty jarring at first. “Fun” is not even necessarily a word I’d associate with this movie. But I would call it serious, and realistic.
Superman Returns got at least one thing right: it tried to imagine a world after Superman (for a little while anyway), where the greatest superhero of all time had vanished and humanity was once again left to fend for itself. The 1996 limited series Kingdom Come shows us what happens when the World’s Finest Heroes retire, leaving the job of saving the world to a younger generation of “heroes” who have no role models and no moral compass to guide them — and the world nearly goes to hell because of it.
Man of Steel is a mirror image of those stories: Earth is already a dark place, and somehow Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas needs to learn how to fit into it. It seems like it’d be much harder to fix a world that’s broken than it would be to start fresh, and that’s where both the Man of Steel and Man of Steel struggle mightily (and sometimes fail) to convey their meanings. In Zack Snyder’s vision, Superman isn’t the herald of a Golden Age; he’s displaced and dispossessed in both space and time, adrift in the dark, gritty Modern Age of Comic Books.
For all his attempts to hide himself away, Clark Kent repeatedly collides with (some lazily stereotypical) signifiers of The Modern World: he sticks up for a waitress when a diner harasses her, but steadfastly refuses to hurt anyone; he goes down in flames with an oil rig while saving its workers, whom his shipmates and a rescue party were happy to abandon. The military feels threatened by him, and DC Comics’ most famous reporter wants to expose him. As a child, his peers and sometimes their parents treated him like a freak or an act of God. Even Jonathan Kent tends more toward covering up his son’s abilities rather than praising him for doing the right thing. The film screams at us: this Clark Kent guy just doesn’t belong.
But is he really who we think he is? My first reactions were skeptical. How could Superman allow his Pa to be sucked up by a Kansas twister? How could he be so willing to snap General Zod’s neck? These scenes seem to fly in the face of Superman’s core identity; I even called the film “character assassination” on Facebook. But when we view the movie through the lens discussed above — if we see Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel as an anachronism in an age of moral ambiguity — the movie makes a lot more sense. To his credit, Cavill channels Kal-El heroically; every grin and every grit of his teeth could have jumped straight off the pages of your favorite issue of Action Comics. Too bad he doesn’t have a little more to say; Zack Snyder’s Superman is a rather quiet fellow.
Back to the scene with General Zod. There’s an inherent contradiction among our many expectations of the “S”: the notions that Kal-El is at his best when he’s a down-to-earth “human” character, but also that he never, ever makes mistakes (especially not big ones) are mutually exclusive. If we’re looking at a rebooted origin story of Superman, maybe we should see some kind of pathos that can drive him to become the symbol of hope that the movie so desperately pursues.
Granted, Man of Steel forgets to play with the thematic importance of Zod’s death amidst a frustratingly hurried conclusion; we only get to imagine what impact it might have on our hero, and that’s just plain bad form on the filmmakers’ end. Maybe Kal-El swears to never again be a bystander while innocent people suffer; maybe after killing the only other Kryptonian left in the universe, he vows never to take another life. As a fan of DC Comics with a good deal of Superman backstory under my belt, I probably have an advantage in projecting where the character could go from here. Other moviegoers may just be left feeling angry and betrayed.
There will be sequels, of course. Hopefully we’ll learn about the consequences of General Zod’s murder in the next installments; given Zack Snyder’s history, though, I think we can expect further Super-movies to be as cold and detached as this one. It’s more operatic sci-fi tragedy than soaring super-adventure, a characteristic cranked to full volume by Hans Zimmer’s stirring score. Man of Steel is something new in the Superman canon, which seems exactly what it wants to be. Whether we like it is, I think, a matter of time — can the Last Son of Krypton forge a place for himself among the dark, cynical superhero narratives of our modern age, or is he better left as an icon of brighter days?
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As a postscript, let’s talk about Zod’s death for a bit. Man of Steel wants us to believe that Superman made the only choice that would save human lives: Zod had just finished declaring that he would stop at nothing to kill every last human being as vengeance for banishing his compatriots to the Phantom Zone forever, telling Superman their fight will only end when “you die, or I do.”
So: the gateway to the Phantom Zone is permanently closed, and no Kryptonian technology remains with which Kal-El might safely imprison Zod, a warmonger-general ascended to godhood in the light of Earth’s yellow sun. The only other conceivable solution to this situation would be for Superman to fight Zod (but not kill him) forever. Literally. I would have been thrilled with that ending, as it would’ve signified a terrific break from predictable superhero-movie conventions, one that might’ve even rivaled the truly awe-inspiring conclusion of The Dark Knight. But it also would’ve precluded a sequel, which is of course unacceptable to Warner Bros. and company.
Our hangup with Zod’s murder springs, of course, from Superman’s conviction that no one has the right to kill. Though the film fails to give the scene it’s due time and consideration, are we not big enough to forgive Superman? (He would certainly forgive us if we were wearing the cape.)
Obviously there’s no right answer, and I don’t think I know where I stand on it yet. All I can add right now is this: our other silver-screened superheroes certainly do not measure up to the high standards we have set for Superman — in fact, they don’t even come close. Here are some body counts from other comic book movies, courtesy of allouttabubblegum.com. Take these numbers with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that personal responsibility for various deaths amidst the carnage of an action movie is usually debatable:
Wolverine in X2 (2003): 11
Hal Jordan in Green Lantern (2011): 3
Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2 (2004): 0
Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): 26
Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk (2008): 25
Bruce Wayne in
Batman Begins (2005): 20
The Dark Knight (2008): 1
The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 2
The Avengers (2012)
Steve Rogers: 17
Bruce Banner: 29
Natasha Romanoff: 27
Nick Fury: 3
Tony Stark: 678(!)
Tony Stark in
Iron Man (2008): 56
Iron Man 2 (2010): 0
Iron Man 3 (2013) numbers were not available, but they’ve got to be high — at least as high as the original.
Again, many of these are debatable; the only ones I can discuss with any certainty are the Batman films.
The Batman Begins count of 20 occurs in Ra’s al Ghul’s monastery; Bruce Wayne detonates those explosives, yes, but is he directly responsible for killing al Ghul’s horde of ninjas? And would the filmmakers really have been so sloppy, considering it was Bruce’s refusal to kill someone that sets off the whole action scene in the first place? Must he save each and every person in the scene to not be considered a murderer? Curiously, this body count does not include Ra’s al Ghul himself, who dies under almost exactly the same circumstances at the conclusion of the film (“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”).
The one death in The Dark Knight refers to Harvey Dent, which is also questionable. Dent was about to murder Gordon’s son, and Batman had no way of knowing the fall would kill his erstwhile friend, who had already suffered some extremely traumatic injuries. Batman survives the same fall himself only seconds later.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the two deaths attributed to Batman are Talia al Ghul and her truck-driver henchman; Batman fires rockets at the truck carrying the nuclear weapon, the truck crashes, and its occupants die as a result (besides Jim Gordon, who was not wearing a seatbelt and therefore survived). But suppose some police officers were to use force to stop a suspect’s speeding vehicle from hurting innocent people, and the suspect dies in the resulting crash, would they be accused of murder? There’s probably some legal precedent either way, but as of this writing I haven’t researched it at all.
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that it’s not the fact that Superman kills Zod that upsets us; it’s the fact that he made a conscious decision to do so. But does that really matter in comparison to the mass murderers and genocidal maniacs (coughTonyStarkcough) of other recent superhero movies? I don’t know. You tell me.