Superman is one of the most popular characters in pop culture and his “S” shield is said to be the second most recognized symbol in the world next to the Christian Cross. It is no wonder that Hollywood has struggled for years to bring this character back to the silver screen. Superman had languished in development hell for years and gone from iteration to iteration with some of Hollywood’s most popular names involved; JJ Abrams and Kevin Smith are just two examples. This year Man of Steel from the minds of Zack Snyder, David Goyer and Christopher Nolan’s vision finally arrives and gives us the Superman movie that we have always wanted to see. These men have weaved a story that is relevant, real, heartfelt and powerful.
Superman has been called boring because he is nothing but a “big blue boyscout”. Dana Stevens of Slate sums up the issues people have had with Superman when she says,
“Superman’s saintliness is part of what makes him so hard to pull off in our era of dark, brooding, morally conflicted superheroes. Like Mary Poppins, Kal-El aka Clark Kent is practically perfect in every way: honest, pure, brave, compassionate, filial. He can easily come off as a goody-two-shoes when not played by someone as endearingly modest and self-evidently human as Christopher Reeve, whose hold on the character in the public imagination (or at least mine) has never really let go since Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman.”
How do you make this kind of character relevant to a pessimistic, skeptical society that sees truth, justice and the American way a thing of the past?
To do so the creators the ask these core questions. If someone like Kal-El existed on our world how would the world react? Would we accept him or would we reject him out of fear? Would we reject someone who could help us just because we can’t control him? Each of these questions are at the heart of this movie and in doing so the creators have found a way to make Superman relevant for the 21st century.
Different to the Core:
Another way the writers have made Superman relatable is to look at what it would be like to be this person. Kal-El is different and set apart from human beings. This creates an alienation and separation between him and the rest of the world. This sense of estrangement is something that so many of us feel in our lives. We struggle to know where we fit in, that we are loved and accepted and that we are here for a reason.
Jonathan Kent loves his adopted son with a fierce passion and will guard his son’s secret at any cost. He implores Clark to hide his unique abilities until he is ready to shoulder the weight. He fears that the world will reject his son. Yet, in it all Clark trusts this man who is willing to die to protect his secret. Much has been made of Jonathan Kent being out of character in this film but for anyone who has been a father or seen a good one in action, he is right on the money. He tells his son, “You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be Clark. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.” Jonathan accepts Clark for who he is, encourages him and teaches him restraint and forbearance, giving him the wisdom that he will need in his life as a man. It is a beautiful picture of unconditional love, very much at the emotional center of this film driven by Kevin Costner’s phenomenal performance.
On the other side is Jor-El. He and Lara send their son off into space to save Kal. They have given him all that they can to ensure his survival. They send him to a world where he will be indestructible, a god to us. He sends his son as someone who will be a guide to humanity, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall, but in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Jor-El hopes that humans will not make the same mistakes his people have and that Kal-el will be a beacon of hope and a force for good in our world. Clark’s fathers give him a sense of purpose, teach him morality and how one person can be a beacon of hope to the world.
Nature vs. Nurture:
One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is the Kryptonian use of genetic engineering as artificial population control. Krypton was once a planet just like ours with children born naturally and given free choice in who they will become. It lead to a great empire of hope, spreading across the galaxy. To control the population they introduce genetic creation. Children are no longer born of two parents, they are engineered to be soldiers, leaders, workers, teachers and the like. There is no choice, life is predetermined. This lack of adaptability has lead to the destruction of Krypton.
Kal-El is the first natural born Kryptonian in generations. His ultimate strength is not his fists but is adaptability. Zod and his forces cannot change or acclimate, it goes against their very nature. Zod was created to protect Krypton and this blinds him from seeing any solution other than what has always been done. Zod cannot see the wisdom in taking the difficult road of acclimation to earth’s atmosphere, living alongside humans and create a new society. All he can do is act in his nature which cannot adapt or evolve and it is his ultimate undoing.
This point is further driven home in the fight Clark has with Faora. She is taunts him, telling him that his morality holds him back. She expounds on the virtues of how amorality has given Zod’s people an evolutionary advantage and that history has proven that evolution always wins. She is proven right when Clark’s morality, his sense of purpose as well as his hope and commitment to the love of others spur him on at his weakest moment. It is a strong argument for value of a virtuous life spent serving what is right even in the most difficult circumstances. It also reinforces the power of choice.
Clark chooses his goodness. He and Jonathan have an argument where he talks about wanting to do something productive with his powers. He wants to help others. His upbringing by the Kents and the morality of the Bible-belt America have instilled in him a desire to be force for good. He willingly chooses to put on the suit and turn himself over to the military (who is portrayed very well in this film), knowing that they will then hand him over to Zod. This movie is about the choices we make and how they define who we are. It is our actions not our words that prove what we believe. We have the choice to do good or evil, to serve ourselves or others and it is these choices that grow us into heroes or villains.
Clash of the Titans:
When Superman Returns came out the fan community as well as the general movie going audience was disappointed with the lack of action and punching. This movie is exactly what was needed, something super. Much has been made in reviews about the destruction levels that are seen in the last 3rd of the film, that it is completely excessive and unnecessary. What do the reviewers think happens when a gravity weapon starts to reshape our planet or two gods fight each other? The destruction that happens in this movie made it realistic. When two beings like Zod and Superman fight, this is the result. The Avengers is a wonderful movie, but the final battle in New York is weak. There may be a lot of action yet the lack of destruction never has one as worried as you are for Metropolis in this final confrontation.
There is another good reason for the destruction we see and that is to justify the choice that Clark makes in resolving the fight with Zod. Many fans have been in an uproar that Superman kills in this film. I believe that this film earns the right to have Superman make this choice. First, Superman does not have a Fortress of Solitude in this film and after the crash of the ship that Zod is in, as well as the loss of the other Kryptonian ships to the Phantom Zone he has no other place to hold or contain Zod. Second, Zod has promised to make the humans suffer and with the destruction that he and Superman wreck in their fight, give us a glimpse at just how bad it could be if he is not dealt with. Third, Superman is responsible for the Kryptonians showing up. If he had never activated the Kryptonian scout ship, Zod and his army would never have shown up. Fourth, if Superman does not kill Zod, he will never give up his quest to destroy humanity. Is it not morally right to kill one person who desires the destruction of the world to save billions? This is the choice before Clark and he makes the right one. The creators had this to say,
“I guess for me–and in the original version of the script he just got zapped into the Phantom Zone–David and I had long talks about it and Chris and I talked long about it and it was like, ‘I really think we should kill Zod and I really think Superman should kill him,’” Snyder explained. “And the why of it was, for me, that if it’s truly an origin story, his aversion to killing is unexplained. It’s just in his DNA. I felt like we needed him to do something, just like him putting on the glasses or going to the Daily Planet or any of the other things that you’re sort of seeing for the first time that you realize will then become his thing. I felt like, if we can find a way of making it impossible for him–like Kobayashi Maru, totally no way out–I felt like that could also make you go, ‘Okay, this is the why of him not killing ever again, right?’ He’s basically obliterated his entire people and his culture and he is responsible for it and he’s just like, ‘How could I kill ever again?’”
He said that after Zod’s purpose was taken from him, he was nothing but a killing machine, and there was really no putting him in jail and walking away. He compared Zod’s actions to “suicide by cop,” tying it back to the repeated use of “a good death is its own reward” in the movie. The warrior bred, Snyder said, felt that if Kal-El was capable of killing him, then that was an honorable way to go after having failed his people.
He also said that in potential sequels, Superman having killed Zod will keep the audience from becoming complacent and thinking they know Superman’s limitations.
“I think that when you really put in stone the notion that he won’t kill, it erases an option in the viewer’s mind,” Snyder said. “That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t now have a code that ‘I just won’t do that; I have to find another way.’”
This is a learning experience for Clark, his coming of age story. As Jonathan told him, he had to choose who he was going to be. Clark chooses to put his faith in humanity and give us a chance to survive. Clark makes the hardest choice anyone can by taking a life for the good of the many.
Heart and Soul:
The heart and soul of this film are the characters. Diane Lane, as Martha Kent, nails it. She is supportive and loving as a mother who is making it up as she goes in caring for an alien child. Her consistent, steadfast belief in her son gives him constant strength. Amy Adams is Lois Lane. She is smart and pugnacious in her search for this mystery man of wonders. Her belief and trust in Clark bring out the best in him and their connection is something that you buy. You never for a second question why these people would be attracted to one another. It is her trust in Clark, her belief that he is here for good that help enable him to put his faith in humanity. Michael Shannon and Antje Traue embody the power hungry Kryptonian warriors with a menace and barbarism that is truly frightening to behold. Lastly, Henry Cavill made you feel everything Clark goes through; the alienation, the loss of his father and the weight of the choice at the end. Cavill carries the film and makes you believe in and root for Superman the entire movie. Casting in this film is spot on for everyone.
There are so many emotional gripping scenes; Clark being loaded into his ship but Jor-El and Lara, his conversation with Jonathan about who he is, Martha lovingly caring for her frighted son. All of these making you truly care about the people and what happens to them. For all the action in this film, it is the emotional resonance that carries you through from the beginning on Krypton to the final moments as Clark dons the glasses at the Daily Planet. Snyder and Goyer have finally given us Superman in a way that makes us believe that he is the king of superheroes. The DC universe is here and this reviewer cannot wait for Man of Steel 2 and the Justice League. This film is rated 9 ½ shields of hope out of 10.