Man of Steel runs, I believe, about 143 minutes long and I’m pretty sure I could write at least a 143 page book about everything wrong-headed in the film. And that does not mean that everything about the movie sucked. It looked fantastic. If nothing else, Zack Snyder is a visual storytelling genius (or at least an idiot savant). The casting and the acting were impeccable, particularly Michael Shannon as the big bad General Zod. But the script was pretty much garbage. There were a couple of poetic lines of dialogue which really sang to me, so again, nothing is really a one hundred percent loss. But the plot holes, the logical inconsistencies, the nonsensical stabs at philosophy, the risible pseudoscience, the self-contradicting introduction and follow-up on big ideas, all just bad bad bad stuff.
And it got me fairly wound up. I’ve mentioned a time or two (and no doubt will again) how unimpressed I was by Ang Lee’s Hulk movie. It just didn’t click with me, and I acknowledge that was probably half misguided efforts put into the film and half my own personal preferences and expectations not being met. But at the end of the day, so there was a bad Hulk movie I paid good money to see, so what? Tons of bad movies get produced and sell tickets every year. It’s not a crime against humanity.
But Superman is different. I’m not the world’s biggest Superman fan, as I never faithfully collected any Superman comics or anything. Yet I love Superman because of what he stands for. And that notion covers two very different concepts. On the one hand, Superman stands for all superheroes, the common ancestor of the genre that thrilled me throughout my childhood (and well beyond). Just say the words “comic book” or “superhero” and for most people Superman is no doubt what springs to mind. That makes the character important to me.
But at the same time, there’s so much more that Superman stands for. Truth, justice and the American way. The never-ending struggle against evil. Protecting people. Saving people. Aspiration. Inspiration. Way way back in 1938 Superman was just an idea a couple of kids from Cleveland had that might tap into the science-fiction craze and maybe liven up the funny pages, but it was a good idea. It was an idea with potential to speak to just about everyone. And over the course of 75 years, that’s exactly what it’s done. Superman is a trademarked and copyrighted character belonging to a huge multinational media corporation, that is technically on-paper true. But everybody knows that he belongs to the popular imagination, a deeply embedded element of human mythology, and a very special one at that.
There are millions of Superman stories yet to be told, and some will only ever exist as a crayon drawings or as the live theater of action figures in a child’s hands, but some will reach a wider audience. So when a brand new summer blockbuster arrives, adding one more Superman story to the legacy, but it fails to illuminate what makes Superman everything he’s supposed to be, that does not sit well with me. It may sound hopelessly overblown, but it makes me angry in a way that I can’t deny.
As far as I am concerned there are two valid approaches to Superman. In one, he always does the right thing. In the other, he does the right thing about 97% of the time. That’s it. Those are your choices. If you want to tell a story about a paragon of morality and compassion and properly wielded power, Superman is your guy. If you want to tell a story about gray areas, about how the most fully optimized idealist cannot always be unerring, I’m ok with attaching that to Superman, but we had still better be talking about someone who always tries to do the right thing and falls short in a way that leaves no doubt that it is still important to always try.
Let me back up a little for a bit more of a big-picture survey of various interpretations of Superman. In Action Comics #1, the story really kind of starts in the middle. Everything is in place: the double identity as Clark Kent and Superman, the full power set, the costume, the day job as a reporter, and the crusade against criminals (and, significantly, exploiters of the working class who might not be doing anything illegal but still need some social comeuppance). It was only later that the backstory got filled in and fleshed out, including the nature of planet Krypton and the trials and tribulations of Clark Kent’s childhood and the public debut of Superman. That last bit has taken on a fairly codified structure over the years, too. Usually, one way or another, people become aware of Superman when he averts a plane crash. It’s the ideal scenario for Superman for many reasons.
Number one, a single person preventing a plane full of passengers from crashing is amazing, so it demonstrates his most impressive (and wish-fulfilling) powers, flight and super-strength. Number two, it’s something that no one else can do. In the real world, sometimes planes crash, and there’s very little we can do about it. It’s a mitigated risk we simply live with. But the implication just beneath the surface is that without Superman, the people on the plane would have died. Not “oh, well, the firefighters would have gotten people to safety, Superman just did it flashier” or “oh, the cops would have caught the crooks eventually, Superman’s a vigilante”. Superman makes the difference between life and death in a unique way. Number three, it doesn’t really serve any particular agenda other than serving mankind. Superman doesn’t reveal himself to the public by stopping an assassination attempt on the President. He doesn’t get involved in a political military skirmish. He doesn’t save a celebrity or a CEO or a scientist. He just saves people who need saving, with no qualifiers needed.
Number four, but maybe most importantly, the airplane is a symbol. What’s more amazing: that an alien belonging to a race that evolved under a red sun would be able to fly under a yellow one, or that a race that evolved from arboreal primates would be able to build a machine that allowed them to fly faster and farther than anything else on Earth? We are not invulnerable but we dare the impossible all the time and always have. Superman’s reason for being is not to do things for us, but rather to reassure us that we can keep doing what we’ve done and he will catch us if we fall in the attempt. It’s a fantasy, but it’s an incredibly comforting one.
So in the comics Superman showed up in bright red and yellow and blue to save a planeload of passengers, and when they re-imagined his origin in the 1980’s it was changed to an experimental space plane on its maiden voyage, showing how far mankind’s aspirations had expanded but still making the same point about Superman’s relationship to them. In the original Superman The Motion Picture, there’s a jetliner rescued as well as a helicopter crash averted (and don’t forget Superman’s little nugget about not giving up on air travel because “statistically speaking it’s still the safest way to travel” - in other words he wants us to keep flying under our own power, not just surrender to either fear or to letting him ferry us all around at no risk forever). And even in Superman Returns, which was in its own painful ways a resoundingly unsuccessful film, what’s generally accepted as the best setpiece in the movie is Superman’s rescue of the airplane piggybacking the Space Shuttle. It’s just quintessential Superman material.
Now, the movies have always had a tendency to ramp up the stakes because they only have a couple of hours to make their points and tell their stories, whereas comics have one issue after another forever and ever. So in the 1978 flick it’s Air Force One that loses an engine to a lightning strike and needs Superman to guide it to safety, and of course it’s Lois Lane’s helicopter that almost crashes. And in Superman Returns, of course Lois is on board the airplane covering the Space Shuttle launch. So, there’s a bit of short shrift given to the idea that Superman is not just here to protect the powerful elite or the people he cares about personally, but everyone. But still, Christopher Reeve catches Margot Kidder with one hand and the helicopter with the other, to make sure no one on the Metropolis streets below gets hurt by a falling wreck, and Brandon Routh does save an entire stadium full of people that the airplane would have crashed into.
The point is, Superman intervenes in an accident or disaster which is not his fault, in fact is no one’s fault but just one of those things, and he saves lives. And the only reason he does this is because he was raised to believe that helping people is the right thing to do, and he is uniquely qualified to help in certain ways. He chose his moment to begin publically helping people, not that he ever stood by and let people die, but perhaps he didn’t help in such a flashy, splashy way until the airplane scenario presented itself. And it engendered a tremendous amount of goodwill, such that the next time disaster struck the flying colors of Superman would be a welcome sight. Which in turn meant that if a potential hostile and human-made threat, rather than an imminent uncontrollable disaster, were looming, no one would think twice about Superman dealing with that, as well. And if, at some point down the road, a threat should arise which happens to be aimed at Superman, the kind of thing the planet would have been spared if Superman did not exist in the first place, there would still be a calculation to be made that on balance humanity is better off with Superman in their corner, as well as an unassailable conviction that Superman would prevail.
The problem with Man of Steel is not that Superman at no point saves an airplane full of people (spoilers!). It’s that he barely saves anyone. As a kid (in flashback) he saves a bus full of fellow students when it accidentally drives off a bridge into a river. But his adoptive father reprimands him for potentially exposing his secret other-ness. As a result, later in the movie, another flashback shows how Clark’s adoptive father died, in a natural disaster(!!!) despite the fact that Clark could have saved him, because there were potential witnesses around and the “do not expose yourself” lesson had been so ingrained in him. When the costume debuts in the movie, it is not as Superman does something inspirational and life-affirming, but when he surrenders to the government because the threat aimed at him that earth only faces because of him has arrived. With no goodwill banked at all, Superman tries to defuse the threat of Zod and his fellow would-be world conquerors, and he eventually does so, at the expense of most of the city of Metropolis literally being razed to the ground, with the implied death-toll absolutely mind boggling.
Sigh. There’s a Superman trope which borders on cliche, which goes a little like this: Superman squares off against a supervillain who is his physical equal. Superman takes the first shot, which does nothing, and Superman thinks about how he’s so used to holding back and pulling his punches because if he hit any common purse snatcher full-strength he would frappe their skeletal-muscular system. Then the villain hits Superman without holding back, and knocks Superman into a building, which starts to collapse. Superman props up the building while the people inside run to safety ahead of the collapse, and the villain takes another cheap shot at Superman. So for the whole duration of the fight, Superman is on the receiving end of a beating because he is prioritizing protecting innocent bystanders above hitting the bad guy back. But eventually, Superman has taken care of his first priority and is able to turn his full attention to the bad guy, and the bad guy is quickly disabused of his notion that he ever had the upper hand as Superman throws a right cross that knocks the bad guy into geosynchronous orbit (with Neptune).
Man of Steel’s protracted climax is essentially this trope, without the prioritized value system. Zod punches Superman, Superman punches Zod back, over and over and over, with buildings collapsing left and right and people running and screaming and Superman never lifting a finger to help them, all his attention focused on the fight. It’s a visceral, gut-wrenching sequence and it goes against everything that Superman has ever meant or stood for. I guess it reflects screenwriter David S. Goyer’s obsession with making superhero movies that take place in the “real world” and show what would “really happen” if the comic books came to life, coupled with a desire to make Man of Steel different from all the other Superman stories before it, just for difference’s sake.
But all that really accomplished was making Man of Steel an outlier, and a grim and joyless one at that. Not to mention a nonsensically hypocritical treatise on the nature of trust. That word, trust, gets thrown around dozens of times in Man of Steel, as if some kind of grand statement is being made. But the Superman character in the film does nothing to earn anyone’s trust, and does plenty to make humanity (especially the citizens of Metropolis) distrust, fear and hate him. Except they don’t, because this is supposed to be the beginning not just of a new Superman film franchise but also the cornerstone of a DC cinematic universe that a Justice League movie might someday spin out of. So not that there’s any internal story logic for people accepting Superman, just that he needs to be accepted for marketing reasons. But Man of Steel has the gall to end with Superman calmly informing a U.S. Army general that he’s “just going to have to trust me”. It’s not earned, but it is true that if an all-powerful alien demanded trust, we really wouldn’t have much choice. In the movie I suspect it’s meant to be a bit of a joke and show Superman’s independent streak, but it comes off as both smug and creepy.
Again, I’m not a Superman zealot who thinks that all Superman stories should portray him as incorruptible and infallible. (Smallville is my guilty pleasure, for crying out loud.) And there’s rich material to be explored in the early goings of Superman’s career, when he’s unsure of himself in every way. There’s also rich material in Superman facing his greatest challenge in the form of vengeful General Zod. But I think it was a huge mistake to try to combine the two stories into one movie (even Richard Donner recognized the wisdom in taking those ideas in turn in Superman and Superman II). In Man of Steel, Superman never has a chance to learn how it's more important (and more effective) to influence lives, through his own shining example, than to merely save them by being physically capable and in the right place at the right time. He never gets much of a chance to do either, he simply slots in as a very utilitarian solution to a completely terrifying external problem. Civilization has plenty of stories like that, and I’m not sure we needed any more. But I’m positive we can always use more stories about doing good for its own sake and putting others ahead of ourselves. It’s a shame the makers of Man of Steel didn’t seize the obvious opportunity they had to provide one.