With the release of Man of Steel the first real superhero of the modern age gets a fresh start on the silver screen and a reinterpretation for the 21st century. Whereas 2006’s Superman Returns tried to continue the Richard Donner movies’ version of Superman, this movie gives the Man of Tomorrow a brand new day. It is a bold stroke that pulls no punches and goes for a very earnest overhaul. As can be imagined, this has been to the delight of some and the chagrin of many. This movie review will differ from all the ones I have done previously, being quite long and an amalgam review/critique/essay on the film, the source material, and all things Superman that are relevant to the presentation by filmmakers in the massive summer blockbuster. Considering the considerable length of this critique, I won’t waste more space than necessary introducing it. Here are the musings of this comic book geek on The Man of Steel:
The Krypton depicted in Man of Steel is amazing because of its amalgam of the many interpretations of that storied, utopian world. Drawing from the many visions presented in the Superman line of books over the past seventy-five years the screenwriters and filmmakers create a vision, concept, and culture that forms the bedrock upon which the film’s premise is built. It is because of Krypton’s many flaws and its repressed virtues that this film can exist and be what it is: bold, innovative, fresh, and infinitely moving.
The first thing that hits the viewer as they see Krypton is how beautiful it is. Starting in the late 30’s with Shuster and Siegel’s first issues of Action Comics Krypton has been shown with beautiful architecture and wondrous looking cities, but the landscape itself is either non-existent, covered in the urban sprawl, or desolate as it was in the 1978 Superman movie and the comics of the 90’s and early 2000’s. In Man of Steel we see not only Krypton’s verdant forests and vistas, but also a few majestic specimens of its wildlife. These, while completely unique to the movie’s conceptual designs, I believe owe their existence to comic book legend Geoff Johns’ efforts on the Superman books. With the “Superman: Last Son” arc of Action Comics, which he co-wrote with original Superman and Superman II director Richard Donner, Johns began a Kryptonian renaissance which really reformed the planet itself and its citizens. I use the term “renaissance” because of how perfectly it defines what occurred in the depiction of Krypton. I believe many writers (not just Johns) and even editorial had their parts in this as well, because over many issues in many different titles Krypton went from a desolate, isolationist world with no cultural heritage to a proud, casted society that worked like a well oiled machine fine tuned over millennia. There are the Science Guild that progress and maintain Krypton, the Military Guild that guard and protect its citizens, the Artists Guild that bring beauty and aesthetics to the lives of Krypton’s citizens (because even a society at the cusp of technological advancement needs beauty), and the Labor Guild which does all the work. No one said scientific advancement had to go hand in hand with civil rights. Another change for the better that finds its way prominently into the movie is the costuming of Krypton. Kryptonians have been depicted in many ways from the nondescript robes they wore in the 1978 film to the strange bodysuits with weird fringes that were predominant through the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s. The “Kryptonian Renaissance” of the new millennium gave them futuristic costumes that retain a throwback sense of beauty and elegance as seen in the Renaissance culture of Europe. This comes through in the gorgeous attire of Jor-El, his wife Lara, and the lavish costumes of the Council of Elders, seen in the first half hour of Man of Steel. To me, this represents a culture at its height, making the imminent downfall of that culture all the more poignant. That is the look of Krypton.
The people of Krypton are another aspect of this story that drew me in and sent my mind on a cascading trip through the different eras of Kryptonian culture shown over the last three quarters of a century. For a very long time Krypton simply was a culture that reached its zenith and was destroyed by the instability of their planet’s core. Simple as that. Despite their technological marvels birthed from advanced science, they were powerless and even arrogant enough to ignore the magnitude of this coming cataclysm. So Jor-El and Lara sent their son, Kal-El, to a planet he could grow up and thrive upon. The last son of El. The 90’s took this society and did something more drastic. I do not know who initiated this vision, but during this time Krypton came to be a society that was isolationist in both its terrestrial and extraterrestrial policies. Kryptonians had been to the stars, but because of their massive scientific achievements wars had erupted and social order had been threatened. As a result, society was separated and Krypton’s citizens lived in isolated citadels away from one another. Kryptonians rarely encountered each other and simply lived in their fortress-like homes interacting virtually through holograms and messenger automatons. Reproduction was achieved artificially and overseen by the Kryptonian government, as was marriage which was obviously not conjugal, but rather political and sociological. To see this vision of Krypton vividly, I would suggest three pieces. In the 1990’s Starman series by James Robinson the #51 issue, entitled “Midnight in the House of El’, depicts the eponymous Jack Knight, known as Starman, going back in time and meeting a seventeen year old Jor-El and his domineering father, Seyg-El, on Krypton, characterized in the above fashion. Another version is the Elseworld story written by the late Steve Gerber called Superman: Last Son of Earth in which Prof. Jonathan Kent of Kansas State University discovers an extinction level cataclysm and when ignored by Earth’s leaders, sends his son Clark into space in a rocket that carries the human infant to Krypton where he is found by the young Jor-El and his reluctant future bride, Lara Lor-Van. Clark is renamed Kal-El by his adoptive father and grows up in complete solitude from other Kryptonians (due to the predominant culture) while forced to wear metal braces on his body backed up by servos to prevent Krypton’s oppressive gravity from crushing him and restraining his human physiognomy. Kal breaks free of these with a Green Lantern ring that finds him and allows him to save Krypton from the cataclysm that in regular continuity DOES destroy this world. These evens then leads him to go to Earth to seek out his origins, only to find a post-apocalyptic society dominated by Lex Luthor. Gerber also wrote a sequel to this called Superman: Last Stand on Krypton in which Jor-El and his loving wife Lara found a hippy-like movement on Krypton that advocates living together in communes, natural childbirth, and embracing emotions. This heresy to the social order of Krypton maintained over centuries is dealt with by General Zod who consequently has to contend with the returned Superman. Looking at these three titles, it is obvious that Man of Steel heavily draws from this era of Kryptonian storytelling to depict a culture of stagnation that inevitably leads to the ruin of its people. A key part of Last Stand on Krypton is the conception of a child by Jor-El and Lara, though obviously it is not Kal-El. In Man of Steel a Jor-El and Lara very similar to Gerber’s conceive Kal for the same reason; to be the father of a reborn Kryptonian race that will not be hindered by genetic predetermination or blind scientific innovation that atrophy morality and individualism.
It should be noted that the story of Man of Steel was conceived by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer. The name to look at in that duo who brought us the Dark Knight Trilogy is David Goyer. Nolan is a masterful storyteller and director, but David Goyer is a comic book writer that has also branched out as a screenwriter in both television and film. He wrote the Nolan Batmans exceedingly well, but his history with Superman is considerable. He co-wrote the above mentioned Starman #51 with James Robinson, so his use of Kryptonian eugenics and a dystopian culture stem heavily from his own experiences as a worldcrafter in the comics of the late 90’s. More recently, he also wrote the newsworthy short story for the 900th issue of Action Comics entitled “The Incident” wherein Superman went to Iran to stand non-violently in a student protest to lend strength to the oppressed Persian youths. Doing this, Supes nearly caused an international incident leading him to renounce his honorary American citizenship. Needless to say, Goyer knows how to handle Superman in a modern context and integrate social commentary seamlessly into engrossing plots, whether they are appreciated or not.
A Man with Two Fathers
Superman is perhaps one of the most philosophical heroes in modern mythology and it undoubtedly stems from the fact that he is really the first superhero. Maybe there were others of lesser note that came before him, but he is the first one that captured the attention of the national audience. Within the comic itself, his philosophy was born of his two fathers and what each of them left him upon their death. Therefore, these men’s parts in Man of Steel were pivotal to the success of the story and the resultant character presented in this origin story.
Jor-El, the brightest mind of a civilization at its height of advancement, saw a world and a society that had crossed the threshold into ruin. His son’s birth was a miracle, but so was Jor-El’s. In a world where every person was bred for a singular purpose tied into the continuity of that “ideal” society, Jor-El, a man bred for cold science and logic, saw beyond statistics into the improbable. He conceived of what someone unquantifiable could achieve and the value of free will to his society. That child, his child, could be the father of a rejuvenated Kryptonian race on another, untainted planet. Freedom of choice, but most importantly freedom of conscience, was what he imparted to his son. The Master Ky he gave Kal before departure chronicled all of Krypton’s sins, so Kal could make sure that they were not repeated on Earth, as well as imparting the “hopes and dreams” of a dying race.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jonathan Kent, a simple farmer living outside of Smallville, Kansas. Though we don’t learn a lot of facts about him, it can be insinuated by the presentation in this movie that like most representations in the past he is a man of limited education, but deep philosophy born of experience and good old fashion Midwestern values. Throughout the course of Man of Steel he is portrayed as a very imposing figure that reigns Clark in and encourages him to hide his abilities at all costs. Sometimes even to the point of seeming callus. However, as fathers go he is actually one of the best possible that Kal-El, now called Clark, could have had. His affection for the boy knows no limit and forces him to be as strict and overprotective as he is. In the course of Clark’s childhood under the constant tutelage of Pa Kent, he learns valuable lessons including restraint that are paramount to his destiny as Superman.
Portraying these two men correctly was of vital importance, because they had to be believable and effective in their roles. Russell Crowe plays Jor-El in the film and does a very good job. Despite what people might say about him as an actor, he portrays the analytical scientist quite well, but retains the ability to convey wellsprings of emotion beneath the surface. This is never more apparent than in the scene where he and Lara put the hours old Kal into the rocket that will take him to his new home on Earth. In other versions of this origin they depict the scene as somber, but in this movie it is agonizing. Lara is barely able to go through with it, and Jor-El has to very calmly tell Lara the reasons why it must be done. Though he is telling her in very calculated terms, Crowe’s performance makes you realize Jor-El is saying these things just as much for himself as for Lara. Jor-El sacrifices everything for his son, including his life, so that he will have the tools and the opportunities for a better life. That is the epitome of a father’s love.
Jonathan Kent was portrayed by Kevin Costner, whose iconic roles in Field of Dreams, Wyatt Earp, and Dances with Wolves made him the perfect choice for Pa Kent. He plays the rural protagonist very well while still having a wisdom in the way he delivers the poignant lessons that are essential to Clark’s upbringing. While Pa Kent takes a lot of flack from people for being too hard and oppressive in this movie, he is actually written in a far more complex way and Costner’s acting brings that out. Clark’s childhood is agonizing, but one thing that is constant is that Jonathan Kent is there. He is present in the picture of Clark at the science fair. He was present and on the front lines when Clark saved the bus full of his classmates from drowning in the river and people began taking notice. He was present when Clark was getting beat up outside the mill he was working at. After the latter event, he asked his son if he was alright and when Clark said they couldn’t hurt him, Pa corrects his question, asking if he was alright inside. He sympathized with Clark and knew that hitting those boys would have felt great . . . for a moment, and then it wouldn’t have. Clark didn’t have the luxury of simple things like getting angry that most normal kids had and Jonathan was there to talk to him and try to give him comfort in those moments. He wasn’t a touchy-feely dad giving hugs, but he was a dad that would do anything for his son. He made Clark hide his abilities, which seems to make most diehard Superman fans scream in outrage, but his teachings of mistrust for humanity turn out to be sage. Jonathan may fill his son with fear at being discovered, but it is done out of love. He loves his son. This is overtly clear when Clark finds out his alien heritage and asks if they can pretend that he is still Pa’s son. “You are my son,” says Pa, holding back tears. Costner nails a very tender moment right there. Then he proves his devotion to his son’s safety as well as his fervent belief that the world just isn’t ready for his son, by sacrificing himself to maintain his Clark’s secret. If Jonathan Kent weren’t the BEST father in the world and didn’t believe in his bones that this was the right course, would he sacrifice his life as he did? And if he didn’t have a point backed up by precedent and logic, would Clark have stood there and watched it happen? I understand that people don’t like this scene, and neither do I. It’s horrible to watch. But it’s necessary. This scene showed Clark the true depth of how much his father loved him. It taught him self-sacrifice which is one of Superman’s key characteristics. It taught him the measure of heroism. This final scene of Jonathan Kent with a resigned smile on his face and the silent conversation with his son was both tragic and beautiful, and executed brilliantly by Costner.
Both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent are original takes on these iconic figures in Superman’s past, but remained anchored to their basic drives through the utterances of equally iconic quotations: “You carry with you our hopes and dreams.” -Jor-El “Son, you were sent here for a reason.” -Jonathan Kent. Contained within each is the basis for each man’s motivations.
Jor-El was always a maverick and a voice of reason unheeded, but in Man of Steel he is seemingly a social revolutionary and perhaps anarchist in his attempt to recreate Kryptonian society peacefully through the birth of his son, Kal-El. Zod is much the same, but seeks those ends through militarism, hoping to maintain the status quo of Kryptonian society. Both men seek to save Krypton, but have diametrically opposed methods that are abhorrent to one another. It could be argued that Krypton is the major change, not Jor-El’s character, but in either event, he is no longer just an ignored prophet of doom, but a heretic guilty of treason against the Kryptonian state. What unites him with the original basis of the character is the above quote. Kal-El represents the hopes and dreams of his parents and the legacy of the Kryptonian race. He is like Moses cast into the cosmos with not only himself, but the genetic potential for every Kryptonian yet to be born in his own genome, leading his people to freedom from a society that would birth them into eugenic bondage.
Jonathan Kent was always a man who told Clark to hide his abilities. He takes a lot of flack for it from critics of the film, but that was a hallmark quality of the character from the start of the Superman saga seventy-five years ago. The degree of urgency is all that has changed. Jonathan always advocated caution, but in this film he is vehement about absolute secrecy, because due to the realistic slant filmmakers chose to pursue Clark’s abilities pose a real danger both to his own freedom and safety as well as the world’s collective sense of ease. Critics of Jonathan Kent’s portrayal in Man of Steel may not be looking at the larger picture, despite both Jonathan Kent and Perry White plainly stating this concern over and over and the depiction of the military and US government’s distrust and outright belligerence towards Superman later on in the film. Even after risking his life, beating back his fellow Kryptonians, and killing General Zod, they still distrust him at the film’s conclusion. However, Jonathan Kent, while wanting his son to be safe also recognizes that Clark has the capability to become something incredible. This leads us back to his famous quote, “Son, you were sent here for a reason.” He was sent here for a reason and his powers could benefit humanity. However, the timing has to be right. People have to be ready for him. Again, like a prophet, Jonathan knew that eventually people would be ready, but to reveal himself prematurely would be traumatic to Clark and the world, and could unravel whatever destiny Clark might have in store. Like a martyr, he sacrificed his safety and ultimately his life for that goal, purchasing at a dear cost Clark’s possibility for a future, just as Jor-El and Lara did on their long dead world.
Jor-El and Jonathan may be differently from past incarnations, but both cut a very stark and vivid character in a realistic world. What they also epitomize is the perfect image of the selfless, loving father. Both men sacrificed everything they had to ensure that Kal-El/Clark grew to reach his destiny as Superman. Though people may not like them, these men cannot be impugned.
A Man with Two Mothers
The maternal relationship is not widely explored in this movie, nor do his two mothers play as integral a part in the film’s narrative as their husbands. To a degree this was an aspect of the movie that I thought could have been better, but I have tried not to dwell too heavily upon. I feel that both Lara and Martha Kent are characters that have a great impact of Superman in various tellings of the Superman myth, but rarely are recognized for it.
Martha Kent actually is a very substantial character in her own right. It seems like she is the human parent that is the more openly nurturing in Man of Steel. Perhaps it is an oedipal thing, where the divide between the two Kent men stems from the father wanting continuity and the son wanting self-determination, or it could just be conventions of modern masculinity in father/son dynamics. As stated before, Jonathan does love Clark and makes himself available to his son whenever he needs to, but Martha is the one that engages with him on more level, emotional ground. Diane Lane is the actress who portrays her and radiates maternal love in every scene. The most apparent example comes when Clark’s heightened senses kick in with a vengeance at school. The frightened nine year old takes refuge in the janitors closet and barricades himself inside. Only Martha can talk him out. She doesn’t scold him. She doesn’t bargain with him. She sits by the door, listening to her terrified child describe his overwhelming experiences and talks him through it. She is the one who teaches him how to focus his mind and block out all the extraneous sensory information he is receiving. She has no idea what she is talking about. There is no “raising your Kryptonian child” book by Dr. Spock. She does the best she can, driven by pure love for her little boy and somehow helps him surmount one of the largest obstacles he faces as a Kryptonian earthling.
Lara Jor-El, mother of Superman, is depicted as a very tragic character. She and her husband defy Kryptonian law and have a natural, unmodified child grown in her womb and not in the Genesis Chamber beneath the Kryptonian capital. She literally gives birth to a miracle and is forced to give him up only hours after he is born. She may not be bombarded with yellow sunlight, but having the strength to part with her newborn son so close to his birth makes her a super-mom! She is played in the film by Israeli actress Aylet Zurer, whose performance as the benighted Kryptonian woman is truly heart-rending. In the past, the Els have sent their child to the stars and it’s a somber moment, but in this film it is ROUGH! Jor-El’s stoicism is apparent and Zurer’s portrayal of Lara holding her baby tightly to her breast and faltering in the final moments before he must leave make it all too real to anyone who has fallen in love with their child. Amid the scramble to get Kal-El safely away from Krypton her husband also is taken from her in death, sacrificing himself for their son’s freedom. With her son forever lost to her and her beloved Jor-El dead, she awaits the literal end of her world following the metaphorical one. Her exit from the film is a morbidly beautiful scene, watching from her balcony as the planet bursts open in eruptions of magma from the planets interior, eventually enveloping her in flame. Though she is depicted beautifully, Lara is more of a passive persona in the film. Even though this is how she is often portrayed I was hoping for a little more from her. That is probably because I have been spoiled by the Superman line of comics coming out presently. Under the pen of writer Scott Lobdell, Lara Jor-El (nee Lor-Van) is truly a formidable Kryptonian woman. In Action Comics she is currently being written as a tough-as-nails military officer engaged to Jax-Ur and the only hope for Krypton’s Science Guild. In Superman #0 (2012) she is shown as a brilliant surgeon who retains all the martial prowess she gained from her service in the military and as a badass momma bear who defies a kidnapping attempt and kicks the crap out of terrorists threatening her husband and the unborn child growing inside her. Scott Lobdell seems to get that even though Jor-El is Krypton’s wunderkind, the mother of Superman would have to be one tough cookie. I am sorry that vision didn’t translate into the film, but the Lara of Man of Steel isn’t without her merits.
Both Martha and Lara are strong women whose love of their husbands and their shared child, Kal/Clark, empower them to great sacrifice and resilience. Though they don’t take center stage like Jor-El and Jonathan, they are equally important to the depth of the film and the fate of their son. Well cast and well played.
The Eponymous Man of Steel
I would be remiss if I didn’t take time to comment on the man himself, Kal-El, last son of Krypton and the venerable House of El, Clark Kent, Superman. Superman represents many different ideals, peoples, institutions, and concepts. That is something that makes him such an immortal character. He is both a paragon of what is good about humanity and an ideal of what humanity can be. He is a flawed godlike figure in some tellings and a fallible, albeit superpowered, man with limitations in other tellings whose struggles, triumphs, and failures mimic the travails of the average person on a massive scale demonstrating that even superheroes have problems like ours. He is an allegory of the immigrant sent to a new world for a better life, caught between the heritage and culture of his old world and that of his new world. In that respect he reminds me of my grandfather who was raised in North Dakota on a farm, not unlike Clark’s upbringing in Kansas, albeit my grandfather was raised in a German speaking household by his Austrian parents and older siblings. Come WWII, though a grown man, my grandfather was drafted by the US Army to fight Germans and Austrians. Sort of like Superman in this movie, he was a man caught between his heritage and the culture he was raised in. The House of El was one of the preeminent families on Old Krypton that advocated social responsibility, as well as the correct blend of science and conscience. This is something that Superman brings to Earth, serving as a symbol of moderation so his new home doesn’t suffer the same fate as his old home. The list goes on.
This film has taken some criticism for its portrayal of the Man of Steel, but in fairness, those that condemn it for destroying their concept of Superman need to ask themselves one fundamental question: which version of Superman are you talking about? Let us not forget, that Superman is 75 years old! The original version was pretty much a thug that beat up people that didn’t fall into his view of social justice. Not tie them up with a bow for the police unharmed to meet justice. HE BEAT THEM UP!!! He also couldn’t fly, but rather “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” The Superman these people talk about didn’t really come about until the 1950’s when the Silver Age was initiated and most heroes’ comics were canceled in McCarthyist hearings and those that remained, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc, were essentially spayed and neutered. In the 60’s and 70’s Superman began to get his teeth back. By the 80’s and 90’s he had gotten to be a very dark character during a period called the “Dark Age” of comics. So again, when watching the film, the question remains as to what version of Superman is the watcher taking into the film? This will determine how disappointed or elated the viewer will be.
Regardless of which Superman you prefer, Superman is going to continue to evolve as a character to fit the times in which he lives. That is actually something filmmakers alluded to in the film through a quotation from Kryptonian Capt. Faora-Ul: “You’re weak, son of El. The fact that you possess a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if history has proven anything, it is that evolution always wins!” This comment is a double-edged sword that can describe why Superman is moral in some representations, i.e. 50’s and 60’s, and why he became more hard edged in other depictions, i.e. 1930’s, 80’s, 90’s, etc. Superman evolves and as Faora so bluntly states, those that cannot evolve, die. Superman originally stood for “Truth and Justice,” fighting for the little guy, sometimes in brutish fashion, and against corrupt politicians and gangsters. However, in the 1950’s amid the “Red Scare” and a stabilized society that relied much more on a strong central government Superman worked with authority figures and came to stand for “Truth and Justice” with the addition of the “the American Way.” This was around the same time that “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Here Superman evolved to fit the times and what American society needed him to be. He also took on several post-War misogynistic viewpoints that mimed the male sentiments of the time to get women out of the WWII workplace and “back where they belonged” in the kitchen and the home. As a result he became more overbearing on his formerly intrepid journalist girlfriend, Lois Lane, in those Silver Age issues. Not a pretty picture, but one that reflected the times he lived in. The Superman we see in Man of Steel is no different. He is a product of a very real world that is far from ideal. In the real world post-9/11, paranoia and hysteria have made us afraid of our own shadows. The government and military are equally distrustful of anything that could pose a threat creating an atmosphere of fear. That is at the heart of this film. Clark is raised on Earth by a very wise, albeit terse father who has a very fair grasp of humanity’s general temperament when it comes to things outside their ken. If you had a son with abilities like Clark’s and you loved him as much as Jonathan, you would be overprotective too. Apparently so much so that you would die for your son, assuming you are Jonathan Kent that is. Witnessing his death and what it meant also put Clark in a shell, not wanting to directly engage with people. It’s not healthy nor good, but it’s necessary. Despite how poorly he is treated by the people he meets on his lonely odyssey he never stops trying to save them while still staying cloaked in anonymity. That speaks volumes as to his character. He has also drawn heat for not being powerful enough to stop people from dying and for being too somber and never smiling. These two seem to cancel each other out. Superman being too powerful would make the movie boring, because he’d save everyone and there’d be no struggle. If he smiled while all those people were getting killed he would be a monster and not the concerned guardian of humanity he has always been. He is mistreated for most of the beginning of the movie, sold out by the military, and marked as an enemy when he attempts to stop the Kryptonian army in Smallville and yet he never wavers for a moment or stops trying to help. Others criticize him for killing General Zod at the end. “Superman doesn’t kill!” says them. In Action Comics #583 Superman kills his fifth dimensional nemesis Mr. Mxyzptlk. In the Death of Superman mega-event he kills Doomsday right before he himself succumbs to his wounds and bites the dust. He even killed Zod in the comics in Adventures of Superman #444. Superman kills when he has to. Anyone who says otherwise is someone who doesn’t actually read Superman comics or know what they are talking about. It’s his abhorrence to killing that defines him. In this film he wants nothing more than to not kill Zod, but with the clock ticking and four humans milliseconds away from being sliced in half like cheap timber, he makes the hard decision and kills the genocidal lunatic who literally stated he was going to wipe out humanity person by person to avenge his race. Afterward, when the moment passes and he looks down at the dead body of his countryman he freaks out at what he had to do, overcome with remorse. I don’t know what else Supes could have done to placate his detractors, but that is a clean depiction of what Superman should be, a man who will do the hardest thing possible, tainting his moral code in order that four innocent people can continue to draw breath. Maybe he should have let them die so he can say, “Hey, I’m Superman. I don’t kill.” (Smile to the camera, wink, and a thumbs up.) Was Superman spot on in this movie? Close to it. He was “Super” in all the ways he needed to be and faltered perhaps because he’d gone from holding up oil rigs to fighting a horde of militaristic, super-powered Kryptonians, bearing in mind that he was raised by a pacifist in the middle of the Corn Belt. He’s a little new at this, so why don’t we all cut him some slack?
Henry Cavill plays Superman and he does so quite well. He is very somber throughout the film, but he’s also a man with no purpose or sense of identity. This movie is about him finding that identity. As the film progresses he begins to thaw and have some very tender moments where his gentle spirit shines through. In the scene where he is in an interrogation room talking to Lois Lane and slowly reveals that he can see through walls, hear what is happening on the other side of tinted sound and bullet proof glass, as well as snapping his handcuffs as though they were made from spun sugar, we see a very Zen Superman who is not threatened or irate at his treatment and who very genially offers his assistance. At the end of the movie when the military, still not trusting him after he saved the world from a MASSIVE invasion and killed the only surviving member of his race (besides himself that is), attempts to locate his Fortress of Solitude with drones, he downs one and again in a very cordial manner asserts his privacy, telling the military he is only here to help, but won’t allow them to interfere in his personal life. He’s polite but assertive. Just like Superman should be. That isn’t to say though that he doesn’t have his darker moments and that Cavill doesn’t nail those too. The best scenes that convey this side are the aforementioned scene where Kal-El has Zod in a headlock, attempting to stop his heat-vision from slicing the trapped humans in the Metropolis train station and the scene preceding that where Superman downs the ship with the Genesis Chamber in it. When Superman bursts into the ship carrying the artificial womb filled with Kryptonian embryos he thinks he is attacking Zod’s weaponry. Upon learning from a very frightened Zod that he is not destroying arms, but rather “Krypton” itself, Superman gets a look of absolute horror on his face as the magnitude of the situation sinks in. His actions come down to one genocide or another. If he leaves the ship Earth and every human on it will be annihilated. If he downs the ship to save Earth, he will be responsible for the death of his race . . . again. In a split second he weighs the consequences and makes his choice. “KRYPTON HAD ITS CHANCE!!!” In the train station he has a look of absolute pleading on his face as he attempts to stop Zod from killing four people he has never met before in his life. He wants them to live. He will do anything for them to live. Complete strangers. When the point of no return comes up, he does what he has never done (and you could tell hoped he’d never have to do) and takes another person’s life. The cost hits him like a freight train as he collapses in hysterics. He was raised by good people in Kansas to respect life and he was responsible for killing his own race twice over so that humans, who rarely in the film gave him a reason to, could live and retain dominion of our planet. Tell me that isn’t a Superman!
Zod as a Hero
Every good story needs a villain. Every great story needs a compelling villain. General Zod is that villain for Man of Steel and fulfills the task on every conceivable level. His part in the story ties into the very being of Superman. Like Ra’s Al-Ghul in Batman Begins, who was responsible both directly and indirectly for Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, Zod’s goals and his one desire are hindered by Kal-El’s birth at the beginning of the film and rest in the last son of El’s existence towards the end. Though he hates Kal-El for what he is and what his birth meant for Krypton, Zod’s goals and his one desire are hindered by Kal-El’s birth at the beginning of the film and rest entirely on the existence
of the last son of El towards the end. For Superman, Zod represents the darkness of his own heritage. Raised on Earth by decent parents with Midwestern values, he is shown two sides of his racial heritage. There is the philosophically good, altruistic visionary Jor-El who imagines his son creating a utopia on Earth by resurrecting the Kryptonian race and guiding the human and Kryptonian peoples into a golden age of harmony and on the other side there is the Kryptonian army of Zod that wish to wipe the human race out like vermin and terraform Earth to support the new Kryptonian race. Jor-El represents what Kryptonian culture could be and Zod represents what it is. Jor-El and Lara gave birth to Kal to free Krypton’s future of artificial inbreeding that contributed to the planet’s downfall. Zod is the epitome of that system, bred to ensure the vicious circle that has his race locked into a future without possibilities.
Needless to say, portraying such a complex villain that is as integral to the plotline as General Zod you need the right actor. Michael Shannon is the man filmmakers chose to do this job. In my opinion, he looks nothing like how General Zod has looked in the past or should. However, from the moment he emerged in the Elder Council Chamber I did not for one second disbelieve that I was beholding Dru-Zod, general of Krypton’s armies. Shannon had the commitment and the unerring faith of this genetically predisposed zealot down pat. His calm in moments of heinous action, his indignation in moments of existential frustration, and his steadfast candor in his intellectual debates with Jor-El all hit the mark. Michael Shannon’s acting was one of the key factors that made this film soar.
However, what truly makes Zod such an engaging villain is the fact that he is in point of fact . . . a hero. That is correct. General Zod is an archetypal hero. Let us examine the definition of a hero. Merriam-Webster defines the classical hero in these terms: 1) Mythological or legendary figure, often of divine descent, who is endowed with great strength or ability, like the heroes celebrated in early epics, 2) Usually illustrious warriors or adventurers, heroes are often represented as fulfilling a quest, 3) Often possess special qualities such as unusual beauty, precocity, and skills in many crafts. Often inclined to boasting and foolhardiness, they defy pain and death to live fully, creating a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants. Now taking these one at a time let us examine how they pertain to Zod. Looking at the first point, his divinity is a concept open to debate, but he is endowed through Kryptonian genetic engineering with both strength, ability, and leadership qualities of the highest caliber. It is what he was bred to be. The second point is infinitely true as Zod and his faithful followers were cast off their homeworld for his beliefs and then sent on a cosmic quest to rebuild Krypton from its own ashes via the spread out remains of former Kryptonian colonies throughout the galaxy. That is perhaps the most noble quest any hero could embark upon: resurrecting a dead race from oblivion. The third requirement fits Zod to a tee. Zod is a genetically engineered warrior titan that is quite grandiose in his candor and makes no attempts at humility whatsoever. His goals are singular and he does not waver from them for even the slightest moment. Even amid the pain of Earth’s overwhelming sensory overload on his heightened faculties, he pushes on, taking a lesson from Superman and focusing his mind, blocking out all extraneous noises and sights. Clark mentions it took time for him to learn how to do this. It took Zod a few minutes. Though it could be said to be his genetic predisposition that lends him that kind of prowess, the more likely explanation is that, as the third hero requirement states: “they defy pain and death to live fully, creating a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants.” Zod isn’t fighting for a moment’s glory to hand down to his descendants He is fighting to ensure that he and those Kryptonians under his command HAVE descendants. He pushes through the pain and the frustration to save his race. When he is defeated and Kal-El destroys the Genesis Chamber housing Krypton’s unborn children, Zod is literally broken because he no longer has the purpose he was bred for. He says in a moment of pure pathos that, though he is a monster, his whole purpose was to protect his people and ensure their survival. Without them, he cannot go on living, because he doesn’t have the one thing in his life that gave it any meaning. That is a powerful statement, begging a second look at his horrific deeds. Jor-El warned the Council of Elders not to mine Krypton’s core and in ignoring him they doomed Krypton and her people to oblivion. So Zod breaks from their dominion and initiates a coup to depose them, killing a few right off the bat to establish a new order and salvage what time is left to devise a plan to save what parts of Kryptonian society he can. He extends a hand to Jor-El, the brightest mind on the planet, to help achieve that end. When Jor-El fails to comply and the truth of his breach of Kryptonian protocol in the form of a non-modified, naturally born child come to light, Zod is forced to purge this threat to the already fragile society and social order he was bred to protect. This means killing Jor-El. Did he want to? No. He even tells Superman as much. It haunts him constantly because of the good man Jor-El was, but it had to be done for Krypton. For his people. Then he scours the universe for the means to rebuild their world. All of this is for Krypton. All of it is for his people. Can anyone say that this is not heroic? We call him villain because of the disregard he has for humanity, and yes that is quite heinous, but if Greek mythology (most notably the Trojan War) has taught us anything, it’s that heroes very often do horrific things in the course of doing their duty to their kings and their peoples. Odysseus, king of Ithaca and hero of the Odyssey, caved in the skull of the infant son of his rival, Prince Hector of Troy, with a rock after the fall of Troy. It was for Greece, it was for his people so Troy wouldn’t rise again under a young prince to kill and make war on this massive scale again. But it was also so the child would not grow up filled with anger and live a life poisoned by vengeance. Heroic? Doesn’t sound like it, but Odysseus is still classified as a hero. When dealing with Zod, one might be cynical and say that the fact that this urgency is built into his genes removes choice and therefore makes his singular drive for the rebirth of Krypton mechanical and unheroic. However, the fact remains, he is a tragic figure with real feelings and love that are for something outside of himself. Say what you like, but sacrificing everything, including your very soul for the survival of another person or better yet, an entire race is heroic. Zod is a hero.
The New Kryptonite
What Man of Steel also did was present new takes on Superman’s Kryptonian biology and how it interacts with Earth’s environment. His Kryptonian biological makeup is keyed to red solar radiation from Krypton’s sun, an ancient red giant called Rao. Krypton is also much larger and denser than Earth. Thus when Kal is exposed to yellow solar radiation from our sun (Sol) and Earth’s lesser gravitational force his body is granted the heightened abilities we are all too familiar with. However, every titan has their weaknesses, not unlike the great Achilles and his fabled heel. Everyone knows kryptonite, the glowing green radioactive remnants of his homeworld. An overused trope. Lex Luthor and kryptonite are perhaps the most tired Superman conventions ever. This movie is free of that, thank God. However, Superman’s weaknesses aren’t limited strictly to kryptonite. There are a few others. Magic is one that few people think about and for good reason. It works alright in the comics, but will NEVER be utilized in a Nolan-produced/Goyer-written film. As stated previously, yellow solar radiation supercharges Superman’s cells and heightens their functioning. Conversely, red solar radiation mimicking that emitted by Rao will dissipate the stored energies in his cells and return him to a regular man, no more super than you or I. This film creates another alternative, most likely to replace the never-to-be-used magic weakness. When Superman is brought aboard Zod’s ship, he is forced to breathe Krypton’s atmosphere which de-powers him and and almost kills him when he first inhales it. This actually makes sense and plays off of something that has been done before, most notably in the DC mega-event from 2006 entitled 52. In that story Superman was exposed to particles that acted like carbon monoxide in human lungs. Just as carbon monoxide bonds tighter to hemoglobin in red blood cells than oxygen preventing the blood from absorbing essential O2 molecules for us to breathe, so too do some particles bond with Superman’s cells preventing them from absorbing the yellow solar radiation that gives him his power. Just like a person who has inhaled carbon monoxide, the body can work it out of its system over time. In Superman’s case, this medical malady cost him his superpowers for 52 weeks while it was metabolized and dissipated. Krypton’s atmosphere appears to act in the same way, almost immediately leaching the surplus energy from his system. To be sure, the filmmakers have created a logical, very intriguing weakness. It may never be utilized again, but sonuvagun, it helped make this story interesting without having to resort to magic or kryptonite. That’s a major virtue to the film, elevating it above anything that has been done in television or film to date.
The film has many other aspects of note, but the main points that needed to be discussed have been above. There are also aspects of the film that could have been better. However, there are scores of people pointing those out that it wouldn’t be necessary for me to list them. I stated that I feel that Lara could have been more of an active player in the movie. I feel that though Lois Lane does have her merits, such as finding out Clark’s real identity before he even dons the “S”, she lacked a lot of the hard-edge that she usually was portrayed with and much of the teeth when dealing with certain people. However, she was a journalist for only a third of the movie, so that can be forgiven until the sequel. Perry White also didn’t seem like the stern editor with high blood pressure he has always been. Laurence Fishburne kind of made him seem like a teddy bear. Again, he wasn’t really a major part of this movie as news outlets weren’t as important to the plot, so this also is forgive until the sequel. Jury is still out on the glasses secret identity. It happened, but what can they really do? Clark has to be a reporter and Superman cannot wear a mask. It’s an inherent conundrum grandfathered in by the series’ prosaic 1930’s origin. Otherwise, I feel like I have enumerated in a more than thorough fashion about what this movie did right and why. The rest is up to the viewer’s taste.
Superman embodies a great number of things and this movie captures most of the important ones that still hold true in a very troubled age in human history. The most important thing Superman represents (and why this film proves its relevance) is the last scion of a failed race doomed to extinction because of their massive failures and inability look upon their actions objectively. The hubris of Kryptonian society is inherent in the human condition as well, and that is what Jor-El empowers his son to prevent. “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.” Both of his fathers know he was born with the capacity to do exactly that. However, they also know that in order for him to do this the people have to be ready. The entire film is seeking the answer to that very question. Are the people in the movie ready? Are we the viewers ready?