THERE ARE SPOILERS FOR MAN OF STEEL. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
I saw Man of Steel last weekend. After failing to see the midnight showing (my theater only offered it in 3D and I wisely decided against that), I wanted to wait and get some distance from the film’s initial outrage and controversy before I waded into the film. I did and I think it was the right call because now I can better focus on the failings of the film (of which there are a few) and the controversy of…. (last time to abort before I ruin something for you)….
….Superman killing General Zod.
Yeah. Superman kills and that idea is why I had to have distance from the film before I could see it.
Superman DOES NOT kill.
Over the course of Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder (who previously directed Frank Miller’s 300 and took a giant turd on Alan Moore’s Watchmen), writer David Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan, spend 2+ hours displaying all the reasons they don’t understand Superman, capped off with an act so anti-Superman, it’s as if they were making another movie and just slapped an “S” logo on top of it in post-production.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about the idea of Superman taking a life, but then I read an article in Entertainment Weekly by Darren Franich that captured a lot of what I was feeling about Superman taking a life. Refuting Man of Steel‘s argument, Franich cites another classic Alan Moore story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (proving that Snyder has never read a word of Moore’s writing).
This story is often referred to as “the last Superman story” and, surprisingly, presents a similar situation as in the film. Faced with an unbeatable foe, one who has already directly, or indirectly, killed the majority of the supporting cast, Superman must take a life for the greater good. While he is clearly in anguish over his actions in Man of Steel, “Man of Tomorrow” takes the toll on Superman even further. So vehemently does Superman believe that he should not take a life, that he strips himself of his powers and ceases to be Superman on that day. The “Man of Tomorrow” no longer believes himself worthy of being Superman. The Man of Steel thinks differently.
The other story to really delve into the idea of a Superman who kills can be found in Action Comics #775, “What’s so Funny ’bout Truth, Justice, & the American Way?” The story pits Superman against the Elite, a group of heroes who use their powers to shape the world and kill whoever gets in the way (a very thinly veiled analogue of the Authority, a popular comic book team at the time with the same premise). The story takes Superman to his breaking point and gives a glimpse into the horrors of Superman willing to kill. It is a modern, mature story, much like Man of Steel, but it ultimately affirms that, no matter what, Superman will never kill. This story was also adapted into a DC animated film, Superman vs. The Elite.
Now, like Batman, Superman was a little bit more rough-n-tumble when he was originally published. In his first issue, Superman stops a lynch mob, breaks into the mansion of the governor of whatever state Metropolis is in, and willingly lets a woman go to the chair (after he saved an innocent woman from the same fate). The next story features Superman pressuring an arms dealer into joining the army, then joining himself and marching the arms dealer to the front lines to see the pain and misery his weapons bring to mankind.
I bring up all this history to lead into my bigger point about this Superman killing controversy. I bring it up because I knew going into the movie that Superman kills Zod and let myself be pulled into the debate of whether or not Superman can ever take a life. But as I watched the film and the moment crept closer, I found myself not caring. I found myself seeing that Zod’s death at the hands of Superman was inevitable and, for the most part, earned. Now, when I say “earned,” I mean that they made me believe that this Superman was killing in a justifiable way.
And how they do that is simple: Superman, Kal-El, is not a superhero. He is a warrior, a soldier and Zod is a casualty of war. We are able to accept killing in the name of war, a necessary evil. A man is not held by the same law and morals if he kills in battle. One big break in this film from the other films/TV shows is that Martha Kent doesn’t make Clark’s costume. It must be admitted though that it’s a hokey idea that hasn’t really aged well (just look at this scene on YouTube from the 90s Lois & Clark).
While the loss of this idea isn’t terrible, Man of Steel revises the idea so that the suit is actually Kryptonian battle armor. Superman is wearing his fatigues. At one point, at the beginning of their final fist fight, it is made very clear that Superman and General Zod are wearing the same thing (Zod’s armor, in classic bad guy fashion, is all black). And so, in that vein, seeing this not as a superhero vs. super villain, but as two generals at war, the action Superman takes is excused as an act of war. That is a believable reason for him to take a life. We allow it in our own lives, so why not for the Man of Steel?
I was settling into my belief that our new Man of Steel was excused of his more caviler approach to property destruction and less active role in rescuing civilians, but before I sat down to write this, I watched two movies: Marvel’s The Avenger and 2006’s Superman Returns.
Man of Steel climax is a huge slug fest that destroys Metropolis. Before it begins, Superman does not check on the inhabitants of the city (unless you count setting Lois Lane down next to the Daily Planet staff). He merely focuses on the fight at hand. By contrast, the climax of The Avengers devotes a decent amount of screen time to the Avengers protecting civilians, with Iron Man nearly dying to stop a nuclear strike and even the FRIGGIN’ HULK saves people!
For many obvious reasons, the comparison between what Marvel is doing in their films and the films of DC (and by DC, I mean Warner Bros. using DC’s characters) is inevitable and necessary. The fact of the matter is that these films, and not the comic books they are based on, will be what defines a superhero for this generation.
Captain America is a soldier. Thor is from a violent, Norse-like culture. Before and after donning the Iron Man suit, Tony Stark has used his hands to build weapons to kill bad guys (notably on display in the first and especially in the third Iron Man films). Black Widow and Hawkeye are spies and soldiers, killing in the name of S.H.I.E.L.D. Only Bruce Banner is an innocent, but with his growing control of the Hulk, that probably won’t be true for long. This is the rough and tumble world of post-9/11 where super villains are terrorists who forgo giant typewriters and death traps for simple weapons of mass destruction. This trend started with 2005’s Batman Begins and one of the contributing factors to the failure of Superman Returns.
Superman Returns is this strange anomaly. It has gotten simultaneously gotten better and worse with age. It is still too long and it is hard not to see Superman as a deadbeat dad, but in the face of Man of Steel, what this film got right is now seen more clearly.
Right off the bat, director Bryan Singer understands and captures to wonder of Superman. Compared to Henry Cavill’s brooding, emo Superman, Brandon Routh is confident and all-American. Routh speaks calmly, always has his back straight and his head held. He moves with grace, Perhaps the most stark contrast is a montage in Returns, where the news channels of the world reports on all the people Superman helped that morning. Whereas in Man of Steel, Superman can’t be bothered to save someone unless the are falling right in front of them.
Both films are able to beautifully capture the Americana aspect of Clark Kent. Through out everything, all media, Smallville has yet to be done incorrectly. But Superman Returns creates a much more vibrant Metropolis, almost taking a cue from Tim Burton’s Batman films with a modern take on 1940/50s New York. There are computers and digital cameras, but the set design is out of the old George Reeves television series. Man of Steel takes place in a CGI New York that is ends as a pile of rubble.
And though Amy Adams is a far superior Lois Lane, she might have been better paired up with Frank Langella as Perry White and Sam Huntington’s Jimmy Olsen over Lawrence Fishburne and what’s-her-name? The Daily Planet of Returns is warm family, while Man of Steel’s Planet is a room of co-workers. Adams also has a background romantic comedies, so perhaps she would’ve helped Brandon Routh to elevate the love story, which feel dry and uninteresting throughout Returns.
And without a doubt, Kevin Spacey is far better as Lex Luthor than Michael Shannon’s General Zod. Spacey owns every second he is on screen, from his opening scheme of gerontophilia to being lost at sea with his assistant, Kitty, played by Parker Posey. Shannon’s Zod is menacing, but more in the vein of a book-smart football jock, always looking for a fight.
One final positive for Superman Returns is that it shows that it is possible for a superhero movie to have the same evergreen appeal as a series like James Bond. Though intended as an homage/continuation of the first two films, directed by Richard Donner, it stands on its own. This was the first film in nearly two decades and all the origin story we get is a title card in the beginning and a brief sequence of Clark first learning that he can fly. This is idea, that some superhero franchises (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man) can continue ad infinitum, is something that is being championed by superhero films (especially Marvel’s) and Superman Returns is really the first film to really take that idea and do something with it.
But ultimately, Returns proves is that Superman must always be re-invented. Bryan Singer presented an outdated idea of who Superman was, still trying to push the Christopher Reeves idea, and the audiences of 2006 had a much more diminished connection to this 1970s idea of the Man of Steel. This was not a Superman that reflected the new age of terror in the world and that is why the film failed to make an impact. Superman must always be the champion of his age.
Superman was created in 1938 by the teenage sons of immigrants to be the ultimate immigrant and the champion of the social justice that was prevalent in the early years of FDR’s New Deal. The mythology took shape in the 1940s, not in the pages of the comic book, but over the big medium of the day: radio. The science fiction elements that Man of Steel put on display (General Zod, The Phantom Zone) were introduced in the 1950s and 60s, at the height of Sputnik and the Space Race. Lex Luthor made his transition from mad scientist to corporate raider in the 80s, Wall Street’s heyday and the 90s rampted up the sex appeal. Superman is a product of his time, constantly reinvented to suit the world he lives in. To turn Commissioner Gordon’s phrase, “Superman’s not the hero we deserved, but the hero we needed.”
That’s the problem. It’s not that Superman killed, but what does it say about US when Superman kills.
“You’ll believe a man can fly.” That was the tagline for the original Superman, starring the late, great Christopher Reeves. But now, there is no belief; it’s only fact and realism. It’s about knowing how a man can fly. Snyder has said that there is not going to be kryptonite in his series, the same way that Christopher Nolan didn’t have Robin in his films. Batman fighting alongside a 12 year old and a radioactive rock that can kill Superman are old-fashion ideas that cannot hold up to our modern demands of storytelling, which require everything to be explained. Suspension of disbelief is a thing of the past because there is nothing to believe in.
And that is the point of Man of Steel: we don’t believe in any of our institutions, so why would we believe in Superman?
Man of Steel is Superman done by a cynic. It is a win for Manchester Black and completely misses the point of what Superman should be. In Snyder’s world, Superman has to earn our trust. Their marketing campaign was based around the image of Superman in handcuffs. Snyder’s Superman will never inspire us to be better because he’s no better than us. Snyder even told Empire magazine:
If there were more adventures for our Superman to go on, you’re given this thing where, you don’t know 100 percent what he’s going to do…If he sees Lois get hurt, or his mother get killed, you just made a really mad Superman that we know is capable of some really horrible stuff, if he wants to be. That’s the thing that’s cool about him, in some ways.
So, according to the man now in charge of Superman’s destiny, it’s cool that Superman is capable of “really horrible stuff, if he wants to be.”
Are there people who are complaining about Superman taking a life who aren’t comic fanboys? Are there people who found it upsetting for reasons other than reading Action Comics #775 or “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” That’s the question to ask. My friend Tom hasn’t read a single Superman comic book and was totally fine with the killing. There isn’t an uproar over this from the general public. They want more of this take charge, kill if you have to attitude.
And that’s because Superman doesn’t mean anything anymore.
In actuality, this is the second Superman reboot in two years. DC Comics retconned their entire line of comics in 2011’s New 52. This Superman ditched the red shorts too and, outside the hands of Grant Morrison, is a much more rough, stern, alien character. His new distance can be seen in his blooming relationship with Wonder Woman. This is not a Superman who wants to embolden humanity and create an example to follow, he sees his power as his means to save the world. He’ll bring the world to him, not give them the tools to meet him. And shed of his history, just like in Man of Steel, there is nothing bigger to ground Superman to. He is all power with no ideals because we’ve spent the past decade stripping him of them.
I feel it is far too strong a phrase to say “the idea of Superman is broken;” but perhaps, in this time of re-branding, we take a second to think about what we’re doing.
We don’t need a Man of Steel, someone who uses brute force to protect us.
We need a Man of Tomorrow, someone who uses his power to give us a brighter future.