Addressing the “Issues” in Man of Steel
So, I absolutely loved Man of Steel, but I’ve seen some pretty negative reviews about of the film. By and large, they largely revolve around these four things: Too Dark/Gritty, Jonathan Kent, Collateral Damage, & Zod’s Defeat, all of which I’ve decided to directly address in excruciating detail. This is going to be spoilery as all hell, so if you haven’t seen the film, come back an read it later. Consider this to be your go-to source for a definitive rebuttal to these parts of the film. I watched the film at midnight in XD 3D, and then again after hearing all of the issues in IMAX 3D, so I’ve watched the film in about as much detail as possible without owning a copy of it. SO - without further adieu, let’s get into this:
• Too Dark/Gritty: This film in coming out of the generally not-too-badly-reviewed-but-not-at-all-praised Superman Returns, which showed us the ‘able to save all people from any danger’ Superman, as well as the ‘Superman who essentially only lifts things’ so it’s not surprising that it’s a bit reactionary for the reboot film to feel very different. Man of Steel is clearly shying away from the “Good ‘Ol Days” type Superman, and leaning a little more towards the tone that made The Dark Knight films successful, as well as working Superman’s origin into something that puts him in more modern times. That being said, Superman HIMSELF hasn’t changed, it’s the setting of the world that Superman occupies that’s changed. The tImes and people of today are different than the ones when Superman was initially conceives, so there are some stark changes in the translation, and we’re looking at a Clark Kent who was raised in a more skeptical time, with a faster spread of information. The end of the film gives a good glimpse of who Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman is and will continue to be, and he IS that same hero that everyone remembers, even if the film doesn’t get to show you that as often as previous movies have.
I would be fairly confident in saying that most people who significantly disliked this general aspect of the film are people who wanted a Superman film that more closely resembled the originals. All I can say to that is that the move away from that tone was not only successful ($125 Million opening weekend, and biggest June opening weekend ever), but finally has a tone that it feels like all of the rest of the DC Universe can exist in. Overall, the tone is the most subjective of the complaints, and if it’s not your style, it’s not your style, but there are a lot of reasons that it works, and if you read through the rest, you might be able to see how, DESPITE THAT this film’s Superman is still the same as the one you wanted to see.
• Jonathan Kent: Jonathan Kent is different in his tone and what happens with him, and some people have GREATLY disliked the message that he gave to young Clark, but I think that this is because they’re frequently misinterpreting it. Jonathan completely believes in Clark and what he will one day do for the human race more than anyone. While Jor-El is the one who wants Clark to be an example for Humanity and to save them, Jonathan is the one who wants to ensure that he gets that chance. After Clark saves the kids in the bus from the river, Pete Ross’s mom get hysterical about it, and the Kents both try to avoid anyone turning it into a big deal. Clark asks his father if he should have let them die, Jonathan says, “…maybe” and then, after showing Clark the ship that he arrived in explains that he believes more than anything that Clark will change everything in the world, but that right now, both Clark himself AND the people aren’t ready, because they’re afraid of what they don’t understand, and Clark doesn’t know enough about himself yet. He knows that if Clark reveals himself as a super-powered extra-terrestrial too early, that humanity will NEVER give him an opportunity to prove that he can be a force for good. On top of that, he’s adamant because he knows that Clark will only ever get ONE CHANCE to do that. This is the same reason that Perry White doesn’t want to print Lois’ story, and the same reason that Lois eventually abandons her story. There is no better lens for the truth of Jonathan’s fears in the public eye on a larger scale than what we see with the employees of the Daily Planet. This message and chance is SO CRITICAL that Jonathan stands by those words at all costs, and is convinced that Clark needs to wait until he understands his powers and until HE is ready, AND humanity is ready. He proves his commitment to that when, just as he said that Clark should possibly have let the kids in the bus drown in order to keep his powers a secret until the right time, Jonathan holds up his hand to stop Clark from using his powers to save him from the tornado, because that time isn’t right. Despite being in an argument moments before, Clark respects his father enough, and believes in him to let him go. It’s the trust and truth of that moment that make it important and as impactful as his original death being something that Clark couldn’t save him from - he died to show Clark that he believed that he could become the amazing force that he’d always believed in.
This directly plays in to what I consider to be Superman’s most definitive trait, which I’ll address again later - he believes in us more than we believe in him. After he saves Pete Ross, he doesn’t mock Clark anymore, and later he helps to break up a fight, because he understands that Clark can’t fight back, but doesn’t say anything. Jonathan Kent again shows that he believes in his son, and is helping him to become the type of man that he believes the world needs, because every trait of Clark’s is amplified in the eyes of the people who are going to scrutinize him because of his abilities. The last scene in the film that shows Jonathan Kent proves that he believed in his son Clark more than anything. He NEVER wanted Clark to hide who he was FOREVER, he just wanted him to hide who he was until the moment was right. It’s a different version of the story, but one that’s more relevant to the current world and the themes in the film, and I still feel that when seen in the bigger picture that Jonathan Kent was attempting to give to Clark, it’s just as meaningful.
• Collateral Damage: This is probably going to be the largest of the breakdowns, because there are a vast number of specifics to address, but this point needs to be made first - this film’s Superman is BRAND NEW to his powers. He’s never fought before, he hasn’t spent ANY of his life as the world’s savior, aside from doing right where he can in small ways, LONG before he gained the ability to fly, and he’s never actually been able to fight ANYONE before these conflicts. So the before you start accusing him of not doing more, remember that he’s BARELY become able to do what he accomplishes in the film. So, now let’s get into the fights themselves. The filme doesn’t give you any of the slow-motion fighting that’s so commonly used in film these days, so it’s easy to assume that things are happening that didn’t, because everything is just full-power, breakneck speed, militarily-trained Kryptonians going all out against Kal-El. We’ll start with the first conflict in Smallville, and work from there.
After saving Lois from the broken escape pod, Kal-El rushes over towards his home, and tackles Zod. This is the first building that Kal-El himself destroys. He plows directly through two grain silos, and drags Zod through a cornfield while punching him in the face and yelling at him for threatening his mother. The grain silos are more than likely unoccupied, as they’re just storage facilities. Zod rolls out and hurls Kal-El through an occupied gas station, causing people to flee. You’ll note that Zod comes walking out of the flames in the building, as Kal-El is lying on the pavement well outside the store. Considering that he’s fighting against militarily trained Kryptonians, there isn’t much he can do about that type of thing occurring. This is the first of many, MANY times that Superman gets used as a projectile that causes collateral damage, and one that’s easy to MISTAKE for him CAUSING the damage through his own action. Zod leaves with his mask broken, but Faora-Ul & her ENORMOUS Kryptonian compatriot step in, and Clark tells everyone to stay inside or leave.
The moment that the military arrives, and essentially locks in the conflict’s location within the town. Clark manages to save a man from falling to his death after the big Kryptonian hurls a van into his helicopter before the fighting REALLY breaks out, but after that he doesn’t have a moment to spare. In addition to the fact that the military is treating him like a threat, the two Kryptonians tag-team him and hurl him through buildings, or just smash him into the ground at just about every turn, and he’s barely managing to hold off their assault, let alone have enough time to leap to anyone’s aid. This is a battle that ISN’T on his terms - not to mention that he hasn’t even fought anyone before, let alone tried to micromanage combat and rescuing people. He gets hurled through buildings into a bank vault, pummeled relentlessly through an IHOP, and back to where he was before. This leads to the SECOND human structure that Clark destroys - he tosses the big Kryptonian into a train yard. Again, this is another area that’s likely abandoned (he would have had a pretty good view of it from the air, and ought to have been able to tell), but like the grain silo, it’s hard to say for certain. After, knocking down Faora-Ul, she delivers a rather heavy threat, “For every one you save, we’ll kill a million more.” and with these people, Kal-El can’t take his attention away from them, even for a moment, because they’re better than he is, and his biggest advantage here is that they’re not adapted to our atmosphere. After getting hit by a train hurled by the big Kryptonian from the aforementioned yard, there isn’t anything else significant that comes to mind that Clark is involved in (various gunfire, and Faora-Ul blocking a missile fired at her are collateral damage that he’s not directly involved in because he’s otherwise detained). This weakness leads to the next big conflict that deals in HEAVY collateral damage - Metropolis.
The World Engine is activated in the Indian Ocean, and is slaved to the Kryptonian’s Ship hovering over Metropolis. The World Engine is generating the gravity wave that’s causing the destruction and also serving as a protective barrier around their ship. In addition to this, the longer that the World Engine remains intact, the bigger the gravity wave will get, and the more of the atmosphere will be converted into Kryptonian-friendly and Earth-deadly fumes. This means that Superman HAS to tackle the World Engine first, in order to allow Lois and the military to send the rest of the Kryptonians into the Phantom Zone, as well as to ensure that it causes the least amount of damage possible.
Let me be clear here - by fighting that gigantic machine, Superman is saving more people than if he’d gone immediately to Metropolis - that ship is has somewhere around eight Kryptonians who we already know pose a threat to him if there’re just two of them fighting him. Two, even if he defeats them, the World Engine would be wrecking Metropolis THE ENTIRE TIME, if not causing global-scale damage. The World Engine is increasing the Earth’s mass, in order to make the world’s gravity more like that of Krypton (which is some sketchy science, but that’s something else entirely), and that ship is just localizing the effect to use it as a shield/weapon. Not to mention that after a fight against a whole slew of Kryptonians in fluctuating Gravity, he might not even be strong enough to break down the World Engine at all (since he barely managed to hold up against the gravity level where it was at when it was his first target, and it would be significantly stronger if he attempted to combat it later - not to mention, without the focus, it might just spread the effect across the entire world if they destroyed the Kryptonian ship first which would cause Global damage). So, now it should be clear that, Superman is saving more people by being halfway around the world than by being in Metropolis at the time, despite the fact that it feels counterintuitive.
Now let’s move on to his fight against Zod, which takes place in the non-ruined parts of Metropolis. Zod throws Kal-El through a LOT of buildings which are possibly and even likely occupied. We even see people near where debris is falling, but Superman isn’t doing anything to save them - this is again because this fight isn’t on his terms (and this isn’t the Superman who’s been using all of these powers to save people around the world before). Zod is a battle trained warrior who adapts to the issues Clark faced on Earth in a matter of hours. Clark is fighting as hard as he can just to get even a momentary advantage here. If he runs to try to change the battlefield - Zod probably won’t chase him, he’ll just start murdering people by the thousands, so he stays as close to Zod as possible, but that doesn’t do him any favors. He gets tossed through buildings, punched into space, and relentlessly pummeled. There is ONE SINGLE TIME DURING THIS ENTIRE FIGHT that Kal-El damages a building or any other structure that may have resulted in human injury - Zod is dragging him against a building (the same way Kal-El dragged him through the cornfield), and he flips around and drags Zod against the outside of the building for the last few feet. Aside from that, Kal-El DOESN’T DIRECTLY CAUSE ANY DAMAGE WITHIN METROPOLIS. There’s even a whole sequence of him punching Zod through the sky, moving through the city (assumedly in an attempt to move out of it), where he doesn’t hit Zod into anything and even specifically avoids all of the buildings, before Zod gets the better of him again. Overall, despite how it looks, Kal-El takes every opportunity to save people when he can - which is almost never, and when he can’t, he’s trying to ensure the least amount of damage possible. (On a related note, this is likely why this Superman takes up Metropolis as his ‘home city’ - because he feels that he owes them for everyone that he couldn’t save from the Kryptonian’s attacks).
• Zod’s Defeat: Zod is the antithesis of who Kal-El is, and his role as the General of the Army and Protector of Krypton is in direct opposition to the role of Superman. Jor-El wanted to use the Genesis Chamber to bring Kryptons back on Earth the same way that Clark did, but Zod doesn’t see this “suffering” as an option, because his role is to ensure the greatest chance for survival for his people, no matter the cost to anything else. This isn’t an option that Kal-El will allow, because it’s genocide and because he doesn’t want to kill ANYONE, he attempted to trap all of the Kryptonians in the Phantom Zone rather than kill them. Zod escapes this fate by being onboard the Genesis ship, and when Kal-El confronts him, it becomes clear that Zod sees this as the last way to resurrect Krypton in his own image - the same one Jor-El refuses to be a part of at the beginning of the film. As the living Codex, Kal-El could still potentially save his people one day in a different way, but the systematic bloodline control is the only future that Zod believes in. Once this option of bringing back his vision of Krypton is taken from him, he exists only to destroy everything that Kal-El wants to save, and he will NEVER stop. He can’t be sent to the Phantom Zone anymore, and there isn’t any force on Earth that can hold or imprison him, and he refuses to be reasoned with, and puts Kal-El in an impossible situation where he HAS to kill him, allow an innocent family die. We also have to remember that he has Zod at a momentary disadvantage here, and if he doesn’t take the opportunity, it is a certainty that he will kill the family, and a SIGNIFICANT likelihood that Kal-El won’t be able to stop him from killing even more people. Right after snapping Zod’s neck, he drops to the ground screams in pain, because he’s never killed anyone before, and he didn’t WANT to kill anyone. He WANTED to be a bridge between their people and bring his people a new home, but Zod and the other Kryptonians wouldn’t allow it to happen. He is suffering the same failure with his own people that Jonathan Kent feared he would suffer with the people of Earth - they didn’t give him a chance to let him save them, and they only rejected him. This is probably the biggest impact of this film, and the one that’s most misunderstood, especially if you missed the full meaning of Jonathan Kent’s message to Clark. Kal-El killing Zod not ONLY represents the failures of the old society of Krypton, but most of all, it shows that when it comes down to trust in the people of Earth or the peoples of Krypton, Superman is definitively, ALWAYS the hero who trusts in us. He believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves, and even when it costs him something that we can’t understand, he choses US. THAT is what defines Superman.