The following post contains SPOILERS for “Man of Steel” and “Iron Man 3.”
Comic book movies often inspire intense debates between fans and critics, but I can’t recall one quite as fevered as the conversation that is quickly coalescing around the new Superman film, “Man of Steel,” and in particular around its controversial ending.
In it, Superman (Henry Cavill) discovers the true nature of his strange existence and remarkable powers just as a band of soldiers from the planet Krypton, led by the renegade General Zod (Michael Shannon), arrive on Earth. Zod plans to terraform our world, changing its atmosphere and gravity to make it hospitable to Kryptonians (and therefore make it inhospitable to humans, killing billions*). Superman refuses to join Zod’s forces, and fights them repeatedly, first in his hometown of Smallville. This fight razes most of Main Street, demolishing, among other things, the local IHOP (thankfully, the local Sears is spared most of the devastation).
Eventually, Zod activates his terraforming device, the World Engine (while screaming “RELEASE THE WORLD ENGINE!” because Michael Shannon). The machine contains two parts: one lands in Metropolis and begins flattening the city’s busy downtown area while the other descends on the Indian Ocean. Rather than destroy the World Engine in the heavily populated area, Superman instead flies to the one that is apparently in the middle of nowhere and poses no immediate threat to human life. After a battle with a bunch of metal tentacle things, Superman punches the World Engine’s death laser and heads back to Metropolis.
Meanwhile, Superman’s military allies are able to destroy the Metropolis World Engine by flying a cargo plane into it; everyone onboard dies except for Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Zod. Enraged by his decision to side with the earthlings, Zod attacks Superman. Their fight begins in the blasted-out crater where the World Engine sat and then careens between, through, and into the remaining skyscrapers of the city, causing even more property damage (and likely loss of human life). The conflict concludes at a train station where Zod pins down a small group of civilians with his heat vision. Faced, in his mind at least, with no other choice, Superman snaps Zod’s neck, killing him before he can incinerate the bystanders.
Defenders of this series of action scenes offer a variety of evidence on its behalf. In one comic book storyline of the 1980s, Superman did indeed execute General Zod, so that decision has some precedent, however out of character it may seem. And they point out that Zack Snyder’s film is about Clark Kent becoming Superman; this is basically his first day on the job, and he’s still learning out the ropes. We shouldn’t expect him to be perfect, some argue, in the first fight of his life.
And then there’s the argument that I actually take most seriously: that this Superman simply isn’t the “truth, justice, and the American way” guy that people think of when they hear the name Superman. In 2013, as the argument goes, it’s time to reevaluate the character and find the version of him that works for the modern era. And this version shouldn’t be held to the standards of previous ones.
This Superman makes mistakes. He kills people (when he feels he has no other choice). He doesn’t always save everyone. He’s super, but he’s a man, too. These are deliberate changes to this character and to his mythos, done specifically to make him more relevant. Who cares what Superman’s done in the past? This is Superman now.
That argument is particularly compelling because it’s similar to one I’ve used when writing about how comic book movies should be allowed to futz with their source material. Just last month, I wrote a piece called “Defending ‘Iron Man 3”s Big Plot Twist” in which I lauded co-writer/director Shane Black for having the guts and the cleverness to rewrite the Mandarin, traditionally a stereotypical yellow peril villain, as a rug-pulling ruse. The guy who looks like the Mandarin from the comics with the flowing robes and the ten rings of power is actually an actor hired by the movie’s secret big bad to distract Iron Man from his real plans.
Some comic book fans rejected this change on principle, but I defended it. “Filmmakers are not court stenographers,” I wrote, “and movies are not transcripts.” And I chided comic book fans for refusing to accept any deviation from the familiar, adding “It’s not just the [comic book] characters that resist change; their audience does too. Everything must remain the same, all the time, over and over again. No wonder so many comics feel so tired; they have to be. Their readers demand it.”
So why did I enjoy the Mandarin in “Iron Man 3” and feel so uncomfortable with Superman in “Man of Steel?” If I’m pro-change in comic book movies, why did this change rub me the wrong way? You might call me a hypocrite, but I’d argue I was actual less put off by “Man of Steel”‘s unfaithfulness to the comics than by its unfaithfulness to itself.
After all, this Superman is introduced saving lives. In Cavill’s very first scene, he protects the staff of an offshore oil rig, propping up its collapsing structure so the rest of the workers can escape in a helicopter. In flashback, we see Clark as a teenager rescuing a bus full of his classmates after they drive off a bridge. His Superman is clearly established as guy who instinctively wants to help people. For whatever reason, though, those instincts never really kick in during the final battle. You could argue the character is actually more heroic in the beginning of the movie than at the end.
One of the explicit recurring themes of this movie — not Superman comics in general, but “Man of Steel” specifically — is Superman’s ability to inspire the people of Earth with his incredible deeds. In a speech featured in the film’s trailer, Russell Crowe’s Jor-El tells his son how he will help the human race:
“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They’ll race behind you. They’ll stumble, they’ll fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
Jor-El’s words are referred to several times throughout “Man of Steel,” including the great scene where Superman and Lois discuss his costume; Lois asks him what the “S” on his chest stands for and he tells her “It’s not an ‘S.’ On my world, it means hope.”
These are lovely sentiments, but in “Man of Steel” we mostly get the reverse; it’s actually the humans who are generally heroic without much prompting from Superman. Meanwhile Clark, after those early flashes of selflessness, seems more preoccupied with his father issues and his fight with Zod than with protecting the populace of Metropolis. Frankly, it’s the regular people who really help Superman accomplish wonders here (like destroying the World Engine), not the other way around.
That’s where my dissatisfaction lies; not in the character’s “unfaithfulness” but in his stasis; not his change from the comics but his lack of change over the course of the movie. Despite what some of my colleagues argue, Cavill’s Clark doesn’t really grow into the role of Superman; if anything, he shrinks under the weight of it. It’s not that he doesn’t feel like Superman — it’s that he doesn’t even feel like the Superman introduced in the beginning of this movie. He basically has no arc; at the end of the film, he still hasn’t make any huge strides forward from the man we met on that oil rig. And this for a guy who should be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
And If your counter-argument is, “Well, that’s all setting up his arc in ‘Man of Steel 2,’ where we’ll see him grapple with his actions and become a true hero,” you could be right — but that doesn’t make “Man of Steel 1” any more satisfying. But I guess there’s always hope for the future, right? That’s what the “S” stands for.
*This raises a question I hadn’t quite thought of before: if the yellow sun of Earth makes Kryptonians all-powerful, why would they even want to reshape Earth in Krypton’s image? Krypton had cool flying dragons and stuff, but it also, y’know, exploded as a result of environmental instability. Wouldn’t it be safer — not to mention easier — to conquer the world by leaving it the way it is? This way you’re relatively sure the planet won’t explode and you’ve got the added benefit of being a walking god amongst mere mortals.