I couldn’t help thinking about my late father when watching “Man of Steel.” He adored Superman and I still remember asking him as a child what the difference was between Batman and Superman. He said Batman was about darkness and Superman was about light — a perfect complement. In later years, though, he bemoaned the prevailing cynicism and nihilism that led to Superman going out of fashion.
But while struggling with concluding “The Dark Knight Rises,” David Goyer found a way to make Superman relatable again through a compelling father/son story that helps humanize the Man of Steel. And this was the key that hooked Zack Snyder, who liked the strategy of passing through darkness into the light.
“For me it was very simple: It’s a story about two fathers,” Goyer admits. “And while I was writing the script, I became a step dad and a dad and my own dad died, and so I never thought my own experiences would find their way into something like this. But if you boil it down to that, a man with two fathers, you have to decide which kind of lineage you want to choose: my Kryptonian father or my Earth father? And in the end, they both make him the man that he becomes.”
That’s what resonated for me: the tug-of-war between Clark Kent and Kal-El (Henry Cavill) and the relationships with his two fathers, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and Jor-El (Russell Crowe). They represent the soul of the movie and are a fascinating study in
contrast: While Jor displays unfailing confidence that humanity will
embrace his son’s strength and goodness (he pops in and out like the
ghost of Hamlet’s father to dispense sagely advice), Jonathan fears that
his son will be rejected as an outsider so he encourages him to hide
Yet the pain and intimacy Clark and Jonathan share is deeply moving. It’s also enhanced by the non-linear structure as we’re introduced to Clark as an angst-ridden 33-year-old loner, who anonymously drifts from town to town like a traveling angel.
“I don’t think it necessarily speaks to the outsider alone,” Cavill suggests. “He speaks to everyone or that ideal speaks to everyone. We all
need hope, no matter what century we’re in, whatever state of life we’re
in, whether we’re going through tragedy or not. Its just hope that
everything will be okay.”
For Diane Lane, who plays Martha Kent,
the parenting theme beautifully extends to Clark’s
relationship with his mother. Indeed, one of the highlights is when she guides him through an early crisis at school by helping him see the world as smaller and more manageable.
“The backstory that we discussed that
isn’t part of the script is imagining what it would be like to temper a
young person’s attitude adjustment that’s required in the rearing of
children when they have the powers that Clark has,” Lane explains. “So it
was fun having those conversations and filling in the blanks. Once you
fall in love with a being that needs you, you imprint and you want it to
represent your belief system. And that winds up being conveyed
eventually when you’re not there to see it. That’s the hope of
This identity crisis grounds him in a reality that we can identity with before unleashing the superhero pyrotechnics in the second half. One of the complaints with the movie is that it’s the anti-Donner Superman. But what did you expect after “The Dark Knight” trilogy? Another is that it inevitably lapses into the usual superhero fighting and CG destruction. Well, you can only linger so long on Clark’s angst before showing off the full-force of Superman.
But I like that it’s a movie at odds with itself. I found it poignant and cathartic. And there’s a certain humility that’s also refreshing in this journey about adoption, alienation, and assimilation. He’s constantly tested and bullied in what eventually leads to
a crisis of conscience when Superman battles General Zod (Michael
In fact, humility was the very word that Snyder described to composer Hans Zimmer, which found its way into the theme via a lovely piano motif. “And the weird thing about that piano thing is, it doesn’t sound very good, and it’s not very well played,” Zimmer recalls. “I tried to get better pianists and better players than myself to play it, and it lost all its charm. It had to be played by somebody inept.”
That humility is part of the charm of “Man of Steel,” an unapologetic Superman movie that attempts to make the DC superhero meaningful again in the 21st century. “I always felt like in the recent past that people had been apologizing for Superman a little bit for his costume, for his origins, for the way he fits into society,” Snyder says. “And we really wanted to just say, ‘No, no. This is the mythology. This is how it is, and it’s supposed to be this way.’ And I think that’s kind of the movie we made. We wanted to enshrine him where he belongs. And whether or not that’s making it too important, I don’t know, but it was the way we wanted to do it. So it was fun.”
My dad would’ve been 80 this year and I think he would’ve delighted in the unapologetic reverie of “Man of Steel.” It’s the perfect Father’s Day gift for a new generation of fathers and sons.