Man of Steel is aptly titled. The movie hits with the force of girder beam accidentally dropped from the top of a skyscraper during construction, shattering the sidewalk below and claiming the lives of a couple of hapless pedestrians in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, he doesn’t soar. Superman smashes.
The first half of Man of Steel is a surprisingly good movie. Kryptonian culture gets a lot more attention than in previous cinematic adaptations, the relationship between Superman’s father, Jor-El, and General Zod is more developed, and the effects of Superman’s alien presence on earth are considered with greater realism. (Producer and screenwriter Christopher Nolan’s physicalism is on even greater display here than in the Dark Knight movies.)
Superman’s boyhood in Kansas is shown through a series of flashbacks, and it is an angst-ridden boyhood. Instead of being simply a good natured geek, this Clark Kent is a bullied outcast whose surrogate parents provide little more than instruction to hide and whose faith (yes, this Superman has a semblance of faith) proves powerless to help him find a place in this world. So he goes on a journey of self discovery that leads him eventually back to Zod.
I did not enjoy the second half of the movie at all. Once Zod and his minions reappear, the movie becomes merely a wearying CGI slugfest. Metropolis eventually gets so battered by Superman and Zod’s brawl that it begins to look like Cobb and Mal’s dream limbo in Inception. I couldn’t wait to wake up.
More distressing to me than the endless bludgeoning that is the latter half of the film is the way Superman’s story and purpose have changed. Superman has always been a beacon showing humanity the good we are capable of becoming. As Jor-El famously tells his son in the 1978 film, “Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all – their capacity for good – I have sent them you… my only son.”
Christological intonations aside, if we consider Superman only as a “super man,” the epitome of what is good about humanity, we see clearly that Man of Steel‘s version of the character is very different than the one we’ve known. This Superman isn’t sent to earth as a champion of justice and truth. He’s sent to earth as a carrier of the genetic code of all of Kryptonian society. Really. His moral decency is depicted as a weakness he must (tragically) overcome to stop Zod.
Furthermore, Superman’s intrapersonal task used to be to reconcile his dual identities as a citizen of both Krypton and Earth. The Richard Donner cut of Superman and Superman 2 show a Kal-El grieving the loss of both his birth and adoptive fathers and learning to continue to do good though he will always ultimately fail to save those he loves. He learns to love both himself and others though that love is destined for defeat. He learns that to choose love is to win regardless of the outcome of the fight.
This Superman is taught to do good instead of harm, which is fine but pretty basic. Then he is forced to do harm, and in doing so, puts to death one half of his identity. Man of Steel‘s Superman is flawed in a way that Superman has never been before.
Have we really reached a point as a society where we can no longer accept the idea of a hero who is faultless? Is a person like Superman so alien to us that we would be unable to accept his existence even if we saw him illuminated forty feet tall on the silver screen? Are we so cynical that we are unable to believe a man can fly?
Maybe so. Maybe this kind of not-so-super Superman is the only kind of hero we will accept right now.
If so, then we need the kind of hero Superman used to be all the more.