I love Man of Steel. I've seen it probably 10 times and it has gotten better each time because of the depth and the rich but subtle characterizations. I have landed on a personal rating of 9.5/10, and I have only given about thirty 9+ ratings to the nearly 2000 movies I've seen. It is one of my Top 20 favorite movies and it is my third favorite comic book movie, behind only Batman v Superman and just barely behind The Dark Knight.
But not everyone feels the same way about the movie. It was divisive because it was a bold new take on the Superman character who's been around for 75 years. I think it was a good take on the character and I appreciated the realistic approach -- not that this has to be the only version of Superman, but it is a good one and I think the right one in terms of building up the entire Justice League Universe.
[LISTEN TO AN AUDIO VERSION OF THIS POST ON THE JUSTICE LEAGUE UNIVERSE PODCAST.]
1. The entire movie is about Clark trying to judge how humanity will respond to him.
Clark’s character arc and his big decision points involved him making judgment calls about humanity. And Clark’s judgment was influenced by his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, who worried for his son because he knew that it would be a big deal when Clark was revealed to the world. He had been around long enough to judge pretty accurately how humanity responds to things. That's why Jonathan talked seriously with his son about hard decisions that are not clear cut, and he encouraged his son to wait until it was the right time to reveal himself. (By the way, a popular misconception is that Jonathan said to NEVER reveal himself. Actually, Jonathan told Clark to wait until he's ready and at that time he can finally stand proud before the human race. This is part of Superman’s original lore. In fact, the Kents telling a young Clark to hide his powers goes all the way back to page 1 of Superman issue #1.)
So a big question for Clark is how humanity will react to him, an alien with strange powers. Through that lens, let's look at several important scenes. When Clark is in grade school, he has a tough time dealing with some of his sensory powers. How do people react? The other kids tease him and ostracize him. Even the teacher is a bit perturbed and less than empathetic. But a glimmer of hope comes from Martha. When Clark is a bit older, he partially reveals himself when he saves the bus. Pete's Mom represents the views of a lot of the community when she freaks out. The only saving grace is that she attributes it to divine intervention. As a young adult, Clark has a nomadic existence because he has strong instincts to help out but he needs to hide away because he is not yet clear on his purpose and so isn't ready to reveal himself. And he is still trying to assess humanity, thus the importance of the scene with the trucker.
This contemplation by Clark is what makes Lois such a great complementary character. Lois quickly uncovers the truth behind Clark, but she greets it positively and is thankful to Clark for what he's done (including saving her own life). She recognizes what he is going through and he opens up to her even more by sharing the story of Jonathan's death. Lois's positive reaction to who Clark is finally gives Clark the hope that humanity might accept him. She, along with Martha, now provide two promising examples of acceptance and love from humanity. Plus, at this point in the movie, Clark now knows his own background and has a purpose for revealing himself and standing proud before the human race because they need him in the face of Zod’s arrival. This all comes together to pull him out of the nomadic phase of his life and we get character growth as he takes the "leap of faith" to reveal himself to humanity.
So to take stock of Clark’s experiences with humanity, he had adoptive parents who loved him even though he's an alien. They showed him unconditional love, but they’re his parents, so maybe he thinks it won't generalize to humanity at large. But there are other positive signs, as well, such as Pete Ross shifting from being a bully to later helping him up. Pete shows Clark that maybe people can come around once they see that Clark has good intentions. That might be an indication that, once Clark becomes a public hero, the general population will accept him. And on top of this, of course, there’s Lois and importantly there is also his interactions with the military. The soldiers are initially hostile, then skeptical, but finally come around and eventually partner with Superman. This all comes together and builds toward the climax when Superman has to decide to save Earth over Krypton.
But throughout the whole movie, we get to go along with Clark and empathize with him as he tries to assess the heart and soul of humanity, looking for the positive signs even amidst some fear and anger. And we see that Clark does take the leap of faith, after which, in the movie universe (and in the real world) his presence as Superman was met with mixed reactions. As expected, he gets adoration and thankfulness but also people who fear him or even hate and resent him. This later plays out in a big way in Batman v Superman as the logical extension of his character journey, but even in Man of Steel, this fit very well with Goyer and Snyder's overall mission to do a first-contact take on Superman's origin.
2. The Kents are loving, realistic, and wise parents.
The Kents got a lot of flack from some fans, but I saw them as one of the highlights of an already great movie. First of all, I appreciate Goyer and Snyder's decision to try to make them parents rather than grandparents, because they are often quite old in the comics or in the original movies. Second, I thought Jonathan and Martha showed genuine love for their child and a very natural desire to protect him. Martha provides comfort in those moments of Clark feeling like an outcast, and thus she provides him with a sense of home even as he roams to try to find out the truth behind his secret origin. Jonathan fully grasps the implications of Clark's extra-terrestrial origins and knows that if Clark were outed, he would be taken away from the Kents and it would also cause upheaval amongst the entire world population. So Jonathan talks realistically and deeply with his son about these issues. He doesn't hide the implications or the difficulties. He doesn’t oversimplify things or sugarcoat them with some folksy but shallow wisdom. Jonathan’s famous "maybe" line is him being very honest with his son about how his life is not going to be easy, it is going to involve hard choices where the right answer isn’t obvious, but Jonathan has unconditional love for Clark and he supports him through the difficult times. He doesn't want Clark to have to face all those challenges and responsibilities until the time is right, so that means helping an immature Clark protect his secret until he can fully realize the implications.
I think this complex but loving relationship rings truer than some past, fairly simplistic versions of the Kents where they just gave straightforward but somewhat naive advice ("Do the right thing," "I believe in you"). I also thought the "You are my son" scene, inspired by Geoff Johns's Secret Origin graphic novel, was very touching. You could really tell that David Goyer is a stepfather himself and he drew on his experiences in the script, both in that scene and in the argument just before the tornado. (By the way, I think the tornado scene was great and we’re going to have an episode in the future that debunks the criticisms people have against it.)
3. The music is otherworldly and exhilarating while still incorporating the pure intervals of Superman from the original score.
Many people love the John Williams score from the 1978 Superman: The Movie. I agree that that that score is great, but it is great for that movie, not for Man of Steel. John Williams seemed to take a lot of inspiration from old news reels and a stereotypical news bulletin type of rhythmic musical cue, which made sense given the central role of the Daily Planet in the 1978 Superman. It also hearkened back to the old Superman radio show and the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV show. Instead of this, Hans Zimmer composed what was needed for Man of Steel, which was an otherworldly sound palette to go along with the sci-fi elements of the movie, and the percussion orchestra to represent the action and clash of civilizations.
For John Williams, on top of his news reel foundation, he built the 1978 Superman theme on perfect 4th and perfect 5th intervals, representing the pure and prototypical superhero that is Superman. Williams' intervals lead up to the brass motif that literally sounds like they're saying "Superman." This was cool, but it wouldn't fit for a movie in which Superman really only appears for the last few minutes. Instead, Hans Zimmer took the core of the perfect 4th and perfect 5th intervals and completely stripped them down. A single piano playing C-G (perfect 5th) and C-F (perfect 4th), that becomes Clark's theme. It builds up to a borrowed chord (an A-flat major chord in the key of C major) that reminds us of his extraterrestrial origin.
Overall, there were so many moments where the music masterfully accentuated the emotion and the action. "Flight" for example, was an absolute pinnacle of the score and my kids and I both love that piece, in the scene and just on its own as a musical work.
4. Lois is a full partner in a full relationship with Clark.
I respect and appreciate Man of Steel for deciding not to continue with the love triangle of Lois having the hots for Superman, Clark having the hots for Lois, and Lois not knowing that the two are one and the same. Other people, though, were not happy about this change. Some feel like it’s an essential part of a Superman story. The old Adventures of Superman show with George Reeves and Noell Niel, the comics for quite a while, the Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder movies, and the Lois and Clark TV show with Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, all these and more made substantial use of the love triangle. In fact, in some of those shows and in a lot of comic book stories, Superman protecting his identity from Lois is sometimes the primary concern or the main thrust of the tension in the story. Will she find out? How will he manage to hide his secret?
But I don’t agree with people using this as a criticism of Man of Steel. If you like those older stories, then you have those older stories to go back to. But for the story they were telling in Man of Steel, they needed to make Lois a source of Clark’s hope in humanity, and to accomplish this they made Lois the first person (besides his parents) to discover the full range of Clark's identity, and this can be a very intimate experience to be known in such a way, especially for someone who's largely been treated like an outcast. Lois also responds positively to Clark's secret, rather than with fear or jealousy, and this gives Clark hope that maybe he can reveal himself to the world. These are very deep emotions that, to me, make sense as a basis for Clark to love and appreciate Lois.
The other thing, of course, is that having Lois figure out Clark’s identity just makes her a much craftier and formidable character. It shows her journalistic skills, but it also makes it so that Lois, through her investigation, sees Clark's inherent kindness and heroism. Yes, she is saved by him first-hand, but she also hears from countless strangers about the good things Clark has done. I think it makes it more powerful for her to hear the compliments and praise about Clark from people who don't know Clark personally and who are just sharing the truth without an agenda. Lois sees Clark's deep goodness but also the pain that he's gone through being ostracized and not fitting in. That, plus the fact that Clark opens up to her about his father, draws Lois in. Then, the next step of their relationship is that they go through the harrowing ordeal of the Battle of Metropolis and work together to save the world, which must have been exhilarating for them. To me, that's a potent recipe for romance.
5. There are great themes, such as that hardships make you stronger.
A big reason I love Zack Snyder’s work is that he puts thematic development at the core of most of his movies, and as you can tell if you’ve listened to episodes from this podcast, I really enjoy delving into themes and underlying meanings. This was definitely true for Man of Steel. Based on my own interpretations of the movie, and helped out a lot by the Man of Steel Answers podcast, some of the themes that one can trace through the movie are as follows:
I will share some links to places where you can read more about those themes. And there is also a detailed analysis on YouTube about how Man of Steel is the story of Kal-El's rebirth as Superman, with Krypton the father, the escape pod the seed, and Earth the mother. The symbolism is driven home in the final scene with Zod’s death, which echoes the birth scene at the very beginning.
But the theme that is perhaps my favorite is the one that I listed for this entry in my list -- hardships make you stronger. Man of Steel Answers talked about this one, and I just think it’s so fitting for a movie called Man of Steel because steel is actually strengthened rather than weakened by being heated and tempered. Rather than Superman just arriving and taking to the skies to save the day with a smile and a quip, readily accepted by everyone as a benevolent hero, he is put through emotional and physical challenges, and through impossible decisions. He wanted to save Jonathan, but he also wanted to respect Jonathan’s wishes. He wanted to reconnect with his Kryptonian heritage but he also wanted to protect Earth. He didn’t want to kill the last remaining Kryptonian besides himself, but he needed to stop Zod. We got to see him grapple with these issues and come out the other side, although I think part of why Man of Steel was controversial with audiences was precisely because these decision-points were dilemmas, and the audience was split over what he should’ve done. To me, that just means the filmmakers did a great job of setting up those tough choices and having real stakes.
And through all of this, we saw what kind of person Clark was through the difficulties. He was always trying to help, even at risk of harm to himself. He was able to come out the other side stronger, and it was a great way to establish this character and give him a foundation upon which the next installments of the movie universe could be built. And for me personally, I appreciate this foundation of having gone through hardships and having made difficult choices but also finding strong relationships like with his mother and with Lois, I think this sets up a richer background for the character than just having adoptive Midwestern parents who told him to “be good.”
Five Things I Loved About Man of Steel - Alessandro Mansicalco
1. The Fights
There have been numerous actors to portray Superman on TV and in film. To many, Christopher Reeve was arguably the quintessential Superman, a sentiment that would be hard to argue, at least for the time period. However for all the comic stories of Superman facing powerful opponents, something that we’ve failed to see done successfully, even in Reeve’s movies, is a true super-powered battle. For me the first legitimately authentic seeming super-powered fight on screen was Hulk’s battle with Abomination in The Incredible Hulk. After seeing that fight scene I couldn’t wait to see a Superman fight of that caliber.
Five years later, Man of Steel hit theaters and we saw a true showdown of Kryptonian powerhouses. Superman’s battle with Faora, Non, and ultimately Zod did a stupendous job at highlighting Kryptonian powers in action with their inherent magnitude. To help with this display was Snyder’s great direction in being able to show a contrast of power to normal human beings. We are shown every day people as well as soldiers in the heart of these battles, and the destruction these battles amounted to in their wake which help us to understand the scope of the Kryptonians’ power levels.
Additionally we see the contrast between Superman and Zod and their comparative training. Zod points out in the building construction site, a fun homage to their confrontation in Superman II, that Kal-El was raised to be a simple farmer while Zod was trained as a soldier of war. In this we are able to have a relative basis according to what we know of our own farmers and soldiers. The visual effects are awe inspiring and ultimately I felt such gratification from seeing Zod and Superman flying through the air pounding each other through buildings. Their final battle was epic, and we see the collateral damage as a measure of that. This leads me to my second point.
2. The Destruction
It’s very convenient when the power and threat to people is contained in a movie, especially when super powered individuals are involved. Ironically, people have criticized Man of Steel for its level of destruction while waiving contention against the Avengers movies notwithstanding the destruction of an entire city.
When the stakes are high such as a fight between the strongest beings on the planet, it makes logical sense that there would be tons of destruction. Anything less trivializes the fight and the stakes. For this I appreciate Snyder’s direction and lack of restraint with respect to the amount of damage inflicted on Smallville and Metropolis. And I think showing the destruction of Krypton at the offset of the movie helps us to relativize the actual destruction versus the potential destruction considering the World Engine posed a global threat. And although the World Engine was destroyed prior to Superman’s final battle, Zod threatened the lives of every human on the planet. His existence meant the xenocide of the entire human race and therefore he needed to be eliminated. Ironically this mindset and the level of destruction is what motivated Bruce Wayne in Batman v Superman, so it is fitting to see the extent to which even Superman would go to prevent such a holocaust.
If we look back at Superman’s very first ever confrontation with Zod which occurred in Superman II, we see no indication of anyone dying and very little non-periphery damage to the buildings. Superman was able to draw the three Kryptonians away from Metropolis to his fortress of Solitude to avoid casualties, something which not only seemed contrived and convenient in Superman II, but was clearly not an option in Man of Steel given Zod’s desire to wipe out the humans.
3. The Alien
Previous iterations of Superman focused on his Clark Kent persona, most likely given the special effect costs with portraying a super powered being as well as the technological limitations of their times. As a result they failed to really capture the sense that Superman is in fact an alien not from Earth and not just a human with superpowers. But Man of Steel focuses primarily on The Superman, a strange visitor from another planet, different from the rest of us and hiding among us. His Clark Kent persona is used by the filmmakers as a means of showing his struggle with understanding, and blending in with the Earth’s population, rather than holding meaningful relationships as a second identity. This point is enforced by the fact that Lois arguably meets “the alien” before she meets Clark Kent who she actually has to track down.
As a result the movie feels more like a movie about aliens arriving on Earth. Scenes like the one in the Arctic where Lois first witnesses Kal-El using his powers to thaw through the glacier are reminiscent of early to mid-20th century sci-fi movies such as The Thing. The scenes in which Superman offers himself to the authorities and tries to explain he is here to help evoke similar scenes from The Day the Earth Stood still. Meanwhile, Zod’s address to the planet is akin to more modern day extra-terrestrial films. It offers a touch of the horror genre assisted by Superman’s vision of a skull covered landscape. There is a clear strangeness within this movie that captures the foreign nature of alien life which other Superman stories have failed to do whether unintentionally or purposefully. But it’s an important aspect of Superman, and one that I believe has paid off greatly with Batman v Superman, and will likely continue to pay off going into Justice League.
Inherent in being from another world comes the culture and traditions of that world which leads me into the fourth thing I love about Man of Steel.
4. The Culture
While the story of Kal-El’s escape from planet Krypton has certainly been incorporated in one way or another, we rarely see a deep look into Krypton and its culture prior to its destruction. The comicverse has an extensive backstory, modified with each Crisis and Age, but in movies and television programs the focus has certainly been on Superman here on Earth.
Superman II may have been the first to offer us a real live-action look at Krypton’s culture with its banishment of Zod as part of the character’s introduction and backstory. It was depicted as very bleached and impersonal. By contrast, Kryptonians in Man of Steel seemed to embrace the elements and animals of the planet. Their airships’ emulate the form factor of various flying creatures, and their attire have more earth tones as if to honor the land.
A lot of effort was clearly put into fleshing out the Kryptonian civilization for the movie which has a great deal of detail. And it doesn’t end with the visual style. We can draw much more information from the opening scenes of Man of Steel and Jor-El’s lecture to Superman aboard the scout ship with regard to their history and technology. These elements permeate the movie as it ties into various aspects of the film including Superman’s costume as well. And most importantly it drives the story, from the motivation of the characters to the means and execution of their actions.
There is a great deal of thought and depth behind the fictitious civilization which defines the story, something that is not often found in movies of this nature.
5. The Secret
That’s what makes Lois immediately learning Superman's identity a double-edged sword. For people like me who have experienced the whole double life scenario in movies and on television, it’s nice to finally move on and see stories where that is not an issue. After all, I think we can all agree that reboots get tedious in part due to the lack of progress of the characters. But it's also a shame for younger audiences or those new to the Superman story missing out on that cat and mouse between Clark and Lois. Regardless, in this day and age it’s pretty implausible, for those who are trying, not to figure out that Clark and Superman are one in the same. Lois is not some gullible reporter to easily have the wool pulled over her eyes. The movie highlights Lois’ journalistic prowess in her ability to discover Superman’s identity. They don’t make her naive, nor does Snyder treat us, the audience, as naive to think Lois wouldn’t figure it out. It also ties into the story by making Lois as somewhat of an envoy role between Kryptonians and Humans, and Superman’s connection to humanity. What’s also great is that this discovery of Superman’s identity paves the way for Lex, with his unlimited resources, to credibly discover Superman’s identity for Batman v Superman.