This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scene 12 (flashback to school) of Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder.
- Clark adrift
- Clark's powers begin to manifest
- "Swim toward it" [the island]
- What's wrong with Clark?
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Welcome, fans of Man of Steel, to the Justice League Universe Podcast where we analyze the DC Films produced by Warner Brothers studios. You can follow the show on twitter @JLUPodcast. My name is Alessandro. In this episode, we look back at Clark as a child in an important scene with Martha Kent at Clark’s school.
The first shot we see is the tops of a group of pencils. The image of pencils evokes the memory of school as that is the time when most of us use pencils in our lives. Immediately after is the American flag which helps to establish the setting of an American school. This also helps to emphasize Clark’s heartland upbringing, which is important because starting a Superman origin story out at sea is not typical and probably not what the general audience would expect. But of course in this story we are joining Clark when he is metaphorically “out at sea” and has not yet found his place in the world. But through these flashbacks, we will get the typical connections to Kansas.
Both of these opening shots are further reinforced when we see the writing on a chalkboard and hear a woman’s voice mentioning when Kansas became a territory. We then return to a shot of Clark drifting below the ocean which helps to make clear these are flashbacks of Clark’s memories. The reverb effect in “Clark” that we hear the woman say is often used in media in relation to dream states. Here it is also being used as an effect to highlight Clark’s developing super hearing.
We return to the classroom, this time from a low angle facing the front of the class where the teacher resides. This shot emulates a student’s perspective to place us in the scene and gives us the full context of an elementary history class with dates and events written on the blackboard and young children sitting at their desks. The teacher asks Clark if he is listening, which is ironic because unbeknownst to her he is listening a little too much. Clark turns his head and grasps the desk while acting jittery, as if alarmed by something. Aside from the initial reverb, our first hints that something is amiss are the sounds of a dog barking, which would be out of place in a schoolroom setting, and the loud ticking of the second hand of a clock. The teacher’s voice then becomes somewhat tinny as Clark’s powers slowly emerge. We then get our first glimpse at Clark’s optical powers suddenly manifesting. This is shown through oscillating shots of the body’s skeletal, muscular, and cardiovascular systems from Clark’s perspective, which help to indicate instability and lack of control. It’s a really cool visual, and this whole moment with the powers emerging is achieved through a show-don’t-tell approach in the filmmaking.
Clark begins to hyperventilate, unsure of what is happening and overwhelmed by his senses. This doesn’t go unnoticed as the teacher asks him if he is all right. We get a couple more quick zoomed shots to emphasize his amplified auditory senses, even the sounds of a police radio, before he covers his ears and runs out of the classroom. But as Clark runs through the hallway it is clear he can’t escape his senses with new sights and sounds plaguing him in every direction. In an attempt to escape his suffering, Clark jets into a janitor’s closet and locks himself in.
This is our first flashback in Man of Steel, and as we’ll see, the flashbacks always have a direct link to the present. In this case, Clark has just had a sensory overload with the oil rig explosion and collapse and he now finds himself out at sea like an island. It reminds him of an earlier stressful time with sensory overload and a lesson that he learned from his mother which is appropriate given his current state of floating in the ocean.
For the audience, it’s also a connection between the first time we see him use his powers -- on the oil rig -- and the first time some of his powers started to emerge as a child. This display of Kryptonian powers inundating Clark’s senses will also be important later on in giving us an idea of what Zod will experience once he is exposed to our environment without the benefit of his suit. While Clark’s powers seem to manifest over time, we see Zod and his soldiers gain their powers fairly quickly on Earth. So it seems as though Kryptonian children's cells may have a difficult time adjusting to the excess energy, or perhaps like adolescence, certain functions of Kryptonian bodies that begin after a certain age are what allow the powers to manifest. It’s also possible that this extended exposure and adjustment from childhood onward gives Kal-El an upper hand over other Kryptonians.
Back in the school, the teacher and the other students gather around outside the closet which gives us a hint at the type of rural, small town community it is….no pun intended. Even the janitor can be seen in the back of the crowd. The teacher pounds on the door telling Clark to come out, which is our clue that he has locked the door. Clark, of course, wants to be left alone because he is dealing with something he can’t explain and the teacher is only adding to his auditory overload. When she tells him she’s called his mother, Clark’s emotions begin to turn toward frustration and anger which seems to trigger the emergence of a new power, his heat vision. His mother is a bit of a “hot topic” (once again no pun intended) for Clark as we will continue to see in the future, such as when both Zod and Lex threaten to bring harm to her. Here Clark’s eyes turn red, and for those unfamiliar with Superman’s powers, we are given clues to his heat vision with the red glow of the door knob and the teacher’s painful withdrawal of her hand from the outside.
At this point Martha, played by Diane Lane, arrives who of course knows of Clark’s extraterrestrial origin and, in addition to being his adopted mother, is more equipped at calming and communicating with Clark. As soon as Clark looks up we can see his powers are still out of control. And in addition to the sensory overload, we hear through Clark the comments of the students, and with them the emotional struggle Clark is also facing as some of the students call him freak or weirdo. One student points out his parents won’t let him play with other kids. This gives us our initial insight into Martha and Jonathan’s concerns about Clark’s secret getting out and also informs us of the sheltered upbringing Clark has been raised in thus far.
The derisive comments from the kids are more entries in what will be a long list of human beings not being particularly friendly or accepting of Clark. We already saw the men on the boat who gave him a tough time as greenhorn, and now we have some classmates who are bothering him and being more curious about his differences than actually being compassionate toward what he’s going through. Throughout the rest of the movie, we’ll see many more people reacting to Clark -- many of them negative -- and all of these interactions weigh on Clark as he has to choose whether or not to reveal himself, and ultimately whether or not he should choose to save humanity over his birth culture of Krypton. Thankfully, there are also some very kind and understanding people -- one of whom is his mother, who shows up importantly in this scene. And others are Lois, Pete, and even General Swanwick and Colonel Hardy. They give him enough of a connection to Earth that he decides it is worth saving.
Through the closet door, Martha says to Clark, “How can I help you if you won’t let me in?” This word choice offers a double meaning in reference to Martha’s being locked outside of the janitor’s closet along with the rest of the class as well as in the sense of letting someone in emotionally by opening up to them and telling them your inner feelings. We will see further instances of Clark letting people in and benefitting from their help throughout the Snyderverse including Lois and Bruce. Clark responds with a powerful line and response that reverberates into future scenes throughout the Snyderverse including, we suspect, when Clark is revived in The Snyder Cut of Justice League. He says “The world’s too big [Mom].” And Martha answers, “Then make it small.” This is a way that Clark, a natural introvert, deals with many situations through the series. One such way is how Superman makes Lois his world and the embodiment of humanity for him in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The soft piano notes of the main theme enter to help add more emotion to this scene. Martha then tells Clark to focus on her voice and pretend it’s an island out in the ocean, which is essentially a form of mindfulness meditation. Here we see the connection to the present we mentioned earlier. In one respect the oil rig is somewhat of an island amidst the ocean which Clark focused his attention and directed his powers toward in an effort to save the workers. But more relevant to this metaphor is Clark focusing inward as he floats in the ocean and reins in his powers. Just as he used this technique in the closet to move forward, he will also eventually use it in after the oil rig to gather himself again and continue on.
When Martha asks Clark if he sees the island, Clark looks up and in her direction before saying “I see it.” Martha then proceeds to tell him to swim toward it. And immediately following that we see Clark open the door to find his mother and they embrace each other. Symbolically, if not literally what Clark envisions, Martha is Clark’s island that he swims toward and always returns to. Later we see Clark return to Martha at the Kent Farm after his global walkabout. Until Lois becomes Clark’s world, Martha is his compass.
Clark asks his mom what’s wrong with him, as any child would assume their mom would have all the answers. She responds with “Clark” in a way that suggests he is being silly and that there is nothing wrong with him. She of course doesn’t know what Clark is experiencing with his emerging powers. However the line also has a deeper significance that implies that “Clark” is what’s wrong with him, because “Clark” is not who he is. In a sense, what’s wrong is that he is pretending to be human, something he is not. And this brings us back to the present where Clark is in the process of finding who he really is and his place in the world. He witnesses a mother and baby whale swim by, symbolizing and reminding him of his own relationship with Martha. But more importantly the shot is juxtaposed immediately following the “Clark” to emphasize the point that he and his mother are not the same creatures.
End of Episode:
Thanks for listening to this analysis of Scene 12 of Man of Steel. Next we’ll take a look at another important event in Clark’s childhood, one that leads to another conversation with a parent that has resulted in much controversy. If you like what you hear you can support the show and find bonus content at patreon.com/JLUPodcast.