Wednesday, April 21, 2021

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Man of Steel Scene 15

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast focuses on Scene 15 ("maybe") of Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder.


  • The Kent's Midwest Farm
  • Choice and Acts of God
  • Wanting to help but learning about complexities
  • Connections to Superman issue #1
  • "Maybe" and its controversies
  • Zack Snyder and the power of unconditional love

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<Transcript below>

Welcome, fans of Man of Steel, to the Justice League Universe Podcast where we analyze the DC Films produced by Warner Brothers studios and, soon, by HBO Max. You can follow the show on twitter @JLUPodcast. My name is Sam. In this episode we see the famous conversation between Jonathan Kent and Clark in the aftermath of the school bus rescue.

 

And we are going to get into the controversy around this scene, and people who reject Jonathan Kent’s style of parenting here, but we are going to share our view on how this is a very deeply meaningful form of parenting that also fits well with the themes of complexity and choice.

 

And choice has already been emphasized in relation to Clark’s character. We’ve seen at the oil rig and with the school bus that he has a natural desire to help when people are in need. You can think of that as an inherent part of his character, but this movie is asking us to also realize that each of those rescues is a choice. Clark has to decide to risk himself and to expose his powers to help people. With the oil rig, when he makes the choice to save the trapped workers, that means he’s going to have to move on yet again and find a new job, possibly a new identity. He will help the people in danger but that choice will keep himself uprooted and lacking a firm foundation in his life. With the school bus, he not only had to make the choice to push the bus out of the water, potentially exposing his supernatural abilities and igniting a firestorm of responses, but he made a second important choice which was to also go back into the water and save Pete Ross, as well.

 

As is shown throughout the movie, Clark often sees both the good and the bad side of humanity on Earth. For every Lana Lang with an empathetic look, there’s a Pete Ross with a domineering posture, and yet Clark chooses to save both. This is part of his character that will follow him throughout his life as we see in Batman v Superman when he even saves Lex Luthor.

 

Now in this scene at the Kent farmhouse, we will see some of the repercussions of his choices. The scene starts with an establishing shot outside the house, with young Clark sitting on a swing under a tree. This is a nice transition because we just left the last scene where we were focused on Clark, and so he is our touchstone going into this scene. But we hear voices inside, and of course he can hear them very well, too. And then we cut to the inside of the house, completing the transition and now focusing on the adults as they discuss what happened with the school bus.

 

With regard to the setting at the Kent farmhouse, I believe this location was actually set up in Illinois, and I think the production team did a really good job of capturing the Midwest feel. I live in Missouri, right between Kansas and Illinois, and a bunch of my paternal relatives are from Nebraska, just north of Kansas. I’ve spent lots of time on farms and in farm houses. The look of the Kent house, the layout of the homeplace, and the large hardwood trees next to the house, with open fields surrounding it, are all very authentic. Homemade swings like this under the limb of a big tree are also very common. My Dad even had a farm truck on the farm where I grew up that was very similar to Jonathan Kent’s.

 

It’s nice that they did such a good job with this set, because it is a recurring location throughout this movie and also the sequels.

 

Getting into the dialogue now, Pete Ross’s mom is explaining in a somewhat concerned voice that Pete was in the bus and saw what Clark did. She is certainly relieved that her son is safe, but her tone of voice is fairly intense, like she wants to get to the bottom of what happened, rather than having a thankful tone of joy and relief. This concern is a small-scale representation of what the world’s reaction might be to a superhero. It wouldn’t necessarily be gratitude and wonder. Many people might be freaked out, scared, and even violent toward this unknown alien. And this is underscored by Clark, who is holding his head down, sort of in shame, perhaps because of Mrs. Ross’s reaction but also because he knows that he disobeyed his parents. He is not flying high having saved the day -- he is concerned about what might be the consequences of his actions.

 

As we cut to a shot inside the house, we don’t see the adults clearly yet, we start with a pot of coffee and a mug. Zack Snyder chose to have several close-up shots like this of objects inside the house. There’s the coffee pot being poured, and later Jonathan puts the coffee pot back, grabs his coat, and there’s a close-up of the door shutting. My interpretation of these deliberate close-ups is that Snyder is emphasizing the humble, down-to-earth sort of environment that Clark is growing up in. And he is emphasizing those everyday things at this particular moment in the film because it is juxtaposed with the extraordinary abilities that Clark is starting to exhibit. That young boy outside sitting on a typical tree swing is anything but typical, and if he exposes himself, he may be ripped away from all of these comforts of home and he won’t be able to stay in this down-to-earth setting any longer.

 

As he pours the coffee, Jonathan tries to downplay the incident and plant some doubt in Pete’s story. Jonathan refers to what Pete thought he saw, and Mrs. Ross jumps in to say that it was an act of god. It was providence.

 

This is one of the early allusions to Superman as god or as a son of god. We’ll take up that idea as it becomes more explicit in later scenes. But in this moment, we’ll just note that Jor-El’s earlier prediction that Kal will be a god to the people of Earth is already coming true. As for this scene, the main thing is the sigh of relief from Jonathan. He was probably very worried about what the Ross’s might say to others and he may not have known how he would explain away the school bus rescue, but if the Ross’s are interpreting through a lens of miracles then the pressure is basically off Jonathan from having to explain it at all. Their secret may be safe for a bit longer, and the Ross’s will still think of Clark as just a regular kid, though perhaps one through which god has worked his will.

 

This actually connects with the theme about choice. Mrs Ross, by ascribing the event to the will of god, is actually removing Clark’s choice and agency from the situation. It wasn’t really Clark, not directly --- it was an act of god, and Clark was just the vessel through which providence was carried out. Jonathan, however, knows that it was in fact Clark’s choice and Clark’s action. And that’s why he and Clark will have to have their conversation, will have to deal with the complexity and the choices together, because they know that it is in their hands, not god’s.

 

With Mrs. Ross no longer asking the right questions about Clark, Jonathan is free to shift his attention to his son. He looks out the window, toward what we know is Clark in the yard. Martha takes up the conversation with the Rosses. Martha says that she is blowing things out of proportion, but Mrs. Ross mentions that it’s not the first time Clark has done something like this, which shows that the risks to their secrecy are growing and they’ll have to be more careful if they want to make sure that their family isn’t torn apart. Jonathan, as he is shifting over toward thinking about Clark, probably hears Mrs. Ross say this, which likely spurs him to be more emphatic with Clark about keeping his powers under wraps for the time being, perhaps contributing to his recommendation that it might not always be best to save people.

 

The swing is now empty and we get those wholesome, down-to-earth shots that we mentioned, as Jonathan heads out to talk to Clark. It’s a nice wide shot to set the scene, with seven-foot corn stalks indicating an early autumn season, and a couple silos in the background to the right. It almost reminds us of Field of Dreams as Kevin Costner walks toward Clark sitting on the tailgate of the pickup truck.

 

Clark senses Jonathan’s approach and, having heard the conversation from inside the house and already talked about this issue before with his dad, Clark starts right away by explaining he just wanted to help. “I just wanted to help” shows that his intentions were good and that he’s sorry about the negative repercussions and he didn’t want them to happen. This complexity in the consequences for one’s actions are a recurring theme with Clark’s heroic feats and an idea that is explored even further in Batman v Superman. In the sequel, we see that Superman is “just a guy trying to do the right thing,” but again, the consequences can often be beyond what Superman intended. Having to deal with these consequences, and having to grow and learn as a character, is part of the arc for this character and it’s interesting to see the initial groundwork for that arc being laid here in Man of Steel.

 

With him being a kid, though, it’s hard to blame him for doing something that he thought was good and not really being ready for all the risks and fallout that can come from it. We can be empathetic, and Jonathan starts out by showing some empathy too. He responds first by saying, “I know you did.” So Jonathan is acknowledging those good intentions. But more sophisticated levels of morality, just like more sophisticated levels of storytelling, have to go beyond that simplicity of black-and-white actions or of just judging someone based on intentions.

 

Jonathan continues by saying that they talked about this before, which helps the audience know that they’ve already had conversations and Jonathan has tried to convey to Clark why it’s important to keep his powers a secret. He quickly changes his tone to a sort of pleading, probably through a sense of love and desperate concern that a slip up like the school bus could result in his son being taken away. But by the next line, Jonathan has calmed himself down again and he says that Clark has to keep this side of himself a secret.

 

Some people have said that the Kents are supposed to be fully supportive of Clark being a hero and using his powers to help people whenever he can, but that is not typically how the characters have behaved when Clark is still a kid. It’s very common that the Kents, just like in Man of Steel, are very keen on having Clark hide his super powers. Even Superman issue #1 in 1939, by Siegel and Shuster themselves, has Pa Kent talking to an adolescent Clark and saying, “Now listen to me, Clark! This great strength of yours -- you’ve got to hide it from people or they’ll be scared of you!” And that was written with exclamation points.

 

We should be able to understand this sentiment, too, of encouraging young Clark to hide his powers. Not only will people be afraid of those supernatural abilities, but as Jonathan will mention later in this scene and the next, the government would likely abduct him, and it would also impact the world in terms of upending belief systems and notions of mankind’s supremacy.

 

Now, in Superman #1, Ma Kent goes on to say that, “when the proper time comes, you must use [your strength] to assist humanity.” And that matches with the message in Man of Steel, even though many negative fans choose to only take certain lines and then assume that those lines out of context represent the full guidance of the Kents in the film. The film in its entirety clearly shows that the Kents wanted Clark to be careful because he wasn’t ready for the responsibility yet, but once the time came, they hoped he would stand proud before mankind as his true self.

 

Of course, Jonathan Kent talking about hiding Clark’s powers is not the most controversial part of this scene. What’s most controversial is the next part. Young Clark, overwhelmed by emotion, showing that he is experiencing all of those facets of humanity and not as a distant or disengaged alien, asks his father what he should have done. WIthin this thematic framework or choice, Clark references the other option -- “let ‘em die.” He says it as if it should be obvious that that was not a viable choice.

 

There’s a long pause, as if the audience is supposed to also be drawn into this dilemma -- what would we have done? What would we say if this was our child in that moment?

 

And after the pause comes the controversy. Jonathan looks down, fidgets with the side of the truck bed, and then says, “Maybe.”

 

This response has been a big point of contention among many Superman fans and the general audience. The primary sentiment from the detractors to Man of Steel are that Jonathan Kent is supposed to establish a straight moral compass for Clark in his early years, and so they reject the gray areas and an answer like this that allows for ambiguity or uncertainty. They feel that it falls short of the unfaltering morality that they associate with Superman.

 

Some detractors go even further. Some infer that Jonathan Kent basically told Clark to kill those kids and to do anything at all to protect his identity. But this is certainly a misconstrual -- Jonathan did not say “Yes, you should have let them die.” He said, “Maybe.” As in, this is a very complex situation and there are high stakes, the decisions can be difficult.

 

In other words, we think people mistake Jonathan’s “maybe” as being somehow immoral. But the way we see it, and many other Man of Steel fans see it, is that Jonathan’s response is a refreshing burst of honesty and humility. When facing a difficult situation like this one, it’s a wise and profound response to accept the uncertainty and for Jonathan to acknowledge that he doesn’t have all the answers.

 

This complexity comes from the fact that, on one hand, an outside observer might think that of course you have to save children in a school bus if you are physically capable of doing it. But on the other hand, most people would also recognize that a parent should and is certainly justified if their primary concern is the safety of their children, and for Jonathan, that means the safety of Clark, and so this would mean not saving the other kids because it could reveal that he’s an alien and then he could be vilified, taken, and who knows what else. As parents ourselves, Alessandro and I can relate to this struggle where we would naturally want to advocate for the total protection of our children. So if we were in Jonathan’s shoes, we might even say YES, you don’t have to save them because you are allowed to worry about yourself and your own safety. You aren’t obligated to risk yourself for others because you are my son and I can’t imagine losing you--I don’t really want you near any severe danger at all. Although a part of us recognizes that there might be a nobility in rising above and saying NO, you shouldn’t let them die, even if it risks yourself. In the abstract, that makes sense, but it’s hard when it’s actually your own child at risk. And anyway, it is certainly a complicated moral question.

 

If we imagine being in Clark’s position, then it becomes a little bit clearer that there is heroism in trying to save others, even at a risk to yourself. Indeed, it’s not very heroic unless there is some risk to yourself. But Jonathan is a father who doesn’t want Clark to feel obligated to always have to save everyone who is in danger, because that is an impossible task. We do see later, when Jonathan saves the dog, that he does have heroic tendencies himself, but risking oneself is very different than one’s child. That’s why here, and with the tornado later, he is protective of Clark’s safety above even his own. And as we said before, Jonathan can not be blamed for worrying primarily about his own son above others.

 

And all of that moral complexity just comes from the dynamics of a parent and child. We haven’t even added on the extra layer which is that Clark is also a secret alien. He not only risks himself physically -- because remember the Kents at this point do not know the full extent of Clark’s invulnerability, each time he takes a new risk they are unsure whether he will come through it unscathed -- but Clark is also risking his exposure, which means a huge revelation for humanity that could upend society, freak people out in various ways, topple religious beliefs, and much more. That adds even more weight to the side of protecting Clark’s secret.

 

But even here, with lots of personal and societal reasons that Clark should hide his powers and not risk his own safety, Jonathan still does not say “NO” you shouldn’t have saved them. He says “Maybe.” He is coming down to earth in this moment to join Clark in the struggle and the difficult decisions, modeling for him how to think through these things while still communicating his unconditional love and concern as a foundation for their relationship. This fits perfectly with that theme of choice being one of the primary concepts that Clark’s story is illustrating. By saying “maybe” and acknowledging that each of these life-and-death moments involve weighing different possibilities, Jonathan is, in effect, emphasizing Clark’s power of choice and him growing into his own sense of morality that involves love and complexity rather than moral certitudes. This is more meaningful than simply being told how to act or having a father who repeats platitudes.

 

It also emphasizes an aspect of Clark’s humanity because this is the development of a different moral framework than the one we saw on Krypton or the one that will come back again with Zod and Faora. And we think it’s important to note, and worth repeating, that Superman in this story is part of humanity -- he is NOT a God. Take it from the smartest man on the planet, Lex Luthor, Superman is not all-powerful. And a young Clark without the full extent of his powers is even less so. If Jonathan Kent and Zack Snyder can understand that, why can't audiences? Clark can't save everyone, a point driven home in Batman v Superman. This imaginary standard that no matter what Superman will find a way is unrealistic and contrived. Expecting the story to work out so that Superman can save everyone, and it should be no question that he does save everyone, also in a sense weakens the character because that would mean the audience expectations have essentially removed the power of choice from Superman. But Man of Steel is setting us on a path where Superman has been empowered with choice both in the story and meta-textually as a fictional character.

 

Now, all of that was from one word. Maybe it’s time to move on further into Jonathan’s dialogue. He says to Clark that they have to think not just about themselves and the kids on the bus but also the world. So he brings up those broader issues of humanity’s beliefs and its reaction to an alien with powers, like we alluded to before. He is helping to provide a framework for Clark to think through the complexities of the choices he makes. He doesn’t tell Clark what to do, but he is modeling for Clark the ways that you have to think about various factors and even consider things beyond yourself. This is a small step toward helping Clark become the worldwide sort of hero that he will become, but in a way that is grounded in the power of choice rather than moral imperatives.

 

So Jonathan is quickly explaining the grand scale of what’s at stake to rationalize his response, a response that maybe Clark wasn’t expecting. And by the way, these broader ramifications that Jonathan is talking about, we see them later in this film and also even more so in Batman v Superman as we get even more detail into the world’s reaction to Superman. For example, Neil Degrasse Tyson echoes these sentiments when he says, “We’re talking about a being whose very existence challenges our own sense of priority in the universe.” Jonathan uses Mrs. Ross as an immediate, real-life example of how people would react to discovering Clark’s secret. He says Mrs. Ross was scared.

 

And there are interesting directing choices here as Jonathan gets closer to Clark and sits next to him. This closer physical proximity tends to bring people into more agreement on a topic, or increase the likelihood that someone will comply with a request. So Jonathan is making an attempt to come together with Clark and get on the same page in terms of what to do with his powers and his secret. But moving closer also has a subconscious comforting effect as Jonathan recognizes that Clark is still reeling from the stress of the bus rescue and its aftermath, and he’s acutely aware of how he’s different from other kids.

 

Clark responds to this closeness by getting more outwardly emotional and asking why people are afraid. So Clark is moving into that conversation with Jonathan, trying to understand the various facets of this complex situation, and secure enough in his relationship with Jonathan that he can open up rather than closing down the interaction. That openness but also that vulnerability may be part of the setup in terms of why Jonathan chooses to finally make the big reveal to Clark. But first, Jonathan answers with a famous phrase, saying that people are afraid of what they don’t understand. We’ve heard this in other movies and stories, and we can also see it very often in the actual world, but here it is relevant not only to Mrs. Ross as a representation of a typical person but there’s also the government and military’s reaction to Superman in this film and then in BvS the world’s reaction and specifically Bruce Wayne’s and Lex Luthor’s.

 

But right now, Clark is desperate for an answer and explanation, to why he is the way he is. He’s willing to grasp at any answer, even looking to Mrs. Ross’ theory about God’s involvement as a possibility. He asks, “Did God do this to me?” And we know from later in the film that Christianity was a part of his upbringing as he goes to the church at a later point when he’s also grasping for answers and having to make a difficult choice. In BvS we also see a Christian funeral ceremony, so it makes sense that young Clark would wonder about God and miracles as a possible explanation.

 

The phrasing here is also interesting with regard to the theme of choice. Clark says, “Did God do this to me?” And earlier Mrs. Ross wondered if it was providence, that is, the omniscient direction of worldly affairs by a deity. So in both instances the idea is that maybe this is something from God, something that is beyond human control. In other words, not a matter of choice. Or beyond comprehension, as Christian tradition often says of the works or intentions of God. But Clark will soon find out that there is an explanation that does not depend on the supernatural. He simply is who he is, and he does have choice in what he does with it.

 

Not that Clark chose to have his powers. His capabilities are the result of his Kryptonian physiology and the fact that his parents sent him to Earth, so yes, that was beyond Clark’s actual control, but it is not beyond a natural explanation within the universe of this story. And there is no one directing his actions or turning on his powers at these particular moments -- it’s just his own natural development and like Jonathan says later, it’s up to him what kind of person he wants to be, and what he wants to do with the powers.

 

To close out this scene by the truck, we have an emotional and vulnerable young Clark asking why he is this way, and clearly it is going to lead to further challenges and future decision points beyond the school bus rescue. That’s a lot for a kid to have to face, and he is seeking answers. Jonathan has established his care and concern for his son, and he has also communicated that there are going to be difficult choices to be made, but now the time is also here to open up a bit and share some more truth with Clark. And Jonathan probably feels that pressure that is very common for parents, which is that you are expected to have the answers. It is also an important moment to share that truth because Jonathan is essentially asking Clark to lie, or to be deceptive in the sense of having Clark hide his powers. Before now, Jonathan and Martha have withheld the full truth from Clark, but they had reasons. As Jonathan shares the full story with Clark, it is at the same time that he’s reiterating the importance of not yet revealing that story to the public.

 

A final thought here on this first of many scenes in Man of Steel that features the profound parental relationship -- Zack Snyder has said that a big part of this movie is about communicating that a parent’s unconditional love for their children is even stronger than super powers. And this parental love definitely includes adoptive parents like the Kents, with Zack Snyder and the writer David Goyer both being adoptive fathers. That unconditional love is present here in this “maybe” scene because not only are Martha and Jonathan concerned about the safety of their son, but Jonathan is also showing Clark that even when Clark faces difficult decisions, regardless of whether he does the right thing or the wrong thing, or even when there really is no clear right or wrong thing, Jonathan will be there for him anyway. He’ll love him through all of it. And this is not just in Man of Steel, it’s in Batman v Superman too when Clark faces another impossible situation and he leans on Martha and the memory of Jonathan. Scenes like this one are crucial in building up the heart of the character and showing that the Kents provide guidance that doesn’t shy away from complexity, and most importantly, they show an unconditional love that can be a bedrock for what is certain to be a challenging yet extraordinary life.

End of Episode:

Thanks for listening to this analysis of Scene 15 of Man of Steel, a scene that is a big reason why we love this movie because it wasn’t afraid of putting the quintessential hero into the gray areas of moral complexity rather than keeping things in more straightforward black-and-white. It is also a scene that helps set a tone for other difficult choices that Clark will have to face later in the movie --- difficult choices that, by definition, have outcomes that do not make everyone happy.


In the next episode we’ll continue with Jonathan and Clark as they move to the escape pod. We are trying to gear back up not only with Man of Steel but also getting ready for some analysis of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. So if you want to give us a boost of motivation and help us with the podcast expenses, you can support the show and find bonus content at patreon.com/JLUPodcast.

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