As we prepare for the final months before Batman and Superman go head-to-head in a brawl that will surely make over a billion dollars at the box office, Zack Snyder’s first film venture into DC’s most famous comic property, Man of Steel, still elicits some of the most heated debate in film-obsessed corners of the internet. With all the attention again focused squarely on the impending showdown between The Dark Knight and Krypton’s hometown favorite Kal-El, we think it’s time we attempt to settle whether Man of Steel is a good or bad film representation of the the world’s greatest superhero (or at least most iconic). Here, our own Richard Newby and Diego Crespo have articulated the justification for their opposing viewpoints and we would like you, our readers, to determine the answer with some finality. Or, at the very least, we hope we can inspire everyone to approach Man of Steel discussions with a more open mind from now on (YOU HEAR ME INTERNET? NO MORE OF THIS ALL CAPS LOCK RAGE PLEASE AND THANK YOU).
Man of Steel IS a Good Superman Movie: Richard Newby
There’s no other way for me to say it, I really like Man of Steel. Like my buddy Diego, I started reading comics from a very young age. I grew up on the pages of Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman, Superman, and The Man of Steel. I fed my interest in the character and the DC world he inhabited with repeated viewings of Bruce Timm’s animated series, Max Fleischer’s cartoons and Richard Donner’s films. I say all this to assure you that my enjoyment of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel comes from a place of love for and knowledge of the character, just as Diego’s dislike of the film comes from that same place. Too often when this film is discussed within the Thunderdome of social media, the argument disintegrates into a pissing contest of who knows the character better and who loves the character more, which is no way to discuss the film. Our debate comes from a place of equality and mutual respect.
While I’ve enjoyed most of Zack Snyder films. I’m not a Snyder apologist. I have no problem admitting that Man of Steel undoubtedly has its flaws; David Goyer isn’t great at writing scene transitions, Snyder’s color desaturation makes the world look far less interesting that it should, and Lois Lane, despite my enjoyment of Amy Adams’ performance, is poorly written and poorly utilized. But these flaws pale in comparison to my overall appreciation of this take on the Superman mythos. I’ll move past the easy rung of enjoyment where my satisfaction in the designs, special effects, depiction of Krypton and Superman’s powers, and Hans Zimmer’s score rest. Instead I’ll move on to what most people really care to argue about: the characterization of Superman.
What does it mean to be a hero in our world today? That’s the question Man of Steel is preoccupied with. In fact it’s the question that superheroes, particularly the Superman books, have always been concerned with. From an antagonist of corporate powers and greedy men to an American propaganda piece used to fight Nazis and racist Japanese caricatures to a symbol of goodness and hope, Superman has always been evolving. DC’s characters, unlike Marvel’s, are usually less set in terms of personality and actions—they are older and steeped moreso in mythology than the relatable humanity of Marvel’s characters. Superman is mutable, with the constant that he is a force for good, and that he can be better than us. I think Man of Steel delivers on this constant. In this film he is better than us, willing to sacrifice normalcy for heroism, willing to sacrifice the chance to see his people again, so that the people of his adopted world can survive. And perhaps, Superman isn’t as good or as joyful as we’d like–better than us in the way we want him to be–because we as a species have sunk so low in our moral composure.
I wouldn’t say Man of Steel is realistic. There’s far too much comic book logic for that to be true, but it does take a realistic stance on society. We’re a fearful world, one that’s quick to antagonize and manipulate and this is the world Man of Steel reflects, the world Jonathan Kent is afraid to lose his alien son to. Superman is hesitant because heroism is something that makes most of us hesitate, he’s mistrustful because we’re largely mistrustful, and yet he still manages to better than us by rising to the occasion, by making a conscious choice to try and be something more. He’s not perfect, but for me the idea behind Superman was never about perfection, but betterment and living up to expectations placed on a modern day Christ figure. The movie doesn’t shy away from this analogy (neither have the comics) and Man of Steel’s 33-year old Clark Kent is certainly comparable to Christ, whose death and rebirth occurred at the age of 33. The story of Christ isn’t a great story simply because of the Crucifixion, it’s a great story because of the understandable selfishness and regret displayed at the Garden of Gethsemane alongside the Crucifixion. This is the story Man of Steel is telling, only with more action beats, a story that recognizes the burden and isolation of being a potential savior. So yeah, Supes is a little angsty in this film, and doesn’t smile as much as I’d like him to, but in some ways that allowed me to understand his humanity more. And for a generation who is more familiar with Smallville’s version of Clark Kent (a show which Snyder cited as an inspiration) than Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent, it seems natural for him to be a little unwilling, a little unsure, a little angry, before finding a way to rise above it. For me the best Superman stories are predicated on the internal battle between sacrifice and selfishness, and the external manifestations of this struggle in the form of supervillains.
So what about all that destruction? I have never been alive in a world where Superman hasn’t killed, let alone caused property damage on varying scales of destruction. For me this has been a constant aspect of Superman, a character who takes no pleasure in killing but will if it’s the only way, and one whose efforts to save the city, the world, often result in destruction. Superman’s battle in Smallville is destructive. He absolutely flies into buildings and throws the villains into them, but we can see clearly that no one is killed; there are no bodies. It’s a reckless battle, but I’d argue that on this scale and given each respective characters’ power set, it’s no more reckless than Iron Man fighting in the middle of a busy street, or Thor not removing his battle with the Destroyer from the town center, or any number of similar instances in superhero films and comics. Let’s move into the major source of controversy: Metropolis.
A portion of Metropolis is destroyed, not most of it, not all of it, a portion. Zack Snyder goes to lengths to show establishing shots of the city, to make you aware of its massive size, and show that the area where the World Engine was terraforming was the area left in ruins. And that’s the area where the scout ship crashes down and the area where Zod and Superman fight. This is an area already destroyed, and given the force of the World Engine, it’s dead surely dead. Is it weird that Superman and Lois have a romantic moment there? Absolutely. It’s forced and doesn’t work in terms of tone or character. But let’s continue with that controversial fight, a lengthy fight that likely catered to the long-term fan complaint that Superman has never had a fight that displayed his powers on film. Watching the film now, I see Zod, a trained military commander and warrior, throwing Superman into buildings. I see Zod cutting down a building with his heat vision (how did he get a handle of his powers so quickly? I don’t know, maybe he stopped by Iron Monger School of how to prepare for a final battle with your equally powered nemesis.) I see Zod throwing a truck into a parking garage. Zod is clearly the better fighter here, and the main source of destruction. In fact the only time Superman directly damages a building is when the battle moves into the undamaged part of the city and Superman runs Zod along a glass window. Superman even tries to move the fight away from Metropolis and into space, but Zod drags him back down. There is no doubt that Zod’s attack is meant to feel like a terrorist attack, it’s an alien invasion and there is cost, but Superman isn’t attacking the city or killing people.
As for saving people: destroying the world engine and killing Zod seems a lot like saving people to me. Would I have liked to see Superman pulling people from the rubble, moving them to safer areas of the city? Maybe, but I also would have questioned what Zod was doing while this was happening as I question these moments of absentee-villains in a number of superhero movie climaxes. Zod’s attack is constant and believable for a trained military leader. It seems to me that Superman, inexperienced and having never been in a fight in his life, does what he can. He stops the genocide that Zod promised. And no, Superman doesn’t commit genocide of his own by destroying the genetically engineered vessels on the scout ship. As the film highlights in its most comic-booky plot point, the codex containing the Kryptonian DNA and ability to give life is inside Clark, something that will probably come back for a take on the New Krypton storyline. Superman only destroyed Zod’s means of giving life to those vessels. Lastly, the neck-snapping—it didn’t bother me, but I do understand why it might bother others. Clark clearly took no pleasure in it, and for me, I saw it as his transformation point, the acceptance that he could no longer cling to his Kryptonian roots, or his human upbringing, but instead be something more. That was his sacrifice, his crucifixion, and reawakening into a Superman on the path to becoming one more recognizable and positive (we see this briefly in the final scene between him and Gen. Stanwick). Man of Steel was built to be a franchise, and like any franchise, the character must undergo a journey. This film was only the first step, a learning process for all involved.
For all of Zack Snyder’s faults, he knows comic books and he loves them, and this movie was him pulling from the stories that defined Superman for him. His Superman might not be your Superman, and your Superman might not be mine, and that’s ok. The great thing about DC’s characters is that we can fill them with our own meaning. So whether or not you like or dislike this movie, I think it’s time we move past it and join each other in anticipation for Batman v. Superman, y’know until that tears us all apart again.
(Click to Page 2 to read Diego Crespo’s take on why Man of Steel is not a good Superman movie and to cast your vote)