Man of Steel: Superman the Myth vs. Superman the Character

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I wanted the next piece in this series to be about the women of Man of Steel, but after an afternoon on tumblr, I feel like this one is more pressing.  I don’t think this is the kind of film that can be “spoiled” in the traditional sense, meaning your viewing is somehow ruined by knowing plot details ahead of time, but be aware that this entry is going to have huge spoilers for the movie.

The biggest point of contention for critics and fans alike so far has been the scene where Superman kills Zod.  Plenty of people who identify as comic-book fans are claiming that this is unprecedented, that Superman has never killed anyone in his regular continuity and every time we see Superman kill someone it irreparably destroys the character.  I have it on good authority that’s simply not true.  Honestly, anyone who wants to know doesn’t have to go much further than Google. So why the convenient amnesia?  Why deny the obvious, why buck against Synder’s adherence to a piece of established canon?  Isn’t that what we, as geeks, have been asking for?

I believe it’s because we’re talking about Superman the myth, not Superman the character.  It interests me that everything affects Superman’s image.  Non-canon comic strips, webcomics, fanvideos, fan art, even the fan-fiction to the degree that it is read, not to mention the officially-licensed merchandise, animated and live action movies, video games, and paperbacks.  All of these sources, all of these different visions have the power to directly affect the way the public perceives Superman the myth because Superman belongs to us.  Maybe not globally speaking, but most certainly for Americans because Superman is part of the American myth.  We’re talking about a story that is only really technically copyright DC comics, and the consensus seems to be that if we had our way, we would take even that technicality away from them.  The reason this matters is because we’re having a large argument right now about what this country is and what it isn’t, and Man of Steel is right in the middle of that argument.

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Obviously the webcomic above by David Willis contains a pretty flawed analogy, as Superman the character has been evolving in his sense of morality and grappling with new American problems for over a decade now.  I’ve been told that the post-90s comic book Superman deals with the complexity of moral issues in a global way that reflects the slow and painful growth of the country of which he is a citizen is going though.  But he is a character, and to assume that he doesn’t understand the repercussions of the violence he’s involved in the same way we do while we are watching it is putting a pretty large assumption on the character.  What makes anyone watching the movie believe that occasionally trembling, constantly frowning, grimacing Clark Kent doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation?

Superman the myth on the other hand, is an American metaphor. He’s a metaphor for manifest destiny, for colonialism, for patriarchal dominance.  We have a problem with his collateral damage, with his hard decision, and in part with his helplessness because of what it says about us.  We don’t want Superman to lie to us, obviously, because if we did Superman Returns would have been a box office smash, but we don’t want the truth either.  The Superman myth IS a lie; it’s a classic power fantasy indulged in by the people who have the privilege to indulge in fantasies.  But looking at Superman in a modern context necessitates deconstructing that lie. That’s why in order to make Superman relevant in 2013, we had to start dealing with Superman the character, and that’s going to be messy.  This Superman doesn’t “always find a way,” sometimes there are two choices and both of them are horrible.

I think Goyer’s bravest decision in this movie was one of the most brilliantly handled moments.  Kal-El is a notoriously overpowered character, and going in I knew I would not be satisfied without a moment of helplessness from the man of steel in order to invert that power.  I wasn’t counting on it given that Snyder promised kryptonite wouldn’t be making an appearance.  The film surprises though, by inventing new obstacles for this famously hard to challenge character.  Martha Kent tells a story about Clark as a sickly baby that pays off a few scenes later when the grown man is reduced to helplessness in his home world’s atmosphere, his flashback to being helpless in the face of losing his father was particularly resonant, even if it was a few seconds too long, and his final moment of helplessness is perhaps the most offensive to critics; being forced to kill Zod.  The explanation Synder gives in a podcast with Empire Online makes perfect sense.

“And I wanted to create this scenario where Superman is going to see those people get chopped in half, or he’s got to do what he’s got to do. And I think Zod knows that. It’s almost [suicide in its way] in a way, it is, it’s like death by cop, you know in a way. In my mind if Kal has the ability to kill him, then that’s a noble way for him to die. It’s like that whole “good death is its own reward” concept in the movie.”

After-the-fact explanation aside, I’ve seen a lot of fanboys argue a number of scenarios in which this didn’t have to happen, each more ridiculous than the last, and continuing in the trend of re-writing this movie as a criticism of the movie.  The consensus seems to be, “it’s not the way I would write it, so it’s a terrible movie.”  That has never been a solid basis for criticism, but if we’re going to talk logistics, let’s talk logistics.  Zod matches Clark in strength, and while he’s got him in a head-lock in the moment, he hasn’t been particularly in control of the fight, so it’s clear Zod isn’t going anywhere.  His instinct is to try and turn Zod’s head away, and that’s a good instinct.  His instinct is to try to talk Zod out of this, and that’s a good instinct.  Plenty of people have described Clark’s final appeal to Zod as pleading, and I don’t think that’s off the mark.  In the end, he’s either Superman or he’s not, and Superman is going to make the hard decision.

Then there’s the fallout.  Like most grief, there are people who say he grieves too much for Zod, and those who say that he doesn’t grieve enough.  If this were a lesser movie, we’d be treated to the details of Clark’s emotional reaction in a clumsy voice-over or a long scene with Lois about his feelings.  This movie doesn’t need that, because Henry Cavill’s howl of despair that elegantly draws upon his last great moment of helplessness, the death of his father, is more than we need.  In point of fact, I haven’t seen the toll taking a life takes on a heart expressed in such an immediate and visceral way anywhere else in this medium.  I think you can easily miss a lot of the subtle moves Cavill is making if you don’t care to give him the benefit of the doubt or your whole attention.  Over at the Mary Sue, Zoe Chevat, the one and only journalist assigned by the proclaimed-girl-geek website to the launch of the potential justice league franchise, mischaracterizes a number of his moves as anger.

“The one trait Clark seems able to express is rage. Rage at his loved ones being threatened, but, beyond that, a general outpouring of anger aimed at a villainy that’s conveniently appeared. Whatever Superman’s traditional traits, thoughtless anger, and the actions it provokes, are not compelling in the lead of a superhero movie. If you cared about Superman before, you’re probably appalled by the behavior of his character and the changes made, and if you didn’t, the movie isn’t going to make you like him very much.”

This review was met with some very honest surprise on my part, because I found noteworthy that this particular Superman only loses his cool the once, when his mother is threatened.  Personally I find it hard to blame him on that count, but maybe I’m very forthcoming with the benefit of the doubt.  It’s true that Cavill does a lot of bellowing and grimacing, but most certainly in proportion to the seriousness of the situation.  In fact, the two times in the movie he lets loose and screams are moments of genuine heartbreak.  I don’t think that interferes with Clark’s appeal to audiences, in fact I think it’s part of the charisma of the character.  Typically bulletproof characters are not only difficult to relate to, they are difficult to like. Goyer’s Man of Steel seems to understand that and rises to the challenge.

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11 thoughts on “Man of Steel: Superman the Myth vs. Superman the Character

  1. Pingback: Batman/Superman: why keeping Frank Miller away from this movie is essential | You're so much braver than I give you credit for

  2. It’s hard to take an argument that argues one should look for subtle clues in the movie seriously when everything else in the movie is pretty much underlined, bolded and highlighted. Superman is framed against a stained glass window of Jesus and is 33 years old. When the Christian symbolism is so baldly in your face, how far should we be digging to explain Kal El’s seeming oblivousness to pain and suffering that is not directly brought to his attention?

    You bring up Superman losing his temper when Martha Kent gets threatened. (He also loses his temper enough to destroy a guy’s truck earlier on but whatever) So angry in fact that he brings the fight with Zod from an isolated farmhouse in the middle of cornfields into Smallville where the danger of collateral damage is higher. Even if we give Kal El the benefit of the doubt in the battle of Metropolis that he could not get Zod away, with Smallville, he actually brings danger to the civilians! To save Martha, he doesn’t need to take Zod to Smallville. The corn fields would be sufficient. Even the reveal that Zod can take on powers if exposed to Earth’s environment does not need Smallville’s destruction to be tied to it. Kal El’s actions here are so unnecessary and damaging that it really undercuts the moral upon which this film pivots: Kal El values human life so much he would kill the last of his kind to save it. All so Zack Snyder can destroy IHOP and Sears. The kicker is if Smallville and corn fields had been reversed, Zack Snyder could have had it all. This is a movie that looks great and meaningful but is ultimately shallow and inconsistent and I don’t even have to fall back on comparisons with other media to criticize it.

    • I’m not arguing that anyone should be looking for subtle clues in this movie, I think everything is pretty readily apparent. What I DID say was that Cavill’s performance is subtle, which it is, but there’s nothing subtle about the moment after he snaps Zod’s neck. That was the most clear and overt piece of acting he did in the whole movie, and I take beef with people who misinterpret it. People don’t act in predictable ways, especially in a crisis, and actors that know that do a better job of expressing themselves to an audience than the actors who are playing for effect.

      Yes, I bring up him losing his temper because it’s an exception to the rule. Clark Kent the character is ABOUT control and to see him lose it is always frightening, but he should be allowed to lose it, as a character, because he’s not just a symbol. If you’re looking at this movie JUST for the symbols, you’ve missed the entire point of this post, which is that we aren’t talking about “the myth of Superman” here. This is Clark learning what happens when he loses his temper, and the movie shows him the immediate consequences of that decision. The plot by design doesn’t give him a moment to breathe and grieve these people that have quite obviously died because he wasn’t completely in control because that’s not how it works when the planet is being attacked by aliens. He doesn’t have the luxury of breaking stride. Every minute he stops to angst, more people are dying because of him. Every crisis in this movie is in some way his fault, and he’d have to be a moron not to understand that.

      I find the argument that if Clark hadn’t made the miscalculation of driving the fight into Smallville the movie would somehow be redeemed to be absolutely ludicrous, and the POINT of intelligent criticism is examining a work inside its context and comparing it to other work in the genre, so nobody is “falling back” on anything, that’s just how it works. The fact that so many modern critics offer biased reviews with no context or justification of their reactions to a work is merely a sign of slipping journalistic integrity I decline to be a part of.

      • The movie does attempt to invoke a moral about human life and alien life and the value of both. Which is why Kal El’s actions matter and the consistency of his actions matter. You see the fight being taken to Smallville as just a mistake on Kal El’s part consistent with his imperfect nature. I take it as Zack Snyder wanting us to revel in great action sequences and not reconizing the implicit horror of the destruction. One can argue that Superman can lick his wounds offscreen and this should be enough. But this scene was actively added to the movie and it contradicts the assumption so many people have used that Kal El would have tried to save humans if he could. This scene says that when it was within his power to do so, he did not. To me, the attitude that’s projected by this movie is if death is out of sight, it is out of mind and please enjoy the ride.

        I really try to meet a movie half way but in this case it feels like a Call of Duty game trying to claim an anti-war message after asking us to revel in killing off our enemies. The lack of awareness on the part of the creators just can’t be overlooked.

      • This is the part I don’t understand, and I address it in an earlier post because this movie is too big and complex to cover all in one post. You can object to violence in movies, that’s fine, but it’s not correct to say that this movie in any way glorifies violence just because it features violence.

        ONE enemy is killed in this movie, while clearly countless thousands of humans perish while the world engine in destroying metropolis, and there are probably a couple of casualties and more than a few injuries that result from the fight that takes place in Smallville. I don’t see anything asking us to “revel in killing off our enemies,” if anything, we asked to MOURN our enemies, because that is certainly what Clark does.

        This is my beef about people objecting to the violence in general in this film. This is the most responsible violence I have ever seen in this film genre. This violence is frightening, it hurts people, and it has immediate consequences. In my other article I compare fight in Metropolis to the entirely bloodless final scene of Avengers. A battle should not be fun to watch, not if it’s responsible, and I don’t know about anyone else, but the Metropolis scenes in Man of Steel had me frightened, exhausted, awed, and sick all at once. I didn’t leave the theater thinking, “omg, what awesome explosions!” I left the theater feeling like I’d just seen a bunch of characters I genuinely liked almost crushed by a giant horrifying gravity machine that had no more regard for them than an ant hill.

      • I felt much the same way as you about the violence but I do not give the credit to the director and writer for having intentions to make it so. There’s a scene where Kal El and Lois kiss and take the time to trade quips and it is clearly intended as comic relief. But because it happens atop the rubble surrounded by death and destruction, it does not gel with the tone of the movie at that time and it also comes off as disrespectful. To contrast, there’s Pacific Rim where the scientists are obvious comic relief but treat the whole Kaiju attack with the seriousness it deserves.

        Bloodless destruction is the staple of PG-13 movies. Avengers manages to both depict citizens being rescued and also a memoriam to the dead in the coda, explicitly treating all that death and destruction with the respect it deserved. It doesn’t pretend that everyone is being saved but it makes the effort to mollify the audience’s fears. Man of Steel has no moments where it takes the time to count the dead, with or without Kal El’s mulling it over. Everything appears hunky dory at the end. Even the Daily Planet looks untouched by the violence and the World Trade Center is still unfinished after 12 years. Forgive me if I get the impression that Snyder et al gave the violence very little thought other than to show how cool it was. All 40 minutes of it.

        Look, I do credit the excellent idea of Kal El deciding to never kill again based on this experience. But thousands have died in Metropolis and another hundred in Smallville too and so it feels cheap and manufactured that he makes the sacrifice for 4 people (and I suppose the rest of the world) and only when they are brought to his attention. In that sense, I am railing against the oblivious nature of Kal El, Goyer and Snyder and people who are fine with the accidental damage brought about by drone attacks in Pakistan.

        It looks like we come from fundamentally different places. You’re still willing to give the director the benefit of the doubt. I tried but the movie fails to meet it’s own message so I can’t be sympathetic. But I think we are both in agreement that Kal El is fallible even though the Christian symbolism and all the baggage that that carries is clearly evoked. I think that his fallibility is a mitigating factor but that it won’t save him from a reckless endangerment lawsuit by Smallville residents.

      • I don’t think there’s anything unintentional about this movie, and I think the way the audience tends to feel during the battle in Metropolis is completely calculated and there for a reason. I think it has everything to do with drone attacks and the people who are okay with that collateral damage because they are scared, and I think the movie in tone is very critical of that attitude. People die in this movie, on screen, and in horrible ways. People are running and don’t make it. The only casualty on screen in the Avengers’ New York battle is literally in a deleted scene and it happens to a police officer. I don’t consider that constructive, and I think the fact that it’s the norm doesn’t excuse it. I love the Avengers, but that in the first place is what I feel elevates Man of Steel above your typical comic book movie blockbuster. We are meant to consider the literal implications of violence, and on both sides of the fight. I don’t think he’s oblivious, I think he’s frantic. He’s not Superman the myth, he’s Superman the well-meaning guy who is way way outclassed. He saves who he can, but when you are embracing realism you have to decide whether Superman is going to save everyone on the ground or he’s going to save the world. We’re talking about a Superman that could not possibly have done this without a team, and that entire team is obliterated in the name of the mission.

        The majority of casualties do happen during the world-engine and therefore have only a tangential relationship to Clark, by the time he’s trying to stop Zod, the majority of buildings around the crater have been evacuated- Superman doesn’t need to do that, because the humans in this universe are capable and supported by truly adept and helpful law enforcement. It’s Zod that keeps driving the fight toward populated areas, and he is doing so because he’s found Clark’s weak spot and is delighted to exploit it.

        I hear a lot about the kiss being ill-timed but I just don’t see it that way. As far as Lois and Clark know, the danger is over. I don’t think it occurred to Clark in a million years that he had another fight coming, and while I think I am with the people who say it would have been nice to see Superman participate in a little bit of search and rescue, the world is saved, they are both freaking out (you can see the both of them trembling) and they comfort each other. I think the quip is perfectly on tone in it’s breathless shaky awkwardness.

        I would argue that especially in his first movie, the burden is not on Clark to embody all the themes of this movie (again, he’s a character, not a symbol) which is the reason he’s supported by a cast of characters that are incredibly resilient, loyal, and selfless. This is not a “classic” Superman movie, because it’s not 100% focused on Superman. WE are the heroes in this movie, WE are striving toward an ideal, WE are proving our own worth.

      • Well that’s that. Thank you for the discussion.The coda in Avengers that acknowledged the deaths and the burial services helped that movie for me. The lack of something similar or any news footage along those lines that would have acknowledged those unseen deaths at the end of Man of Steel suggested that death in that movie did not hold as much weight to Snyder et al. It is clear that you prize subtlety and variable interpretation over being hit over the head with a message and I respect that preference. The corollary of that subtlety is people will take away completely different things from the movie and therefore it divides the audience, as you have found.

      • Thank you for your response! I don’t get to talk to many people who didn’t adore the movie in a calm and rational way, so I really prize the opportunity to hear your perspective. I can totally agree that the consequence of the movie’s subtlety of theme and complicated nature has served to divide audiences, and that is a shame.

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