Superman’s Intrinsic Humanity: Grief in Man of Steel

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Some of the best Superman stories are focused on how hard it might be to be Superman, but the classic complaint about such stories is that Clark Kent is hard to relate to. This is a problem that is constantly addressed in the latest Superman movie from Warner Brothers, Man of Steel, and in no scene is that more true for me than in the scene in which Clark loses his father. This scene more than any other is an example of successfully bringing this god-like figure down to the ground with the human race through the universality of the experience of losing or failing a parent in some critical way, and the solace for those of us who have been through the slow decline of someone we love that makes this scene one of the most significant and moving scenes in the movie.

Directly after my mother’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, I began trying to make a plan to come home.  I was living in Los Angeles at the time which had been a dream of mine since I was in high school, and my girlfriend and I had local schools and a lease in which we had at least three more months left. These issues seemed only obstacles at the time, and I was unemployed and capable of long-distance study so I saw no reason to sustain the distance. My sister had asked me to come home, but my mother didn’t want me to move. She sounded so in-control on the phone, I couldn’t argue with her certainty.

I wanted her to be right in her optimism. I believed in the power of the mind in the same way she did, if she didn’t believe she could die of cancer, then she surely couldn’t. I was so grounded in this belief that I rejected with force the good intentions of the people around me who suggested I ought to prepare myself to lose her. I see much of my own relationship in Clark’s relationship with his father. Jonathan is Clark’s spiritual rudder, and he seems determined at times to follow his advice good or bad to the very end. A few months before she died, I was at home with my family and I could either get on a plane and attend my residency or stay and postpone my degree by another semester. I tearfully asked for time to think it over and asked my mother what I ought to do. She asked me to go. I’m still bitter about that decision to leave, and I’m still angry about that lost time. Knowing that I could not save my mother has never stopped me from believing as much, and likewise I feel very certain that Man of Steel’s Clark struggled with the very same emotions. In the end, no matter how super, we are all doomed to fail our parents.

Henry Cavill’s performance in this movie is consistently brilliant throughout, but in scenes where Clark’s heart is breaking (specifically the scene where he loses his father which is paralleled with the scene where he executes Zod) he really gets to flaunt his skill and demonstrate succinctly why he was the best possible choice for the monumental role of leading the new DC cinematic universe. As Michael Shannon told The Daily BLAM, “I really haven’t seen anybody in this business work quite that hard. Obviously it’s a tremendous responsibility, and an intimidating one, to wear that suit. But he has the confidence and the work ethic to accomplish it.” In every scene he is quietly contained, soft even when he is hard, a demonstration of the rawness of Clark’s humanity that Cavill seems to have an intrinsic understanding for. It’s easy to forget that we are dealing with a character who is as emotionally vulnerable as he is physically invulnerable, but Cavill doesn’t ever seem to. The scene takes him smoothly through the familiar five Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and in a moment we see Clark grapple with denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance.

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Grief is rarely so tidy though, and though that is the order proposed in the model, it’s certainly not the order we see on screen. Once the moment culminates and we realize that Jonathan has made a very final decision, he extends his hand to stop Clark and the first stage that is detectable is certainly bargaining. We can see him calculate, count the slow seconds, the minutes he has left to rescue his father from mortal danger, and that bargaining is quickly followed by anger, which surfaces as frustration. You can almost see an argument coming, he’s thinking, no, I can do this. You see a little bit of frustration on him that is resonant of their earlier argument in the car. He’s pushing against Jonathan’s unflinching authority. You can also see the moment he loses the argument. In the car, Clark patiently and a bit petulantly reminds Jonathan that he’s not is father, he’s just “some guy who found him in a field,” and in acceptance of Jonathan’s decision he’s brought right back to a small, strangled cry of “dad.” It’s this moment at which I broke down in the theater, triggered by the stark authenticity of the moment, and it continued to tug painfully upon repeated viewings because it rung so true. My own experience losing my mother was grounded in that connection; in the profound importance of that relationship. The choice to close in tight on Clark’s face as Jonathan is obscured by a cloud of debris is intentional and significant. This moment tells us something vital about Clark, and we are experiencing it through his perspective. I have never once found Superman more relatable. I can even recognize in little ways throughout the film that he is still mourning his father, and only three years out from tragedy I can’t say for sure that he will ever stop.

There’s something profoundly human about the unavoidability of parental loss, and the lesson that Man of Steel seeks to teach in this scene and in others is that no matter how powerful we are, we can’t stop death. This is so common a theme in art that it has an attendant ages-old Latin tradition called “memento mori,” an art object that seeks to remind the audience of the futility of life or the inescapability of their own mortality. I would call any experience with the death of a parent a memento mori, and I think that writers often put characters through this trial of losing a parent for this reason if not also to induce independence. For Superman, it is perhaps more accurate to say that he is grappling with his own weakness. His shortcomings are uniquely devastating to him if only because he has so few. Clark had the power to save his father, but at a price Jonathan Kent wasn’t willing to pay.  In respecting his wishes, he failed to save his father.

When we imagine a life with invulnerability, heat vision, flight, and super speed, we have to also imagine a very different experience than what we are accustomed to. It is often said that Clark lives in a world of paper dolls, but we must also consider that his reality moves slower than ours relative to his speed. What takes an hour for most of us takes moments for Clark. Taking that into account, this two minute long flashback becomes more heartbreaking because Clark has more than just the few screen moments to save his father, he essentially stands by for what from his perspective seems at the very least an hour of knowing with certainty that his father is going to die and respecting his wishes means doing nothing about it. I can testify that grief is complicated, that heartbreak happens in pieces, and that we all possess the power to live through the unthinkable. Superman is a stronger and deeper character for knowing these things, too.

My experience was not so dramatic, my mother died nine months after her diagnosis and I struggled to accept that there was nothing to be done just as she did. The feeling in our household was hope, an extremely important theme in this film, and I realize now after watching Man of Steel that hope for its own sake at that point in time was its own kind of heroism. I spent a lot of time after my mother died being very angry. I was looking back and wishing we’d made distinctly different decisions, but now with some distance I feel nothing but proud of us. It’s not easy to hope when things are terrible, and just because that hope may be entirely in vain doesn’t mean it’s not enough to save you. Moments like this scene make a viewer feel less bereft and alone through incredible performances, universal and recognizable themes, and the realism of the pain of having someone slowly torn from your life. They are also moments that make heroes of us through survival, moments that can turn us courageously unreasonably toward hope.

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.

Death, culture, and popular culture

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I’ve always had a keen interest in the subjects of human mortality, death, and grief, but up until recently, I’ve avoided the topic in any sort of social context because I wasn’t sure my particular point of view was one that could be easily understood by others. Death, like religion and sex, are things that people have always seemed very hesitant to discuss in the first place, much less try and imagine a new perspective of. But I’m all about perspectives, which is why I’d like to blow the whole Kubler-Ross model, those common five stages of grief that have become more or less pop-psychology, right out of the water. There are just some commonly accepted ideas that have no respect for the scope and variety of the human experience. Personally, I’ve never bought into the “grief” thing, by which I mean, I’ve never understood the very specific set of social expectations that go hand in hand with the death of a loved one or just anybody for that matter.

George Carlin has some interesting material on the nature of public grief, in fact, if there’s anything you wouldn’t think about bringing up at Christmas dinner, the odds are pretty good that Carlin has a routine for it somewhere. This particular bit came from his show It’s Bad For Ya from 2008, in which he makes reference to things we are prone to say when someone dies;

“This conversation is bound to turn up. Two guys in a street meet each other, and one of them says, “Hey, did you hear? Phil Davis died.” “Phil Davis? I just saw him yesterday.” “Yeah? … Didn’t help. He died anyway. Apparently, the simple act of you seeing him did not slow his cancer down. In fact, it may have made it more aggressive.”

What Carlin doesn’t get into (because this is where it stops being funny) is that this reaction is not so irrational as it sounds. “I just saw him yesterday” doesn’t in fact mean, gee, I could have saved him, so much as it is the person’s reaction to the proximity of death. They are musing on, and in part disbelieving, the inevitability of death, becoming aware again that it exists, and that they by proximity somehow brushed with it. Because the dirty secret here is that grief is not about the person who died. When we talk about death, we are talking about those still living. And if you ask me, that’s completely correct. There’s a Grey’s Anatomy episode in which the main character spends an entire episode dwelling on the fact that one of the near-death patients came in wearing the same pair of shoes. In the episode, the shoes act as a tether between her and the patient, making it difficult for her to distance herself. This woman’s impending death becomes more significant to her because of their coincidental similarities, allowing her to have an encounter with her own fragile mortality.

I had a death in the family a month ago that essentially made one of my parents an orphan. Not shockingly, this made me sad for my parent, but the most awkward and troubling emotion I had to deal with was that is made me think about what it might be like to have no parents left in the world. That thought became the all-consuming drive of the remainder of my month, during which time I discovered and became obsessed with the television show Pushing Daisies. I would turn it on in the morning and watch it constantly until I went to bed at night. Pushing Daisies is a show in which the main character has the inborn ability to literally wake the dead, but only for one minute, at which point the universe balances out the cosmological scales and takes another life, at random. In concept, it sounds like a spooky scifi show, but what stands out about this program is that it is in fact a very successful comedy. Death, to the deceased, becomes a mere event, equal to any other, and at worst is just slightly inconvenient. On this show, death never makes the deceased better people, causes them extended grief, frightens or overwhelms them, though often the briefness of their reaction is necessitated by the fact that they have a mere 60 seconds of dialogue before they are dead again. All things considered, Pushing Daisies has an unprecedented sunny outlook in death.

I suppose if you don’t think about grief critically at all, all that really occurs to you is that you are sad, and I think for some people, being sad and not knowing exactly why really is enough. But those of us who have an obsession with emotion, who study the minute details of each new emotional experience, have to go deeper into the hows and whys, and I think sometimes that makes those of us who consider death often seem cold or insensitive. I’ve found this is a very large risk when it comes to fictional characters in any medium. If grief doesn’t present in an easily interpretable way, often an audience can turn on a character. The depth of emotion that character had for the deceased, or their depth of emotion in general, comes into question. It’s easy to let a character get villainised by a tear not shed in the right moment. I’m always especially impressed when a writer risks an a-typical reaction and it pays off. Prime examples that come to mind are Vada’s reaction to the death of Thomas J. in My Girl, and pretty much all the reactions in the critically acclaimed Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body,” in which Emma Caulfield delivers the performance of a lifetime as Anya, a newly human character, coming to grips, child-like, with the concept of human death.

“But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I knew her, and then she’s—there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead… anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And…and Xander’s crying and not talking, and…and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why!”

What’s most honest about this particular portrayal to me is how unacceptable Anya’s lack of knowledge about “how we do this” is to the other characters. Because she is operating outside the acceptable social norms when it comes to her grief, she is made an outsider while the other characters cluster together and perform the more social aspects of grieving.

But Anya’s reaction is a very natural one, because the limited capacity we have for seeing outside ourselves makes it all the more challenging to imagine an end to our existence, especially when that end is placed in the context of our isolated culture. The individualism that permeates American culture is addressed as a problem or at least a hurdle in much of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which life and death are not only intertwined, they become synonyms. Whitman makes pushing our boundaries between each other a part of pushing our boundaries when it comes to death.

“The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait

at the end to arrest it,

And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

luckier.”

What Whitman seems to be suggesting is that if we are all a part of each other, and all a part of the earth, if we’re all the same matter, then we cannot truly die, at least not in the traditional definition. I think it would have been even more profitable to take this to another extreme and refute the connotations of the word itself. Whitman suggests to us that our own culture of isolation is what keeps us from coming to grips with topics like sexuality and death.

We cannot definitively say that the dead are any worse off for being dead, in fact there are a number of schools of thought that consider that if the dead no longer have a human existence that they are beyond caring about whether or not they continue to exist or hold sway on the living. The entirety of the series Angel is about an immortal character seeking to fulfill an ancient prophecy that says his reward will be to “Shanshu,” interpreted as death, and then mortality, because the language in which the prophecy was written made no distinctions between life and death. To Shanshu in the Angel universe means to live until you die, interpreted as a more than adequate reward for the main character’s good deeds done. The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica are another set of death-seeking individuals, going as far as to theorize that to be human is to die, or be mortal.

It seems very likely that the ideas of grieving for the sake of the deceased, or that the deceased might be particularly concerned with how we grieve, are all designed around our own self-importance or to offer a strange sense of comfort, but isn’t it infinitely more comforting to give ourselves permission to admit that this is something we the bereaved are going through, that it is after all, about us? We experience our loss of the person, our grip with mortality, our need for the comfort or support that person provided not being met, and to be very honest about there not being a single thing wrong with feeling that way. A number of arts forms are taking up the topic of death, even art that would be considered mainstream like television, music, and movies are opening up the topic and challenging the given perspectives on how the see the end of life and the beginning of the unknown. I hope that we continue to expand our perceptions and refuse to close the conversation on what makes this event something we don’t talk about.