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.

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