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.