There’s a perception outside of comic readers (and sometimes even within) that Superman is a boring character. People look at his powers and think that he’s too strong to ever really be challenged, or they see his positive outlook and ‘Truth, justice, and a better tomorrow’ catchphrase as being too cheesy. Both of these views are, frankly, ridiculous, as good writers know how to challenge Superman so that his raw power isn’t going to win him the day. There are so many examples of Superman not just being a cheesy one note character; just check out Superman Smashes the Klan, or the moment he goes after an arms dealer in Superman: Birthright to see how fantastic he can be.
To the general public he’s one of these characters that many feel can’t be engaging unless he’s changed to be edgy. This is how you get versions of the character like Injustice: Gods Among Us where he’s a fascist, pastiches like The Boys and Brightburn, and even actual Superman movies like Man of Steel that are made so devoid of happiness and hope that they fundamentally get a lot of the character and his mythos completely wrong. And, sadly, it would also lay the groundwork for a shared DC universe that would continue to falter, struggle with its characters and tone, and ultimately, need rebooting a decade later.
Superman: The Man of Steel is one of the seminal Superman books. Created just after Crisis on Infinite Earths it retold Superman’s origin for a modern audience, and for the new world that had been created. With Man of Steel set to become the first in a new series of Superman films, the fact that it was sharing the name seemed like an indicator that the same level of care and attention would be going into the project. Following the financial and critical failure of Superman Returns, a sequel to the Christopher Reeve movies, DC was looking to reboot their flagship character on the big screen, especially with the success of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. Several comic writers were called in to give pitches for the film, including well known Superman writers such as Grant Morrison. In part, however, it appears that the film was pushed into production in order to avoid having to pay the Siegel estate lost revenue.
Following the success of The Dark Knight Rises, screenwriters David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan were brought on board to try to recreate Superman for a modern audience, and to set a tone for any future DC movies. Original plans were to include references to other heroes existing within the universe, something that was all but dropped and moved to the incredibly bloated sequel. One of the first directors approached to helm the movie was Guillermo del Toro, who turned down the job to work on the still-unmade At The Mountains of Madness project (how different a DCEU would we have gotten under his leadership). After going through a number of possibilities, it was finally decided that Zack Snyder would direct. Having already produced a few comic book movies Snyder was seen as a safe choice by the studio, especially after Watchmen, a book that was said to be unfilmable, although how well done that adaptation was is definitely up for debate.
Man of Steel follows a young Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as he tries to find his place in the world before discovering his Kryptonian heritage. After being taught by his father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), that being a hero isn’t the right thing to do and that it could put him in danger, Clark has tried to live a simple life, but keeps ending up doing good where he can, such as saving men from a burning oil rig; though he does let his anger get the better of him on occasion, such as destroying a man’s truck. Unfortunately for him, his heroics have led to a trail of urban legends and whispered stories that ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is determined to get to the bottom of. Their paths converge when they both end up in the Canadian Arctic, where a team of scientists have discovered a crashed spaceship.
When the ship reacts to Clark, he takes the craft and hides it. However, thanks to the ship’s AI, it’s able to recreate his birth father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) as a hologram, and Clark learns about his home world. Jor-El inspires hope in his son, and putting on one of the Kryptonian suits, he begins to embrace his powers. Before he’s able to really become the hero he’s always meant to be, a Kryptonian ship under the command of the criminal General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives with the intention of converting Earth into a New Krypton. Now Clark has to face the remnants of his people in order to save his adopted home; a fight that will earn him the name Superman.
Cavill would prove to be a good choice for the role of Clark Kent/Superman, and is perhaps the best thing in the movie. Cavill brings a sense of kindness to the character that is desperately needed in order for him to work on a fundamental level, and there are large portions of the film where Superman isn’t present. The film focuses a good deal on Clark Kent, and his decision of whether or not to put on the cape, and Cavill gave these moments a great deal of humanity. Sadly, this conflict would prove to be one of the biggest missteps in the film.
Whether alive or dead in the comics, Jonathan Kent is one of the most important figures in Clark’s life. Not only does he take in this alien baby and raise him as his own with nothing but kindness and care, but he also instils in Clark a strong sense of right and wrong. Jonathan has, across dozens of different stories, inspired Clark to be the best he can, to keep pushing for a better world, and to be the best of humanity. Man of Steel doesn’t do this, and instead Jonathan actively discourages Clark from being a hero. This has gone on to become one of the most contentious points of the film, with fans of the movie defending it, whilst others point out that Jonathan telling Clark he should have let a bus filled with children die is antithetical to the character as he’s always existed. Jonathan’s reluctance to see Clark be a hero even culminates in him allowing himself to die in a tornado, something Clark could have easily saved him from. Sadly, this would not be the only issue with the film.
One of the cardinal rules for pretty much all of DC’s heroes, and especially for Superman, is that he doesn’t kill. Over the years Superman has fought against countless threats, beings stronger than him, smarter and faster than him, with powers he couldn’t even contend with. And in each of those cases he’s found a way to stop them without killing, and in some cases even without violence. Superman has gone up against some of the worst that this world and the universe beyond has to offer, and yet he refuses to take a life.
There’s a famous Superman comic, Action Comics #775, ‘What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & The American Way?’ in which a group of edgy heroes that kill challenge Superman over his no killing stance. This group start to win public approval, and they keep pushing Superman over his stance. Superman eventually tricks them, makes them think he’s finally snapped and that he’s started killing the team, and it makes him a terrifying figure, and he says that the killing would be the easy choice. At the end, the leader of the group screams at Superman that his no killing rule means he’s living in a dream world, to which we get the reply “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul I swear until my dream of a world where dignity, honour and justice become the reality we all share I’ll never stop fighting.” Man of Steel has Superman kill; it has him make the easy choice, and it betrays his character. The push to make Superman edgy, a character who never needs that, created a version of the character that loses the right to be called Superman.
But a fundamental misunderstanding of the character is baked into Man of Steel, and you need not look much further than the visual metaphors and imagery that surround him in both the film and the marketing. In Man of Steel, Zack Snyder uses Superman as a Christ allegory. There’s a sequence in the movie where Superman floats away from a spaceship, his arms spread wide at his side to look like Jesus on the cross. He visits a Christian church to seek council from a priest, with the camera focusing heavily on images of Jesus in the scene. And one of the film’s marketing strategies was to release a nine page document called ‘Jesus – The Original Superhero’, designed to help the clergy incorporate Superman into their sermons and to directly compare him to Jesus. Whilst that last one is clearly quite crass, they all have one big issue: Superman has never been a Jesus allegory. He’s Moses. Superman’s origin shares a striking similarity with Moses,
Superman is sent away from his doomed home, and is taken in in another land, raised by the people there, and is treated as one of them. However, later in life he learns of his true origins, and realises that the gifts he has need to be used to help the downtrodden, the mistreated, and those in need. You can even closely line up the story of the burning bush talking to Moses and telling him who he is with the recordings from Jor-El teaching Clark the same.
READ MORE: Last Action Hero (1993) – Throwback 30
But there’s also the fact that Superman was created by two Jewish men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both of them drew upon Jewish folk tales such as The Golem of Prague in the design of his powers (man of clay becoming man of steel). He was also created at a time when things were dangerous for Jewish people, particularly in Europe, where their families were from. Superman was made in part as a response to rising antisemitism, of a feeling of needing a hero in such dark times. The fact that Superman was bulletproof even came about in response to Siegel’s father being shot and killed. Superman is heavily steeped in Jewish culture, his creators were Jewish, and whilst the character of Clark Kent might not be Jewish in the comics it’s hard to deny that he’s a Jewish figure in a lot of ways. As such, the push to paint him as a Christ figure in Man of Steel felt incredibly wrong to a lot of people, and it sparked a number of articles, and intense debate on the subject.
Despite that criticism, there is some good to be found in Man of Steel. The film’s score, by Hans Zimmer, is very well executed, and there are a number of key moments in the film that are absolutely elevated thanks to that score. The scene in which Clark flies in the Superman suit for the first time is perhaps the most beautiful scene in the film. Zimmer made the smart choice to avoid any inclusion of, or allusion to, the famous John Williams Superman theme (something that would bafflingly be included in Cavill’s cameo in Black Adam), and instead would craft a really well made modern Superman theme. And whilst his theme will never reach the cultural saturation and recognition as Williams’, it is still a beautiful piece.
Man of Steel also includes some interesting design choices, particularly in regards to Krypton. Compared to almost every other live-action adaptation of Superman, the film spends a great deal of time on Krypton before the events of its destruction. The opening follows Jor-El as he goes up against General Zod, and we get to see the planet in its glory before its fall. This version of Krypton takes a big step away from what we’ve seen before in terms of design, and forgoes the brightly coloured robes and fancy headdresses, instead taking on a more muted tone, and using the planet’s technology as the basis for their buildings, armour, and costumes. These design choices would prove to be great later on in the film when the Kryptonians arrive on Earth, and their armour has such an alien look that it almost evokes the work of H.R. Geiger. Whilst Superman’s suit itself isn’t the best we’ve had, taking a lot of design cues from the New 52 look, it did at least look halfway decent, especially when next to the other Kryptonians.
Man of Steel is pretty far from a perfect Superman movie. It misunderstands the character in some pretty big ways, and seem focused on drawing in people who have demonstrated numerous times in online forums and on social media that they hate the source material. The desire to make a darker, edgier Superman for those that don’t like comics only went on to create one of the darkest, edgiest comic series yet, with Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League as the direct sequels to this.
Even some of the spin-off films seem to be following in its path of failing the character, with upcoming The Flash looking set to end this shared universe in a similarly bad way. You can’t really blame one film, or one director, for how terrible these films would become, but it’s hard not to argue that if this film had been made under a different director the DCEU and its films wouldn’t be in the sorry state they’re in now and in desperate need of a reboot. Man of Steel tried to remake Superman into something he’s not, and was ultimately a failure because of that.
Man of Steel was released in the UK on 12th June 2013.