Man of Steel (2013) covers the two original Superman movies – Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980). We’re introduced to Krypton, we learn why baby Kal-El is sent to Earth, we watch the sentencing of the Krypton villain Zod and his cronies, we explore the origin story of Clark Kent/Superman, we see Smallville, we go to Metropolis, and, finally, we have the battle against the antagonist, Zod.
I respect Christopher Nolan, who decided when rebooting Batman with Batman Begins (2005) to stay away initially from the Joker – Batman’s greatest villain, and already renowned in cinema due to Jack Nicholson‘s portrayal in Tim Burton‘s Batman (1989). It allowed Nolan to focus on Batman’s development and the unfolding story. Arguably, when you use lesser villains (and heroes, for that matter) it compels the writers to ensure the story’s solid, since they can’t rely on a character’s marquee to carry the appeal. Iron Man (2008) is a great example. I couldn’t have told you who Iron Man was prior to that movie. I’m sure most everyday moviegoers couldn’t. But that was a good movie. (I actually believe that Iron Man – the first movie in the Marvel cinematic universe – remains Marvel’s best film by a long way.)
As Zack Snyder decided to go with Zod in Man of Steel, parallels were always going to be drawn between his movie and Superman and Superman II.
Man of Steel
Superman fights General Zod, Ursa, and Non over Metropolis. Superman tries to lure them out over the water, but they keep flying back to the city.
During the battle, civilians are repeatedly endangered, and Superman is always ducking away from the battle to save them. General Zod notes that’s his weakness – that he cares for them. Ursa says, ‘Like pets?’ Which is a brilliant line, and shows the disdain the villains have for the populace.
Superman realises that continuing to fight this battle in Metropolis will inevitably lead to civilian casualties, and flies off.
Superman fights General Zod over Metropolis … and the two are responsible for what looks like the obliteration of half of the city.
Superman helps destroys the Kryptonian World Engine. He saves Lois and flies down into the wreckage that is Metropolis. Some
Daily Planet employee who’d earlier been trapped under a slab of concrete, looks at him and says, ‘He saved us.’
Because, well, mortified as we are having just witnessed the annihilation of half of Metropolis, we need to be told that Superman did something good.
Man of Steel is set up in a way that, unlike Superman II, it’s harder for Superman to try lure the Kryptonians away. Their World Engine is turning Earth into Krypton – although this never made much sense to me. On Earth, the Kryptonians have super-powers and are pretty much immortal. Turn Earth into Krypton, and they become ordinary mortal schlubs. If you were Kryptonian, where would you want to live? In any case, Superman can’t lead the villains away.
But the battle is objectionable because Superman seems oblivious to the damage Metropolis is suffering. This isn’t a little damage either. It looks like half the city is wiped out. Interestingly, in the following movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), they have a scene of a Kryptonian ship flying through the city knocking out buildings – this feels like a ret-con to try mitigate how much damage is attributed to Superman.
In Superman II, Superman behaves exactly as you would think Superman would – concerned about people. At all times, he’s aware of their safety.
You could argue that Man of Steel’s Superman hasn’t had the same grounding. You could argue that, but you would be wrong. Already, we’ve seen him rescue a busload of kids, and workers on a burning oil rig, and we’re told about other saves attributed to him as he wandered around the country Bruce Banner-like. So he’s aware there’s a value to human life, and that he has the power to preserve it.
Man of Steel
Superman tricks the Kryptonians into losing their powers. He then takes care of them easily.
Superman fights Zod, who fires heat vision at a stray family. Superman (now apparently concerned about civilians) breaks Zod’s neck.
I admit I’m an unabashed Superman II fan. I think the way Superman defeats Zod, Ursa, and Non is the BEST superhero-movie ending ever. Superman gives Lex Luthor vital information, knowing Lex will betray him. Zod, Ursa, and Non are de-powered. Zod commands Superman to kneel before him – exactly what Zod said he’d do when sentenced at the beginning of Superman: he would make Jor-El’s heirs kneel before him. Superman takes his hand. Superman is defeated. Humiliated. Then you hear the crunching of bone. That magnificent score pipes in. Superman lifts Zod. Superman is still super. He’s triumphed through wits, rather than strength.
Too often, these stories rely on the superhero’s sheer willpower to overcome the odds. In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman carries a kryptonite spear (the kryptonite should incapacitate him) and wills himself to fly at super-speed and ram the spear into Doomsday. In Wonder Woman (2017), Ares (David Thewlis) is firing lightning (or something or other) into Wonder Woman (Gal Cadot) and beating her down. But she wills herself to overcome it. Man of Steel is no different – Superman lies at the heart of the World Engine, which should be generating a Kryptonian atmosphere. Superman should be powerless, since his powers come from Earth’s yellow sun. But he wills himself to fly up and destroy the World Engine. How? Do physics not apply? Are we to discard everything we’ve been told about how this universe operates and cheer because the character has overcome odds that, until a moment ago, were meant to be insurmountable?
For as trite as the reversing-time ending of Superman can be considered, at least it’s a novel approach – he turns the world back to save Lois. It’s problematic, but at least it’s original. At least they tried something. (I will qualify that I don’t know what the intended ending was – director Richard Donner has said the turning-time-back ending was intended for Superman II, but Donner was fired before he could complete both movies, which were being filmed concurrently. You can see the turning-time-back ending restored in Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.)
But Man of Steel’s ending features Superman snapping Zod’s neck. No problem. This Superman is a killer. I read that Zack Snyder qualified this decision by saying Superman needed to do this to realise killing was wrong. Really? Imagine every murderer who went to trial used this as a defence: ‘Hey, your honour, I’m sorry I killed somebody, but now that I have I realise it’s wrong.’ Seriously? I’ve never killed anybody, and I know it’s wrong. I’m pretty sure most people would be the same as me. How does Superman not know this given he’s been brought up on Earth?
I love the character of Superman. The complaint is that as super-powered as he is, he’s impossible to write for – it’s impossible to create a legitimate threat. To address this, Zack Snyder decided to meet force with greater force: first the super-powered Kryptonians, and then the super-powered Doomsday. Then it was just a battle of heavyweights, and to hell with the carnage. That’s part of the attraction – how vulnerable is our world when people with super-powers do battle? Meh. There are much, much better ways to write Superman.
In Superman, Jor-El tells him: ‘They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you … my only son.’
And we believe this Superman could be that example. He could be the light.
In Man of Steel, Jor-El tells him: ‘You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.’
What example does Man of Steel’s Superman offer the people? Melancholy, mayhem, and murder? They try to espouse he’s this messiah figure in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with no correlation or validation as to why anybody should see Superman this way. Martha Kent tells him he doesn’t owe these people anything. At the start of the story when he rescues Lois from a terrorist, he kills the terrorist: at super speed, Superman grabs the terrorist and flies him through two stone walls – there’s no way any human would survive that. So Superman’s still killing. Why not just kill all his enemies? In the few saves they do show, he mopes through them. I’d be petrified of this guy gallivanting about on Earth, too. And if this is Superman’s interpretation of Jor-El’s ideal, well, we don’t need you, buddy – we’re already maiming and killing ourselves.
How can you get the character so drastically wrong? Once you take away those upstanding qualities from him, you no longer have Superman. You have Will Smith‘s Hancock. That’s not dragging Superman into a new age. It’s changing him to suit your agenda. It’s trying to turn him into Christopher Nolan‘s Batman when the two characters are – and always have been – polar opposites. Richard Donner says it in the commentary for Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut – Superman is about the light, Batman is about the dark. The only lightness we have in the current Superman comes courtesy of Joss Whedon‘s story doctoring in the hodgepodge Justice League (2017).
People have defended Man of Steel by saying that it brings Superman into the modern age. How? By making him gloomy and in need of Prozac? I argued with a friend about Man of Steel, and he countered, ‘What do you want Superman to be doing? Rescuing cats out of trees?’ (Which happened in Superman.)
Superman is meant to be super – not just physically, but intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. He’s meant to epitomise the best in us, regardless of the circumstances. While he is capable of great feats, he leads by example. That’s why he’ll pluck a damn cat out of a tree.
But I can’t think of one thing that’s super about the new Superman.