Sympathy For The Devil – Man Of Steel? Or Man Of Straw?

HENRY CAVILL as Superman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “MAN OF STEEL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

With the release of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, everyone seems to have got their knickers over their unitards into a twist over Superman’s (Henry Cavill) “killing spree” in Metropolis at the end of Man Of Steel, referenced again in BvS‘s ground zero eye view from an appalled and angry Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck).

I wanted to set the record straight, but someone has already done a sterling job defending Superman’s actions, and identifying the quandary he finds himself in as “the son of three fathers” – Jor-El, Jonathan Kent, and Zod. That writer is John Warrender. I can’t link to his original writing as he has wound up his blog (shame!) but I had the foresight to save his writings on this and The Dark Knight Rises as particularly insightful works, in the face of  widely held blinkered views elsewhere. With his permission, here is some of his lengthy post on why Man Of Steel’s interpretation of the Superman myth is so strong and potent.

What Have They Done To The Man Of Tomorrow? (Abridged)

By John Warrender

 

The problem with holding fast to an image of Superman as a flawless individual who will always, always save everyone, when this is held as the crucial element that defines him above all other heroes, protecting this image becomes paramount, and his fans are on watch for deviations. As we get further and further from the moment Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster invented the Man of Steel, back in a time when creating a paragon of virtue was arguably easier, there’s more chance that the character will be radically altered in a way that would contravene one of these essential elements of his nature. Considering how seriously people, including myself, take Superman’s core nature to be sacrosanct, it was only a matter of time before the Kryptonian god was irreparably besmirched.

Kevin Costner with one gesture, sold me 100% on the movie no matter how many times during the preceding hour I’d had wobbles of doubt. Of all the movies made by (Zack) Snyder thus far, nothing he’s depicted before has even approached the emotional power of Jonathan Kent sacrificing his life to keep his son’s identity a secret. Costner perfectly depicts the nobility of a father, the love he feels for his son and the confidence that he is in the right. It’s a stunning moment, the best and most human scene in the entire movie, and made all the better when you realise that Jonathan is totally, utterly wrong to do it. He’s brave in that moment, but his bravery is borne of a terrible fear that he infects his son with, and this is the (WORLD) engine that powers the movie.

man of steel pa kent gif

Kal-El, as well as being a Christ symbol of great obviousness, is also a son with three “fathers”, two of whom raise him and the third who comes in at the end to deliver a lesson that shakes Kal from his cocoon of fear and doubt in the most unpleasant way. Krypton is a world that has allowed itself to stagnate due to a eugenics programme that has oppressed its citizens even before birth; the Genesis Chamber within which Kryptonians are born is a direct lift from The Matrix, right down to the spider-like machines that pluck ripe babies from nutrient stems like grapes. No one on the planet is allowed to determine their own fate, which Jor-El and Lara rebel against. They create Kal in the first natural birth on the planet in millennia, and then send him off to one of the Kryptonian Empire’s failed colonies to hopefully save their doomed civilisation.

man of steel jor lara

 

 

As explained at length at about the two-thirds point, Jor is adamant that Kal be allowed to find his own way, which, thanks to the shuffled narrative structure, comes not long after we see Jonathan deliver yet another lesson to Clark telling him that he must hide, run away, never fight back, be careful of what humanity might do to him. Both fathers give conflicting advice but each philosophy is rooted in lumping enormous boulders of responsibility onto the young man’s shoulders. Jor says that Kal must become a symbol, an ideal, something for humanity to look up to.

“They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders… You can save her. You can save them all.”

Cue Superman floating away in a crucifixion pose and then flying like the veritable wind to save Lois. Jonathan, on the other hand, makes Clark so scared of what he can do, and what his appearance on Earth might do to humanity, that he puts the fear of god into him. Though both talk about having faith in humanity, it’s Jor, who knows no humans, who seems to believe that we can be inspired by Superman’s perfection, while Jonathan, who knows humans, is unconvinced. Kal and Clark are set up for conflict throughout, but while both fathers are telling him this, we still see that his impulse is always to be heroic. Adult Clark’s first scene sees him leave his new identity behind in order to save the otherwise doomed workers on the oil rig with no concern for his secret. He’s intrinsically good and honourable, and Jonathan’s words are a leash on a force for good, and arguably the possibility that the appearance of Superman is the thing that will bring about the improvement in humanity that he hopes for.

man of steel clark

The last third of the film sees Superman become a hero, saving the world but, controversially, not everyone, which is the thing that has caused the most upset among fans. Thousands of people die during the Kryptonian attack on the city, culminating in an epic brawl during which skyscrapers topple and petrol trucks explode. The carnage is immense, and the outcome horrible. Zod, who despises the idea of Jor-El creating a future for Krypton that allows for free will, commits one final act of evil against the man he killed years before; he puts Kal in an impossible quandary by making him choose to break his moral code; the kindness that Faora-Ul says is an evolutionary weakness but is, as we know, less a regrettable deviation from the “rightness” of the eugenics programme and more an evolutionary kink that will lead to the Kryptonian hero’s greatest achievements. Zod’s heat vision will kill a family if Superman doesn’t kill him first, which in this case is no choice at all. Kal kills Zod, the last Kryptonian, and wails in anguish at the crime he has committed, and at the corruption of that code that he wanted to uphold.

Zod wins. This is the key to the entire movie. Jor-El tells him he can save everyone, but this is purely impossible and unrealistic nonsense from an idealistic fool whose naive beliefs doom him and almost lead to the death of his wife and son. Jonathan tells him he must hide his powers until “humanity is ready”. This will never happen; humanity is not getting any kinder or more understanding unless Superman is there to kickstart the process. So while Clark/Kal’s impulses are directed towards doing good, Jonathan foolishly tells him that maybe it’s best that the children in the school bus be left to die. Both fathers are wrong.

man of steel young clark

The third influence on Kal’s development is Zod, who mocks the hero’s benevolence and forces him to betray everything he holds dear by removing choice from the equation, or at least making him choose between unacceptable outcomes, making visceral Superman’s earlier decision to destroy the Genesis Chamber. Jor’s dream of a man fully in control of his destiny lies in ruins, as it must. Zod’s lesson, which robs Kal of the freedom to live life the way he wants while showing the boundaries of what he is capable of, is paradoxically the one that sets Kal free. He has faced his worst nightmare, the devastation that Jonathan hints at and the inability to always choose his own path, as wished by Jor, if faced with a foe more powerful than he is. But he is then finally free of his fears, free to live his own life.

This is the moment that he truly becomes what he wants to be, what he has always wanted to be; a part of the world. If Christopher Nolan and David Goyer’s Batman is a man transcending manhood in order to become a symbol, NGZ’s (Nolan, Goyer, Snyder) Superman is a symbol trapped between the opposing dreams of two oppressive fathers but who strives to become a man. Jor and Jonathan try to put him into a box, not realising what this would do to him. Whereas Christ is tempted on the cross to become a man, but chooses instead to honour his obligation and his father’s wishes, dying on the cross for the sake of humanity, Kal/Clark elects to become a man, to revoke his godhood, at least temporarily, in order to become one with the people he wishes to protect. The moment of triumph isn’t the murder of Zod: how on earth could it be? It’s when he puts on Clark’s glasses, and finally walks among us, because this is the moment he chooses his own destiny.

man of steel clark glasses

This is another choice made by the filmmakers that will likely annoy fans, but if Superman remains a God, the only alternative once he is on this planet is to constantly fly around preventing disasters, bigger and then smaller, smaller, until he becomes a super-powered Mary Poppins, flitting around delivering a Heimlich manoeuvre in Boston, saving a drowning man in Utrecht, catching a falling woman in Sydney, back and forth, over and over, nothing more than a guardian angel, and where does it end? We might recoil from the idea of a Superman who doesn’t give a damn about the innocent being crushed under tons of falling masonry, but the alternative is a Superman who never stops zooming around righting wrongs and saving lives, but also interfering in the natural order. All the talk of evolution from Zod and Faora-Ul is significant; if Superman does what the ideal of Superman is expected to do, if God doesn’t have enough faith in us to leave us to our own devices, we will stagnate as much as Krypton did.

We imagine a Superman who never lets anyone die when he’s on watch, but this is a Platonic ideal of what Superman should be, and only occasionally do we sit back and think about what this means. A Superman who never lets anyone down simply cannot exist; to be a Superman means failure must occur, and on a story level to constantly create situations where Superman prevails to the extent that no one is ever hurt means we either get unsatisfactory narrative fudges like time manipulation or amnesia kisses, or the character is never truly challenged, never allowed to evolve, because his writers are unwilling to put him into a situation in which he cannot conquer all. It’s no coincidence that Clark is reading Plato when he is bullied in front of his father; he’s being taught to be that Platonic ideal by his fathers but it is an untenable ambition. And so it is Zod, the despicable and proud villain, who frees him from this stasis at enormous cost.

man of steel zod

Some critics have complained that Superman is made to choose this course because of the evil intentions of NGZ, who have cruelly decided that Superman MUST oversee a disaster and a murder for the sake of irrevocably altering and soiling a character of great benevolence, cherished by millions but now sullied because it’s topical to do so, while offering “thrills” that amount to a terrible vision of post-9/11 horror; indeed they’ve even admitted as much. But at what point is the final fight with Zod actually fun? If you’ve felt anything at all for these characters throughout, this is a terrifying spectacle, a brutal fight that, while admittedly impressive on a technical level, is intentionally creating a conflict within the viewer. This is not meant to be a triumphant and exciting finale; NGZ are putting the audience through the wringer, showing the ultimate outcome of the long-wished-for fight between gods; chaos, misery, and ultimately death.

 

Nevertheless, the death of Zod is thematically satisfying in that it matches up with the death of Jonathan. Having seen what happens when he lets people die in order to maintain the purity of someone’s beliefs, Kal/Clark/Superman is unwilling to let this happen again. He kills this threat that cannot be reasoned with, and with that act the Platonic ideal steps out of the higher realms of imagination into a world of flesh and blood, but also compromise and failure. This is a Superman who lives and breathes, a Superman who truly walks among us, a Superman who watches football and drinks beer.

I don’t think that there’s any weight to the argument that superheroes represent a kind of fascism, and so don’t think of Man of Steel as a rebuttal of this viewpoint. But there is something appealing in seeing the idea of a God turning his back on Godhood to experience the world we are in, to give us a chance to find our own path without stepping in all the time; an idea that has long existed at the core of the Clark Kent identity but so brilliantly shown here as a choice that frees our hero from the chains created by his misguided fathers, and will lead to a better Superman with a greater capacity for compassion and empathy. He’s a guy who wants to do right. He’s imperfect. He’s striving to get better, and he will stumble, and he will fall. And I like that Superman. I will follow in his footsteps, and join him in the sun, and hold onto the thought that for every mistake I make I can do something good and useful, and maybe even accomplish wonders.

Oh, and as for the question of which terraforming machine he should go after first? It’s explained in the film that the Metropolis machine cannot be sent into the Phantom Zone using the capsule’s Gravity Drive until the World Engine has been neutralised, so if he’s going to save everyone in the city he eventually adopts as his home he first has to travel to the other side of the world, to destroy a machine with whipping tentacles of deaththat no one on this planet has a hope in hell of stopping; an act which will also deactivate the gravity wave, preventing it from killing anyone in Metropolis. Staying in Metropolis to try to save everyone would be a futile exercise in damage control while the Earth’s mass increases and causes worldwide devastation and the extinction of humanity.

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