Originally posted on Medium. Spoilers ahead for Man of Steel.
“What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?” – Jor-El
Below are my thoughts on Man of Steel. I explain what some of the story elements mean to me, in part to answer questions some might have, but also to express why the film works for me. Relaying these thoughts is an exercise in deconstructing what I believe to be a very good story.
Man of Steel is the ultimate origin story. With David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan teaming together again after The Dark Knight trilogy to write the story, director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) brought to life a film about Superman unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The fact that it’s not a traditional Superman origin tale sets up a very interesting future.
The non-linear storytelling isn’t perfect. You can lose your place for a few seconds, and that can be jarring. It does, however, allow us to see Clark Kent, played by Henry Cavill, as a grown man on the verge of becoming Superman from the start. We see that at 33-years-old, he’s still dealing with the same questions and doubts as he had as a child.
The flashbacks are effective in that they make you care about Clark as a person. You develop an understanding of the difficulty of his choices, especially his choices of restraint. Without spending the first half of the film exclusively with young Clark, Snyder and Goyer still establish a clear picture of where he has come from. Smallville feels lived in. Ma and Pa Kent feel like fully realized characters that are realistically struggling with raising an adopted son from another planet. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are pitch perfect. The most powerful use of the flashback storytelling to me was the kid-in-the-cape moment at the very end. It hit like a punch to the throat. I really felt everything Clark had been through on his journey from outcast to superhero.
Jonathan Kent’s death is the first of two difficult choices Clark has to make. Moments after an argument that ends in Clark telling his adopted father that he’s not his real dad, they’re caught in a tornado. Many retreat to safety aided by Pa Kent’s bravery. Although Clark could easily rescue everyone, he still has not revealed his powers to the public at large. But why would he let his father die?
“My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me… out of fear. He was convinced that the world wasn’t ready.” – Clark Kent
He could have saved his father. But would Clark have caused more harm – fear and panic – than good? That’s what Pa Kent believed, and Clark trusted him. He’s showing his father that he’ll make the right decision, even if it isn’t the easy decision.
“You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Whoever that man is, he’s going to change the world.” – Jonathan Kent
This is reinforced when Kal-El finds his biological father, Jor-El played by Russell Crowe, and is told that he can be the ideal person. He can be the bridge between two worlds. He can save them all.
“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. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” – Jor-El
General Zod is a man on a mission. His only reason for living is to protect the people of Krypton, no matter how evil or cruel his actions may appear. He’s a terminator with one purpose – to save his nearly extinct race. In that sense, Zod is played beautifully by Michael Shannon. He doesn’t care about anything else, even logic or loyalty. He’s designed to be a warrior. He’s programmed to go from point A to point B to complete his objectives.
Faora-Ul, played by Antje Traue, is the most dynamic of the Phantom Zone villains, and is the one character I believed could really stand toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel. Where Zod lacks any emotion, she is ripe with a passion for her destruction.
“No matter how violent, every action I take is for the greater good of my people.” – General Zod
An enormous amount of devastation follows the villains everywhere they go. At first, I felt that Superman should have been more concerned with that destruction. Smallville and his family home are destroyed. Possibly tens or hundreds of thousands of people are injured or killed in the battles that took place in Metropolis. Why wasn’t he more worried about saving them?
First, he’s filled with an incredible amount of rage. This is best showcased when he first fights General Zod in Smallville. This is 33 years of being an outcast unleashed on the man that killed his father and is trying to destroy the only home he knows. Much like his mother taught him to channel his powers, he must learn to channel this rage. The consequences of the destruction will, I hope, be a major factor inMan of Steel 2, if that film is made.
But most importantly, he’s not yet the Superman we know. He’s still learning how to be what everyone needs. He’s still an alien to them, and he’s still not sure if he belongs. Even as he’s doing everything he can to spare Smallville, he’s still being shot at. It isn’t until the fighting is finished that the soldiers acknowledge he is on their side. Yet at the end of the film, the government is still trying to track him and doesn’t trust that he’s not a threat. This will certainly come to a head in a sequel, and hopefully result in Superman proving to be the hero we all want.
Most of the devastation in Metropolis is caused by Zod. Superman stumbles, and falls, and gets thrown through a lot of buildings. You could argue that he should have been more concerned about the people caught in the crossfire the whole time, but I saw a man that was figuring things out on the fly. This film very well could have been called Superman Begins.
Speaking of the fighting, the action was thrilling. Zack Snyder’s decision to not use bullet-time effects to slow down the action so we could more easily marvel at Superman’s talent was a smart move. Man of Steel has some of the most exciting action that I can recall. Superman, Zod, and Faora zipping and zooming around, impervious to bullets was electrifying. The altercation with Superman and Zod flying out to space and crashing back to Earth with a satellite (that said Wayne Enterprises on the side) was both exhilarating and made me wonder: How can they top this? In this film, it felt like Superman was matched against equals. Unless Faora returns for Round 2, how can we feel that same danger again?
Superman choosing to kill Zod to save the family was not a light decision and has understandably been controversial. He was clearly struggling with this, as evidenced by his immediate reaction. While the story may have been better served had it spent more time examining the repercussions of this action, I have to believe this will be a large part in any sequel that is written. A follow-up story should almost entirely revolve around consequence.
Right or wrong, he made the difficult choice, and he did what he thought he had to do. He will be living with this forever, much like his decision to let his father go. I believe he will see this path of destruction and realize he can never let anything this terrible happen again.
His reaction after killing Zod is when he became Superman. Up until that point, he could have backed down. He could have surrendered. He could have chosen to save his race or go into hiding. Instead, he chose to bear the ultimate burden to save his people, the people of Earth. With the weight of that choice on his shoulders, he will go to great lengths to prevent that from ever reoccurring.
Man of Steel is human at its core. While this may go against everything Superman is – they do spend a lot of time reinforcing that he’s an alien, after all – it sets up one of the most interesting characters I think I’ve ever seen. This is a man that, although he is superhuman by nature, is human by nurture. He has been raised on Earth his entire life. He’s handling becoming Superman in the way anyone would. Confusion, anger, resentment… and later understanding and embracing who he is inside and out.
Man of Steel feels like it was made just for me. It may not be perfect, but I believe it’s an excellent retelling of a familiar story with a new, dynamic character to explore. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Below are a few random questions that have been asked. Again, I should note these are my interpretations. This is by no means definitive, just how I see it.
Q: Why would Zod want Lois Lane on the ship? He got Superman, wasn’t that everything he needed?
A: I’d have to assume this was for leverage. Lois says they scanned her mind for information, like they did to Superman. Further, if Superman had the chance to be uncooperative, I think Lois would have come into play at that point.
Q: Doesn’t Superman get his powers from the sun? Why would he start losing his powers on the ship? If it’s the atmosphere, wouldn’t he lose his powers in space?
A: On the ship, he was completely cut off from Earth’s atmosphere andthe sun. First, he needed to get acclimated to the new climate, then, as he was cut off from the sun, he began to weaken. Once the ships atmosphere was adjusted, he regained enough of his power to break lose from his restraints and get out of the ship. Once he was back into space and in front of the sun, he was back to normal. Perhaps this is why he floated in space for a moment before taking off after Lois. He also need to quickly “recharge” after the explosion over the Indian Ocean, as he reached for the sun.
Q: If the villains can breathe in space, why can’t they breathe on Earth?
A: The difficulties without their masks was less about breathing and more about the sun and atmosphere. This is emphasized multiple times with Zod before he learns to channel his energy. He is clearly overwhelmed with sensory overload, and that’s why they need to wear the masks.
Q: Why wouldn’t Zod just go to Mars to terraform? Couldn’t they live peacefully with humans?
A: Point A to Point B. He has one objective. He feels Superman has betrayed his people, and he’s going to make them pay.
Q: Why did Superman go after the World Engine over the Indian Ocean while the other half was causing massive destruction in Metropolis?
A: The gravity field created by the World Engine prevented anyone or anything from getting too close to it. Superman needed to disable the machines so they could bomb it, which would create the black hole. He caused a huge explosion (and risked his life) over the ocean to allow Lois and Colonel Hardy to execute the plan.
Q: Why did the black hole suck up the villains, but not Earth or its citizens?
A: Unfortunately this will be my least inspired answer — it comes down to something Joss Whedon said about the end of The Avengers — at some point the movie needs to end. It may be a copout, but nobody wants to watch the superhero on cleanup duty for 8 hours defeating every last villain by hand. But no, I don’t know that there’s another way to explain why a black hole just hundreds of feet off the ground would not affect Earth.
Q: But — LOGIC?!
A: This is a movie about an alien that looks like a human flying around in a cape, after all. Some amount of suspension of disbelief is required.