Man of Steel: A Super Duper Superman Movie (Part 2)
I think that Man of Steel is the best Superman made to date. Many might find this a controversial topic, as many Superman fans are seemingly split on this sensitive subject. But with general movie audiences more or less unanimously approving, it seems only a die-hard Superman fan base is contesting the film. In part one, I addressed the top five criticisms and found that most of them didn’t hold any water. Here, in part 2, I’ll explain why I think the Man of Steel is the BEST Superman film to date.
Of course, if you haven’t seen the movie, then there’s probably no reason to read an in-depth spoiler-ridden defense of the movie. Needless to say, you should watch MoS before reading this.
A Bittersweet Story About Sons and Fathers
I’m going to do this review as a summary of what I feel is the best Superman film to date ever put to the silver screen. I’ll add my own perspective along the way. In order to start, however, we have to re-arrange the story of events into a chronological order, as the film tells the story partially in scrambled flashbacks. As for the use of flashbacks, I didn’t mind so much. I thought they were necessary and I felt it was in these snapshots of memories past where the real meat of the story lay.
Krypton is dying, Jor El saves his son Kal El. But new to this film adaptation is a codex, that contains all the genetic information of every living thing on Krypton. Jor El bonds the information into the cells of his son before sending him to Earth.
A few years later we find a young Clark Kent dealing with bullies. We find out that he wants to get even with the bullies, but Jonathan Kent commends him on his self-restraint. Kent tells his son that the world isn’t ready to learn about him, and that the choices Clark makes will ultimately define him. Kent is proud his son didn’t hurt the bullies, even though he easily could have, as is evidence of the bent steel that young Clark was gripping in pent up anger.
Our young Clark asks his father why he’s different than everyone else, and Jonathan Kent decides to show him the spaceship he arrived in. In a touching moment Clark, eyes flooding with tears, asks if he can keep pretending to be Jonathan Kent’s son. Voice wavering, and some excellent acting by Costner, Mr. Kent embraces the young Clark and informs, “You are my son.”
Jumping a few years later, a junior high school aged Clark is taking the bus home when suddenly the bus driver loses control and the bus crashes through the guard rail, careens over a bridge, and crashes into the river. The kids are trapped and the bus is sinking fast. Young Clark reacts, almost instinctively and saves all his classmates. He becomes the talk of the town, drawing unnecessary attention to his abilities. Jonathan Kent talks to him about having to make hard choices. When Clark asks if he should have let his friends die, Jonathan Kent says, “I don’t know. Maybe.” This foreshadowing deals with the idea that Clark will not always be able to save everyone, and more difficult still, he might be placed in a situation where he must make the choice not to.
Sometime in the near future, a more obstinate Clark, perhaps a moody teenager, is riding in the car with his parents. Clark feels he’s ready to take on the world and prove himself, but his father still has his reservations and still doesn’t think the world is ready for him. It’s a father trying to protect his son at all costs, and just as Clark realizes he’s been rude and starts to apologize, Jonathan Kent abruptly cuts him off. The road is backed up, and up ahead is a massive twister forming. Jonathan has Clark usher Martha to safety, but as they are heading to an underpass, they realize they have forgotten the dog. Clark offers to go back but his father tells him to get his mom and others to safety.
Suddenly the twister is upon them, and although Jonathan Kent manages to free the dog, he’s pinned in the truck. After another car knocks Jonathan free, he takes a step toward Clark, but his ankle is shattered and he collapses. Using the car to push himself back up, Johnathan Kent looks up in time to see his son taking a step toward him. Jonathan raises his hand to stop him, and mouths the words, “It’s all right.”
Clark, eyes streaming tears, let’s his father die. Instantly we cannot help but be taken back to the scene of Jonathan and the young Clark sitting in the bed of the pickup truck discussing the fact that sometimes you have to make the hard choices. Sometimes you will have to choose who lives and who doesn’t.
But more importantly, this is a story about a father sacrificing himself to save his son, to ensure his son has a future of his own worth living, free from the probing scrutiny and dangers of an outside world that would fear and probably reject him. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a father which is why Jonathan Kent’s sacrifice resonates so strongly with me. Maybe it’s the fact that I lost my own father to suicide just weeks before Man of Steel's release. But whatever it was, Man of Steel hit my heart strings, hard.
Flash forward several years later, and we find Clark has exiled himself into the world. Wrought with guilt for not having saved his father's life, Clark is floating through the world as a ghost, a vagabond without a reason or purpose. He’s not searching for anything in particular, he’s simply punishing himself for his failures. At least, that's the sense I got from the brooding young Clark. So he stays on the move--never hanging around anyplace for too long--keeping a low profile and keeping people at an arms length. Never making any friends. But at the same time, it seems that he has still been saving people--a mysterious angel.
After taking a gig on a fishing trawler, the ship intercepts an SOS form an oil rig which has gone up in flames. The ship arrives just in time for Clark to leap out and prevent the steel platform from crushing the rescue helicopter. Then he disappears again. A while later he reappears as a bartender in a Canadian pub, and overhears some men talking about a military excavation in one of the glaciers, rumors of UFOs and what not, and of course he decides to investigate. But not before he has to confront a bully who is sexually harassing the waitress. At this moment we think back to Clark’s lesson with the bullies when he was a boy. And instead of taking out his aggression on the drunken oaf in the bar, Clark goes outside and destroys the guys eighteen wheeler (this scene reminded me of the trucker bully scenes in Superman II, and felt like it was a nice homage).
Lois Lane is on a mission to get to the bottom of a mystery and figure out what the military is digging up. Clark seems to have gotten in as some additional hired help, and one evening when Lois is taking pictures of the glacier, she sees Clark sneaking off toward the excavation site. Following him she comes across a recently drilled tunnel, except that it hasn’t been formed by any drill, but rather melted. Walking through the ice-tunnel Lois emerges at the entrance of a ship of alien origin. Kryptonian origin. Inside the ship Clark meets his real father (or at least a sentient hologram thereof), Jor El, and they get reacquainted. Meanwhile, Lois stumbles upon an automated robot patrolling the empty vessel and snaps a photo of it. The startling camera flash triggers the robot’s defense system and it attacks her. Clark appears in the nick of time and saves her, and then he takes the ship and disappears.
Lois becomes obsessed with finding the young man who saved her life and finally tracks him down, figuring out his identity and all. Admittedly, I really loved this concept of Lois being smart enough to figure it out before anyone else, as if a pair of eyeglasses was going to fool a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist.
Meeting the young Clark face to face, Lois questions why he continues to remain so elusive, and Clark informs her about his troubled past, how he let his father die, and how the world isn’t ready for him. It seems Clark still may not fully agree with that sentiment, but he’s respecting the wishes of his father—in honor of his memory.
That’s when the whole world goes to red alert as an alien spacecraft descends, and demands that the hidden Kal El reveal himself and hand himself over to none other than the alien warlord named General Zod.
Now, if you aren’t familiar with Superman mythos, this is a wonderful twist. Let the alien invasion film begin! But really, it’s loads of action, meta-humans fighting, and big explosions. But all this is simply frivolous bonus content. By the time the action picks up, the best Superman story, about a father’s love and sacrifice for his adopted son, and the journey the son must go through to realize what the sacrifice of his father meant has already been told.
Like I said, it’s a bittersweet story, and the best Superman story ever made into a film. The whole alien invasion, Zod terraforming the earth, and superhuman battles all come after what I consider to be the main story here. So really, it’s two stories. The second story isn’t as great. But it doesn’t suck either. Zod basically just wants to rebuild Krypton. The key resides in the DNA of Clark, and so Zod is going to rip it out of him. The humans are helpless, but Clark puts on the costume, becomes Superman, and after lots of “destruction porn” ultimately saves the day.
A solid action story tagged onto a great Superman story.
The movie closes with the most beautiful scene I’ve seen in a long time. A young Clark plays with his dog, wearing a red cape, and his father, Johnathan Kent, watches on—catching a glimpse of the man his son will one day become.
I nearly cried at this scene. It was so beautifully executed.
So I feel that I must confess, I really don’t get the vitriol surrounding this movie. I think it’s entirely misplaced. At its core, this film encapsulates a beautiful Superman story, albeit meshed together with a clunky Superman story, but for what it is, it works.
I think maybe what confuses people most is that there are two stories overlaid on top of each other; and then they are spliced together and told out of order. There is the Jor El vs. Zod story-line, and there is the Clark and Jonathan Kent story-line. They intersect at where Clark puts on the suit and becomes Superman.
The resolution of the second story is to fight it out to the death—but it’s the Clark and Jonathan Kent story-line that is bittersweet and beautifully done. The other story, the Zod story, that’s just the frame which adds contrast to the inner story about the rise of a hero (although it is debatable if Clark really became a hero or just made his first step toward becoming one--which is why people don't get why this Superman isn't as heroic as the icon figure they love so well, perhaps they need to be reminded that this is also an origin sotry).
The framing a subtler story with a loud obnoxious action story works for me here. Much like a nicely framed painting can help bring out an elegant painting more, this loud obnoxious alien invasion/battle helps make the father and son story that much more sublime. I felt that's how this film was designed. Some might just see it as slapdash editing or the overuse of flashbacks, but I felt it worked in spades.
Man of Steel works better than most superhero films (and is far superior to that Dark Knight Rises piece of garbage I wasted money on thinking I’d see a true sequel to the greatest Batman movie ever made, The Dark Knight, but instead got inane, cheese stuffed, butterball of a film).
MoS works even better than the Superman home wrecker story Brian Singer gave us with Superman Returns. I know a lot of people didn’t like that movie either, and can you blame them? Superman knocks up Lois, apparently without her knowing it, then ditching her so as to let her raise the bastard child on her own, only to return and threaten to break up her upcoming marriage with lingering feelings that he can’t seem to shake even though he has no goddamn business hanging around--what a dick. Besides that, she didn't even know Superman was the father until part way into the movie. I agree with Kevin Smith that the film should have been subtitled "The Rape of Lois Lane." If you want a Superman that’s out of character, you'll love Superman Returns. At least with Man of Steel the incarnation of Superman given to us works within the confines of the story.
In my opinion there’s really no other Superman film that can compete with this with maybe the exception of Richard Donner’s first Superman movie, which is wonderful in its own right. But I have to give MoS the edge here, because nothing about Donner’s Superman story moved me like the scenes between Clark and Jonathan Kent moved me in MoS. Not even close. Of course, this is just personal preference. Many will place Donner’s Superman in the top spot, as I’m tempted to do the same. But the difference for me is that after watching Donner’s film I always feel like, “Well, that was a fun movie.” When I finished watching Man of Steel I was on the verge of tears from the lovely story about fathers and their sons. I had a real tangible experience. It may not be your experience. But it was mine. Which is why I place it at the top as my all-time favorite Superman film.
Man of Steel is a story about sons and fathers and the love they share for one another; and I, for one, loved every moment of it.
By day I am an educator and a cultural ambassador. By night I entertain notions of being a literary master. In reality I am just a family man and ordinary guy who works hard and loves writing just about as much as I love my family. Just about.