What with all the Michael Bay–style explosions and destruction, you might not have noticed that Man of Steel is a thorough dialectical exploration of the nature/nurture debate. It totally is, though.
I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think I was going to like the movie at all because I didn’t remember hearing good things about it. It was fine, though, apart from being longer than I realized it was going to be, clocking in at almost 2.5 hours.
For what it was (a superhero origin story that could have been its own miniseries), it was really pretty good. It painted a clear and thematically strong picture of an admirable character and how he got to be who he is. In this rendition, Superman is not a lighthearted, perfect figurehead who proclaims belief in “truth, justice, and the American way”. He is a sensitive and largely anonymous but steadfast protector who stands for hope and choice. (I much prefer these kinds of themes to the ones associated with Spiderman, which tend be things like sacrifice and duty.)
I generally liked the sharply contrasting sci-fi and Kansas sets, the cast, and the costumes, though I always imagine Lois as Teri Hatcher, and until now I’d never imagined Kal El’s suit as made of the same stuff as those grippy rubber things you use to open jars.
If you have a long enough attention span for another 4000 words on this movie, keep reading for more on the nature/nurture theme and some other thoughts as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
Nature vs. Nurture in Man of Steel
Kal El was raised as Clark Kent by human parents, who taught him that being a man means protecting the weak. Moreover, his Kryptonian father encouraged him to see himself as the embodiment of hope for Kryptonians and humans. According to nurture, Earth should be shared.
General Zod posits that, since Kal is technically a Kryptonian like himself, Kal should place the interests of the Kryptonian race above those of the humans. According to nature, Earth should belong only to Kryptonians.
There you’ve got your thesis and antithesis. But wait, there’s more!
General Zod was born from some kind of pod, and like all those born in that way, had a predestined role to fulfil in society: to guard Krypton and Kryptonians. Take away his people, and you take away his soul. He can’t reinvent himself: he (apparently) has no choice in the matter because of how he was born.
Kal, in contrast, was (uniquely, among Kryptonians at the time) born in the ancient natural way, and had no biologically predestined role. Not knowing why he was sent to Earth, he had to invent a purpose for himself. He chose to help people.
Behold the synthesis!
Kal’s alien biology gave him the ability either to help or to harm humans; his upbringing taught him to help them; even when confronted with his origin and supposed purpose (to found a new colony), his choice was to protect humans, even at the cost of destroying his own people’s future. In the end it wasn’t nature or nature that won out, it was a combination of nature, nurture, and choice.
Nature vs. nurture was always a false dichotomy. We are not, or not merely, our genes; that’s why the world of Gattaca is a hellish dystopia. We are also not just products of our genes and environment. We are also our choices.
My Beat Sheet for Man of Steel
The prologue could have been its own movie! Upshot: Jor El embeds Krypton’s codex (future genetic data) into his son Kal El and sends him to Earth. The government of Krypton sends General Zod and a handful of fellow mutineers into some other dimension called The Phantom Zone. Krypton explodes and everyone still on it dies.
A fellow fisherman saves Clark, an incompetent greenhorn, from a falling trap. Clark then rescues workers on a burning oil rig and sneaks away.
As a child, Clark struggles with his alien biology as he adapts to life on Earth, but although other kids think he’s weird, his mother loves and supports him no matter what. Clark has to hide his abilities, but his desire to protect everyone around him makes that hard to do. For example, to protect a bar girl, he challenges but walks away from a fight with a bar patron (then destroys his truck). As a young teen, he pushes a school bus full of drowning classmates out of a river, and even dredges up one of the boys who bullied him. His father eventually tells him he was found, not born, on Earth, gives him a Kryptonian key thingy, and says he has to try harder to hide because the world isn’t ready to find out about aliens. (As the mob in Beauty in the Beast says with admirable self-awareness: “We don’t like what we don’t understand; in fact it scares us.”)
Jonathan Kent says some day Clark will change the world, one way or another.
The army finds an anomaly buried in arctic ice. It’s a 20,000-year-old Kryptonian scout ship. Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane is all over it. So is Clark. He reveals his superhuman powers when he cauterizes a wound she sustains while snooping around, then makes off with the ship.
On board the ship, Clark’s Kryptonian key thingy activates a holographic AI resembling his father, Jor El, who reiterates the story of Krypton. Lucky us, we get to see, like, the whole prologue, again, this time represented in a communist-propaganda style CGI rendition of some kind of computer interface that displays images by magnetically manipulating liquid iron filings in 3D space. (Actually, that part was really cool, and the prologue itself was pretty cool, I just don’t know why there was so much repetition.) Jor El says that the S symbol means hope, that Kal El (Clark) is the embodiment of hope for Krypton, and that he can lead humans into the future. He gives him the Superman suit.
Break into Two
Kal seemingly accepts what his father tells him about himself and goes off to practice flying.
Lois writes a story about her encounter with Kal, who’s clearly an alien. When the Daily Planet won’t publish it, she releases it online. She cleverly tracks down Clark’s mother and deceased father by following the trail of legends Clark left in his wake. Clark meets her, says she should keep quiet about him, and tells her the story of his father’s death:
One day in the family car with his Earth parents, Clark angrily said Jonathan Kent was not his dad, just some guy who found him by accident. When a tornado interrupted the conversation, though, he did exactly what his dad said to do, which was to take a child to the safety of an overpass. His father, meanwhile, went back to the car to rescue the family’s dog. When he was unable to return, Clark wanted to use his powers to bring him to safety. Jonathan solemnly motioned for Clark to stay put, and was swept away in the storm. He believed Clark was so important that he was willing to die to keep his secret.
Promise of the Premise
General Zod’s ship (which Kal accidentally summoned when activating the scout ship) is spotted in orbit but refuses to answer any greeting. Zod takes over the world’s broadcast communications and demands (in English and also in an admirable smattering of languages that are not English) that Kal El, a non-human hiding among Earth’s humans, be handed over to him. The FBI, on the basis of Lois’s story of an alien encounter, kidnaps her. Kal doesn’t trust Zod and also isn’t sure he trusts humans, but after consulting a priest who tells him to take a leap of faith, that trust will follow, Kal turns himself in to the US Army, dons some pretty useless handcuffs, and secures Lois’s release. Then, however, Zod’s sidekick takes Lois as well as Kal to Zod’s ship in orbit over the Earth.
Zod and his crew, having escaped the Phantom Zone when Krypton exploded, are looking for the codex because they want to restart Kryptonian civilization, since they’ve flown around and learned that all Krypton’s colonies, in addition to Krypton itself, have died out. They can force Kal to help them because the atmosphere in their ship is Kryptonian and makes him sick because he’s used to Earth’s atmosphere now. Zod immerses Kal in a vision culminating in an endless sea of skulls: he plans to transform Earth into a home for Kryptonians, killing all the humans in the process. Meanwhile, Lois has activated Kal’s key thingy, which helps her change the atmosphere on the ship and escape. Her escape pod is damaged, but Kal revives in time to stop her from plummeting to her death.
Bad Guys Close In
Having read Lois’s mind, Zod’s crew visit the Kents’ farm and ask Clark’s mother where to find the codex, which she doesn’t know anything about. They find out where Kal’s ship is hidden and realize the codex isn’t there. Kal shows up to defend his mother, taking the fight to Main Street in Smallville, where the US Army joins the fray and targets Kal as well as Zod and his crew. Their bullets and bombs (and one really brave guy’s knife) don’t really affect the Kryptonians, except that eventually Zod’s sidekick’s helmet breaks and she dies. Zod and his crew retreat with her body. Since Kal saved some Americans during the battle, they decide to trust him.
All is Lost
Zod launches the world engine, a powerful terraforming machine salvaged from another colony. It starts to turn Earth into a new Krypton. It destroys a bunch of buildings and cars in Metropolis by whomping gravity up and down through the center of the Earth. Yes, “whomping”. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the relevant technical term. It’s pretty scary to watch.
Dark Night of the Soul
Humans are all going to die unless the whomping machine is stopped.
Break into Three
Lois and Kal make plans use Kal’s ship as a bomb because it has a Kryptonian phantom drive. Kal prepares to attack the world engine, knowing that it will be difficult because it’s converting Earth’s atmosphere into an atmosphere like Krypton’s, and Kryptonian atmosphere makes Kal sick.
Kal struggles to attack the world engine in the Indian Ocean while Lois struggles to get the bomb into position over Metropolis. Normal people near the collapsing buildings, including a handful of Lois’s coworkers, struggle just to survive (but they also look up and watch stuff go to pieces, which seems kinda dumb but also inevitable). Then Zod shows up near Lois’s plane with the scout ship, which is needed to create the next generation of Kryptonians once the planet is habitable. Suddenly, Kal defeats the engine and Lois’s crew activates the bomb. Kal shows up and destroys the scout ship, while Lois’s bomb hits its target. Yay! The Earth is no longer being beaten to pieces by alien tech! Kal rescues Lois, who’s falling through the air. They land. They kiss.
But wait, there’s more!
Zod survived the climax of the narrative, and now he’s really mad at Kal for betraying the future of Kryptonian civilization for the sake of the humans of Earth. He’s been deprived of every last shred of purpose; what’s left is rage, so he fights for revenge. Sometime during the fight, he gets laser eyes, which he uses to threaten some humans in a train station. This threat enables Kal, realizing they will never be able to come to a peaceable arrangement, to snap his neck. He’s sad to have had to do that; Lois comforts him.
Clark Kent joins The Daily Planet so that he can keep his ear to the ground. Lois’s boss asks her to show him the ropes. So basically, he’s a greenhorn again, but this time, he’s got glasses instead of a beard, and he belongs. He knows who he is, and more importantly, he has a purpose.
…and in the sequel
I haven’t seen it, but supposedly in Batman vs. Superman, a great deal of fuss is made over the infrastructure damage in Metropolis. I’m relieved because when Clark shows up at the offices of The Daily Planet, which of course is in Metropolis, it looks like everything has already gone back to normal after the massively devastating alien invasion, and that doesn’t make any sense. Metropolis is going to hurt for at least a decade.
Other Versions of Superman
When I started watching the DVD of Man of Steel, I had serious deja vu. I thought, Hey, wait, have I actually already seen this movie? I hadn’t, but I felt like I had, because the story has been told before. It changes every time.
I haven’t read any Superman comic books, graphic novels, or novelizations, and I’m not familiar with any cartoon versions.
However, at some point during the New Jersey / Netflix era of my movie-watching life, I watched at least one, possibly more, of the Christopher Reeve films. I’m not particularly nostalgically attached to those, though, the way people seem to be in general. I don’t even remember them particularly well.
I tried watching Smallville. I don’t think I could be persuaded to try that again. I invariably fail to relate to media depictions of the American high school experience, even when the characters depicted are misfits. Go figure.
I watched the 2006 movie Superman Returns, which records show did okay, but ultimately proved disappointing. (Spoiler alert! The villain’s evil plan is to… corner the market on real estate… by creating a new continent using alien technology that will cannibalize existing continents. Yeah. It’s kind of idiotic.)
In contrast, I’m a huge fan of the 90s show Lois and Clark, starring Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain, which focuses more on romantic tension as complicated by Clark’s secret identity. I watched reruns on television in the late 90s back before TVs were flat, and I’ve watched the entire four seasons on DVD at least twice since then.
Interesting Choices in Man of Steel
What did I notice about this version of the Superman story?
- The Kryptonian 3D computer thingies were cool, but I was confused at first because the first thing we see them do has something to do with a birth; it’s not so much a phone or computer as it is an ultrasound.
- The four-winged Kryptonian transportation animal was cool. Anything having to do with flying is cool, really. The learning-to-fly sequence had some great visuals.
- The story of the demise of Krypton, which exploded because of excessive mining, is an unsubtle environmentalist parable. It’s like The Lorax for people who don’t watch kids’ movies.
- The “breather” helmets were kinda cool. The costume designers were obviously aiming for a space suit that would enable actors to be seen, a design constraint actual space suits don’t really have. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has an even cooler one, though, which deploys itself around the whole body from a box you can hold in your hand.
- Speaking of suits, the Superman suit design has a kind of scaly texture. Somewhere I read that it’s supposed to resemble chain mail. Okay, but… rubber chain mail? That makes no sense whatsoever!
- The suit is also darker colors, and has no red underwear or yellow belt. It’s nice that the film shows us where the suit comes from.
- There is no green, glowing Kryptonite mineral that weakens Kal; it’s the composition of the Kryptonian atmosphere that has the “Kryptonite” effect on him.
- Speaking of geology, though, the Kryptonian key device was supposedly made of stuff that “isn’t anywhere on the periodic table”. Baloney. No matter how far away other stars and planets are, they’re all made of the same stuff. Sure, scientists are still creating and naming new elements to add to the end of the periodic table, but the exotic new stuff is unstable and not found anywhere in nature. That key should have been made from an unknown or rare alloy or crystal structure, not an unknown element.
- Clark is reading Plato’s Republic when provoked by some classmates. Is that meant to show that Clark is trying to prepare to be a benevolent philosopher king? Is it just a really difficult-looking famous book, shown to indicate that he’s a good student? Or what?
Characterization of Kal in Man of Steel
The name “Superman” is (I think) only in the whole film once, and it’s spoken by a minor character (some army desk guy), not Lois, though she comes close.
I’ve called him Clark for the parts of the story before he learns his Kryptonian name, and Kal for the rest. The focus is on where Kal comes from, his search for identity as a being who is clearly not human, and his reaction when he learns who he is and when other beings like himself show up on the scene. That’s really new and different, since most stories focus on how Clark/Superman interacts with people on Earth. Even Lois is a fairly minor character in this story.
I did not expect to see Clark with a beard. Superman is always clean-shaven! I also did not expect to see Clark destroy the truck of a guy who picked a fight with him. No, we’re not watching another of Wolverine’s origin stories, we’re seeing that Clark is still learning who he is and how to be himself, and that it isn’t any easier for him than it would be for a regular old human to deal with his feelings (and his facial hair).
It was interesting how Clark got his powers gradually as a child and had to learn to cope with them.
Clark’s relationship with his parents is always a core part of the character. His relationship with his father was particularly interesting this time around because it was realistically fraught. Clark’s dad bears some resemblance to Elsa’s dad in Frozen because arguably his advice to Clark sounds a lot like “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know”.
Is Kal Jesus? Is this story a Christian allegory? Overall, it didn’t strike me that way, unlike Thor, which totally did. I did notice a “person floating in the air with arms spread as if on a cross” image, though. There’s one in Wonder Woman, too. There is also that scene where Kal goes to church to meditate, pray, or think or whatever, and is told to have faith, whereupon he goes and turns himself in to save humanity.
Incidental Destruction in Man of Steel
Critics’ main beef seems to be the amount of collateral damage. (The hero isn’t preventing bad stuff from happening! In fact, he’s contributing to it! Moreover, watching buildings falling is boring!) Here’s why all the falling buildings didn’t ruin the movie for me the way it did for other people.
The violence is bloodless. It’s all architectural violence. It’s sad when Zod destroys Clark’s boyhood home, but as Clark’s mom says, “things can be replaced,” which is true and actually pretty comforting. The destruction moves on to Main Street, Smallville, where cars and shops get banged up, then Metropolis, where we see skyscrapers collapsing. In all this, however, apart from Zod, his sidekick, and some soldiers in planes, we don’t actually see anybody die. Sure, we assume there are bystander deaths, but we don’t see and hear people getting stabbed and bleeding to death like we do in Logan. Squeamish folk like me prefer echoey booms and crashes to squishy splatters and screams.
It’s just one house, one town, and one city. Sure, Martha Kent and everyone else in Smallville and everyone in Metropolis who isn’t buried under a building is going to be banging on the doors of the insurance offices on Monday morning, but most of the world is pretty much still intact, because Kal won the battle with the other Kryptonians and saved the whole Earth, okay? No nukes were even involved. Sheesh.
There’s a subtle note of humor. In the big fight between Kal and Zod, one can see a “[howevermany] days since the last accident” sign at a construction site. Oh, man. That sign’s totally going back to zero.
It’s tedious but not surprising. Man of Steel keeps getting compared to the previous year’s Marvel superhero flick Avengers, which casually destroyed large swaths of New York City in an alien invasion involving huge, bony “space eels”. DC, still overshadowed by and envious of Marvel’s success, is of course going to be all like, “Me too, me too, only more so!”
It could have been a lot worse. The words Peter Bradshaw used in his review of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen have been etched into my memory. He said it was “like watching paint dry while getting hit over the head with a frying pan.” I’d say that’s an apt description of the first movie in that series, which, because it was so awful, is the only one I ever bothered to see. There’s even this joke: You’re in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Michael Bay, but your gun only has two bullets, so who do you shoot? Michael Bay, twice.
The Tone of Man of Steel
Critics’ other big complaint was the consistently somber, serious tone. Critics were okay with Batman becoming all dark and gritty, but didn’t really like it when the same techniques were used on Superman because unlike Batman, Superman is all sweetness and light.
I think the loud lamenting of the fun and play that were absent in Man of Steel is partly an artefact of nostalgia for previous versions of the Superman story, but it also seems fair to criticize a mainstream movie that doesn’t hit all the available emotional notes.
Personally, I like humor and lightheartedness in movies, even (or especially) in superhero movies. Humor is a big part of why I liked Doctor Strange so much. Grittiness is a big part of why I did not like Logan at all. Man of Steel falls somewhere in the middle.
The funny moments I remember from Man of Steel are few, and not that funny.
- We see the destroyed log-hauling truck.
- The Kryptonian clan symbol representing “hope” looks like a letter S… because it’s indisputably the shape of a letter S.
- In the same scene, Kal admits he can see through the one-way mirror.
- There were some antics where one of the soldiers keeps shooting at a Kryptonian, to no effect, and then pulls out a knife. She says something about a good death. During the finale, he repeats her words just as he drops the bomb that kills her.
- …and that’s about it.
The Future of Kryptonian Civilization:
Genetic Technology vs. Chance in Man of Steel
I’m not clear what Jor El’s vision for the future of Kryptonian civilization was. How are Kal El and the codex supposed to ensure a future for Kryptonians? One can imagine a pair of babies being sent to Earth to be New Krypton’s Adam and Eve, but that’s not how the story goes.
After Kal accused Zod of wanting to kill all the humans, he destroyed the scout ship containing the Kryptonian birth pods Zod needed (along with the codex stored in Kal El’s cells) to rebuild Kryptonian civilization. Why was that okay? (I mean, okay, the pods look like the evil ones created by the machines in The Matrix to turn humans into batteries, but apart from that?)
Zod seemed to want to choose only certain Kryptonians to propagate the race, which is why Jor El decided he’d be a lousy guy to collaborate with. Kal could obviously also tell that Zod was not a sane decision maker. Thus, arguably, Kal destroyed the scout ship simply because he liked humans better than he liked Zod. However, his overt justification was that Krypton had already had its chance. Another way of looking at it is that Kal decided a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush and therefore prioritized actual lives over hypothetical lives.
What if Zod’s desire to use the pods to create Kryptonians was just misguided in the first place, though? Maybe those hypothetical lives were the wrong kind anyway.
It sounded as if maybe the pod-born Kryptonians lacked free will because they were designed to fill certain roles in society. At any rate, Zod’s purpose was to be a really stubborn soldier. Jor El and Lara, who were not soldiers, had a child naturally because they wanted Kryptonian civilization to be able to reap the benefits of evolution, which requires an element of chance or randomness.
Would bringing the pod people to life on Earth just mean more Kryptonians like Zod, not more Kryptonians like Kal? If the important thing is choice, which depends on randomness, which has no part in pod births, then creating Kryptonians like Zod from the pods on the scout ship wouldn’t restore Kryptonian civilization.
So what is Kal El supposed to do with the codex?
Who’s in Man of Steel
Kal El is played by Henry Cavill, who I didn’t recognize from his relatively minor role in the fantasy comedy Stardust.
General Zod is played by Michael Shannon. However, I think most of the time the actor was wearing a suit with those spots on it so later they could add CGI armor, so really what we should say is that Zod’s head and movements are played by Michael Shannon.
Jor El is played by Russell Crowe, famous for Gladiator, a movie I haven’t seen, and a version of Robin Hood which I own on DVD but haven’t yet watched as part of my Robin Hood series.
Jonathan Kent is played by Kevin Costner, much older now than when he was in Dances with Wolves or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, another Robin Hood movie I should really see.
Lois is played by Amy Adams (the linguist heroine in Arrival). Yes, I know this movie came out before Arrival, but that was the one I saw first. She’s also the fish-out-of-water princess in Disney’s Enchanted.
I recognize a coworker who flirts with Lois as Michael Kelly (who’s in The Adjustment Bureau, Now You See Me, and Person of Interest) and Lieutenant General Swanwick as Harry Lennix (he’s Echo’s handler in Dollhouse).
Chief Editor Perry is played by Laurence Fishburne, who plays Morpheus in, well, you know.
Others’ Thoughts on Man of Steel
- comicbook.com says, like it or hate it, it’s an important movie.
- screenrant.com says, Man of Steel did a variety of things better than Superman: The Movie.
- nerdist.com says, it’s classic yet fresh.
- rogerebert.com says, all the women in the film are sadly but thoroughly sidelined.
- The Guardian says, the word “Superman” is left out because postmodern practice requires us to deconstruct heroes. More on that theme from The Verge.
- The Independent says, the movie is trying to chase two rabbits and catches neither; it’s got not a good drama or a good action movie.
- Variety suggests the dour, action-heavy movie be re-titled “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Spacemen”.
- The Telegraph calls it “businesslike to a fault”.
- The New York Times says, it’s worth ignoring the last 45 minutes of “computer-generated smoke” for the “resonant origin story”, which is also an immigrant-centric myth.
- Wired reacts negatively and points out some real flaws, but acknowledges that since everyone imagines Superman differently, anyone who remakes the myth is pretty much doomed.
Thanks, presumably, to a corollary of Rule 34 of the Internet, a Google search for “Man of Steel” turned up an FDA warning not to purchase a fraudulent male potency product sold under that name. Caveat emptor.