Anghus Houvouras defends Man of Steel…
Man of Steel is an incredibly polarizing film. A movie that made some dramatic changes to the character that have had fans debating Zack Snyder’s choices for almost three years. At the core of the debate is Superman’s lack of concern for the lives of innocence as he and Zod leveled Metropolis and his choice to snap his opponent’s neck like a slim-jim.
I enjoyed Man of Steel a great deal when I first saw it in theaters. It was a very different Superman than we had been used to seeing in prior incarnations. Since then I’ve watched the film two or three more times, and it has led me to the same conclusion.
Superman is boring.
At least, he had been in his previous cinematic offerings. Donner’s Superman is a pleasant piece of inoffensive nostalgia. The Donner/Lester bastard love child Superman II has some fun moments, most notably from Terence Stamp’s General Zod whose super power seems to be chewing scenery with reckless abandon. Superman III is an odd anomaly that has some interesting ideas and insane moments of pure kitsch. And do I even need to bother wasting adjectives to describe Superman IV: A Quest for Peace?
When Bryan Singer took on the character for Superman Returns, he decided to build the foundation of the film on Donner’s blueprint. So basically we have five Superman films that used the exact same character map for the Last Son of Krypton, and all of them were really REALLY boring.
I, for one, have never held cinematic Superman in high regard. I think he’s a boring character. A perfectly rigid moral compass that lacks depth. The rare moments where the character became interesting revolved around Superman facing his own limitations. Moments where he decides to give up his powers for the woman he loves or is faced with the demons of his planet’s past.
It’s difficult to make Superman interesting in a two-hour span. The comic book writers have had decades to build upon the basic iconography of the character and find ways to challenge him. Cinematically speaking, you have to spend your first movie explaining the character’ origins and walk through the same beats over and over again. You have to set up the last days of Krypton, the character arriving on Earth as a baby, the lessons he learned from the Kents, etc etc. Superman’s origin isn’t all that interesting. He’s a baby placed into a rocket ship and sent to Earth. He never knew his parents. It’s not like Batman who had all these moments with his family and personally witnessed their execution. Both characters are orphans, but Batman had to put in a lifetime of work to become a hero. Superman just had to wait for his powers to manifest.
Metaphorically speaking, Superman is the spoiled rich kid who goes to an Ivy League school and had every opportunity handed to him. Batman is the kid that had to work three jobs to pay for his State University education. Which is why everyone prefers Batman to Superman: because all of us can identify with a normal man dealing with adversity. It’s tough to identify with the guy who gets super powers because he landed on a planet with a yellow sun.
For me, this is something that Zack Snyder gets right with Man of Steel: he makes Superman’s powers a curse rather than a blessing, transforming Pa Kent from an unconditionally loving and proud parent to a good man who somewhat fears what his son is capable of. When Clark asks his father if he should have let a busload of children drown instead of revealing his powers to them, he replies ‘Maybe’. When his own life is in danger, he pleads for his son to do nothing.
These moments were the subject of much mockery when the film came out. For me, they landed hard. Snyder turned Pa Kent into a man fearful of how the world would see his son. He wanted to shield him from a world that might fear him or even hate him. Ultimately the elder Kent’s sacrifice was as much the product of fear as it was nobility. Clark watched his father die for no good reason.
Earlier iterations of the Kents have them as far more noble characters who shape Clark’s world view with kindness, love, and patience. In Man of Steel, the Kents make Clark more fearful of humanity making his choice to reveal himself that much more difficult. It’s a layer that previous incarnations weren’t given.
I’ll admit, Man of Steel is a very awkward blockbuster. A grotesque monstrosity that plays fast and loose with the iconography of Superman. But that’s why I liked it. There are extra layers added to the character. His loneliness and isolation from the rest of the world has real weight. He makes poor choices that will no doubt have consequences in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Man of Steel is the first Superman movie where Superman didn’t feel like a boring boy scout. The black and white approach to the character was smeared into a blurry, more interesting Rorschach pattern.
Man of Steel ends with Superman no longer afraid. Accepting his role in the world as both Superman and Clark Kent. Pushing past the fear of what revealing himself to the world might mean and looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead. This version of Superman might not be perfect, but he’s not boring and, in turn, a lot more interesting.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.