Is Man Of Steel true to Superman?
How close to Superman lore does Man Of Steel fly, and are its changes for the better, asks Seb...?
WARNING: This feature contains lots of spoilers for Man Of Steel.
A little over two years ago, I was at a screening of Zack Snyder’s film Sucker Punch, which also featured a Q&A with the director himself beforehand. Despite the protestations of the PR people and the fact that nobody was able to ask questions about a film they hadn’t yet seen, Snyder had only days earlier been announced as the director of a rebooted Superman film. As such it meant that the Man Of Steel was heavily on the agenda.
I was one of the audience members who asked a question that night, and was met with a dismissal of sorts by Snyder when I asked if there were any particular storylines, graphic novels or runs on the character that would be informing his vision for the film. He thought I was fishing for plot information, but I really wasn’t – I simply wanted a sense that a director who, and let’s be frank, is largely known for flashy but superficial takes on his source material, had a strong sense of the world he was taking on. I just wanted him to maybe namecheck some of the great Superman comics of recent history, like All-Star Superman, Superman: Birthright or The Man of Steel – in much the same way as Christopher Nolan would repeatedly mention things like The Long Halloween or Year One in connection with Batman. I didn’t need to know what stories he might base the film’s story on – simply that he knew what it took to craft a good Superman story.
Two years on, with Man Of Steel out in cinemas, we can now find out whether or not Zack Snyder and scriptwriter David S Goyer know their Superman or not. Ideas and interpretations are crammed intensely into the film, which is at times a jarringly liberal take on the character and his mythology. But just how true to the previous seven decades’ worth of established Superman lore is the film? Are the changes it makes for the better, or the worse? And does it really 'get' the character of Superman at all? Let’s take a look…
Man Of Steel has a greater preoccupation with the doomed planet than any Superman film before it – but at the same time, it's a very different Krypton from any we've seen before.
In conception, the style of Snyder and Goyer's alien world owes more than anything to the Silver Age Superman stories – in which Krypton was frequently portrayed as an immense, technologically advanced world filled with wonders both mechanical and monstrous. In execution, however, the look of the planet is far removed from that cooked up by classic artists like Wayne Boring. Gone is the colourful sheen of those comics, replaced with a largely grey and orange colour palette that owes more of a debt to recent large-scale blockbusters – Lord Of The Rings if you're feeling charitable, John Carter if you're less so.
While the purpose of showing Krypton as a magical, enthralling place back in the old days was to present Superman as having come from a world that's simply bigger and better than ours, however, in Man Of Steel the planet is shown as being – despite all its technological marvel – a crippled and backwards society. The notion of Kal-El being born into a world hamstrung by excessive genetic control is fresh to the mythos, but seems to owe more than a small debt to John Byrne's mid-80s revamp, where Jor-El similarly saw fit to rebel against what had become a cold and sterile society. This is crucial to Clark's later decision to reject the world from which he's come in favour of the one that has adopted him.
Jor-El & Zod
Speaking of Superman's natural father, the increased focus on Krypton in Man Of Steel also means a greatly expanded role for Jor-El – with the fact that, in this version, he's killed even before Kal's rocket leaves the planet apparently no barrier to his making frequent reappearances as a walking, talking hologram (never really an idea from the comics, but an expansion of the 'giant floating Marlon Brando head' from the Donner films), even able to join in with fighting Zod's minions on their ship.
That his death comes at the hands of General Zod – rather than being allowed to perish with his wife Lara as their planet does – is the beginning of a major change Man Of Steel makes to the mythos. In the comics, Zod was generally presented simply as a generic Kryptonian villain, with no particular connection to the El family. It was the Donner movies that added in the idea that Jor-El himself had confined Zod to the Phantom Zone – sending him on a quest for bitter revenge – but Man Of Steel goes in a different direction.
Here, the notion is that the pair were actually, once upon a time, friends – before their clashing ideologies turned them into enemies. If this all sounds familiar, then it might be because it feels like Goyer attempting to give DC its own version of Professor Xavier and Magneto. It's not an inherently bad idea, but the film does struggle to pin down whether Zod is actually regretful of his actions or not – the times he's shown as an out and out murderous maniacal villain contrasting with these attempts to give him any kind of moral complexity.
The various interpretations of Superman's origin that have appeared in print over the years have tended to differ on whether or not Jor-El deliberately aimed his son at Earth or simply fired him off desperately into space. Man Of Steel plants its foot very firmly in the former camp, making it a particularly significant element over the over-arching plot. The notion that there were other Kryptonians on Earth many years before Kal, meanwhile, is entirely new to this film.
It hasn’t been a constant in every single interpretation of the legend, but it’s a pretty frequently recurring idea nevertheless that Jonathan Kent’s role in the story is as Clark’s 'Uncle Ben' – he’s there to impart the most significant of lessons before promptly shuffling off this mortal coil, thereby signifying the moment where Clark goes from boy to man. In both the 1978 movie and Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, Jonathan’s death is presented as the pivotal moment where Clark realises that despite all his powers, he won’t ever be able to save everyone, giving him some measure of acceptance of the impossible role that’s been hoisted upon his shoulders while simultaneously affirming his drive to succeed in it.
Man Of Steel goes for a different tack, setting Jonathan up as the direct opponent of Jor-El’s message. While Clark’s natural father insists that his son’s role is to serve as a very public shining light for humanity (even, oddly, giving him the costume in which to do so), Jonathan is reticent, acknowledging that while Clark’s powers are a gift to the world, they also put him at risk of being feared and hated by it. It’s this belief which, in a particularly major twist to the mythos, leads to Jonathan’s death – in almost every other telling of the story, the character dies of heart failure or similar, rather than being killed by an event that Clark might have been able to prevent.
Another aspect of Clark that different comics and film/TV interpretations have generally failed to agree on is the rate of development of his powers. Man Of Steel, sensibly, completely eschews the Golden/Silver Age era existence of Superboy, instead going with the previous movie and post-Crisis canon of his powers developing gradually through childhood and adolescence. Indeed, at the point at which we meet 'adult' Superman, he’s still yet to fully get to grips with his power even at the age of 33, which is later than in pretty much any other version of the story.
What this does mean is that in the sequence where he’s learning to fly, he initially does so by leaping rather than full-on flying – which is, of course, how his power of flight was originally portrayed in the early 1940s.
There’s arguably never been a version of the Superman story that successfully comes up with a compelling reason why he’d dress the way he does – so the idea that it’s an outfit presented to him by Jor-El is as good an explanation as any, really. What’s not explained is why the red and blue colours are so prominent when every single other Kryptonian is dressed monochromatically, but there you go.
As far as the 'S' symbol goes, for forty-odd years in the comics the 'S' was indeed simply a stylised letter; it was in the 1978 movie that it was first established (implicitly) as being the El family’s personal crest, which was later retrofitted into the comics via Superman: Birthright (prior to that, in the post-Crisis continuity, Clark and his father had designed the symbol themselves, the comic remaining ambiguous as to its actual meaning). That same series also then posited it for the first time as a Kryptonian symbol meaning 'hope'. And yes, it does kind of make more sense this way.
Lois & Clark
Of all the changes Man Of Steel makes to established Superman lore, there’s surely none greater than in its redefining of the Clark and Lois relationship. The idea that Lois actually knows who Clark is – powers and all – before he’s even put on the Superman costume for the first time is dramatic and bold, but whether or not it’s a good change is something the film didn’t really get a chance to explore. It’s clearly something that’s being set up for potential sequels – see also below – but it’s not something that in and of itself feels like a bad idea.
What it does do is almost entirely negate the role of Lana Lang (who does actually appear in the film, fleetingly, in flashback) in Clark’s backstory, as the major elements of her character, as the 'first love' who knows his secret, have instead been folded into Lois.
In terms of character and personality, meanwhile, Amy Adams’ version of Lois is a pretty straight-down-the-line take, underserved in terms of screen time/interactions rather than any glaring flaws in the interpretation.
Superman may not have the most memorable rogues gallery in comics – emphasised by the fact that we’ve had four movies with Lex Luthor in, two with General Zod, and two with villains created specifically for the films – but what he does have is a well-known set of supporting characters to go along with his secret identity in Metropolis. From classic friends and colleagues like Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, to 90s creations Cat Grant and Dr Emil Hamilton, assorted versions of the story have been able to devote significant time to his life outside the costume (even making it a major feature of the Lois & Clark TV series).
Man Of Steel, while it does introduce some of the Planet staff, does little with any of them. Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White shows all the stereotypical gruff editor-ness usually associated with the character (although it’s a little odd that as a major news editor, he’s so reluctant to run a story for no reason other than 'the public aren’t ready for it'), but any other characters shown are simply there to provide rescue-fodder in the film’s final act. Despite advance rumours, the intern known as Jenny isn’t a gender-swapped version of Jimmy Olsen (a different surname is visible on her staff pass), while another character is arbitrarily given the name 'Steve Lombard' as little more than an easter egg right at the end.
Again, we would assume that as the film ends with Clark actually meeting all of these people for the first time, any sequel would hopefully give them much more prominent roles to play. Poor Dr Hamilton, meanwhile, serves as something of a waste of actor Richard Schiff, and rather than being a mad inventor who eventually befriends Superman, is simply a pretty characterless military scientific advisor before (presumably) being killed along with the others in Zod’s ship.
All superficial details aside, the most important element for Man Of Steel to try and capture is, surely, the essence, spirit and meaning of the character as established by 75 years of previous interpretations. Unfortunately, it’s on this count where the film falls down the most.
Of course, there’s a danger in being overly prescriptive in saying how a character who’s existed for three-quarters of a century, and been through countless changes in storytelling style, backstory and the rest, should be portrayed. Neither should Man Of Steel have felt so constrained by the past that it shouldn’t have struck out with its own interpretation.
Nevertheless, there are certain simple elements that are the difference between 'telling a Superman story' and 'not telling a Superman story', and in the way Man Of Steel handled these, for me at least it fell very firmly in the latter.
One moment that’s been especially controversial is the manner in which Superman kills Zod – a moment that caused Birthright’s writer Mark Waid particular distress, as he eloquently described on his own blog. I have slightly less of a problem with this than some, mind – I can fully accept, as I did when reading a similar event in writer/artist John Byrne’s Superman run in the late 1980s (where Clark uses Kryptonite to summarily execute Zod and two other Kryptonian criminals from another dimension who have literally murdered the entire population of an alternate Earth), that it’s the moment where Superman finally, fully becomes the character we know. He's forced to take a life in one extreme set of circumstances, and he realises that he must never again do it. It’s not an essential part of the story, but if handled correctly, I don’t think it’s ruinous.
The problem with Man Of Steel is what happens for the hour or so beforehand – in which the film, having up to that point not yet really established Superman as a hero (bearing in mind that he only turns himself over to the government a short while after putting on his costume for the first time), utterly fails to lay out that his prime motivation is to save people. Okay, sure, he stops the planet from being terraformed – although there’s something uncomfortable about his major act of rescue taking place on the other side of the world from a Metropolis that we see crumble, and that it also relies on the sacrifice of a number of humans to stop the Kryptonians – but aside from that, and following his early scenes as a bearded, shirtless mysterious rescuer, he doesn’t actually do a lot in the way of protecting.
Throughout the entirety of his two big fight scenes – first with Faora and co in Smallville, and then more devastatingly with Zod in Metropolis – there’s not a single moment where Superman looks to take the fight elsewhere to avoid collateral harm, or pay attention to the fact that he’s slinging Zod through shattering buildings (buildings which the film never mentions might have been evacuated). It’s not even so much that we don’t see him catch a single falling person (save for Lois, right at the end), but that in some cases, he’s clearly directly responsible for innocent deaths. It’s a far cry from Superman II, where he shows genuine, frantic concern over a small group of people in a bus that Zod happens to be threatening to pound him into the ground with.
(Another comparison to be made with Superman II is that in that film, Zod and his gang arrive on Earth by chance – whereas in Man Of Steel, they actively hunt Kal-El down. In other words, absolutely none of the intense amount of death and destruction the film presents would have happened if Superman weren’t on the planet, which is the precise argument Lex Luthor has been making in the comics for the last 30 years. So he’s going to be in a pretty strong negotiating position come the sequel, put it that way).
Of course, many of us who like Superman will take different things out of the stories that feature him. It was artist Kevin Maguire (who drew the character most prominently in his Justice League International days) who said on Twitter over the weekend, 'If you like Superman because he’s the most powerful man in the world, you loved MoS. If you like him ‘cuz of his moral code and as protector of humanity, you were disappointed.'
That’s about the best way I could think of to put it, too – and for me, Man Of Steel, for all its impressive visuals (we’ll leave a the problems with the script to one side for now), and for all that Henry Cavill cuts a great figure in the costume and shows flashes of the warmth and charm beneath the character, is simply not true to any version of Superman that has ever been worth reading about.
But at least it does make clear that they have read All-Star and Birthright…
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