With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice now a reality, I decided to revisit Man of Steel, nearly three years after its original release. While I stand by my initial assessment of the film, that it’s a smart updating of the Superman mythos that is let down by an overly long and needlessly violent final act, I was struck on this recent viewing by just how much Superman history the film manages to pack into its two hour plus run time.
Below is my attempt to chronicle all of the direct (and indirect) references to DC Comics history in general and Superman in particular. For all its flaws, Man of Steel is a remarkably nerdy, even reverent Superman movie.
So let’s get to work, shall we?
– Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, but you already knew that. But for those who think that Man of Steel is perhaps a little too violent and cynical (and I agree on some points), keep in mind that Superman was a much more two-fisted, “Old Testament” character early on.
– The title of the film itself, Man of Steel, is a callback to a couple of things. Obviously, Superman has long been referred to as “the man of steel” at least since his first animated outing in the Fleischer Studios’ spectacular animated cartoon.
But Man of Steel was also the name of another Superman reboot, long before reboot was a word that anyone associated with anything other than a computer. By the early 1980s, Superman’s popularity in comics was waning, and DC Comics decided that Supes needed a completely fresh start and a new, more modern take on his mythology. Substitute the word “movies” for “comics” here, and you can already see the parallels to Supes’ big screen adventures.
Celebrated writer/artist John Byrne was brought in to restart the Superman mythos. While this is common practice in comics these days (ESPECIALLY at DC), in 1986 it was virtually unheard of. Nearly 50 years of Superman continuity was thrown out the window in favor of Byrne’s more realistic take on the legend. It was a success.
Anyway, yeah, that was a long way around pointing out that Man of Steel was a title used to reboot Superman once before. You get the picture, right?
But the influences of John Byrne’s Man of Steel are felt in other ways in this movie, and you can see two of them right out of the gate. So let’s head to…
– Opening with Kal-El’s literal birth serves a few purposes. First off, there’s the story purpose. Natural childbirth hasn’t been a thing on this version of Krypton for centuries, so we’re establishing Jor-El and Lara as radicals right away, something that is backed up further when Jor-El starts talking about the planet’s impending demise.
But the fact that most births on Krypton are artificial is something that came directly from John Byrne’s Man of Steel comic. Byrne’s Kryptonians were colder and more alien than the ones that we see here, but the tight fitting bodysuits augmented by additional ornamental gear can also be traced there, as well. The Krypton of the Man of Steel comic was a fairly inhospitable world, and those close-fitting layers were meant to help sustain the wearer.
But as you might imagine, things like actual sex fell by the wayside. Genetic material was co-mingled in birthing matrixes, and that’s where the embryo would develop. It’s not clear if Jor-El and Lara also chose to conceive their child the old-fashioned/more fun way in the film, or if that practice has fallen by the wayside in the movie Krypton.
There’s a kind of meta message here, though, with the audience literally witnessing Superman’s birth. Just in case there was any doubt left in anybody’s minds that this was a completely new beginning for Superman’s cinematic legend, I suspect opening with Lara in labor was a device to make it perfectly clear once and for all that this wasn’t a Superman Returns sequel or a further continuation of the Donner/Reeve/Salkind films.
– The two floating ‘droids attending the birth are also right out of the Man of Steel comic. One of them is identified as Kelex (who also recently put in an appearance on the Supergirl TV series). The other one is Kelor, another robot serving the House of El in the Man of Steel comic.
– Also note that all of the action on Krypton takes place in or around the city of Kandor, which is most famous in the comics for having been shrunk down and bottled by Brainiac before Krypton’s destruction. Clearly, that doesn’t happen here, so there will be no Bottle City of Kandor in future films.
JOR-EL and LARA
Jor-El and Lara were alluded to (but not by name) in Action Comics #1, but weren’t actually seen in comics until More Fun Comics #101 in 1945. When first introduced, they were Jor-L and Lora. I’m not sure why those names were changed, but later comics illustrated that Jor-L and Lora were the alternate universe Earth-2 versions of the more familiar Jor-El and Lara (and of course, the Earth-2 Superman is thus Kal-L).
Man of Steel continues a tradition begun by Superman: The Movie, and that was later adopted for the Superboy TV series, Lois & Clark, and finally (fairly recently, to be honest) into the comics themselves. As Supes himself points out later on, “it’s not an S” but a Kryptonian family crest. Different Kryptonian houses each have their own crests.
Later in the film, Superman tells Lois that the “not an S” means “hope” on Krypton. This is a reference to the opening narration of 1978’s Superman: The Movie, which describes “a symbol of hope for the city of Metropolis.”
– Jor-El’s talk with the council is a classic piece of Superman lore, now with a hint of an environmental spin. The Kryptonians have ruined their world and depleted its natural resources, and now the planet is doomed.
– Lara is concerned that on Earth, Clark will be “an outcast, a freak.” This faintly mirrors Lara’s dialogue and concerns in Superman: The Movie, where she fears Kal will be “isolated, alone.”
– Lara says that Kal-El “belongs to the stars.” In Kryptonese, Kal-El roughly translates as “Star Child.”
General Dru-Zod first appeared in Adventure Comics #283 in 1961. Like many long-lasting elements of expanded Superman mythology, General Zod was first introduced in a Superboy story. This was the same comic that introduced the concept of the Phantom Zone. More on that down below.
Zod made relatively few comic book appearances but gained pop culture notoriety thanks to the movies. Man of Steel wastes no time in referencing those. Zod tells Jor-El to “join us.” That not only speaks to a deeper, less antagonistic history between these two great leaders of Krypton, but it’s also a nod to Terence Stamp’s iconic turn as General Zod in Superman: The Movie and Superman II, where he told Jor-El (moments before getting exiled to the Phantom Zone) that they should work together to bring a “new order” to Krypton.
Gosh, that all sounds a little familiar, right?
While we’re here on Krypton, I may as well introduce you to the rest of Zod’s crew before they all get sent off to the Phantom Zone in those weird flying penis things.
Faora Hu-Ul first appeared in Action Comics #471 by immortal Superman creative team Cary Bates and Curt Swan. Faora is a master of Horu-Kanu, a Kryptonian martial art.
The way Faora is played here is similar to Ursa in Superman II. Cruel, taciturn, and fiercely loyal to her leader. When Faora corrects Colonel Hardy to refer to Zod as “General Zod,” you can hear echoes of Sarah Douglas’ Ursa performance.
Interestingly enough, Faora was one of the boss villains in the much-maligned but actually better than you’ve heard Superman NES video game.
Jax is the Dr. Mengele looking creep played by Mackenzie Gray in the movie. Jax-Ur may not be as well known as General Zod, but he’s been around nearly as long, first appearing in 1961’s Adventure Comics #289. Yep, that was another Superboy story.
If you look up in the sky (sorry) you can see that one of Krypton’s moons appears to be shattered. That’s Wegthor, which according to the comics, was destroyed by a missile launched by Jax-Ur. Nice guy.
The big guy who doesn’t speak isn’t Non, but Nam-Ek. Now, here’s the thing about Nam-Ek…he’s actually a much more interesting character than the one we’re presented with in the film.
The comic book Nam-Ek (who first appeared in 1974’s Superman #282) was a scientist, who tries to create a serum from the horn of a Kryptonian beast called a rondor. He removes a rondor horn, experiments on himself, and ends up looking like a half-rondor and becomes functionally immortal…and eeeevil.
There are rondors in the movie, too:
They’re the beasts you see in the field, but not the flying ones. They don’t appear to have horns, though.
– Some less interesting soldiers in Zod’s army include Car-Vex and Dev-Em, minor characters from fairly recent Superman comics and Ro-Zar, created solely for this film. Interestingly enough, one of the Kryptonian elders is named Lor-Em, so perhaps Dev-Em is a wayward child or something.
– It seems that there’s a ban on space travel in place, perhaps because of Krypton’s previous imperialistic history. That ban on space travel has long been a feature of Superman comics.
– Also, as a kind of random aside, does anybody else feel that the lasers the Kryptonians use sound a tiny bit like what the lasers sounded like on the classic GI Joe cartoon? Is it just me? It’s very possible that it’s just me, I totally get that.
– The giant flying penises that everyone gets encased in takes them to the Phantom Zone. The idea of the Phantom Zone is that Kryptonians don’t believe in the death penalty (“sensible” as Lex Luthor observed in Superman II). The Phantom Zone is suppose to allow them to be rehabilitated as they serve out their sentences as disembodied ghosts and/or in suspended animation. Of course, nobody thought the planet would explode and there would be nobody to bring them back.
– The ship that takes Zod and friends to the Phantom Zone is the Black Zero. Black Zero should be familiar to Kryptonian scholars as the name of a Silver Age villain but also the name of a terrorist organization from the pages of the World of Krypton comic book. That mini-series (which featured some cool Mike Mignola art) told the story of Krypton’s own clone war, and how Black Zero ended up responsible for the destabilization of Krypton’s core, which ultimately led to the planet’s destruction.
– The Codex key serves a similar function to the crystal of knowledge from Superman: The Movie, as kind of an all-purpose gizmo/way to access ancient Kryptonian lore, a Jor-El artificial intelligence, and whatever else you need.
– Jonathan and Martha Kent were first alluded to in Superman #1, although their names fluctuated between “John and Mary” and “Eben and Sarah” depending on who is telling the story. It took until the early 1950s for “Jonathan and Martha” to stick.
Now, why Jonathan Kent is such a bafflingly cynical man steering his all-powerful son to selfishness in this movie is unknown, but it’s weird. Note that it’s not just him, though. Basically, everybody in Smallville is a terrible human being. I don’t know if this is some kind of commentary on small town values or what, but everything in Smallville plays like some kind of dark, pre-Hunger Games dystopia.
Lana Lang is the only person genuinely nice to Clark. Pete Ross (the ginger kid making fun of him on the bus) was Clark’s best friend in the comics. Here, “best friend” simply means that later in the movie he doesn’t join in on the attempted gang beating of Clark. He’s a horrible ass, apparently.
Speaking of that bullying scene, the leader of the pack of bullies who beat on Clark is Kenny Braverman, who in the comics is the supervillain known as Conduit.
What’s slightly more interesting (I guess) is that during the bullying sequence, Clark is sitting in his dad’s red pickup truck. That red pickup was what the Kents were driving when the rocket landed in Superman: The Movie, and again in the pilot episode of Smallville.
Speaking of Smallville, the bus accident is reminiscent of the car crash in the opening scene of the Smallville pilot.
– The moment where Jon Kent tells Clark about his alien origins is reminiscent of the 1986 Man of Steel comic, as well. Right down to keeping the ship under a tarp underground. While his dialogue here, “You owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is” is a faint mirror of Glenn Ford’s wonderful speech in Superman: The Movie where he tells Clark in no uncertain terms that “you are here for a reason” and that “it’s not to score touchdowns.”
– Setting aside the fact that Jonathan Kent’s death in this movie is one of the most head-scratchingly bizarre decisions in recent years, there’s a fine tradition of young Clark Kent saving Smallville from tornadoes, notably in the first installment of the Kirk Alyn movie serial from 1948. Why he doesn’t do it here is beyond me.
– Nice to see that The Kents are dog people, but there’s no sign of Krypto.
THE ROAD TO SUPERMAN
– The “Clark wanders the world looking for his purpose in life” thing is faintly reminiscent of the Man of Steel comic, as well. Although in that, he was more explicitly out to do good deeds. That’s not as clear here.
– Clark taking revenge on a douchey trucker bully has shades of the ending of Superman II to it. But that revenge being vehicular in nature recalls Clark stacking all the jock douchebags’ trucks on top of each other in the first episode of Smallville.
Cavill’s bearded/shirtless Clark looks kind of like Hercules here. Which makes some sense, when you think of Superman as a modern interpretation of the Hercules myth (and the boundlessly wonderful All-Star Superman was a “12 Labors of Superman” story).
There has been some conjecture that the whales that swim by Clark while he’s unconscious underwater were actually sent by Aquaman to check up on him, but…ummmm…yeah.
The song that plays during this sequence is “Seasons” by Chris Cornell. It’s a great tune, and it features some appropriate lyrics, including “My mirror shows another face/Another place to hide it all,” which sorta fits with Clark’s overall dilemma.
It’s interesting that he’s calling himself “Joe” during his wandering period, too, as it recalls Superman co-creator and artist Joe Shuster. The fact that all of this seems to be taking place in Canada, which is where Shuster was born, is kinda neat, too.
– Clark hitchhiking to the north is more than a little reminiscent of Superman II.
– Emil Hamilton is a surprisingly neat supporting character who was first introduced in Adventures of Superman #424 in 1987. He was created by Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway. Hamilton was originally an antagonist, albeit a tragic one, but he ended up using his scientific knowledge to help Superman more often than not.
– Making the ancient Kryptonian probe essentially become the Fortress of Solitude is a sensible touch. The Jor-El hologram activated by the Codex key is of course (again) reminiscent of how Jor-El “trains” Superman in Superman: The Movie. The only difference is here we actually see him presented with the costume.
– The art deco Kryptonian history lesson Jor-El gives almost looks a little like a Jim Steranko story that was published in Superman #400 in 1984. That dealt with the future of Superman’s legacy, though, not Krypton’s past.
– By the way, the empty pod in that probe is totally supposed to belong to Kara Zor-El (Supergirl), although…yeah, I don’t think that’s ever going to amount to anything here.
– When you spot the polar bears frolicking near “the Fortress” that’s kind of a nod to Jon Peters’ famous insistence that Superman fight a polar bear during Kevin Smith’s failed run at making Superman Lives in the ’90s. Those polar bears finally showed up in a Superman movie!
– This is the first time we’ve seen a live action Superman costume without the “red underpants.” This is also the first time we’ve seen it as something that has explicitly Kryptonian/ceremonial origins (although it was strongly implied in Superman: The Movie). It’s also a much better redesign than what Supes is currently wearing in the comics.
– Jor-El’s “they will join you in the sun” speech is lifted almost directly from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s absolutely wonderful All-Star Superman, which everyone should read all the time.
– Superman’s pre-flight “leaps” are a nod to his earliest appearances, where his power levels were more modest. Superman was said to be able to “leap an eighth of a mile” at a time, and that’s about what he’s doing here. Superman still couldn’t quite fly in his earliest animated appearances in the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons.
– Speaking of those cartoons, Cavill’s “Superman” voice sounds a bit like original Superman voice actor (and the man who put in more hours as Superman than anyone else), Bud Collyer.
– Right before Superman takes flight, you can see a kind of telekinetic effect on the ground around him. In the Man of Steel comic, it was implied that the same weird thing that allows Supes to fly also meant that he could carry heavier loads while flying. This could be a nod to that.
– Virtually the entire “first flight” sequence has nods to Superman: The Movie, notably the climactic rocket chase flying sequence. And, of course, the “outer space flyby” is how every Christopher Reeve movie ended.
THE DAILY PLANET
– Clark originally worked for The Daily Star under editor George Taylor. The paper wasn’t named The Daily Planet until Action Comics #23 in 1940. Perry White came along a few months later in Superman #7.
– Lois has, of course, been around exactly as long as Superman, first appearing in Action Comics #1 in 1938.
– It’s nice that they didn’t make this Lois wait 60 years to figure out Clark’s secret, though. This movie handles all of that quite nicely.
– Folks who get annoyed that Amy Adams isn’t your traditional brunette Lois Lane should remember that Noel Neill, who put in countless hours as Lois in both of the Superman movie serials and on The Adventures of Superman TV series, was a redhead. As a nod to Neill, Lois was sometimes shown with red highlights in the late ’80s Superman comics by John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, and others, too. Plenty of precedent for this.
– When Lois goes on her quest to find out who Superman is, it’s reminiscent of a similar identity montage in the Man of Steel comic, albeit that’s after he has already assumed a public, costumed identity.
– Steve Lombard is the Daily Planet sportswriter, and he spent the ’70s and ’80s tormenting Clark Kent when they both worked at WGBS. A typical Superman tale would have Steve embarrassing Clark in public, and Clark later using his super powers to get an amusing “revenge.” Ummmm…yeah.
– Jenny Jurwych was originally intended to be “Jenny Olsen” but that did change for whatever reason. As of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, there’s still no sign of Jimmy Olsen in this world.
THE BIG CONTROVERSY
– Yes, Superman has killed in the comics. The difference is that those stories all ended in serious consequences for Superman. The two most notable (and oft-cited) are “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” (which I wrote more about here) and a story from the late ’80s specifically pertaining to General Zod and friends.
In “Whatever Happened…” Superman kills, and then immediately strips himself permanently of his powers as punishment.
The other story, though, features Superman actually using green Kryptonite to execute General Zod, Faora, and Jax-Ur, after they wiped out an alternate universe version of Earth. As penance, Superman then exiles himself from the planet.
GENERAL DC UNIVERSE STUFF
– Christopher Meloni’s Colonel Hardy has the callsign of “Guardian,” which may or may not be a nod to the Joe Simon and Jack Kirby creation. Regardless, Meloni’s character ain’t him.
– Legend has it that skeevy blogger Glen Woodburn was supposed to be Jack Ryder, better known as the Creeper, but it was changed abruptly before shooting.
– You can spot a LexCorp truck in the background when Clark returns home to Smallville, and a LexCorp oil tanker gets wiped out during Clark’s battle with the rogue Kryptonians.
– A WayneTech communications satellite also gets trashed during the battle.
– I’ve often wondered if General Swanwick’s name is a reference to classic Superman artist, Curt Swan.
– Zod tells the people of Earth that his quarry “will look like you, but he is not one of you.” This, too, is a nod to Superman: The Movie, in an exchange with Jor-El and Lara. He says “he will look like one of them,” to which she replies “he won’t be one of them.”
– I was always bummed that news of the alien visitation breaks on CNN in the newsroom and not GBS. But in the comics, Channel 8 (which we see in the film is a Metropolis news station) was WGBS, a Galaxy Broadcasting affiliate.
– The way the chopper crashes during the battle with the Kryptonians seems to be another nod to Superman II.
I think that’s everything, right? If not, let me know in the comments or on Twitter!