The Curious Morality of Man of Steel

The new Superman movie Man of Steel is not as bad as some of the mediocre reviews might have you think. While it has its flaws, it actually has some extraordinary moments due in large part to the terrific cast's performances. There are a few nitpicks about pacing and some quibbles that only I noticed (such as where an attractive alien warrior such as Faora-Ul, played by the stunning Antje Traue, gets her lipstick and eyeliner, but maybe it's from the same salon that trims General Zod's hip goatee -- Michael Shannon's is even cooler than Terence Stamp's...well, almost.) All kidding aside, many have already commented on how seriously this story is delivered, thanks (or no thanks) to the direction of Zack Snyder, the screenplay by David S. Goyer, and of course the early producing hand of Christopher Nolan. This movie, while admittedly a no-holds-barred summer blockbuster popcorn flick, aims to be an important entry in the superhero genre. At its heart, it wants to make a point about "morality," but its uneven execution causes more confusion than clarity, leading to some of the negative responses we've seen so far from critics and viewers.

Let's look at some examples, and to do so it goes without saying that I'll be mentioning major spoilers, so as always, if you haven't seen the film yet, you may want to bookmark this and come back later. Otherwise, onward...

Superman has always been a character who epitomized hope. Previous portrayals have emphasized his do-gooder extremeness, ever since the days of the Kirk Alyn serials and the George Reeves television series. Many pondered whether he was too much of a "boy scout" for today's more cynical audiences, as other heroes (or vigilante anti-heroes) have become darker and more edgy. Man of Steel attempts to retell the plot of Superman: The Movie and Superman II for a new generation. It succeeds better than Superman Returns, which despite its good intentions was mostly just a forgettable and misguided nostalgia trip. This new version tries to up the stakes. When Christopher Reeve's Superman told Lois Lane that he never told a lie, we believed him, just as Lois did, and we never questioned that he was in fact boldly lying to her every day behind his Clark Kent secret identity. In this new version, Lois shows her investigative reporter skills by figuring out early who Superman was and tracking down his Smallville roots. In the original, young Clark wanted to use his powers to be a high school football star until his foster-dad Jonathan taught him that he "was here for a reason" and it wasn't to use his superpowers in an unfair advantage to score touchdowns. In this reboot, Clark is the one who from the beginning feels the selfless urge to help others, despite Pa Kent's warnings to hide his gifts out of fear of how the world might react.

Those are interesting shifts from the original source material that tease at a potentially powerful exploration of a character guided and sometimes shackled by a self-imposed moral code. Superman has always displayed Judeo-Christian symbology, from the "Last Son of Krypton" Moses metaphor as he is sent off in a rocket-basket to escape persecution, right up to the numerous Messiah/Christ parallels. Snyder uses even more heavy-handed visual motifs than prior-director Bryan Singer did. I counted at least two crucifix poses (one when Kal-El is bearded, floating underwater, and the second with arms outstretched in space). Then there's the ill-fitting scene in a church when Clark seeks spiritual guidance from a priest -- maybe it needed some more context, or some further clues that the priest may have been one of his childhood bullies, now redeemed, depicted in the intercut flashback. As it stands, though, the scene is a bit jarring, heavyhanded, and cliched.

I've always supported the necessity for the so-called "Superman Code," in which Kal-El held himself to a higher standard than the villains he faced, going so far as to refuse to kill. For a character with so many god-like powers, it was both a strength and an obvious weakness just as threatening to him as kryptonite. His foes could use his psychological and spiritual vulnerabilities as weapons against him. Faora says as much in Man of Steel when she recognizes that Superman's "sense of morality" will hold him back, whereas she and her fellow Kryptonian militants have no such restrictions on their actions. They will kill without remorse, or as General Zod says when reflecting on his murder of Superman's biological father Jor-El, it may have pained him to do so, but he did not hesitate and would do so again, because for him the ends (his mission to save the pure lineage of Krypton) justified the means (even if that was the death of Kryptonians with a different agenda or the genocide of human beings on Earth).

Yet, Man of Steel fails to fully establish Superman's moral compass. While everyone is harping on the "big scenes," which I'll examine in a moment, it's a few smaller, seemingly trivial scenes, that gave me pause.

First, after showing his heroic side by saving a crew of men doomed to die aboard a burning oil rig, Clark steals a shirt and coat since his own clothing was burned off in the fire. (I doubt he had some money in his pockets to pay for them as David Bruce Banner often did in The Incredible Hulk). Obviously, the filmmakers needed to get their protagonist covered up again, but it was curious to see the close-up of some of the items on the clothesline -- socks with holes in them. The owners of those clothes seemed to be financially struggling, where even a new pair of socks might be a hard-to-come-by luxury. That was a mighty fine shirt and jacket that Clark pilfered from the back of the poor guy's vehicle.

Secondly, Clark intervenes when a jerk gets too frisky with a waitress, only to back off when he's humiliated by the tough guy, not wanting to reveal his powers in public. So what does he do?  He ties the man's truck in a demolished knot outside. It's a good laugh (one of the few attempts at humor in the otherwise somber movie), but how do we know that was the bad guy's own truck? It seemed like a 16-wheeler. I imagined that the loser was a paid-for-hire truck driver. How does smashing his employer's vehicle and harming his means of business teach the mysogynistic twit a lesson? In Superman II, by the way, there was a similar scene, and Clark came back to teach the bully some manners, explaining his sudden show of strength by miming that he'd been exercising.)

Those might be minor points that only bothered me, but there were three bigger moments in the plot that have fanboys up in arms.

First, the death of Jonathan Kent -- Superman's journey, since the first issue in the comics, began after the passing of Pa Kent, the man who raised Clark and (along with Martha Kent) taught him the difference between right and wrong. In the Richard Donner directed movie, Jonathan dies of a heart attack -- it's a poignant, memorable scene, and the impact is monumental to the tale. Clark realizes that with all these powers, he still couldn't save him.  It was another prime example of why Superman would cherish the frailty of human life, and help explain his motivation to do anything he can to save even one person.  In Man of Steel, Jonathan is killed during a tornado. Clark possibly could have saved him, but Pa gestures him off, wanting him again to refrain from revealing himself as more than human to the many onlookers, sacrificing himself so that his son could continue to live a little while longer in anonymity until his true calling beckoned. Clark, who risked discovery in order to save a school bus packed with fellow students, including those who taunted him moments earlier, who later would do the same for countless strangers in danger during his nomadic journey around the world, stood back and watched his foster father die.  It's a tough pill to swallow. I'm not sure exactly how that added much to the story that couldn't have been done in a more thoughtful manner. Instead it felt as if a great moment from Superman lore, on par with how Peter Parker's Uncle Ben dying led to Spider-man's mighty guiding principal that "with great power comes great responsibility," suddenly was minimized.

Second, the apparent death of innocents in Smallville and Metropolis during the super-battles that destroyed many buildings -- Surely there were some casualties amid all that rubble. Zod and Faora expressed their disregard for the human race, so the collateral damage meant nothing to them, but in the comic books and in Superman II, the Man of Steel would at least acknowledge the potential for the loss of life when superbeings start smashing through skyscrapers. There was no attempt to try to take the superpowered fisticuffs to an unpopulated area.  To me, this might be a set-up for the sequel, allowing Lexcorps to rebuild Metropolis as the "city of tomorrow" and establish criminal mastermind Lex Luthor as the new villain who blames Superman as an alien threat. We shall see. Nevertheless, all that computer-generated mayhem left a bad taste in my mouth (especially as a New Yorker after 9/11), as it did others. How many times can major cities be destroyed for the sake of action entertainment?

Finally, Superman kills General Zod -- Admittedly, the filmmakers make it clear that he had no choice. Zod would have continued to be a threat, he was an otherwise unstoppable force.  How many times have fans asked if Batman might have saved more lives by killing the Joker, for example, instead of just subduing him and locking him up until the next time he escaped and murdered or crippled more victims? Nevertheless, that is the entire moral dilemma that makes the "good vs. evil" storyline so continuously compelling. The hero refuses to stoop to the level of the villain. It's more complex than merely "an eye for an eye" vengeance -- at least it should be. Superman screams in anguish after he snaps his adversary's neck before Zod could kill a crowd of innocent passers-by who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Is that enough? I want to see more repurcussions in Kal-El's psyche about having taken a life -- especially a fellow Kryptonian, the man who killed his father. I want to see the conflict in Superman's soul play out beyond just a few-second-scream. Maybe we'll see it carry over into the sequel.

Man of Steel is an ambitious movie, and far better than some of the more average motion pictures I've seen. It aims to be something great, but in the end it leaves me a bit confused as to what kind of hero the filmmakers want their new and improved Superman to be.


ed bartosik said…
Perhaps writers should go to the original source material Nietzsche's Ubermensch and go from there. Originally Superman was a villian turned good guy, which I believe would help with the metamorphosis of the moral dilemma in the character.
Dan O. said…
Hopefully now that they have gotten their origin story out of the way, the series can pick up some steam from here. Good review Nick.
Nick said…
Thanks, Dan. I hope you're right.