I was born in 1980 and, like many people who were born at that time, I am tied to the icons and media of our childhood. For people like me, our childhood was movies like Ghostbusters and Better Off Dead, Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. We cut our nerd teeth on Star Wars (RotJ at least) and the Star Trek movie franchise. We grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, those lamer cartoons that were on before and after school and the still weaker ones that were on Sundays.
And, for many of us, there was Superman. And not just any Superman. Christopher Reeve.
For us, he is who we picture when we think of that character, a handsome but gentle man who can be charming and a little goofy with a warm smile. For me, he brought the character to life, showing that he could be brave, that it was worth struggling and fighting for the things that you believe in which, for Superman, is people, humanity. A lot of to do is made about how Superman was an “American” hero (never mind the fact that he’s an alien), especially when shortly before DC rebooted their universe he gave up his US citizenship to become a citizen of the world, but for me he was always a hero for all of us. Let’s face it, he’s more or less a demigod, at least, but he’s one that chooses to try and help, rather than act as some sort of lord. A friend of mine refers to him as “the big blue Boy Scout” and while I think my friend may mean that as an insult, it’s an accurate way of describing him. And I don’t think it’s a bad comparison, qualitatively or quantitatively.
I am not ashamed to admit that the Superman theme can still make me tear up. What can I say, I’m a nerd to the core.
When this movie was announced my wife pretty much declared she wouldn’t see it. While she’s definitely a fan of Henry Cavill after we watched all of The Tudors, for her Superman will forever be Christopher Reeve in the same way it will be for me and, after the horrible Superman Returns, she just didn’t want to sit through another movie of someone trying to fill shoes that, for her, could never be filled.
Man of Steel is not my Superman. It’s not the one I grew up with.
And the more I think about it, the more I’m becoming ok with it.
To start, this is a complete reboot of the story, not the two hours of badly done homage we got with Superman Returns. We see Krypton in its final hours, the launch of the pod that brings Kal-El to a small Kansas farm. Throughout the movie we get treated to clips of Clark’s childhood and up-bringing interspersed as appropriate with whatever is going on at the time. Now, to really talk about this movie I’m going to have to get spoilery so here’s your pre-warning.
There are spoilers ahead.
No. Really. Spoilers. Spoiler-y spoilers.
The thing that defines Clark’s life is distrust. He is raised by Ma and Pa Kent to be fearful of the people around them, told that if they knew the truth they may react poorly and so he struggles through his childhood, first at gaining control over his powers (and we’re treated to a great freak out scene as he’s trying to get his X-ray vision and super hearing under control), then with balancing the desire to keep them hidden and be circumspect with the fact that fate keeps putting him in places where he needs to use them to save people. In this conflict we see the Superman who he will become, the desire to use his powers for good, to help. There’s one scene, which has been in trailers, where a school bus full of children falls into a river. The children, if not for Clark pushing the bus out of the water, would have all drowned and a number of kids saw and realized what really happened. There’s a scene where Pa Kent is haranguing Clark about how people would react and Clark shouts back, “What was I supposed to do, just let them die?”
And Pa Kent replies, “Maybe.”
That, right there? That’s my problem with this movie.
Now, is it totally understandable for the Kents to want Clark to keep his real self on the DL in order to keep the government from swooping in and trying to take control of him or until he becomes an adult with an adult’s sense of responsibility and morals? Sure. But, both in the earlier movies and comics, Ma and Pa Kent would never, ever, want Clark to not do the right thing, even if it minorly revealed the truth about him. Saving a bus full of kids when you have the ability to, rather than just letting them all drown? That’s the right thing. And why would they want that? Think about it: you are, essentially, raising a god. A god who has to go through the terrible twos, a god who has to go through puberty. A god who will get mopey and depressed like any other teenager, who will make the hard decisions and mistakes that define who we want to be, who we are at that time, and who we will be in the future. And when you consider the fact that this kid is a heat-beam producing, super strong, super quick, bullet proof alien you had BETTER teach him the difference between right and wrong and the value of what is right.
I think it’s horrible that they decided to go this route with the Kents.
The worst, however, comes years later when Clark is either a late teenager or a young adult and he’s fighting with his father about what he wants to do with the rest of his life. A freak tornado drops down basically two hundred yards from their car. Clark and Ma head to an overpass for shelter but Pa goes back to get the family dog who is stuck in their car. While doing so he becomes injured, trapped, and delayed getting away so much so that, while he rescues the dog, he himself cannot escape the tornado. Clark moves as if to come help him, because Clark could save his father, but doing so would reveal Clark to everyone sheltering under the overpass. Instead, Pa Kent holds up a hand to his son to tell him no, don’t save me, smiles, and dies and, in the process, wounds Clark to his core, setting firmly a conflict in him of wanting to save people because he couldn’t save his father while also being incredibly fearful of the people around him.
I hated that. Clark would have done anything for his family, they were the ONLY people in the world he had as he didn’t even really have friends in school, and Pa Kent just died in a completely needless, in some ways selfish, fashion. It was like the final cherry on the top of the screwed up sundae.
Clark then leaves Smallville and travels the world, working odd jobs like on a crabbing boat in Alaska or waiting tables in a trucker bar, so that he doesn’t have to form any connections. However, fate conspires against him again and again, making it so that he has to save people, which of course then means he has to leave lest he have to face their reactions to his existence.
The other aspect I didn’t really care for was the very, very heavy hand with the Jesus similarities in this. Yes, we get that he’s essentially a god, but did you really have to drive it home that much?
The parts that I did like came after he found an ancient Kryptonian scout ship that had crashed on Earth thousands and thousands of years ago. Once he learns who he is, you can see Clark get his feet under him because now he has a foundation. Now the house that the Kents built is on solid ground and, with certainty, he can say “This is who I am.” One review took a very negative view of the movie that I don’t agree with, at least in part. This reviewer, more or less, said that Clark didn’t really act with any agency, that he did whatever a father figure told him to do. And yet, time and again, we see Clark doing things that Pa Kent would’ve had issues with (such as some deserved, but perhaps a little over the top, revenge he paid to a guy who harassed him in a bar). The fact that he listened to the “ghost” of Jor-El wasn’t so much, IMO, that he was simply following what a father figure told him, but that he was finally getting the encouragement to do what he felt was right in his heart and true to his nature. The conflict that was in his soul came from Pa Kent and his insistence on secrecy. With Jor-El, Clark was finally told he was “normal” and that he could help people, that he was, in a way, meant to. And with that encouragement, with that support, he finally came into his own.
It’s at this point we see “the big blue Boy Scout”, we see a much better heir to Christopher Reeve than Brandon Routh could have ever done. I would like to think that if he were alive, Christopher might’ve given Henry Cavill’s performance his seal of approval. We get the gentleness, the warmth, and you can see, in some ways, the love he has for his chosen people.
The thing about this movie that I think will also throw people who so link Reeve’s performance to Superman is that this is a Superman for a different time. IMO, Superman and the two sequels were largely products of the time they were made in. With the scariness of the Cold War we need an idealized hero to look up to. With Cavill’s Superman, we don’t need that. We, us humans, need someone we can relate to, someone who, while good, is flawed and fallible, someone who makes mistakes. That’s why with this performance we see an unrefined Superman, a Superman who is learning who he is and how his powers work, not someone who already knows their score. This is a Superman who questions, not just himself but the people around him. This is a Superman who is trying to do the right thing and, sometimes, screws it up. And, sometimes, such as with the final climax of the movie, he fails, and fails in a very, fundamental way. What I’m going to talk about now is a huge spoiler so I’m giving you extra warning.
Superman kills Zod. It is at the end of the battle and the two of them are tied up, Zod on his knees, Superman behind him with Zod in a headlock. They’re essentially in Grand Central Station and a family is trapped, menaced by Zod’s heat vision. In order to save the family who Zod intends to kill, Superman snaps his neck.
This is fundamentally wrong to the Superman character. Superman, almost every incarnation we’ve seen, does not kill. Any time Superman does it is a BIG DEAL. Superman was brought up to protect and revere life, especially human life, because of his power. Can you think about what could possibly happen if someone with Superman’s abilities decided that human lives were expendable, that a few broken eggs were good if you made an omelet? No one would ever be safe because who could ever stop him? Hell, consider the fact that Superman, despite it probably being a good idea for his own well-being and the safety of the world, hasn’t punched Luthor’s skeleton out of his body.
And yet we have a movie where Superman destroys a ship full of Krpyotian fetuses and, ultimately, kills Zod. He does so because, at the time, they were a threat to *his* people, humanity. And, you know what? I’m not opposed to that.
Consider our own police force and why we give them guns. Consider our military (whether or not you agree with current or past conflicts). Sometimes, in order to protect life, you must take life. Is this a good thing? No, it’s not and it’s not something that should be done lightly and, considering how much Superman tried to save Zod from himself, considering how many outs he gave, considering when Superman finally did it, and the impact it had on Superman, I’m ok with it. Sometimes you can’t save someone from themselves so it’s necessary to save other people from them and when that person is a super-powered being the equivalent of a god, the only way to really protect people from them is to remove that person from play entirely. That’s reality, and that’s who this Superman is. This a Superman who isn’t idealized, who isn’t perfect. This isn’t a Superman who, if he just works hard enough, everything will turn out ok. This isn’t a Superman who can turn back time by reversing the spin of the planet so that he can save the woman he loves. This is a Superman who has to make hard choices, choices that will have very negative consequences, and then live with those decisions.
This is a Superman who is like us. And, because of that, he is someone to look up to, in some ways more than Reeve’s Superman, because with Cavill’s we see that we can make mistakes and then rise above them.
This was not my Superman. My Superman was for a different time and place. But does that make this Superman bad? No. This is a different Superman, one for a different time, and I think he fits well.
While this movie doesn’t really have anything in it that requires seeing it in the theater, I know I didn’t regret the money I spent on the ticket and would pay to see it again, even at full price.