There’s a moment in this film when Kansas farmer Jonathan Kent, caught in the path of a tornado, shoots a look at his adopted son, Clark, who could easily save him from certain doom. Just as Clark is about to do what only a super man can do, and thus expose his otherworldly origins to a terrified crowd unaware that a creature from another planet is standing in their midst, the elder Kent raises his hand—not so much to say “Stop,” but rather, “Not now. Later.”
That was lump-in-the-throat time. For Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) has spent Clark’s entire life teaching him to wait, not to exploit his strange and confounding powers, not to fight back when taunted, to turn the other cheek, because the damage he is capable of inflicting is incalculable and would betray too much too soon to a people unprepared to be in the presence of real power. (“You fear me because you cannot control me,” Superman tells an Army general. “And you never will.”) Jonathan is convinced that Clark was brought to Earth for a larger purpose: not to strike back at bullies, or even to play supercop. What that purpose is would reveal itself in time. But Clark is growing impatient.
I was strangely moved by Man of Steel, this science-fiction re-imagining of the Superman origin story. Of course, our tale begins on Krypton, which is as doomed as old media. “Artificial reproduction control” and the exhaustion of natural resources has left Krypton vulnerable to the forces of decay, and Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a scientist, and his wife (Ayelet Zurer), having defied convention by reproducing naturally, decide that the only hope for Krypton is their newborn son. Just as General Zod (Michael Shannon) launches a military coup, determined to bring all “parliamentary” debate about public policy to an end and make the hard (read lethal) decisions necessary to save Krypton, Jor-El launches Kal-El into space. To earth the Kryptonian baby goes, bearing the hope of both his parents and his people, as well as a mysterious “codex” that Zod believes is the key to Krypton’s survival.
Zod’s rebellion is put down, and he and his cohorts are launched into a phantom zone to serve out a sentence for treason. But Krypton is not long for the universe, and soon vaporizes like the conscience of the New York Times.
Cut to a strapping young man by the name of Clark Kent trying to find his way in the world. Floating from job to job, trying to fit in, trying not to be found out as some kind of extraterrestrial freak, he eventually coincides with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who, as a reporter for The Daily Planet, is investigating some strange ship-like machine lodged in ice at the top of the world. The crystal palace, of course, is Kal-El/Clark’s homing device, where Jor-El’s “consciousness” appears and reveals Clark’s true identity and the story of his people. Clark finally learns his purpose: “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards,” Jor-El tells him. “They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” In short, Superman is to ensure that earthlings never become enthralled to utilitarian calculations, He will model for them their inner potential. Superman, in short, is our only hope against all manner of determinisms: genetic, political, technological.
But Zod is to be heard from again. Once Krypton had gone kablooey, he and his morbid band of radicals were freed from their bondage. In hot pursuit of Jor-El’s “codex,” which Zod is convinced holds the key to the “resurrection of Kyrpton and its people,” the general lands on Earth and informs its inhabitants that they are harboring a stranger from another planet who must surrender within 24 hours or else the third planet from the sun will look like Carrot Top’s movie career.
What to do, what to do. There isn’t much moral ambiguity in Man of Steel, but there sure are a lot of dilemmas. It unashamedly waves the banner of truth, justice, and the American way, but no matter what choice Kal-El/Clark/Superman makes, a lot of people stand to die. Trying to decide whether to hand himself over to Zod, whom he knows not to trust, or stay and fight for Earth, whose people he’s having a hard time learning to trust, he seeks the advice of a minister. Sitting in a church pew with a stained glass image of Christ in Gethsemane over his shoulder, Clark agonizes over his fate. And what does the minister say? “What does your gut tell you?” Right. A very American minister, he. No other otherworldly advice does he offer. I mean, Clark may be from Krypton, but he was raised by Kansans, and his earth Mom (Diane Lane) has that cross around her neck. SOME talk of another kind of savior must have reached earshot in his 30-plus years…
Nevertheless, one could say that Clark does the Christ-like thing and allows himself to be handed over to the authorities, a prisoner who can summon, if not angels, sufficient muscle to escape his bonds at will. But allowing himself to be manhandled is a necessary part of his plan to save humanity from a fate worse than death—namely Zod.
Man of Steel strives to be more than just a fun summer shoot-em-down; it’s the story of two destinies: one of a warrior bred for one thing, to save his people, whatever the cost; the other of a king among mortals, born for one thing—to save everyone, or at least everyone who trusts that he is for them and not against them, and this at the cost of only himself.
While I found myself captivated by this flick, it’s far from perfect, and its reach may be just beyond its grasp. The science talk is laughably daft, with blather about “black holes” and “singularities” that will leave real scientists giggling uncontrollably. Director Zach Snyder’s spaceship chases and mass destruction can be overwhelming at times (however well-realized), but the supporting cast, mainly the wonderment that is Amy Adams, play their roles with their souls written on their faces such that even brief interactions between them and Superman immediately reignites the more down-to-earth concerns, restoring a sense of human urgency that keeps this film moving at a very fast clip.
And the final showdown between Superman and Zod is, to say the very least, underwhelming. (I was admittedly left going, “Really? That–wha? Hah? After ALL THAT? He just–wha?”)
Lawrence Fishburne, a favorite of mine, is underutilized as Perry White, perhaps necessarily so. I hope we see more of him in the next iteration. Kevin Costner plays the human dad with just the right dollops of Midwestern stoicism and Christian empathy.
But British actor Henry Cavill steals the Man of Steel. A more human, and American, Kryptonian we could not have asked for.
When all is said and done, I’d tamper down the enthusiasm for the Christian signposts that decorate the script. Yes, there is a lot of Western Unioning about self-sacrifice, etc. And there is the ever-present theme of adoption, bringing “the other” into the family, echoing our adoption into the family of God. And, as it turns out, Superman bears within his breast a new race, a new “Adam,” as it were. One could also throw in a Markan messianic secret (but what superhero doesn’t have a secret?). But keep in mind that there is never any mention of God, or what possible purpose God might have in all this. (OK, OK, it’s a comic book about space aliens and laser beams and planet building. But the writers started it…)
There is a grin-worthy moment, however, one that will warm the cockles of every Bible Belting evangelical. One of Zod’s warriors tells Superman that the Man of Steel has developed “morality,” which is a weakness, whereas Zod and his people have evolved beyond good and evil. “And evolution always wins.” Except, of course, when it doesn’t. Cue rousing theme music.
Why my enthusiasm for Man of Steel? Because it transcends the typical summer superhero movie, in that it isn’t just about Superman. When Zod and his army, attempting to draw out the Man of Steel and find that damn codex, are breaking up “a great metropolis” (read New York City), it plays unsettlingly like 9/11 and the response of rescue workers and ordinary citizens. Perry White and a Daily Planet reporter risk their lives to save a colleague trapped beneath rubble—because every life counts, and what gives our life meaning, at least in this film’s philosophizing, is the extent to which we aid our neighbor in time of need. Yes, individuals matter, but we are not alone. Man of Steel is a potent reminder that the call to heroism can come at any time to anyone.
And just as important: Man of Steel brings home the message that Superman isn’t great because he has X-ray vision and flies like an eagle and can withstand bullets. He’s great because of the old-fashioned values he learned from his adoptive parents on a farm in Kansas. He’s our hero not because he’s strong but because he’s good. And that goodness is manifested in a certain humility, a restraint, a sense of limits even when it would be so easy to pull out all the stops. It’s knowing how to use power. This message, admittedly, sits uneasily with the one Jor-El delivers, a sort of extraterrestrial “Your Best Life Now” spiel. It’s a flaw in the script, and bespeaks the overreaching I mentioned before. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a tension between that earthy, anti-utopian Kansas wisdom and what a creature from another planet knows is still possible. The question is, will Clark Kent/Superman remember the true story of Krypton: a cautionary tale about refusing to acknowledge limits by ruthlessly rejiggering nature—whether by controlling reproduction through technology to concoct a more “useful” race; or by exploiting resources rather than cultivating, tilling, and stewarding them. The Kent family, five generations of farmers, didn’t exploit nature, like the Kryptonians did. They learned to nourish and be nourished by it. When you outrage nature because you think you’re above it, you outrage nature’s God, who will quickly show you who the true author of life is.
Now tell me, when was the last time you went to a blockbuster popcorn-muncher and were left even thinking about these things? (That the screenplay was cowritten by Christopher “Dark Knight” Nolan may be one reason it has so much dense matter on its mind.)
So wave the flag, cheer for the good guys, and remember: that reporter for The Daily Planet is NOT Superman. How do I know?
He’s wearing glasses. Do you think Superman needs glasses?