Man of Steel is a pretty decent superhero movie, if not necessarily the best Superman movie if you’re a purist about the character… but if you are, you’re probably off in a dark room somewhere writing hate messages to Dan DiDio about the New 52 reboot and scoffing at the sheep running to movie theaters when there’s a perfectly good Superman DVD with Christopher Reeve’s picture on it on your shelf, and you don’t give a fuck what I think about Man of Steel anyway.
Which is a shame (not that you don’t care what I think; hell, before I’ve had at least three beers, even I think I’m an idiot), because in most of the ways that matter, director Zack Snyder gets the character right. Snyder’s Superman is a man of two worlds who has made the conscious decision to favor and protect humanity over anything else. He’s generally humble and patient and wants only to be trusted to help us. And Man of Steel screenwriter David S. Goyer, probably remembering the shitstorm he himself created in Action Comics #900 when he implied Superman would be renouncing his United States citizenship, makes it abundantly clear that the Superman of Man of Steel is all about The American Way.
But Snyder and Goyer chuck a certain amount of what your average guy on the street would consider to be Superman canon. Superman never really is the Last Son of Krypton here, and the whole secret identity conceit is kinda thrown out in all the ways that most people would consider to really matter to the character. And it’s a little odd that our first introduction to Superman is at gunpoint in the desert so that he can turn himself in to American authorities; I’ll tell you this: Batman wouldn’t put up with that kind of happy horseshit.
So when it comes to reviewing Man of Steel, I’m gonna pretty much leave it at: yeah, it was pretty good. Because I’ve only seen the movie once, and by the time I’m finishing this article up It’s been three days since I saw it, so some of the details aren’t going to be as clear as they could be in my mind. But I am going to make some observations about some things about the movie that I noticed, and a couple of things that have driven some people who saw the movie apeshit, but which instead make a lot of sense to me having had a few days to give them some thought.
The first of those observations being: the greatest accomplishment that Man of Steel makes is that it puts on the big screen the first relatively true adaptation of Miracleman #15.
I know that most people who might read this have never seen Miracleman #15, or, frankly, any other Miracleman comic, thanks to the continuing rights issues surrounding the character and the run of issues written by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman and released by Eclipse Comics back in the 80s. Hell, I’ve only read it thanks to a drunken, white-knuckle, $100 eBay bidding war back in 2001.
But all you really need to know about the story to understand what I’m talking about is this: Miracleman is a Captain Marvel / Shazam knockoff from the 50s who suddenly wakes up in the real world of the 1980s. He discovers that his former sidekick, Kid Miracleman, hadn’t changed back to his child secret identity since the 50s, and during that time became a power-mad millionaire, who Miracleman had to trick into changing back into little Johnny Bates. Several issues later, while Miracleman is in space, Johnny says the magic word to change back to Kid Miracleman to avoid taking some terrible abuse. Kid Miracleman is, shall we say, pissed, and since Miracleman isn’t around, he decides to take things out on the city of London and, well…
Ah hell – just take a look. Don’t worry: if no one owns Miracleman #15 enough to reprint it, then no one owns it enough to sue you for getting the gist of it here:
In Miracleman #15, Alan Moore was the first comics creator to really understand and lay down on paper that, if you have two indestructible people who can fly, move at the speed of light, and collapse buildings by looking at them, fight? Bad things will happen to the people around them. And if one of those two people has no regard whatsoever for human life? It will be an apocalypse.
And clearly Man of Steel director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer have read Miracleman #15, because the final battle between Superman and General Zod reminded me one hell of a lot of that battle between Miracleman and Kid Miracleman – Jesus, by the end of that fight, we had a guy in his superhero suit battling a guy in a black version of that suit, just like in Miracleman #15. And most of the other elements are here: wholesale destruction? Check. A seemingly unending, evenly-matched battle that obliterates everything in its wake? Yup. Innocents used as pawns? Oh yeah. The only thing it’s missing is the indiscriminate and graphic slaughter that Moore put obviously on the page – no human skins drying from clotheslines here – but death on a massive scale is implied… and let’s face it: there wasn’t a hope in hell that Warner Bros., DC Entertainment, or anyone else would show piles of corpses in a Superman movie and let it get an R rating. So we don’t see the bodies, but no one really tries to pretend they aren’t there.
So what we have in Man of Steel is probably one of the more realistic superhero battles in any movie… with people still complaining about the way that Superman handled both the battle, and Zod himself. I’ve seen dozens of complaints that Superman would never allow these fights to take place in populated areas, and more importantly, that he would never just flat-out kill Zod with his bare hands, whether that act made him feel incredible remorse or not… and I will admit that, on my first viewing, seeing Superman kill a guy was pretty shocking to me.
But upon reflection, I am okay with both of these things. Because upon reflection, I realize that the guy on the screen isn’t Superman.
The guy on the screen is a blue-collar drifter who has been directionless his entire life. He watched his father die hammering home the lesson that he should always keep his powers secret. As such, he has never been in a fight – we see this repeatedly – and he is really unaware of the extent of his powers. This version of Clark Kent didn’t put on the red and blue suit to try to inspire people, he did it because alien invaders called out the last Kryptonian, and he needed to prove that he was that guy. His adopted father told Clark that he should always try to do the right thing – when he isn’t telling him that maybe its better to let people die than reveal his secret – and his biological father told him that he could be an inspiration to powerless humanity… but neither guy taught Clark the things that might have helped in this particular fight. Like, you know, how to fight.
So in Man of Steel, we have a guy in a suit with a vague notion that he should try to do the right thing, hopelessly outnumbered and outmatched on skills. So it is all well and good to say that Superman should have taken the fight out of Smallville and into the corn fields, but… how, exactly? Imagine you have never even been in a schoolyard brawl, and three ninjas walk in your front door: how would you go about getting them into the garage so they don’t bust up the furniture? Particularly if, while you’re standing there, they’re swinging swords at the family pets?
I have similar feelings about Clark killing Zod. It is all well and good to say that Clark should have found another solution, but… what, exactly? Clark found out about Krypton about three days ago. All he knows about The Phantom Zone is secondhand – Jor-El told Lois about it, not him – and besides: that ship sailed when they blew up both ships that had the Phantom Zone technology to save Earth. Clark knows firsthand that no jail cell can hold him, and he knows fuckall about police or military tactics, so he must know that prison isn’t an option for Zod. And again: this is Clark’s first fight. Let’s go back to those ninjas in your living room, and this time, let’s say that you have a gun: you can’t outfight them, so are you gonna trick the ninjas into your panic room? Or are you gonna shoot? Oh, and while you’re thinking about it? They just saw your wife in the corner…
And yes, Superman would probably find a non-lethal way to handle General Zod, and Superman would swear that he would never kill… but again: this isn’t Superman – hell, he only gets called “Superman” once in the movie, and the guy who says it gets sneered at by his buddy. This is Clark Kent: a guy who put on a suit because someone was holding the world hostage. A guy with no training and no experience and no one to effectively help him, trying to stop an irresistible force. But at heart, he’s still just Clark Kent, so he does the best he can with what he knows and what he has to work with…
But I’m willing to bet that, after the events of Man of Steel, he’s Superman now. Considering Clark’s reaction to having killed Zod, I’ll bet we will hear the magic words, “I will never kill,” in the sequel. And I’d wager that we get a scene in the sequel where Superman refuses to engage someone in a populated area specifically because now he knows what can happen.
So yeah: this is a darker, much more violent Superman story than we’ve gotten in a movie before, but in my opinion, that doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed as a Superman story. Sure, it’s easy to say that the Christopher Reeve version of Superman would never make these decisions… but it’s also easy to forget that that version of Superman spent more than half his live being trained in a virtual reality tank on how to be Superman before facing his greatest enemy: a crooked real estate developer.
I submit that Man of Steel is an equally valid origin story for Superman: a guy pressured into action by circumstances out of his control, against an opponent for whom he is woefully unprepared, trying to do the right thing without necessarily knowing how, or what the consequences will be if he doesn’t get it exactly right.
The phrase “origin story” implies that it is the story of how Clark Kent becomes Superman. I’ll maintain that Man of Steel works on that level, provided you can accept that Clark Kent isn’t really “Superman” until the very end. And frankly, seeing him learn through huge and terrible mistakes and impossible decisions is far more satisfying to me than seeing him learn in a vat and through the realization that he can’t really bone Margot Kidder. Man of Steel might be flawed, but it is more human than I expected… and to me, it will make the sequel, where I anticipate we will see the “real” Superman, feel that much more earned.