Man of Steel is more meaningful movie than many people are ready or willing to admit. It takes the concept of the most iconic superhero of them all in a serious, thoughtful way that has never been explored before. While you can find many explorations of the film’s themes and meanings online, in this article I wanted to share my own personal views of it. It is my hope that one day this movie will be seen as the true gem that it is.
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel with its bold and new interpretation of the Superman mythos was always going to be divisive. For so long the popular perception of the character has been informed by the 1978 Richard Donner film, and reinforced by almost every other incarnation on the big and small screen that followed, that any attempt of exploring the character in new ways runs the risk of alienate those who grew up and are only familiar with one specific version for the character.
Man of Steel is not your average Superman movie, and it certainly isn’t your average comic book movie. As an origin story it still walks on some very familiar threads: the discovering of ones powers, a romantic interest, donning a suit while assuming an alternate identity and a confrontation with the villain of the piece. But even more than all that, Man of Steel is an existential story and a journey of self discovery, and in that front is very similar to Bruce Wayne’s journey in the first half of Batman Begins.
Just like they did with Batman, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer decided that the best way of reinventing such an iconic character and giving him real weight was putting him in a grounded world very much like ours. Chosen by Nolan himself, visionary director Zack Snyder took this concept and Goyer’s script and ran with it, infusing the movie with his own sensibilities, storytelling and visual techniques to give Superman more depth than had been shown in previous incarnations.
Born in a dying world as Kal-El but raised by a humble couple from Kansas as Clark Kent, here’s someone who’s spent nearly all of his life carrying the weight of two worlds on his shoulders, struggling with his own abilities and his place in his adoptive planet. From an early age Clark is seen as a freak by others and he’s rightfully afraid and insecure about what he is capable and how to deal with it. It’s not hard to imagine the effect of seeing the things he sees at such a young age would have on anyone. Thankfully he often finds guidance on his loving parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), both huge influences on the man he one day will become.
Despite not fitting in well with others, young Clark still wants to help others and he uses his special abilities to do so, sometimes without regard of being seeing or taking into account the consequences that his well-intended actions might have on others.
Jonathan Kent suggests restrain. He understands that this world isn’t ready to learn there’s life beyond the stars and when Clark asks whether he should have led the kids in the bus die rather than expose himself, Pa Kent reluctantly replies “Maybe.” The implications of his presence in our planet are too big and should not be taken lightly, and this is a belief Jonathan carries all the way to his death when he stops Clark from saving him. Even then he teaches his son sacrifice and that every life is precious by going back to save the family dog.
After Jonathan’s death, Clark is a lost soul who wanders around the world in search of his origins, while also helping people and trying to stay off the radar. He understands his father’s beliefs but he’s also compelled to use his powers for the good of others, and this is something that his biological father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) had always wanted for him.
The opening of the film establishes Krypton as a decadent world full of arrogant people, where their citizens are engineered to fulfill a predetermined role in their society, leaving no room for them to make their own choices. Is Jor-El’s hope that his son, the first natural birth in centuries, will be able to forge his own path and bring enlightenment to another world.
Jonathan recognized that once Clark decided what kind of man he wanted to be, he was going to change the world. Jor-El strongly believed that he could help mankind achieve greatness, even if they stumbled at first. After discovering his origin it’s finally up to Clark to figure out who he wants to become. Putting on an ancient suit from a time Krypton explorers visited other worlds, Clark takes his first steps towards making that decision and in one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, he finally takes flight.
Up until that point in his life, Clark’s only real link to humanity had been his foster parents. That changes once he meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and their relationship is beautifully developed from their first encounter all the way up to their first kiss among the ruins of Metropolis. Lois is portrayed as a determined but kind reporter who isn’t afraid to go right into the middle of a city-leveling conflict and who is also smart enough to figure out who her mystery savior is. She helps Clark take those first steps towards connecting with the rest of humanity.
Another defining figure in Clark’s journey is General Zod (Michael Shannon). Far from a one-dimensional villain Zod is complex character whose motivation isn’t greed or lust for power but the salvation of its people. As any other Kryptonian his role as a military leader charged with protecting his world has been preordained and in his own view that means choosing what blood lines are worth keeping, and if Krypton’s survival means mass genocide of another race, so be it. As Zod confesses to Clark, he understands that his actions could be seen as violent or cruel, but in the end his purpose in life is the greater good of his people.
After finding some guidance and still unsure about whether he can trust humanity, Clark decides to ‘take a leap of faith’ and surrender to mankind rather than Zod. Up to this point in the movie flashbacks had been used to help us understand Clark’s motivations and the circumstances that led him to the path he’s about to choose. When he chooses to stand with mankind the flashbacks stops, as he finally takes the first step to become a beacon of hope.
Besides providing some big scale action, the ensuing clash between Clark and Zod’s forces in Smallville helps move the plot forward. When his mother is in danger Clark reacts with anger like any human would do. He is also inexperienced in fight and is overpowered by genetically engineered soldiers who show no regard for the destruction around them. But for all their training, they don’t know how to focus their powers in our world, something Clark learned from his mother when he was little boy. By the end of the scene the military accept him as an ally instead of an enemy.
Things escalate in the Metropolis battle afterwards, where Zod’s forces have chosen to begin the terraforming process. The destruction of Metropolis is all the more disturbing because it feels real. While another comic book movie would rather focus on the spectacle of it and the heroes and villains engaging in super powered fights, several moments are shown from the perspective of the people on the ground. We are meant to feel the stakes are real.
Now working together with the military, Clark is able to stop the destruction of Metropolis but not before several blocks of the city are left in ruins. Zod pleads Clark not to destroy the ship that has the means to bring Krypton’s society back. Understanding that Zod has no intention to share this world and that Krypton had its chance, Clark makes the difficult decision of destroying it anyway.
With what’s left of Krypton gone Zod has lost his purpose in life, his “soul” as he calls it, and he is determined to make our world suffer for it. Even more destruction is caused by his fight with Clark, a fight that Clark constantly tries to take away from the city but finds himself unable to do. After a while it becomes clear that Zod is not going to stop no matter what and Clark has to choose between trying convince his rival or let an innocent family perish in front of him. As Zod’s lifeless body falls to the ground, Clark lets out his pain with a scream and holds on to Lois who arrives to comfort him.
After spending his entire life trying to figure out who he is and his place in this world, Clark has finally decided who he wants to be but his journey to become Superman is far from complete. He’s going to live up to Jor-El’s dream and apply Jonathan’s teachings and he’s going to do it on his own terms.
Man of Steel is simply a beautiful film to look at. As usual in Zack Snyder’s films every frame feels like a graphic novel come to life. The way he frames the shoots, the angles, the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle imagery adds to the story beyond the dialogue. Sometimes this works to its detriment when people can’t look past the beauty of it and try to focus on what he is trying to actually say, thus you get unfair complaints of “style over substance.” But for those who can let themselves immerse in the worlds he creates the experience.
It is impossible to discuss Man of Steel without talking about the magnificent score by Hans Zimmer. While John Williams’s theme for the first Donner film is ingrained in the public consciousness Zimmer was able to create a whole new musical identity for the character and wrote a new theme for Superman that is incredibly beautiful and captures a sense of hope and wonder. It is hinted throughout the movie before finally being triumphantly played in the first flight scene, before returning for the epilogue for the film. Equally beautiful are the more quiet cues such as the love theme for Clark and Lois. Then there’s the action cues dominated by percussion instruments to represent the violence and intensity and, towards the end of the climactic fight between Clark and Zod add another element of tragedy to it.
Before Man of Steel, I never really felt any attachment to Superman because he was always portrayed as a one-dimensional idea rather than a real character. Here he is portrayed as a conflicted character who is constantly learning, someone who makes mistakes along the way but who is inherently a good person simply trying to do the right thing even as he struggles. That to me is a lot more inspiring and uplifting than just watching a guy with cool powers and who is never really challenged to make difficult decisions. While it’s hard for most people to leave their comfort zone about what their image of the character is and how he should be always portrayed to me Man of Steel is the movie that made me fall in love with Superman.