I read two things recently that made think about Superman on film.
The first was David Goyer talking about Man of Steel.
The second was Matt Zoller Seitz writing about Superman: The Movie.
I love Superman: The Movie. I don’t really care for Man of Steel.
These two articles point out what I think are major flaws in these two Superman films. In Man of Steel, this flaw feels fatal — the movie doesn’t recover from it. In Superman: The Movie, the flaw bugs the hell out of me, but, the movie still works just fine.
Let’s discuss the differences and similarities.
What’s Wrong with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel?
This film has many flaws, from the washed-out color palette to its flashback-hopping presentation, from its holographic, superheroic Jor-El to the wanton death and destruction in its final act. I could ignore most of those, I think, but there are two main, connected flaws that stand out. First, teenaged Clark Kent allows his adopted father to die, and second, Superman (adult Clark) kills the villain Zod to stop Zod’s rampage.
David S. Goyer on the former: People have to remember that that Clark was only meant to be about 17 at the time [of Jonathan’s death]. He was untested, untried, didn’t understand the extent of his powers… I don’t believe that that Clark, that 17-year-old Clark, could’ve saved Jonathan without revealing himself.
And Goyer on the latter: He’d just flown for the first time days before that… He’s not aware of his powers at all, or the extent [of them], when fighting somebody who’s said “I won’t stop.”
When I first saw Man of Steel, I was excited. I thought this was gonna finally be it: A Superman movie that understood the character and tone, but amped up the action and pace (and the visual effects) to match his powers. I probably watched this trailer 100 times:
Obviously, the movie didn’t live up to the trailer. (But damn if that trailer itself isn’t one of the best Superman movies ever made!)
Here’s why Man of Steel doesn’t work. For all that Goyer says above, none of that really comes across in the film itself. I could believe that an untried and untested Clark wouldn’t be able to save his father, sure. But do we believe, at this point in the film, that this Clark can’t save Jonathan? An even younger Clark already saved an entire schoolbus full of kids from drowning in a river! Why couldn’t this older Clark save his dad? Do we believe that he wouldn’t even try!?
My reading of the scene has always been as follows: Clark could save his father, but his father tells him not to, and Clark doesn’t want to disappoint (or disobey?) his father. After all, the lesson Jonathan Kent seems most intent on teaching Clark in this film is that Clark can’t let anyone know he has superpowers, for his own protection. Remember this scene:
Jonathan (after Clark saves the kids on the bus): Son, we talked about this. You have to keep this side of yourself a secret.
Clark: What was I supposed to do? Let them die?
And remember that right before Jonathan is swept away by the tornado, he shakes his head at Clark, and holds up his hand in the “stop” motion. As far as I can see, the only reason for him to do that is to tell Clark, “don’t try it, someone will see, let me die” and — because he’s a good son — Clark obeys.
I just don’t think I can agree with that approach.
Traditionally, in the Superman mythos, the reason (story-wise) that Jonathan Kent dies is that Clark needs to learn the lesson that despite his powers, he can’t save everyone, even those close to him. But I don’t get the sense that he learns that lesson here, simply because he could have saved Jonathan, but chose not to.
And “doing nothing” simply isn’t, and cannot be, part of who Superman is.
Even if, in this film, we accept that Jonathan Kent died because Clark couldn’t save him without revealing his powers, and that young Clark was still figuring out his powers, and who he is, and what he can do… the film should be showing us at this point that Clark made a mistake in this situation. If the lesson Jonathan’s trying to teach is “protecting your identity is more important than saving lives, even those that matter the most to you,” what Clark should be taking away following Jonathan’s death is that this lesson is wrong, that choosing not to act is wrong. What Clark should be learning here instead is that “even in an impossible situation, where I couldn’t save someone’s life without revealing myself, I should have tried to find a way, because life is precious and must be protected at all costs.” (It also doesn’t hurt to learn that parents aren’t infallible!)
Which brings us, eventually, to Superman killing Zod. This is problematic for the very obvious reason that Superman doesn’t kill but even if you disagree with that (“Superman killed in the comics!” Very true) it still doesn’t totally work in the context of the film. Goyer says Superman is still learning his powers, and sure, that may be true, but again, he acts quite capably with them in the film up to this point. He saves that oil rig, and faces down loads of soldiers and seems in control of his powers. You can say he’s not comfortable with his powers, but the film doesn’t show it. In fact it kind of does the opposite: The first time Superman tries to fly, he crashes down to Earth. Literally seconds later he’s breaking the sound barrier, doing loops around the planet and flying into the upper atmosphere. He’s not struggling with his powers, he’s mastering them.
So I don’t buy that explanation. Beyond that, though, it shows us that Superman hasn’t grown from his teenage years to now, and that’s the real flaw. Faced with a seeming no-win situation as a teenager, Clark did not act and someone died. Faced with a no-win situation as an adult, Clark does act, but his actions still end up with someone dead.
That’s not a character arc. If the only difference is “well, at least eventually he learns that it’s OK that the bad guy dies, instead of a good guy,” then this isn’t even a Superman story, is it?
Let me take you back the first time I saw this film. It was at a preview screening here in Toronto, at the Scotiabank Theatre. As noted, I was really excited for this film so it was the rare time when I actually reached out to a couple of friends in the film industry to see if they could get me into a screening. (I hate doing that.) My friend Angie came through and I took my Dad to the preview. I was pretty bummed as we walked out, and when my Dad said, “well, what did you think,” I said, “I think it was OK, but I don’t like that Superman killed Zod in the end.” My Dad said, “Well, it didn’t look like he had a choice, did it? I don’t think there was any other way to save those people.” And I said, “But that’s just it, Dad. This is Superman. For Superman, there’s always another way. That’s what makes him Superman. Normal people like you and me, maybe we don’t see another way. Maybe even someone like Batman can’t find another way. Superman always finds a way.”
That’s the fundamental difference between Superman and, well, everyone else. It’s not that he’s an alien from planet Krypton. It’s that he’ll always do the right thing, even where others wouldn’t or couldn’t, and not because he has amazing powers, but simply because that is the person that he is. (If you want a perfect example of this, I point you to Tom King’s Superman story, “Up In The Sky,” with Andy Kubert. In it, Superman travels across the universe facing a constant stream of challenges and threats all to save one little girl, who he doesn’t even know is still alive until he reaches her. Why? Because he’s Superman.
One last thought. Think about what Jor-El says to Kal-El earlier in this film, just as he’s donning the cape for the first time: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards.” Is this that ideal? To give up when faced with the hardest possible choices?
Ultimately what we’re left with is a film in which Superman doesn’t evolve as a character, who makes the same mistakes as an adult that he did as a teen (mistakes that seemingly fly in the face of who Superman traditionally is as a character), and a film that doesn’t show us any real justification why Superman makes those mistakes (despite the insistence of the writer that he’s making those mistakes because he’s young and inexperienced).
We’re left with a Superman film that just can’t recover from this flaw.
The Big Flaw in Superman: The Movie
As I wrote about previously, I love Superman: The Movie. Love it. Love the cast. Love its timelessness. Love the dialogue. Love the effects. Love the cold white of Krytpon, the blues and greens of Kansas, and the steel greys of Metropolis.
But, I do not like the end, where Superman fails to save Lois Lane, and in his anguish, decides to turn back time, change history and save her.
Matt Zoller Seitz: I can’t have a conversation with anyone who thinks Superman turning back time is “too much,” or “unrealistic”; not only is this a story about a bulletproof extraterrestrial immigrant who can fly, the act itself is a swooningly grand romantic gesture, like something out of a fable: he’s Orpheus descending into the underworld to find Eurydice and bring her back to the world of the living, but he heads in the other direction, out into space.
My issue with Superman turning back time isn’t that it’s “too much” or “unrealistic,” and I do, in fact, appreciate the romantic nature of it (we’ll get to this). The problem I have with it is that it’s a betrayal of one of the character’s morals, which is that part of being good — being “Superman” — is facing the consequences of your own actions. He doesn’t do that here, and that bothers me; he screws up, or fails, or makes a wrong choice, but instead of dealing with it, he… restarts the level like it was a video game.
And, not only does he not face the consequences of his initial choice, he never faces any consequences from his subsequent action! Jor-El tells him, “you are forbidden to interfere with human history,” and the film even makes a point of replaying this moment right before Superman turns back the earth, but Superman does it anyway… and it all just turns out fine in the end!
If every time Superman fails or something doesn’t work out the way he wants, and he can just hit the magic undo button, then… what is the point? Of anything? Does he learn anything from this? In fact, it seems to invalidate the most important lesson that Superman learns from the death of his father in this film, that even Superman can’t save everyone. Can’t he? He just turn back the clock! And if he can do that, and doesn’t, then doesn’t that actually make him something less than Superman?
It’s a flaw that should break the entire picture as it completely undermines who and what Superman is. The film has no right to work after this, especially on subsequent viewings. But it does, and the reason why is that the film makes you believe that Superman loves Lois Lane, and the pain that Superman feels at seeing her dead body makes you believe that this super-powerful alien would actually do something he’s specifically been told not to do in order to save her.
The “flying sequence” with Margot Kidder’s voiceover has definitely been derided in the past; it is a bit hokey. And it goes on forever. But that scene is essential for making us believe in the strength of the connection between Lois and Superman. This film is a romance, and the end is the superheroic equivalent of the ultimate romantic gesture; Superman is very much wish fulfillment in tights, and here is, fulfilling the wish of everyone who’s ever lost a loved one.
That’s the difference between Superman: The Movie and Man of Steel, at least in respect to the two flaws I’m writing about here. I disagree with Man of Steel‘s approach to Superman’s choices, but I would be willing to overlook them if the film made me believe they were necessary. In Superman: The Movie, I also disagree with Superman’s choices, but the film shows me why he makes that choice. So that even though I disagree, I still understand it.
And that’s why Superman: The Movie is a classic, and Man of Steel is completely forgettable.