I thought long and hard about it, whether or not I agreed with the ending of Man of Steel. I initially gave the filmmakers credit for trying to modernize Superman, to bring him into the more morally clouded 21st century. But the more and more I thought about it, the less and less I liked what I had seen. I would not have had such a problem with the ending if it had not been for the fact that the whole movie was leading up to something completely different.
Most specifically, there is the Jesus parallels, which have always pervaded the Superman mythos. In this film, though, the viewer was beaten over the head with the idea. Oh, Superman just happens to be 33 years old, the same age as Jesus in the Bible? Oh, the big crossroads moment of Superman choosing his path just happens to come in a church, apropos of nothing previously in the film? Oh, Clark debates his choices in a close up, with a stained glass window of Jesus taking up the entire scene behind him? Oh, the ongoing theme is that he is meant to be the Savior, whether it is of the Kryptonians or the humans? I get it; he’s Jesus. Two and a half hours of that being drilled into the viewer’s head, only to land on: the only way Jesus can save humanity is to kill the bad guys.
See the problem?
Secondly, that moment of final decision for Superman would only have worked if the preceding 45 minutes hadn’t been the destruction of half of a city. Not just superhumans punching each other through buildings, but dozens of skyscrapers in Metropolis being leveled, the center of the city being reduced to a pile of ash. No doubt tens of thousands of people died, maybe even millions, and yet Superman only realizes the level of Zod’s destruction when it comes down to three or four in a train station. It’s also visualized in an awkwardly placed scene where Perry White saves a stock character,
Shirt Ensign “Intern Jenny,” which, like Superman's choice at the end, is meant to suggest that in saving
one human, the untold destruction around them is not as bad as it seems (reminiscent of the scene in Independence Day where Los Angeles is destroyed,
but they save the dog, so it’s all going to be alright).
Granted, this all could be explained away as Superman coming to realize all of the destruction he has helped cause, that only after seeing a human face put up to Zod’s carnage did he know the villain had to be stopped. But there were ample moments for that epiphany leading up to that final confrontation. It just happened to occur when he had Zod in a headlock.
I was perplexed too that in this climactic battle, Superman flies to the far side of the world, to a near deserted shore of the Indian Ocean, leaving Metropolis at the mercy of General Zod. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a character who is so intent on saving humanity. It’s almost as if Superman is suggesting that if we want salvation, we really need to do it ourselves. That, or he is more concerned with saving the planet (and himself) from Kryptonian terraforming.
Perhaps the most perplexing thing is the inherent problems with the way in which Superman killed Zod - by snapping his neck. It creates the same paradox of Doomsday killing Superman: is this a case of the powers of two superhumans cancelling each other out? Of one simply punching harder than the other? If so, then how is it that neither one was injured in the half an hour of punching each other in the face. If it was a simple matter of Superman focusing his power more, or of him being more in control of his powers, or simply being stronger than Zod, then why didn't he do something sooner, before he found himself in that unfortunate position (re: sometime before half the city was destroyed)? Not only does it just not make sense, it further negates the 150 minutes of morality speeches leading up to it.
Again, if the idea of Superman killing was the ultimate goal of the film, then there were ample ways to build up to it. But this, being yet another superhero origin film, makes it a Year One Superman, one whose first actions will set the tone for him going forward. It will define his character. This isn’t a Superman who has had years of battles in which good conquers evil; this isn’t a Superman who has found countless other ways not to kill villains, this is not a Superman who has realized in the past that there are other ways out. This really is Kal-El’s first test as Superman. And he fails.
The fact that General Zod is posited as genetically bred to be a morally void warrior existing only for the survival of his people is meant to suggest that Superman had no other choice. In reality though, it is really just a half-hearted cop-out to try and make murder as easy for Superman to rationalize as possible.
What it really did was make the end more difficult to swallow. The fact that Zack Snyder went out of his way to show the two characters as diametric opposites only highlights the failure of Superman to trumpet his ideals. It actually makes the ending worse, because it presents the idea that Zod’s choice to be a genocidal maniac is not his to make, whereas Superman’s parents created him, bred him specifically to be an agent of free will (although this isn’t entirely true either – both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent are constantly telling Kal/Clark how to feel). The fact that Superman, in essence, had to resort to Zod’s means to save the planet only highlights his failure on all fronts.
Finally, the only regret Superman seems to have is that immediate scream of pain, which, as demonstrated in Revenge of the Sith, rarely, if ever, is an effective means of expressing regret. Cavill pulls it off better than Darth Vader, but it is just as empty an emotional outpouring. Anakin becomes Vader, and Superman seems content with murder. Someone dying by his hand does not linger with Superman, and for being the moral champion of two planets, it should. He doesn’t brood in the Fortress of Solitude; he doesn’t consider abandoning his costume. The filmmakers don’t even leave it ambiguous as to whether or not he will open the next film in seclusion, pondering the implications of his actions. No, Superman is quickly back to his campy self, smashing government drones and joking about the military trying to figure out where he hangs his cape.
The only place where the movie really succeeded was in creating a dialogue about what makes Superman tick. I never was a huge Superman fan growing up, but this movie showed me why Superman is such a great character. But the sad fact is that the film accomplished this by taking away most of what makes the character so great in the first place.
I originally felt the attempt to modernize Supes was a noble effort. But it really wasn’t. Superman is one of the only characters, if not the only one, who can still retain the cornball ideals of 1950’s comic book superheroes and remain successful. If Superman had found a way to return Zod to the Phantom Zone (as was originally written in the script), the crowd still would have cheered. If he had told Zod that it was time for the killing to stop, then rocketed them both outside the solar system to get Zod away from the yellow sun, or buried him on the dark side of the moon, it would have worked better than Superman just killing and walking away.
Superman has always been that refuge from the shitty, modern world. His world is a place of solace and escape that shows the good guys winning without having to sacrifice their morals. I don’t want to see him killing and crying about how he was wrong, I want to see him win and be good, to act as a standard for humanity. That’s what
Jesus Superman is
supposed to do.
There were parts of the movie that I really liked (probably nothing more than Christopher Meloni pulling a knife on a super-powered Kryptonian). I was surprised by how much I liked the opening act on Krypton. Henry Cavill was excellent, and Amy Adams’ portrayal of Lois Lane was great. I smiled at the Easter eggs for LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises. But good performances and a few nods to fandom, against a backdrop that betrays the main character, don’t make for a good film.
In the end, what I think Warner Brothers was trying to do, as film companies so often attempt, was to play it safe. The Batman franchise has brought in billions of dollars, and has been the only successful DC property in the last two decades or so. Rather than posit Superman at the other end of the spectrum from Batman, Warner Brothers tried to bring him more toward the center, to make him a darker, more morally confused character. The fact that they brought in Christopher Nolan and David Goyer to make the film only highlights this. But in the end, this is why the movie fails. It is akin to making a Batman movie where he spends two hours mourning his parents, goes out and shoots someone, then rationalizes it as "there was no other choice." That's just not who the character is. It just doesn’t work, and neither does Man of Steel.