Man of Steel: Why the Story of Superman Still Matters

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I thought Superman’s time had long past. And I didn’t expect to enjoy the new movie as much as I did. How can there be anything interesting left to do with a character who has been around for 75 years and is all powerful? I thought as I headed into a 10:30 AM screening this past weekend (yes, I go to the movies alone in the morning sometimes). I found myself surprised by how much the story resonated with me.

Here’s what I loved about it: It’s a story about having the courage to be who you are. I’m not well versed in Superman lore beyond film and TV, so I realize this theme probably isn’t unique to this film, but it really hit home for me in this moment. Sometimes stories come along at just the right time and resonate with what you’re thinking about at the time.

The crux of the film for me was the father/son relationship between Jonathan and Clark Kent. Clark lives his childhood and early adult life not being able to reveal who he really is because his father taught him that the human race wasn’t ready to learn that that an alien with superpowers lived among them. His father, feared what others might think and how they would react. In fact, he staked his whole life on it.

There is a powerful scene where young Clark saves his schoolmates from a bus crash. (It was in the trailer, so I don’t think of this as a spoiler). Everyone is about to drown, and Clark is given a choice: let them die, or save them and risk showing them who you are. He wisely chooses the latter. But later, his father is upset with him. Clark asks him, “What was I supposed to do, let them die?” And his dad replies, “Maybe.” His dad is so set in his worldview — that people aren’t ready to understand the truth — that he would be willing to let innocent souls perish. It’s pretty cruel, but makes for a great conflict that challenges Clark to decide what he believes in and what kind of person he wants to become.

Even in spite of this, I found myself sympathetic to Jonathan Kent and didn’t find him completely unlikable. His words and actions were his way of protecting his son. But he was misguided. Who made him the one who decides if the world is ready or not to handle the existence of an alien?

The father represents any parent, or institution, or religion, or government that wants to prevent you (or me) from coming into our own and expressing who we truly are. This covers the gamut, from corporations not wanting employees to think outside the box, to a society that still isn’t entirely okay with gay marriage. They (the father figure) thinks they know best. They say they have your best interests at heart and they will protect you. But they are just fearful of what will happen when people are living their best lives. I think this part of the film got under my skin because I absolutely hate when someone assumes they know what is best for me.

There have been some articles written about the Christ symbolism in the film (which I found too heavy-handed). But I did find the movie spiritual in other ways. It encourages us to live an authentic life, one in which we follow our instincts as we struggle to figure out who we want to be and what we want to do.

What did you think of the film? What parts resonated with you?

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35 thoughts on “Man of Steel: Why the Story of Superman Still Matters

  1. I feel like I connected the most with this version of Superman because it felt more real to me. Seeing this version of Clark(pre Daily Planet) was a wise move because Daily Planet Clark doesn’t feel that real to me, especially because he is nothing more than a ruse. I got the courage to stand up for what I believe in and I know that I don’t have to be stuck in part-time job purgatory and that I can move on, go back to college and pursue my dream of being an animator.

    1. Can I just say congrats. I’ve met a lot of people who didn’t go to college, who really could hack it if they tried, and none of them did. I myself am at a similar point to you, and I’ve got to say what you’re doing shows a lot of personal strength. Godspeed.

  2. I adored this movie for much the same reasons, so I’m really pleased to see that it could sucker punch (resonate with) someone else at. I’ve only recently fallen in love with Su

    1. –dammit iphone…

      …fallen in love with Supes for the express journey he takes toward humanity. Especially in this film we were given a great lens in the shape of a hero with which to examine the human condition, and more than anything I found that extremely compelling.

  3. Suddenly reading your post, I’ve realized some parallels between a certain scene in this film, with a similar scene in A:TLA. Both characters are presented with a very difficult choice. Similar situations that are handled in completely opposite ways from each other. But given the context of both stories leading up to that moment. I don’t find either one to be “wrong” necessarily. I apologize for the vagueness, I’m trying to be as unspoiler-y as I can. Your character was given a way out, after analyzing the film over and over, I’m not sure that character was. He had to make a hard decision that will, I’m sure, haunt him and will help to define what kind of character he will be in the future.

    Over all I loved the film. Like you, I’m not as well versed in the comic version of “Superman.” Most of my concepts come from T.V. series. But I thought that this was perhaps one of the most thoughtful incarnations to date and showed old characters in a new light, which on it’s own is great. I hardly ever say this, but I hope, for the sake of this film, that it get’s a sequel.

    1. Thanks for reading! You know, the similarity didn’t hit me until sometime after the movie. I know there’s a lot of controversy around that moment, but I think it has to do more with people’s belief of who they think Superman should be (based on past incarnations of the story) than the film itself. The moment made sense in the context of the film to me.

      1. that moment worked for me because aswell as it being something hell have to live with and will develop his boy scout ways, it was the fact he showed he chose to protect humanity over krypton

    2. I like just about every incarnation of this character, in comic books, TV shows, and film. Everyone has a different idea of who this character is or how he should be. Each film is different, some better than others for various reasons; what I really liked about this time around is that I don’t think they really changed the character of Superman, but just took a different and deeper look into him. I, too, have found a theme that rings similar to certain characters in A:TLA. As Jor-El expressed the ideal that his son “could aspire to something greater than society had intended” and that he could be a “force for good, and free to forge his own destiny” I was reminded of a wise and loving uncle who time and again tried to instill in his hot-headed nephew that he has within himself the power to change things for the better and determine his own future.

  4. I’ve seen the film twice. The first time, I found several glaring problems with it, and found the narrative lacking in certain scenes. This, I attribute to the questionable choice of Zack Snyder’s direction. After my second viewing, because I already knew what was going to happen, I enjoyed it a lot more. The film relies so much on a wow-factor of scale and visual wonder, that the powerful underlying message gets overshadowed. Unlike you, I like to think that I’m pretty well versed in Superman’s graphic history, and as a result, was a bit let down in terms of what source material made it from page to screen. It’s definitely a good spring board for a sequel, where I hope they bring in some other villains and conflicts for Superman other than Lex Luthor. Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

    1. Thanks for commenting. A friend has a theory that people who don’t have any particular affinity for superman enjoy the film more than people who know a lot about his other stories. I found the theory interesting.

      1. Im quite familiar with the superman stories, and that made the actions in the film more enjoyable, the movie took heavily from the stories, kindgom come. birth right and earth one. deffinatley the greatest superhero movie ive seen and im a marvel fan hah

  5. Great post Mike. I also enjoyed the film a lot more than I thought I would. The conflict with Superman reveling himself was very powerful, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention Zod at all. I found him to be a pretty sympathetic villain, someone who just wanted to rebuild his lost people no matter the cost.

    That’s something I’ve really enjoyed about Korra so far; the sympathetic villain. Where as Ozai played the Big Bad completely straight, Amon actually had a reason for what he was doing and was fighting for a good cause; very much a well-intentioned extremist. That’s not to say that pure evil villains like Ozai or the Emperor from Star Wars are bad. I think there is something very powerful about the definitive battles between absolute good and absolute evil. However, that grey morality you can create with a sympathetic villain can lead to some terrific drama.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I loved Zod and thought he was a perfectly suited villain for superman — I’m thinking of writing about villains in a future post because of him.

      1. I’ll look forward to reading that. I’ve found I really love villains who don’t care about their own lives so much as destroying the protagonist. This only works when the character lives by some kind of moral code and the villain pushes that code to its limits, trying to break the protagonist. Examples include the Joker in The Dark Knight, Legato Bluesummers from Trigun, Makshima from Psycho Pass, and Johan Liebert from Monster.

      2. And I’ll be looking forward to that post! 😀 Avatar has some of the best villains around!

    2. wow thanks for bringing that up (see, that quick, I forgot) about Zod, that is. That he is a sympathetic villain, and this added another dimension to the story, and this, too, made the film better than ones in the past; not just plantin a single-minded-senselessly-psychopathic-character-who-just-needs-to-be-gotten-rid-of into the story. Understanding his purpose creates another area of conflict.

  6. Hmm…overall, it was a pretty decent film, but some of it was hard to take seriously.

    Such as the scene you mentioned between Clark & Jonathan. I’m not sure about you, but in the theater I was in, the audience laughed. We were all expecting an “I don’t know,” or “That’s not for me to say.” Those lines would have been more cliche, but it would have been harder to see them as offensive or absurd.

    Once you get past that, I found it to be a surprisingly interesting story, especially given that I never cared much for Superman beyond cool fight scenes in Justice League. I was at first disappointed that they were setting up Zodd, whom I had never heard of before, as the villain, instead of someone like Lex Luthor or Brainiac. However, Zodd repeatedly proved to be a conflicted character, someone whom at once you wanted to sympathize with and yet see him brought down & punished. In particular, the line, “My purpose is to protect Krypton. It is the reason for which I was born. My every action, no matter how cruel or violent, was to protect my people. And now I have no people. My soul…that is what you have taken from me,” really hit me, as evidenced by the fact that I can remember it so well.

    Of course, as you mentioned, it was interesting to see Kent grow into the role of Superman. He wasn’t always the Messiah, as a kid, he had anger problems, identity issues, and struggles with his conscience, though he did want to do the right thing–a normal kid, basically. He’s still dealing with these things as an adult, & it isn’t until about halfway through the movie that he starts to really realize what being Superman is going to require of him.

    Though I have to confess, the movie seemed a bit heavy-handed in that regard, as well. I felt a strong influence from The Dark Knight in that general part of the script, only with a more optimistic outlook.

    In other regards, the movie seems to simply be too Action Movie. It’s a good plot, but at times, it becomes a painfully transparent excuse to blow things up, or give Superman someone to save from a death by falling when she shouldn’t really need it.

    Semi-related, female characters: I mention this because the subject comes up a lot in context with Avatar, but I liked Lois and Zodd’s lieutenant. The former is pretty self-sufficient despite lacking superpowers and being a journalist, while the latter is, well, Zodd’s lieutenant. It could have been improved upon by giving Lois a best friend or something, though–the only other prominent female character in the movie is a soldier who doesn’t really do much except deliver a joke at the end.

    Kind of a lot of words to basically say, “Some of it’s really good, some of it’s not so good,” but oh well. Of course, you know that there will be more Man of Steel films. The first one set up so many twists that almost beg to be toyed with in another movie. This is why it’s kind of disappointing that the movie didn’t lay much groundwork for a sequel, other than “LEXCORP” being printed on a truck or 2.

  7. I think the problem for me was that I felt it was also about Clark’s realisation that he is the only person that CAN save the world. Whether his human father knew it or not – he is the only person that can “save them all”, as his alien father reaffirmed during the film. For me, this is where the movie fell flat. Why? Because he didn’t. Besides saving Lois and a few other people, he allowed a whole city to perish. He wasn’t tested by Zod to the point where he had to utilise all of his powers, intelligence and will power to save people. He did fight Zod and do what he had to at the end, which I liked, but there was something lacking. The fight scenes was just spectacle for me. It didn’t show me how Clarke became Superman and realised the truth – that his destiny is to be that symbol of hope for mankind. Just my opinion 🙂

  8. My favorite part (and my dad’s favorite part, actually) is very similar to what you’re saying here, I think. It’s when a certain character explains his philosophy that people should be allowed to choose their own paths and pursue their own dreams, and a government or society or even another individual should never be allowed to dictate what and who someone becomes.

    That really hit me, right at a time when I’m making a huge choice to completely forgo the career I’ve been building up to since elementary school (on encouragement of my family and family friends as it is considered a “stable” career field, and they just wanted me to have a secure future) and pursue the career fields that I actually want to do.

    There were some things about the movie that I didn’t care for, but the overall theme has definitely made it so I place this movie among one of my favorites.

  9. Superman may not be one of my interests, but I’ve read about this movie. Yes, he had hard choices to make (like Aang facing Ozai), and he made them. While his intent behind them was always good , I still found it odd that he decided to actually take someone’s life. Aang chose not to stoop to Ozai’s level, and took his powers instead. I like that much better. Of course, Superman faces the consequences of his actions, and he’ll become a better hero because of it, but I hope that it doesn’t send some people the wrong message.

    I can’t wait to see what Korra might do in a situation similar to that (should one arise in Books 2-4). She may be the exact opposite of Aang right now, but she’ll change. She may be a living goddess, but she’s still learning and growing as a human being. 😀

    1. I actually have trouble imagining Korra stopping to consider the non-lethal option at this point, because I can’t see where it would come from. She’s Avatar first and foremost, and the previous Avatars made it clear to Aang that most of them think using lethal force against a serious-enough threat is part of the Avatar’s job. And, to make things even more lopsided, she’s Water Tribe second, like Sokka, who was not only the only member of Team Avatar who actually killed someone (Combustion Man), but did it without any conflict whatsoever.

      Maybe something will happen in future seasons to make her more reflective about this sort of thing, but as it stands, I can’t really see her risking too much to take a non-lethal option. =/

      1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed that! Yeah, I’m hoping that conflict will be addressed in the next season, which is supposed to be about “what kind of Avatar Korra will be.”

        One factor I think you’re missing, though, is that Korra clearly looks up to Aang in specific. She was raised on stories of him, she’s always being compared to him, he serves as her direct mentor, & his son is her airbending master & a significant role model in her life. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if Aang’s opinions have a profound effect on Korra’s development down the road.

  10. Hi Mike! this comment is not related to your post, but i have no doubt you will like this. i’m from a brazilian avatar fansite called “Mundo Avatar”, which was created 7 years ago. we always bring information in portuguese, and last month we received a massive number of e-mails asking for the translation of your blog. We couldnt say no, and here it is: http://mundoavatar.com.br/mdm
    We want you to verify and, if possible, take a picture with our logo (http://i57.servimg.com/u/f57/12/87/47/24/mundoa10.jpg) or link 🙂 We would LOVE it and be really apreciated.

    Thanks so much
    Eduardo Guerra
    eduardo@mundoavatar.com.br

  11. Hi Mike

    Superman is a myth that poets and philosophers have been connected to for so long… There have been great approaches to the superman concept.

    As an example, the Will to Power is a key for understanding Nietzsche’s überman (translated to superman), seen as supreme drive behind all life.

    Here in my country (Brazil), another poet and musician, Gilberto Gil, created a song called “Superman, the song”, that reminds us as the patriarchate-matriarchy contrast. I found a link to this song, with a translation from Portuguese to English, it’s not the best translation, but my help: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHpcIJxj6Wc.

    There are other examples and lines of thought, I liked so much the one you have suggested, based on your feeling and perception of the movie: the spiritual man. This is so true, in my own perception. Quoting Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

    That could lead us to another story, I guess a more incredible one: Superhuman.

    Have a great day,

    Monica.

  12. I’m keeping up with all your blogs here and you started me thinking that there is only so many stories to tell (in terms of principles). The only things that change are the things around us, the settings and circumstances. I am not saying originality doesn’t exist but as my kung fu teacher once put to me in fighting terms ‘There is only so many ways someone can throw a punch at you.’ Which i translated as we are limited by the fact we are all human. I cant help but feel the same about stories as i look into them (and try to write my own) we can only experience a set range of emotions. And parallels can be drawn from and to anything. As the character in The Amazing Spiderman says at the end. ‘There is only one story. Who am I?’
    Anyway i think my point is lost so i’ll say this. You are the creator of an original story in terms of settings with ATLAB and Korra so thank you for doing such a great thing as true originality.

    In relation to your wanting to decide for yourself I’d just like to chip in that the world is full of idiots (blame it on lack of education or anything you like) and the only problem with telling the truth is that a lot of the time people (idiots) don’t want to hear it and when they do they panic driving other idiots into more stupidity. Just look at the group mentality in riots. I am a big fan of the truth and i agree that people should decide for themselves. But its all to easy to lead and mislead some people. Just imagine if Superman was real. Some would worship him others would want to kill him.

    The latest Superman film was really good and very iconic and a nice commentary on how the world might react to such exceptional circumstances. My only problem was the Hollywood trend of nameless faceless things that attack. I’m thinking mainly of the black ‘stuff’ that appears so often in the film. The gaps that appear randomly in the story are also a worry but hopefully a directors cut will sort it out.

    Much love and keep doing what your doing.

    1. Yeah, I’ve been thinking recently that the large-scale of a narrative is kind of irrelevant, & it’s more about how you get from A to B. Avatar is an excellent example. At the core, both series are a story that we’ve heard a million times–a resistance group must face off against an evil overlord & his army–in fact, Korra rather unapologetically uses a couple of cliches as plot twists, but they still manage to be somehow “fresh.”

      1. I’ve managed to sum up my point that I failed to make first time around. What i was trying to say was you open up a whole new dimension of emotion/story when an alien/spirit is involved. You could make new emotions/attachments or whatever you like. Very rarely done in all I’ve read. Even harder is how to relate it to your audience as they are no doubt human.

      2. I can see that, too. It’s what I really liked about the original Avatar spirits, and thus why I can’t grasp why fans seem to want some generic “vengeful ghost” plot line. It was also done quite well with the Angels in Evangelion. It actually seems to be used a lot in Animeland, with varying degrees of success. Oh, & of course, some versions of the Cthulhu Mythos. At least, those stories did it as well as can be expected, considering Most Writers Are Human.

  13. I’ve got to say, it was rather brilliant to give his character depth, by having him try and grapple with to contradicting concepts of good. He wants to protect humanity in a real, visceral way by saving lives, but also wants to protect them from the implications of his existence. The certain knowledge that we are in fact, not alone in the universe could cause a lot of turmoil.

    It’s a shame that the movie decides to resolve this for him, by announcing his existence for him. I get that it acts as the call to action in his hero’s journey, but it doesn’t change the fact that it robs him of the chance to resolve it for himself. Oh well.

    I’m not responding to that, as much as something else. I don’t really see much point in replying to online posts anymore, however, one thing you wrote really stuck with me:

    “This covers the gamut, from corporations not wanting employees to think outside the box, to a society that still isn’t entirely okay with gay marriage.”

    I’ll be honest, I think it’s rather curt to ask you this on this blog particularly, but sometimes the need to be polite simply gives way to my need to call one out. Like when my boss goes on anti-union rants.

    Why don’t you do something about it? Not to be too blunt about it, but I think we’d both agree that LGBT persons are still treated like dirt, and worse in much of the world, and that stories and society shape each other in turn. To stop skirting around the point, why don’t you include LGBT characters in your recent works?

    You obviously aren’t afraid to approach sexuality and romance in your characters, or have (female) characters that live outside strict gender norms. You understand the value of representing strong women and people of colour, as well as people who are respectful of them. So why not?

    I understand your trepidation, but It’s not like cartoons have never gotten crap past the censors. Particularly in a few select scenes in avatar.

    Plus, honestly, it could save someone’s life. I’m not exaggerating. For young, kids who grow up on small towns without a single out person, seeing this aspect of reality can be enlightening. Give them the courage to be themselves, or to stand up for people who just are trying being themselves.

    Anyway, just some thoughts I’ve wanted to get across sometime. It be easier if you guys swung up to Canada. We love you here, but getting to San Diego is difficult.

    1. It’d be interesting to hear Mike’s take on this, & whether or not he would be interested–I obviously can’t speak for him, but from what I can tell of the situation, it just wouldn’t be possible. He’s already mentioned that they had to fight an uphill battle to get Nick to approve a female lead, & this is supposedly a society that believes in gender equality.

      As Nick holds the rights to Avatar, they would probably never be allowed to say that a character is gay, even if that’s the way they planned it. Which some would argue is no better than not having a gay character at all–see the arguments around Dumbledore.

      I’m just saying, I can understand your passion, but I don’t think it’s really fair to hold Mike & Bryan responsible for media censorship.

  14. There was an emphasis on Fathers and sons (or Fathers and SON) in this film, so I thought it was rather appropriate that it opened on Father’s day weekend.

  15. I particularly enjoyed this movie because it was the first time I understood what Superman actually stood for, along with the “S” on his suit.

    I can understand some people’s frustration with Superman as a complete goodie-two-shoes but he’s supposed to embody the best in people. Could he use a few flaws? Sure.

    However, the main message in this film was supposed to be that everyone has the potential for greatness and to be “a force for good”. No matter how cheesy that sounds, it’s something we need to hear, and Superman is a very necessary role-model, because he demonstrates the courage it takes to not only be yourself but to be the best person you can be. Anyone who has gone through grade school knows that it’s not easy to be the “nice” kid.

    I agree with Mike that parents, leaders, and institutions all have a tendency to steer us away from certain risks that might actually help us grow and fulfill our potential. This is clear in the Kryptonians’ foolish attempt to forego natural births and all the uncertainty that comes with them. They decide to engineer humans for certain roles instead of letting them forge their own. (Did this remind anyone else of GATTACA?) This is also pretty relevant to Korra who has to find her own niche as Avatar in an increasingly modern world that already has its guardians and institutionalized law enforcement, as we see in Republic City.

    Even though I liked Jonathan Kent, he ,too, gets too caught up in sheltering and protecting Clark to allow him make his own mistakes and choose to take the risk of putting faith in humans. I, personally, liked the whole “leap of faith” message. It’s something we all decide to take, even when it comes to our privacy. We’d rather have the freedom and risk that comes along with privacy than give it up entirely just to be safe but that’s a debate for a different thread, I suppose :3

    All in all, I thought Henry Cavill was perfect for the role. I might be biased because I’ve loved Superman since I was five and watched Christopher Reeve fill the role. I would’ve liked to see him actually say more, though. I suppose Superman’s not the most talkative hero but I didn’t realize until my little brother pointed it out that Superman is more of a thinker and brooder.

    The only other thing I can really find to criticize the movie is the Transformers-style, over-the-top, action at some points. Visual effects are great but I think using action sparingly would’ve made this movie much more compelling. That being said, I loved Zod’s second in command lady. She was a badass.

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