Why "Man of Steel" Isn't a Superman Movie

Michael Moccio ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Managing Editor
There are two types of stories: an idea-driven story, which focuses on a concept and a series of events, and a character-driven story, which focuses on characterization and having the characters catalyze events in a fashion that develops the plot. In this case, Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, is an idea-driven story, that is—in fact—not about Superman at all.
Man of Steel is, on one level, about an old generation’s traditions versus a new ideology, and, on another level, about what happens when an alien comes to Earth. We barely see any of the characters beyond their function: Superman is a good guy, General Zod is the bad the guy, Lois Lane is the love interest, and so on, and so forth.

Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers.
The film opens with Kal-El’s birth, which we understand is significant because he is the first natural birth after a significant period in Krypton‘s history where children were born artificially from the Codex. Immediately, emphasis and importance are put on Krypton’s traditions and how Kal-El defies those traditions. The opening scenes of a story ultimately determine what the story is fundamentally about. By opening with Kal-El’s birth, we’re shown his birth is significant. Why is his birth significant? Because it goes against Kryptonian norms, the importance shifts from Kal-El as a person to his significance to the plot. The audience is subtly shown that the story is, in fact, about Krypton as a whole and its traditions and culture.
Here, we begin to see the old versus the new: Krypton’s traditions of predetermined destinies and Jor-El’s views on choice and free will—he says, “What if they aspired to be something different, something more than what was chosen for them?” This theme perpetuates the story and culminates into a standoff between General Zod and Superman—the old versus the new.
Although General Zod attempts a coup to overthrow the Council, we see that he still embodies the old in his final monologue, about how he was bred for combat and “[e]verything [he] did was for the greater good of Krypton.” We also know that General Zod wanted the codex to continue Krypton’s tradition of predetermined birth. This, more than anything, asserts the symbolism behind General Zod.
We’re first introduced to Zod as an instigator of conflict as he arrests the Council for unknown reasons. Because we don’t know his motivation, Zod is defined by his actions alone—he wanted to kill the Council and usurp the government. This defines him as a plot device to insert conflict into the story, instead of a character with a purpose that facilitates the story.
Because Snyder withheld the information of Zod’s motives—doing things for the greater good of Krypton—the audience would see Zod’s coup as an act of revolution, when it is in fact, based on the fact that both Zod and the Council represent the old traditions of Krypton, Zod attempting to stop the Council from killing Krypton and thus ending the old traditions. Without the information behind Zod’s motives, he’s simply the bad guy. All we know is that he wanted to kill the Council, because of their bad judgment, which makes him emulate the idea of a “bad guy.”
Clark, therefore, becomes the cliché “good guy” character, because his motives and character are never truly explained. We blindly accept that he feels compelled to help people, but we never fully understand why.
In the comics, Jonathan Kent acted as Clark’s moral guide in his childhood. He taught Clark the fundamentals of the “American way,” described as truth, justice, and freedom; he also taught Clark humility—that he wasn’t above other people because of his powers—and that he should help people with his abilities. These teachings fueled Clark’s drive to helping people, and Clark often referred back to his parents’ teachings whenever asked why he does what he does.
In the movie, however, Clark loses that why factor, because Jonathan Kent doesn’t teach Clark these things. We understand that Clark was raised in the “American way,” as Clark said, “I was raised in Kansas. How much more American could it get?” But Jonathan’s actions don’t seem to corroborate this upbringing.
Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers
Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers
First, Jonathan teaches Clark that he needs to hide his abilities, even if there’s someone’s life at stake. He tells Clark “maybe” he should have let those kids on the bus die to preserve his secret, that if the public knew about his abilities, then everything would change. Moreover, in a scene between Clark and some bullies, Jonathan remarks “I wanted you to hit them, too, but would that have made you feel better?” He says that with a pause between the two phrases, which leads the viewer to believe the “but” comes in because of Clark’s abilities—it’s more important that Clark doesn’t hit them because he has powers, not because it’s the fundamentally wrong thing to do. By pausing, it’s as if the moral lesson is tacked on, instead of being at the forefront.
He’s essentially saying, “It’s not right of you to retaliate, because you have powers—oh, and it’s the wrong thing to do, too.” That teaches Clark his powers are a thing to hide and secrecy is the most important thing—we see that when Jonathan stops Clark from saving his life, which is an admittedly powerful gesture. This symbolizes Clark’s decision that humanity isn’t ready for him–at this point, he doesn’t believe in humanity. Later on in the movie, Clark said he didn’t save Jonathan because he trusted his judgment—why, then, in the future, would Clark blatantly keep saving people and risk exposure? If he trusted Jonathan’s judgment, what compelled him to keep doing good deeds? Why is it that Clark has gone against everything that Jonathan taught him in the time between leaving the farm and finding the Kryptonian ship in the ice? Jor-El’s quote emphasizes a faith in humanity’s ability to better itself, but Clark had been raised on believing humanity incapable and simply not ready. Nothing in the movie clearly shows the catalyst to Clark’s change of heart, which reduces this moment to a plot device to only push the movie forward.
Throughout the entire movie, we see Clark pursuing his origins. And when he finally sees this through, he returns home as if his journey is over. He doesn’t immediately go out and start helping people like Jor-El said—Clark goes home. It isn’t until Zod comes that he’s forced into action. Based on Clark’s entire journey so far, it would make more sense for him to go confront Zod directly, because of Jor-El’s warning. Instead, he puts the people first. Why? If asked why, you’d probably say “Because he’s Superman!” That’s true, but in this movie, the journey from Clark to Superman lacks the necessary character development to believe that Clark is Superman. This leads us to believe that Clark is Superman simply because he’s Superman, fulfilling the archetypal role of the “good guy.”
These answers are never fully explained, and we’re forced to take Clark’s actions at face value. Without exploring what makes Clark tick—why he is the way he is—his character is reduced to the simple, “Well, he’s the good guy.” Snyder chooses to focus instead on the events that play out, rather than the character of Superman. We see this most towards the end of the movie, when scenes jump from battle to battle, from action to action. The movie stops being about the characters and starts being about the action.
Lois Lane is never fully explored as a character, either, which reduces her to simply being the love interest. The film culminates into a kiss between Superman and Lois when nothing really signals a relationship naturally developing between the two, which makes the scene feel artificial and forced. No scenes between Clark and Lois indicated a romantic relationship forming between them.
Clark saves Lois, which sparks Lois’ curiosity in his story; that is both believable and expected, as she’s a member of the press who seeks the truth—because she’s essentially a secondary character, we don’t need any more than that. Lois continues her search, tracing Clark’s exploits of helping people and finding his true identity (proving Jonathan’s fears correct). When Clark confronts her, he tells her the story of his father’s death, which prompts Lois to drop the story, with Clark focusing on the reasoning behind why he didn’t save his father: to avoid exposure. When Lois drops the story, it can be inferred that she drops it because she recognizes the gravity of the situation—which is perpetuated by Perry’s notion that someone like Clark would scare people—and not as a personal favor.
Suddenly, however, we see Lois avoid the FBI and refuse to give up Clark’s identity. Why? What drives her to keep his secret, especially in the threat of an attack on humanity? Moreover, what prompts Lois into indulging Superman’s hand holding? Why does she feel compelled to allow a romantic subtext to be developed between them with no prior indication of romantic feelings from Lois? From there, her unexplained romantic feelings evolve enough to kiss Superman after he saves her. Again, we don’t know definitively why she does what she does, which makes her function as a character more important than her character itself.
In the comics, Lois’ romantic feelings for Superman don’t develop until quite a while after they meet. She’s always been interested in him on a professional level long before developing romantic feelings for him. Lois is further reduced to her typecast role in her other actions: while on Zod’s ship, Lois does nothing but plead “Help him! Help him!” when Superman is in pain. The real Lois wouldn’t have pleaded and would have stood toe-to-toe with Zod, looked him in the face, and say, “You help him now.”
Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers
Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers
Snyder also throws away the basic principles of Superman as a character in the climactic scene where Superman intentionally kills Zod. Superman would never resort to killing—that is one of the most fundamental aspects of his character, because his father taught him that way, and going against Superman’s basic principles tells the audience that Snyder has no regard for the character and puts all attention on the event that’s happening. Superman kills Zod to end the conflict, which reduces Superman to nothing more than a plot device used to end the story. We see this even more when Zod’s death is only explored as a scream by Superman and a hug from Lois. We don’t see how this act, which fundamentally goes against Superman as a character—not to mention we never understand why killing Zod cause such anguish in Superman, as he never once in the movie stood against killing—affects him on a deep and personal level, which makes the idea of the good guy killing the bad guy more important than Superman killing Zod.
This act also undermines the entire aspiration towards crafting a tale around Superman becoming someone the human race should look towards. Jor-El says to Superman, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” The climax did not show a character that symbolizes an ideal, the climax did not show a character that could inspire the human race to accomplish wonders. Superman’s actions show, for Man of Steel, that the “wonders” and “ideal” these people will strive towards is one where you kill as last resort. However, Superman’s true wonder and ideal is always finding a way to resolve conflict and avoid death, to show the human race we’re above killing each other and can work together towards peace. Man of Steel ultimately falls short in following through with its promised theme.
It should be noted that Superman did, however, kill a General Zod in the comics. Back in 1988, a Superman story had the villain known as the Time Trapper create a universe in an attempt to control the future Legion of Superheroes after Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was this universe’s Zod that Superman murdered, after Zod had committed mass genocide. Will Superman kill Lex Luthor when Lex’s schemes cause innocent people to do die as well? Superman never killed the Zod from his own reality, and the act of murdering Zod and his cohorts deeply affected Superman. This is one of the reasons behind his vow to never kill. In the movie, however, we never see Superman’s anguish beyond a yell–and nothing in the movie gives understanding as to why Superman is upset at his actions, as his back story does not support a no-killing Superman–moreover, we don’t see Superman’s progression of character after his battle with Zod. For an unknown reason, he becomes able to deal with his “grief” and returns to normal without the audience ever being clued in.
It’s for these reasons that Man of Steel is not about Superman, but about the effects of an event. The movie, fundamentally, is about the events that happen when an alien comes to Earth—this could have happened with any alien species. It wasn’t about Superman coming to Earth. Superman could be replaced with any other alien, Krypton could be replaced with any other culture and planet, and Zod could be replaced with any other villain and it would tell the same story. This is most defined after the climactic battle between Superman and Zod–if the movie had been about Superman, then we would have seen clearly how he dealt with his grief. But, because the movie was about the battle, the story was over after Superman won. Snyder has warped these characters to fit roles so the situations in the movie make sense.
This is the fundamental attribute of an idea-driven story: characters are molded to fit situations. If this had been a character-driven story, the situations would have been molded to fit the characters, but because Snyder has put the emphasis on the plot, instead of the characters, this movie is reduced to a simple blockbuster, easily-forgettable summer movie. This film lacks what makes Superman, Superman because—again—Superman could have been replaced with any other alien and have it tell the same story. We’re left to watch action upon action, brought about by hollow and underdeveloped characters. It feels like Snyder relied on our familiarity with the characters and assumed we would blindly accept their character, when the circumstances of their upbringing and movie-personality contradict the characters we’re so familiar with.
Snyder has forgotten another fundamental of good storytelling: in the words of Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, “Plot facilitates the story by forcing the protagonist to confront and deal with the issue that keeps him from achieving his goal… So at the end of the day, what the protagonist is forced to learn as he navigates the plot is what the story is about.” Snyder focuses the film on the plot—event after event after event, and we see that especially in scene where Perry and the Daily Planet employees are about to be killed: the story shifts to three secondary characters, who have no relevance to Superman at the time, and make the film about the battle, not about the character of Superman. We’re not even sure what Superman’s ultimate goal is after he finds out where he comes from, which hinders our understanding of his character.
Another example of this is the scene between Clark and his mother at school. The scene should be first and foremost about how his powers are affecting him, how hearing and seeing everything is affecting his character. Although that’s explored, the scene primarily functions to introduce the audience to Superman’s powers (not his character) and how his unknown powers make everyone think Clark is weird. The focus in this scene is primarily on the idea of Clark’s powers.
If the movie had been about Superman, then he would have taken more of a role in the events that played out. The movie would open with him, putting the emphasis and importance on Superman as a character; the movie would have explored Clark’s journey into becoming Superman and emphasized the change in his character and how his drive to help people came about; the movie would have enlightened the audience to Zod’s motives in the beginning of the movie, rather than just the end; the movie would have shown Superman’s reaction to killing someone in more character depth.
This outcome, however, seems strange, since Christopher Nolan acted as a producer. As the director for the Batman franchise, we saw a totally different type of movie. In the Batman franchise, we saw Bruce evolve from a child to a man with purpose: driven by his grief over his parents’ deaths, he resolves to better his city and ensure that no other child has to go what he went through. We saw character-driven stories in all three Batman movies, but Man of Steel lacks this fundamental aspect of story. With Nolan’s past record of exceptional storytelling, how did he allow Man of Steel to fall so far short?
By going this route, DC and Warner Brothers have opted to produce a movie that forgoes a character-driven story. Instead, we’re left with a trite blockbuster that holds beautiful special effects, an inspiring music score, a story that panders to the movie-goer who refrains from looking deep into the story, and neglects to define Superman as character, leaving him only as a hollow symbol and stock character, which ultimately leaves the movie about the events that transpire rather than the characters involved in them.
As my Fiction professor says, “Genre fiction is about the car chase, literary fiction is about the person driving the car.” In this case, the movie was about the fight between humanity (including Superman) and Zod’s forces, not about the participants of the fight.
Instead of remembering “Man of Steel” as a movie, I’ve decided to only remember this. This trailer advertised a different movie than “Man of Steel.” Whatever’s in theaters now is only a shadow of what it could be.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6DJcgm3wNY&w=560&h=315]
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  1. Jonathan Kent gives up his life to teach his son a lesson.
    DUDE , what movie did yo see ???
    This was a fantastic Film !

  2. What’s wrong with reviewers and Superman? The only thing I can think about it is that the writer does not know Superman AT ALL. He got caught in the past, 35 years ago to be accurate, with the 70’s campy version depicted in Superman: The Movie. This movie was perfect for THAT time, but that is NOT Superman anymore. The character evolved and adapted to the 21st Century and that is what you see in Man of Steel.
    Geez, the only thing that is missing in the reviews I read is somebody trying to compare this with the 1938 version of Superman to say “Now I’ve seen it all!”

  3. Or, “How I prove that I have limited knowledge of the source material”…
    Or, “Superman is NOT open to different interpretations”
    Those might work a little better.

  4. Didn’t Superman also kill Zod in Superman 2? I mean he fell into that black hole in the fortress of solitude only to never be seen again.

  5. I tend to agree with you. I think the storyline of this movie was weak in comparison to other Superman movies and yes, even other superhero movies in general.
    But then I will ask you this. Film students learn in any film History class that the film genre, and any other media for that matter, is a reflection of the time. It is why movies like “Birth of a Nation” are so incredibly racist and why movies like “High Noon” discuss the Hollywood witch hunt. Movies don’t influence society, society influences movies.
    With that being said, I think that this Superman is different because the times have changed. This movie, and many of the themes within it, preach solidarity as well as individuality. Superman’s Krypton father is pushing individuality and Superman’s Earth Father is pushing more solidarity. It’s what is going on in this world right now. Facebook is an example of that. While we all believe that we are individuals on facebook, sharing our own lives with the world, we are part of a unit and we stick together as groups of people still. It’s an interesting paradox. However, I ramble.
    So what I really want to say it, that Man of Steel reflects everything, and more, of what this world is going through. The last part? Superman kills somebody (which is not what superman usually does) but it says that: it is okay to kill to protect the people you love. Hint hint. War on Terror.
    I wouldn’t call this an adaption. I wouldn’t even call this an interpretation. Man of Steel is a Superman movie. And it isn’t the material that has changed, it is the time.
    Superman was published back in 1938. A lot, and I mean a lot, has changed since then. Even the comics themselves, they change with the times as well. So I would say, though I disagree with your point, I think it is a strong one and I really do agree with the fact that the plot was lacking. It would have been A LOT better if they had decided to cut the effects budget and paid the writers a little bit more. 😀
    Man of Steel was certainly a fun movie to watch, critically speaking though I would give it no more than a 6/10.
    Though it doesn’t stand a chance of wining any Academy Awards I think Entertainment for Entertainment’s sake is very important and Man of Steel has found a place within Superman movies, Superhero Movies, and movies in general.

  6. I was very disappointed..I agree with the article but also add that there were so many paradoxical fight scenes. On Krypton the alien race didn’t seem very super human even though all the special effects of Krypton tried to draw your attention away from that, and then when they are on earth they seem invincible up until what.. superman breaks Zods neck.. how about some development of the nature of their powers and limitations so that these stark contrasts are not jutting out of every fight scene. Both characters can be shoved through 20 ft of concrete without a scratch but when the storyline calls for it..a dead Zod. Wolverine at least had an admantium skeleton and healing abilities, superman is a bit wishy washy, his costume doesn’t even tear, does he wash it with tide color safe to keep it bright, also when he and lois have relations will he have to take it easy like Edward with Bella? Ok that one was just for fun:)

    1. LOL do you know anything about Superman? Did you even watch the move? Its the Earths Sun that makes the people from Krypton stronger

  7. Very well written article. You did a great job of capturing the essence of what the Superman story has always been about, and why the Snyder film is so lacking in everything substantial but special effects.

  8. I enjoyed the movie (not a big DC comic guy)…but I do agree with the article’s finale. The preview was cut in such a way that I felt that this would be a GREAT movie, deep, hearfelt and serious, much more story and character driven. Simply a case where the “sneak preview” had all the best parts of the movie.

  9. Well the movie was OK but the storyline isnt that great… Ok i understood that MoS was produced n directored by the ppl of Dark Knight,300 and Watchmen(which was Great) all these movies had a solid storyline n plots which made things more logical..but MoS was lacking in so many ways. I love the character Superman lots but this movie just doesnt live up to expectation. Well hope the story will develop further in sequels n we could have a more justify Superman movie(s).

  10. Here are my responses to some of your points.
    1. Even after Jonathan Kent’s death, Clark sometimes ends up saving people because he simply can’t help it, as Lois points out. However, he shows that he’s still trying to adhere to Jonathan’s lesson by keeping his identity secret, moving from town to town, etc. He’s not going against “everything that Jonathan taught him”. If Clark didn’t trust in Jonathan’s belief, he would have made himself known to the world long ago, and it would unnecessarily have been become worse off.
    2. After meeting Jor-El, he doesn’t immediately go out and start helping people because he still trusted Pa Kent. When Zod shows up, the cat’s out of the bag however, and that’s why Clark can make himself known. However there’s another obstacle — his hesitation about whether or not he can trust humanity.
    3. Superman would absolutely resort to killing if he had to (thus why he did in the comics). In this film, he learned that sometimes “there’s more at stake” than the lives of individual people, despite how his childhood instincts tell him otherwise. We know how it affects him — it pains him, because he’s not someone who’s quick to kill, even if’s the right thing to do. That’s called sacrifice. One who makes such sacrifices is indeed someone to aspire to. Policeman and soldiers are required to kill when the situation calls for it; they are our world’s heroes.
    4. The film is about Superman. It’s just not about the Superman you’re used to because he’s thrown into different circumstances in this story. But again, he has killed before in the comics (and in Superman 2).
    5. Superman’s goal is to save as many lives as possible (aka the entire world).
    6. The scene with Clark at school is definitely emphasizing how he feels. He feels scared, alienated/angry, and confused. I thought the kid actor did a pretty good job at conveying all those as well.
    Just my thoughts.

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