Many have undertaken to compile a narrative and review about the events that have been viewed among us, just as other eyewitnesses of Man of Steel have done. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything, even seen it twice, to write to you an orderly review of my own, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have heard.
OK, sarcasm time aside… by now you’ve probably heard about many of the messianic references in Man of Steel. If you haven’t, I’ll discuss a few later in this review. I will say, that Man of Steel is, in my opinion, the best Superman movie to date.
But first, I want to get my biggest gripe about the film out of the way. You may not have noticed it but it really bugged me. Apparently, very little of the movie was filmed with a steady camera. It was constantly bouncing or jiggling just a little bit. Even slow intimate scenes, close ups of excellent actors, were distracting. It seems to be a trend for some movies, thinking that it’s a cool, “realistic” way of making film. It felt more like I was watching Cloverfield, a monster movie from a few years ago that was supposed to be filmed on a hand held camera. That’s what numerous parts of Man of Steel felt like.
But to me, it really took away from what could have been a better movie. My natural eyes don’t see the world with that kind of bouncing, my motor control systems hold me steady and my brain stabilizes the view better than any camera. To have this done intentionally goes against how I naturally see the world and it distracted me greatly. I could never get a good look at any scene. Maybe it didn’t bother you, but it really did me.
OK, enough about that. Now let me get to my thoughts about the story and movie itself.
I’ve read some who think the movie was shallow on plot, I cannot see that. What may cause people to think so is the over familiarity of the basic story. People have seen Superman origin stories before. While the basic skeleton of the story is still there, I really enjoyed the nuances of how this version is different. WARNING: Spoilers will follow.
Krypton is far more violent and philosophically interesting. No one is just stoically standing around in flowing robes. They show emotion and passion. This is a world that is experiencing a military coup. As for their culture, issues can be seen that are worth looking at.
Strict Genetic/Population Control—according to Jor-El, Kal’s birth is the first natural birth in centuries. All other children are genetically mapped out ahead of time and grown in a “genesis chamber”, an external womb that is harvested at full gestation (reminding me of scenes from The Matrix). It’s like the curse of Genesis 3:16 has been circumvented. When General Zod was told of this “miraculous” natural birth uncontrolled by the genetic map called the “codex” he describes it as “heresy”. So there seems to be some cultural imperative that makes such “breeding” not just undesirable but morally wrong. Zod speaks of preserving certain bloodlines and eliminating others—so there is an artificial way to prevent any future children for a family or “house” to be born. They get to choose who gets to have children and prevent undesireables—a form of Eugenics is at work here that we dealt with in our history and motivated people like Margaret Sanger—founder of Planned Parenthood—who viewed minorities as inferior which is why most PP facilities are in minority neighborhoods.
Genetic Determinism v. Freedom—the genetic controls determine the skills, training and life of the child. Babies are genetically modified to be the ultimate soldiers, farmers, statesmen and scientists. Essentially they are locked in to that role for their entire lives—there is no deviation allowed. So if you’re a programed scientist who would rather be a farmer, tough luck. It functions kind of like aptitude testing—some nations and even education “experts” recommend aptitude testing at various ages to determine the kind of education and “life skills” these kids receive. After all, why set the kid up to fail with mathematics if they test out as a laborer when they are 8 years old. Jor-El saw the limitations of this philosophy and rejected it saying, “What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?”
This was Jor-El’s dream for his son. He didn’t want Kal-El locked in as he was. He wanted something more for his son, as all father’s do. Jor-El believed this locking in system was one of the greatest hindrances to the culture moving forward. Krypton had become comfortable with where they were and what they had achieved—there was little drive for greater things or things outside of the achieved box.
But the society had locked itself into a Caste System. There was a ruling class, warrior class, science class mentioned and presumably more. By all indication, people were not able to change classes. All based on their genetics. They believed a form of Genetic Determinism—as if the sum total of a person’s ability is determined by their genetics—that they have no real freedom and no real choice. This kind of discussion took place in the movie “Gattica” at a much slower pace but still interesting. Deviation from the genetics was not allowed, but the unexpected events and outcomes and geniuses have a way of pushing the box. That “it” factor that was talked about in the first rebooted Star Trek movie that attracted Captain Pike to Kirk in the first place—that willingness to leap before looking and unpredictability was something “Star Fleet has lost”.
But Krypton had settled for a false sense of Managed Evolution. I’m no fan of evolutionary theory—I understand it well and it has far too many holes and theological consequences. But since that’s the world the movie was working with, I’ll jump in a bit. The Kryptonians have been controlling genetic profiles and outcomes—essentially controlled breeding to engineer the perfect race—hmm sounds like Hitler a bit to me. But not even that is really evolution. Humans have selectively bred dogs for centuries and produced enormous changes within that species (microevolution) but few scientists would call it true evolution at work. This is what the Kryptonians have been doing, selective & controlled breeding.
Laying aside the merits & theology of evolutionary theory for the moment, one of the female Kryptonians said something interesting later on. Faora: [While Beating up Kal-El] “You have a sense of morality and we do not. And that gives us an Evolutionary Advantage. And if there's one thing that History teaches us it's that Evolution always wins.” This is interesting because many leading evolutionists argue that morality can exist within an evolutionary system. But the only real law in evolution is “survival of the fittest”—if killing helps ensure your survival, you are morally justified in doing so. Kal-El’s unwillingness to kill made him hesitant or unwilling to unleash his full power to take Faora out. His morality was an “evolutionary disadvantage”. To me this says that morality has to have something other than a pure evolutionary cause—because without it, we can justify anything.
But I thought it strange that Faora appealed to evolution—which is supposed to be an unguided process—when everything about her society and existence was planned, orchestrated and controlled. There was no “evolution” at work in her.
She represented humanity trying to function as gods, whereas Kal-El was born the way God really intended. She thought that control made her better, but in reality it did not. In other words, perfection is not going to be achieved through human effort, we’re not really as good as we think we are. We think we can improve the process, like with genetic modification, but we don’t always see the long term effects of such tampering. Our generation is going through this right now in the debate on genetically modified crops. Are there some immediate and visible “improvements”, to be sure. Are there unseen consequences that may not show up immediately? Probably.
Another interesting trait of the Kryptonians was how they had once been explorers, expanding their territory, building bases and establishing colonies. But by this point, they had Retreated into Isolationism—almost as if leaving Krypton at all was to be avoided and a form of punishment. Losing that vision of exploration is what had locked them into the controlled environment. Given our country’s retreating from the space program—like no replacement for shuttles, no willingness to go back to the moon etc. this could be commentary on those types of attitudes.
As for the rest of the film…
In the 1978 original film—about all they showed of Clark struggling to fit in was his inability to play football when he could score every time he touched the ball. He endured being picked on as the equipment manager. But in Man of Steel, Clark’s secret is far more than just not getting to play football. His powers come on suddenly like an illness that is very traumatic for a young kid. Other kids make fun of him and he has to struggle with whether he should defend himself. He shows the essence of Meekness—which is not the absence of power, but rather power that is restrained. Clark could have beaten or killed the kid, but again, his morality held him back.
Kal-El/Clark struggles with how to use the abilities he has. In saving people, they see what he can do. So there is a battle between protecting his identity but using the abilities he has to save people. His father Jonathan Kent warns Clark that people will likely fear and reject him—saving people is going to hurt, cost you friends, relationships, maybe even your life.
Case in point…
Jonathan Kent’s death. This was so much more compelling in this version. Previously, Jonathan Kent was walking back to the barn and collapses with a massive heart attack. Clark can do nothing to save him and that grief sends him on his journey. In Man of Steel, Clark and his father are arguing in a car about whether Clark should listen to his father’s wisdom. It’s a common type of teenage conversation made stronger by the adoption angle of “you’re not even my real father.” With the pain of that statement still hanging in the air a life threatening situation comes up. Jonathan tells Clark not to reveal his ability but to get his mother to safety. Jonathan risks his life for the family dog and goes back and when it’s clear that the event is going to claim him, Clark begins to move but is stopped by his father’s hand telling him no. Clark could have saved his father, but was obedient when it really mattered. That decision haunted Clark.
This movie also didn’t try to introduce the dual personality of Clark Kent and Superman side by side in Metropolis. What little they did show, thankfully, Clark doesn’t look like he’ll be getting the geek treatment in future movies. As great as Christopher Reeve’s version of the characters were for their day, the bumbling, geeky reporter routine has become more and more frustrating and irritating. Who would hire that guy? Who would ever do an interview with that guy? Why would he ever be partnered with an ace reporter like Lois Lane? Thankfully, as they are not treating Clark Kent with geek gloves, they are also not treating Lois with Blind & Stupid gloves. Glasses don’t fool her. Because she knows Superman, she recognizes him immediately and presumably she’ll be helping Clark cover for the sudden disappearances.
I liked the way that Zod and the other Kryptonians had a hard time adapting to earth’s environment and the powers that came with it. The transition to power was painful and difficult for them as it was for the young Kal-El. The senses were overwhelming and it took intense mental control to push through it. At one point, when Superman first used his eye beams on other Kryptonians like Faora, she was shocked and for the first time, started to retreat. Zod was eventually able to master the sensory overload and control his powers much like Superman. This led to better…
Fighting—technology finally lets you see the scale and destruction of a fight between such powerful beings. Until Man of Steel, only the cartoon version of Superman could convey what would really happen to a city with this going on. The attacks were fast and hard unlike any other of the Superman movies. Sometimes the previously mentioned camera stuff interfered with a good view of the fight, but I can forgive those moments more than the slow ones. In the fighting between Superman and Zod, you again see the influence of genetic superiority and the caste system when Zod, who was born a warrior and trained his whole life, mocked Kal-El’s ability to match him because Kal received no real military training only what he could learn “on a farm”.
Zod also was locked in on his mission to protect Krypton. This came from his breeding. He was not truly free but lived only for that purpose. So he felt justified in doing anything to complete that mission, even if it meant killing billions of others, all because they were not part of Krypton. It’s the same type of philosophy that the Nazis used to justify what they were doing in protecting the “superior Aryan race”. Zod had no reason to live once the possibility of a reborn Krypton was removed. He then lived only for vengeance.
Here there are many and many have been written. The Washington Post, Drew Zahn, & Time Magazine. Screenwriter David Goyer commented in an article: "We didn’t come up with these allusions of Superman being Christ-like, that’s something that’s been embedded in the character from the beginning. But also the legend of Moses, clearly the whole way his parents give him up."
Kal-El has a “miraculous” birth and is sent to earth like Moses in a space faring “basket”.
Jor-El calls the baby “Kal, Son of El” early on which if you know any Hebrew, El is the word for God, shortened from Elohim.
Kal states clearly that he is 33 years old, the traditional age of Jesus at His crucifixion.
Superman leaves the Kryptonian ship in orbit in a position mirroring the crucifixion.
When trying to decide what to do, Clark seeks counsel in a church from a minister, presumably Lutheran or Episcopal as there’s just a cross, not a crucifix. Over Clark’s shoulder is a stained glass window depicting the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus wrestled with sacrificing Himself to save humanity.
The minister helps Clark by saying that the step of faith comes before trust can be established. Faith & Trust are pivotal themes as are the search for purpose and meaning. There are many messages on the nature of Sacrifice, the acceptance and rejection of someone with this kind of otherworldly power, the choosing of genetic family & adopted family, even the morality of killing in combat.
Zod stated at one point that the only way the fighting was going to end is if one of them were dead. Clearly with his desire to save life, Superman doesn’t like the idea of killing, even someone like Zod, but left with no choice, he very graphically breaks Zod’s neck (though I thought there were other options). This was a very dramatic break from previous depictions and this hands on killing clearly took a toll on Superman’s character.
In the future, I suspect that the life of Superman will parallel the life in Jesus in that there will be a period of popularity, then a period of rejection—probably orchestrated by Lex Luthor, then even a death & resurrection. We’ll see on that.
I thought the music was excellent and very fitting for the screenplay. I heard an interview with the composer Hans Zimmer on the pressures of composing music for the same character that John Williams had done in 1978. William’s theme is one of the most recognizable in filmscore. And that’s one philosophical difference, Williams was writing a theme song that could stand alone—like the introduction to a regular program that is meant to remind everyone what show is next. Zimmer changed the style and the sound by deliberately removing the trumpet from his instrumentation and by harkening back to themes of the American Midwest in composers like Copeland—Appalachian Spring/ Fanfare for the Common Man, Gershwin, Bernstein & others
There were several bones thrown to fans of Smallville who had hoped Tom Welling would be cast in the main role. There were four people in Man of Steel who spent at least one episode in Smallville. Amy Adams was in one of the worst SmV episodes (called Craving) in its entire 10 year run as an overweight girl turned skinny, fat consuming psycho. Mackenzie Gray played the old Lex Luthor clone in the season 10 opener. Tahmoh Pinikett was in three SmV episodes and Alessandro Juliani, who had a small role in the Canadian cold, played Dr. Emil Hamilton on SmV for a couple of seasons. Another Smallville bone was the name of the place that Jonathan Kent was working at when Clark got in a fight when he was 12--the name of the place was Sullivan's. If there were more, please let me know.
All this to say, I really enjoyed the movie, even if I was one of those Smallville fans who were upset at a Brit getting the role of the American Way Superman… well done Henry Cavill—you actually looked like you had real muscles, unlike some others… B.R.