Many people have many different feelings about Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman film, Man of Steel, but this is my blog so we’re mostly here to discuss my feelings so let me tell you what I think of the movie:
I spent the whole movie alternating between boredom and offense. And not because I don’t like Superman! I love Superman. But Zack Snyder’s vision for Superman is colorless, drab, and almost entirely devoid to the inspirational values that define Superman. And all of that is before you get into my nitpicks with how the film was made, like how even totally static scenes are shot with more shaky-cam than all of the Bourne movies put together.
None of this is news, though. A lot of ink’s been spilled over the past three years about how the movie has problems, and while it does have its defenders, the general consensus seems to be the it’s not a very good Superman film. I’m interested in doing something a little different, though: I want to talk about how I would fix it, without radically changing the plot and without going back to technical nitpicks. There are two points where the story is severely broken, and fixing these would go a long way towards fixing the movie as a whole.
These points are Jonathan Kent and The Death of Zod.
Jonathan Kent’s role in the film has been roundly mocked by critics and fans alike. He is so opposed to young Clark Kent doing anything heroic that he dies in a totally preventable manner rather than allow his son to save him, and comes a hair’s breadth from telling his son he should have let all of his friends and classmates die after their bus went into the river.
Clark: I just wanted to help.
Jonathan: I know you did, but we talked about this. Right? Right? We talked about this, you have…Clark, you have to keep this side of yourself secret.
Clark: What was I supposed to do? Just let them die?
To be fair to the film, he doesn’t quite advocate leaving a bunch of children to drown, and he seems to realize it’s a shitty answer even as he says it. But it’s still an astonishing thing to say. This is Jonathan Kent. This is the man who taught the Man of Steel about the difference between right and wrong. In every other version of the canon, he’s a source of moral authority and support for Superman, helping to keep him grounded in human reality. In Zack Snyder’s version, he’s advocating negligent homicide.
But let’s let him continue. There must be a reason for this, surely?
Jonathan: There’s more at stake here than just our lives, Clark, or the lives of those around us. When the world finds out what you can do, it’s going to change everything. Our beliefs, our notions of…what it means to be human…everything.
So far, so good. He wants Clark to keep his abilities hidden, even if it means letting people die, because if he became public knowledge it would be disruptive to society. That’s kind of a fair point. Unfortunately:
Jonathan: You saw how Pete’s mom reacted, right? She was scared, Clark.
Jonathan: People are afraid of what they don’t understand.
Okay, so, first off, Pete’s mom was not afraid at all. She was convinced that her son had been witness to a miracle, and she seemed pretty jazzed up about it. More importantly, though, this pretty strongly undercuts all the high-minded talk he’d just laid down: it’s not about preserving society, it’s about not spooking the neighbours. It’s about keeping people from turning on him out of fear. In other words, he wanted his son to let a busload of children die for almost purely selfish reasons.
It’s not a good look. As Matt from the Super Best Friends said, Zack Snyder’s Uncle Ben would look something like this:
But what’s most striking about the whole thing is that I can see what Snyder was going for, even though it doesn’t work. It’s supposed to be a dueling father figures thing: Jor-El wants his son to bring back the Kryptonians and reshape society into one of peaceful coexistence between the two species. He wants his son to be out in public as a big symbol and make the world a better place. Meanwhile, Jonathan wants his son to be safe and for human society to be preserved as is. Clark is supposed to navigate these two currents and find his own third way: Superman.
This doesn’t work for a couple reasons. First, Jonathan’s dead before any of the film’s current-day events take place, so he isn’t able to give his perspective on what Clark should do about it (technically, Jor-El is also dead, but unlike Jonathan he has an AI version of him hanging around). It’s hard to have dueling father figures when all you have to go on for one of them is something vague he said to his eleven-year-old son. The other problem is that in the movie, this is Jor-El’s perspective:
You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race towards you. They will stumble, they will fall, but in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.
In other words, he wants him to be Superman. In a Superman film, between the father figure who says ‘don’t be Superman’ and the one who says ‘be Superman’, the outcome of any conflict is preordained. It basically kills the conflict entirely.
How would I fix it? Well, I wouldn’t kill Pa Kent while Clark’s still a kid. The goal of this post is to try and fix the movie without majorly altering the plot, so I guess we have to kill him off at some point, so let’s say that Faora kills him during the attack on the Kent farm instead of trying to choke out Martha. But the point is, he’s around long enough to provide at least a little input on the current events.
Second, let’s alter both Jonathan and Jor-El’s perspectives. Here’s how I would break it down:
Jor-El: You can be a symbol that makes the human race better. Humans are self-destructive and weak, but you can show them how to be better. Destroy the weapons they use to kill each other, and guide them to a more enlightened future, like the golden age of Krypton. Also, use these clone machines to make a bunch more Kryptonians and make a peacefully coexisting society or something.
Jonathan Kent: You should help people when you see that they need it, but you shouldn’t let people see you do it. If word got out that you existed, people would want to treat you like a god, and want to put you in charge, and you don’t have the right to that kind of control over people’s lives. Nobody does. Also, selfishly, I want you to have a normal childhood and life and worry about you.
You may notice that Jor-El in this version is, although, well-meaning, kind of a fascist, which makes him less obviously right. At the same time, Jonathan has a better point: it would be really easy for Superman to become a dictator, even with the best of intentions. It’s happened in so many Elseworlds stories that it’s basically a cliche at this point.
This reframes the whole debate between these father figures into one about Superman’s public role. Should he operate entirely in secret so as to not disrupt human society? Or should he act in public, and work to rework that society into a better shape? By the end of the movie, both of these fathers would be dead, leaving Clark to decide on his own path – that is to say, Superman as we know him. Superman who helps everybody he can, who does so publicly and serves as a symbol of hope, but who keeps his identity a secret, so that he keeps himself humble and isn’t tempted to take over. It would also fix one of the most-criticized scenes in the series: since Jonathan isn’t telling Clark to not be Superman, but simply to do so secretly, he doesn’t have to reluctantly suggest that he let a bunch of kids drown.
The Death of Zod
Hoo boy, this one’s controversial. Which is kind of weird, because it’s not like it’s the first time Superman has killed. It’s not even the first time Superman has killed Zod!
But for a lot of people, this is a real sticking point. Not killing has been a pretty important point of Superman’s character for a really long time, and fans hold the writers to that standard. And in most cases, I agree with them, because a Superman who kills would be terrifying, and Superman should never be frightening.
But not in Zod’s case. Zod is special. Generally speaking, I agree with Max Landis about this (emphasis mine):
What it comes down to is, I don’t mind if Superman kills people, because he has no reason not to kill people. I know one of the tenets of the character is that he doesn’t, but one of the reasons why he doesn’t is that having that much power makes you responsible for weaker people…you think Lex Luthor is going to do much with a gun, or in a fistfight, against a Kryptonian? His skin is diamond hard. He can move faster than the speed of sound. You’re looking at a god who walks among men. Really, the Parasite? I’m shaking in my boots. The Atomic Man, oh gosh. How are these guys going to stop Superman? They’re NOT! They’re not. They had to create Mr. Mister Mxyzptlk to find a character who could effectively fuck with Superman. But…when he’s fighting someone like Zod…that scenario where he allows Zod to destroy most of Metropolis while he tries to beat him in a punching contest? And then he’s forced to kill him? I have to believe…that Superman would try to kill Zod pretty much immediately if the alternative was 150,000 people dying. You want to know why? Because he’s not responsible for Zod. Superman’s sense of responsibility comes from the fact that he is an adult walking amongst children. Humans can’t be as good as he can be. Zod, on the other hand is another adult. And if one adult in the room says he’s going to kill all the others, it shouldn’t be a city-destroying sequence.
I don’t agree with everything Landis says in that video (for example, I think even against Zod, Superman should still try everything he can to resolve it peaceably, because he’s just that good a guy), but I definitely agree with him about Superman not being responsible for Zod, and indeed being responsible for protecting humanity from Zod at any cost. Superman killing humans breaks the character; killing genocidal Kryptonians doesn’t.
So, no, I’m not opposed to Superman killing Zod in principle. But I do have some big problems with how it played out.
First of all, one big problem is that it’s not earned because Superman has not actually demonstrated a commitment to not killing people. Snyder just sort of assumes that the audience is aware of it, which…well, fair enough, but a bigger issue is that he has characters act on it when they have no way of knowing about it. In the middle of the big dull Smallville fight, Faora starts taunting him about his commitment to pacifism, but she apparently pulled that fact out of her ass because she has no way to know that. Later, after Zod loses his shit, he shouts up at Superman:
There’s only one way this ends, Kal. Either you die, or I do.
That’s actually two ways, but nobody’s ever accused Zod of being good at counting. More importantly, it’s something that only makes sense to shout at someone if you know they have a pacifism commitment and are trying to bait them into breaking it. Some thing with the eye laser scene. There’s no way those civilians weren’t in his field of view, which means that the fact that he didn’t kill them instantly means he pretty much has to be baiting Kal into killing him.
This makes no sense with his character, by the way. Even if Zod knew about Superman’s moral opposition to murder, there’s no reason why he would give a fuck about it. The only way making Superman kill would be a victory is if you thought it would tear down his image, and that’s not what Zod wants. He just wants to kill Superman, and then every single person on Earth, as vengeance for Krypton.
(As an aside, you know who this sort of thing would make sense for? Lex Luthor, who hates Superman but more importantly hates that people love Superman, who he sees as a fraud and an alien invader. Lex is absolutely the type of person who would go to great lengths to bait Superman into killing someone, or, say, spend millions of dollars creating affordable housing, then trick Superman into destroying it in a fistfight with Captain Marvel, and then when the dust clears spend more millions to rebuild it, all for no other reason than to make Superman look like a huge dick in front of the world. Lex would actually be a much better fit for the Dueling Fathers themes as well.)
How would I change this? Well, I would make the Kryptonians weaker. After all, Kal-el’s been soaking up yellow sunlight for decades, and these putzes just turned up this afternoon. They are still stronger, faster, and more powerful than any human could ever be, but they are significantly weaker than Superman.
Why would that help? Because I would have Zod, experienced combatant, expert tactician, and all-around bastard that he is, compensate for this weakness by using the people of Metropolis against him. He knows he can’t take Superman in a straight fight, so he forces Superman to defend the humans around them. Every time Superman flies in for a hit, he has to change course to intercapt something thrown at a civilian, or tank a hit from some eyebeams, or hold up a collapsing building. And Zod takes full advantage of these openings to hammer Superman. Zod’s weaker, but he keeps getting free hits in by forcing Superman to defend the people of Metropolis. And Superman does it every time, and he’s getting torn to shit to keep the people of Metropolis safe, until by the end of it he’s beaten and bloody but still keeps on standing up and going back for more, refusing to stop until finally he gets his hands on Zod.
Superman pleads with him to stop, but Zod makes it very clear that that will never happen. He may be weaker than Superman for now, but that won’t be the case for long, and when he comes into his full powers no prison will be able to hold him, no army will be able to stop him, and he will rampage until the earth is cleansed of human life. And, seeing that there really is no other way, Superman regretfully kills him.
This change would be an improvement on several levels. First, it would probably be a more interesting fight scene than the slugfest Snyder gave us in Man of Steel. Second, it would remove the baiting-Superman-into-breaking-his-moral-code angle (which doesn’t make sense) while still preserving the motivation for killing Zod. Third, it would make the film earn that kill by giving us plenty of visual evidence that, yeah, even on his own, Zod was an immediate threat to everyone around him and needed to be put down. And finally, it would solve an unrelated problem, which is that Superman spends almost no time in this film saving people. Of course, he does save lives by destroying the Kryptonian machine and then taking down Zod, but there’s very little of what should be the meat and potatoes of a Superman movie: Superman pulling civilians out of harms way or otherwise rescuing them directly. Non-violent heroism. I can only think of two examples after he puts the Superman suit on: rescuing Lois when she was riding a pod from orbit, and grabbing that one soldier who fell out of a helicopter during the Smallville fight.
That’s not nearly enough Supermanning for a Superman movie. Hell, if you want to see a stark contrast, watch Avengers: Age of Ultron. That’s a movie with its own set of flaws, but its half-hour long climactic action sequence spends a lot of time rescuing, protecting, and working with civilians. The Avengers don’t just show up to beat up the bad guys; they’re here to help people in need. One of its Big Damn Heroes moments is when the Helicarrier shows up and, instead of deploying reinforcements, starts launching shuttles to evacuate civilians.
In my version, the whole final fight would be built around a series of these hero moments. Superman would save people again, and again, and again, establishing him as Superman, and giving the people of Metropolis a reason to cheer for him.