Well before Man of Steel ever hit theaters, the internet was swarming with protests that were bound to spring up as soon as Chris Nolan’s name was attached to the project. Why do we need a gritty Superman? They better not make Clark’s story like the Dark Knight arc. Why can’t they just make the movie fun? And now that the movie has been released, there are legions of fans decrying, as everyone knew they would: “That’s not my Superman!”
And they’re completely right. So I’m going to make myself incredibly unpopular by saying—
That’s not actually a problem.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR MAN OF STEEL.
Though it’s likely another discussion for another time, we do have to come to the realization that we live in a world of the Neverending Reboot. Everything is going to be revived. Forever. All the time. In a myriad of wondrous (and not-so-wondrous) ways. The sooner we can accept it, the easier it will be to accept the state of entertainment for the foreseeable future.
Once we come to terms with that, we have to ask what the point of a reboot is, and the answer is usually to come at the material from a different angle. Hopefully. That doesn’t mean every reconstruction will succeed. In addition, there are many people who will come to these retold tales having never been exposed to previous incarnations. This is particularly true where the summer blockbuster is concerned, if only due to the sheer volume of people who go to see a hit.
In that realm, Marvel superhero stock are coming from a distinct advantage—their incarnations are sparser. There was no Iron Man movie before a besuited Robert Downey, Jr. walked onto our screens, and he’s fared better for it. There was never an actor to compare him to and he was free to put his own spin on the character knowing that even a good portion of comic fans had not necessarily read any Iron Man issues. The problem with Superman (and his DC compatriot Batman as well) is there are so many interpretations to chose from. They’re endless. Comics and cartoons and films and television shows, dragging out the list offers us so many faces, so many different takes and thoughts about what these men represent and mean to humanity.
And that is essentially where the cry of “my Superman!” originates. As fans, there are elements of what we love that are deemed sacred, and the alterations of those essential-to-us aspects land like a slap. It feels as though someone you care about is being disrespected, and that’s going to incite some uglier emotions in response.
So I understand the complaints I’ve seen regarding Man of Steel all too well, but from the perspective of someone who does not have an investment in a “personal Superman,” it seemed time to take a look at what has everyone so up in arms.
For the biggest offense, of course, we have the death of Zod. Not only is it brutal, but the key tenant that Superman does not kill has made this moment a hot button instantly. In the theater I was holding my breath; the inevitability of it had struck me. No, Superman doesn’t kill, and no, most will not take the “he didn’t have a choice” argument where Kal-El is concerned. Which was precisely why I wanted to see it—to have that moment where Superman fails, and more importantly, where he fails for us. If you ever needed further proof that Clark Kent will chose humanity every time, that was it. That was the moment. And it was awful, which made it gorgeous.
Slightly more baffling are those who were bothered about his “hurried” relationship with Lois, mainly because it’s not a relationship by the end of the film. What we see are two people who breathlessly fall for one another, but that doesn’t make them a pair by the end. The first kiss is born out of a pure adrenaline high; he’s saved her life multiple times and wears a snug alien catsuit, she’s impressed him by being stupendously brave and keeping his secrets when he was afraid to trust anyone. And that’s where they begin, ultimately, two people who can’t quite figure out why they’re drawn in, why they need to help and protect one another. She’s intrigued, but there’s no indication that she’s head over heels in love yet—she’s got a crush. So does he.
And that’s why the place where the film ended is such a fun beginning for them. We have absolutely no idea how an actual romance between them might develop, where it could lead now that they’re coworkers and she has to keep the secret every day in front of a crowd. As a reversal of the usual gambit where Clark hides behind his glasses from the woman he adores, it’s a perfect switch and gives Lois a much more interesting role to play. The “poor burdened hero who can never tell those he loves of his secret” trope is something that we really don’t need to swing back toward any time soon.
Then there’s the “Jesus” imagery, which is admittedly goofy in its execution, but still doesn’t seem like anything to storm out over. All the shout-outs are too superficial to make much of a meal out of it. We get a stained glass window, a crucifixion pose in space after being told by a father to save people, and the fact that Clark is 33 years old. We get similarly weak Jesus-connections for Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings, but people tend to leave that story be, yet trying it with Superman is cause for fury? If there’s anything to be upset about, it’s the aggravation that Western culture never picks different imagery, or a different figure to echo heroically. The world offers us so many interesting choices outside the Christian pantheon….
And what about the collateral damage in Smallville and Metropolis? The action sequences in the film are overdone in terms of length and repetition, but most of the outcry is over Superman’s inability to save more people during the destruction. What is being ignored is the deliberate disadvantage Kal-El is placed at for the film; he doesn’t know how to fight, certainly not against a trained military force. He undoubtedly wants to help, but how can he when he’s being continually engaged in battles that will cost more lives if he doesn’t win them? Of course we want to see Superman more concerned for life regardless of his enemy, but he’s too busy trying to figure out how his alien body works under higher stress, how to make up for exactly zero combat skills while he’s being pummeled by the Kryptonian equivalent of Hannibal.
The point is that Man of Steel is a true origin story. That perfect protector, the one that so many fans are missing, he doesn’t exist yet. He’s learning how to be that man. The idea that someone is simply that inherently good right off the bat isn’t going to play for the majority of today’s audience, so we are watching him grow into the part. It’s intriguing to think that the film’s sequel has such potential to soar leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor by virtue of enjoying itself a bit more—that is the exact opposite of how most superhero movies are conceptualized, and Man of Steel is more interesting for it. This first film endeavored to prove that not all beginnings are joyful. Becoming who you are meant to be hurts. It is a struggle that everyone collides with, one that forces us to face fears (and foes) that often seem impossible to overcome.
And Clark Kent is the perfect person to reflect that back at us.
So he’s not everyone’s Superman, but he still has a great deal to teach us. For my part, I’d prefer this sort of Superman to the one who is already a better person at age 18 than I will become at any point in my life. It might be more fun for a new audience to grow alongside him rather than in his wake, as Jor-El insists we do. He’s a different sort of hero, but that doesn’t mean he can’t guide us to the best in ourselves and humanity.
He’s not your Superman, but he is someone’s Superman. And that deserves respect, too.
Emily Asher-Perrin seriously just wants Lex Luthor, though. She was recently on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast talking about Star Trek Into Darkness, and an essay of hers can be found in the newly released Queers Dig Time Lords. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.