...shining light on the media, one review at a time
If one were to list the essential needs for human survival, hope and love would have to be at the top. Even people who claim to believe in nothing cling to hope of some kind, whether they recognize it themselves or not. For Christians, unfailing hope and the ultimate source of love is found in God. For secularists, however, the quest for hope continues, as they must fulfill their need for it elsewhere.
As much as the two groups differ, Christians and honest non-believers share a common realization that reveals itself in story after story—human beings need a savior. The popularity of superhero movies, then, should come as no surprise to anyone. The heroes these movies feature have the common trait of being saviors, sources of hope for a world in trouble. When the superheroes are truly heroic, upholding ethical standards while defeating evil, Christians can enjoy a good superhero flick as much as the next person, but with a diametrically different understanding of what they are watching.
As the only superhero to have “super” in his name, Superman is supposed to be the epitome and perfection of heroes. Thanks to society’s disintegrating morals, however, recent retellings of the Superman legend has morphed him into a “nice guy” who makes up his own standards of morality as he sees fit, foregoing some ethical principles while upholding others.
The Superman saga in film desperately needs a reboot, if only to undo the damage done to Superman’s formerly untouchable ethics in the more recent big-budget features. While imperfect in a few instances, Man of Steel is the needed reinvention of this fallen hero. Though filled with action violence and containing some offensive language, the film washes away much of the dirt from Superman’s character and restores him to his former glory as a hero worthy of admiration and a superhero who offers the vestiges of real hope to a suffering world.
“Did God make me this way?” young Clark Kent asks his father one day. Clark is tired of being different from the other kids, tired of having a superhuman strength, laser vision, and uncontrollable senses that result in his peers labeling him a freak.
Clark’s father, Jonathan, knows it’s time to show his son the pod that brought Clark to Earth as an infant. Clark, Jonathan tells his son, is not from this world. Neither is he the actual child of the couple he knows as his parents. Terrified by this news, all the young Clark wants is to be the son of the Kents’ and finish growing up on the Kansas farm that is all he has ever known.
The trouble is, Clark just can’t stop helping people. When lives are at stake or others are about to get hurt, Clark can’t keep himself from jumping in and rescuing the defenseless. Why shouldn’t he save others with his powers? Jonathan tells Clark that he must keep his powers hidden because the world is not ready for a special person like him. Jonathan is so afraid that the world might reject Clark that he even says Clark should let others die, if necessary, instead of exposing his unique gifts.
Once Clark is grown and his father is no longer around, Clark still struggles to keep his powers and identity a secret while continuing to help people in need. That effort becomes harder when the government discovers an alien spacecraft, imbedded in ice and snow. Clark isn’t the only one who is curious about this ship. Lois Lane, intrepid reporter from the Daily Planet, forces her way to the site to get a closer look at the craft. Both she and Clark get more than they bargained for as they unintentionally set off a chain of events that summons a nemesis from Krypton, Clark’s birth planet.
Clark, aka Kal-El, is the target of a crazed Kryptonian General who believes he must capture Clark in order to save the future of the Kryptonites. It turns out that getting Clark is only step one in a plan that also requires the destruction of all life on planet Earth. If the world wasn’t ready for a hero like Clark before, it’s ready now. The world needs Superman.
The world, evidently, needs Superman to be its savior. Kal-El’s father says his son will “be a god to” the people of Earth. He’s not far wrong, given the Christ symbolism that permeates more than one Superman film. Peppered with symbolic references to Jesus Christ through Superman’s character, Man of Steel is no exception in that regard.
This latest reboot is, however, a praiseworthy break from the norm in that it does not turn its fewer and more subtle Christ parallels into blasphemy as has been done in other films (most appallingly in the 2006 Superman Returns). Instead of portraying a pseudo Christ as the absentee dad of a kid from an affair (Superman Returns), Man of Steel restrains itself to only a few Christ references while portraying a decidedly more moral, ethically minded Superman.
The result of this intentionally moral characterization is a plethora of positive messages and a hero worthy of emulation. Among the most powerful of these uplifting themes is hope. Jor-El, Superman’s father, says that his son’s purpose in life is to be a “symbol of hope” to Earth. The design that Superman famously wears on his shirt is not an “s” as it looks to English-speakers, but is instead a Kryptonian symbol for “hope.” The hope that Kal-El brings to the world is, in part, the knowledge of Krypton’s history that will enable him to help Earth avoid the Kryptonians’ “mistakes.”
Among these errors is a tendency to put their culture’s well-being over others, to overuse natural resources, and to subvert the freedom of the individual for what is deemed the good of majority. The culmination of Krypton’s system is a super soldier whose “soul” and entire reason for existence is to ensure the survival of the Kryptonian race. The result is General Zod, a mega-villain with a cause.
Thus, the evils of the Kryptonian government’s choices are demonstrated in the obvious evil of General Zod, just as they are contrasted with the foils of Jor-El and his son. Jor-El, for example, recognizes that the Kryptons’ artificial creation of babies, who are then kept and raised to be only what “society” wants them to be, is wrong. Jor-El and his wife, Lara, are so convicted of this evil that they dare to illegally give birth to their own, naturally conceived son. As the first naturally born Kryptonian child in centuries, Kal-El is also destined, if his parents can ensure it, to be free to choose his own path and to be the bright future of Krypton.
Thankfully, the high ethical standards that Jor-El practices himself and knows are essential to this hopeful future, are also affirmed by Kal-El’s earthly parents, the Kents. While Jonathan can be overzealous and misguided in his aim to protect his adopted son, Clark, he still encourages Clark to demonstrate restraint and compassion for others. He reminds Clark that he has “to decide what kind of man” he wants to be, because “good or bad, [that man’s] going to change the world.”
Even Clark’s enemies recognize the difference in him. “The fact that you possess a sense of morality and we do not,” says one villain, “gives us an evolutionary advantage.” Thus, the triumph of Superman’s morality encourages ethics while it also undermines, as any demonstration of healthy morality usually does, the Theory of Evolution. The challenge to Evolution is made even more ironically clear when the villain, who is actually destined for defeat, adds, “if there is one thing history has proven, it’s that Evolution always wins.”
Whether childhood environment or biology are the cause, Kal-El grows into a man who almost completely emulates his natural father in ethical wisdom and selfless compassion for others. Jor-El wants to save a culture, Earth, that he never knew himself, while Kal-El grows to love those same people who are not of his own race, even when they treat him miserably and try to destroy him. Love, then, becomes another prominent theme that is given poignancy through Kal-El’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the undeserving people that he, through the example of his father and his adoptive parents, has come to love.
Man of Steel thereby shows that this ultimate superhero is the result of positive parenting, both from his birth and adoptive parents. Kal-El loses his birth parents because they make the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives, to ensure his survival. The Kents prove that they are equally ready to lay down their lives for their adopted son. Beyond the willingness to sacrifice, however, are the arguably more important characteristics that all of Kal-El’s parents possess—commitment to living with ethical principles and determination to teach their son to do the same.
Add to these themes adoption, the importance of fathers and mothers, the sanctity of life, courage, trust, faith—and the list of uplifting messages are too many to explore fully here. Sadly, the filmmakers also throw in enough negative content to weaken the uplifting elements to the point that the winner of the struggle between the good versus evil content is difficult to identify.
Violence, while expected in a modern action/fantasy film, is one of the worst villains of the picture. A bit more blood is shown than in the fast-paced fight scenes of some recent flicks, but most of the action is a relentless series of bloodless blows, crashes, throws—all done with superhuman force. The more disturbing violence includes a stabbing and two broken necks (the latter apparently a trademark in films created by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan).
These brutal actions happen just off-screen, but with vivid sound effects. The highest body count comes in the disaster sequences, which show screaming people fleeing and many of them getting caught and killed (though, again, these victims are shown at a distance that leaves details to the imagination).
Superman maintains his heroic standards for most of the film by not killing anyone, even his enemies. [SPOILER WARNING] This stance is challenged at the end of the movie, however, when a villain “forces” Superman to kill him in order to save innocent lives. While this situation certainly has several flaws from a story point (astute viewers will realize that there are multiple ways Superman could have saved the trapped victims without killing the villain), Superman’s one killing can be defended on the grounds that he does it to save the defenseless and that death was the only way he would ultimately be able to stop this enemy.
Indeed, the villain points out that Superman “loves these people so much” and tries to kill them to make Superman suffer in watching it happen. An alternate plot twist could have easily prevented this slight tarnish on Superman’s character, but the filmmakers, no doubt, thought it an obvious enough moral choice to risk including for the desired grittiness factor. Whether or not Superman made the perfectly right decision in this case, he redeems himself by showing tremendous, deep remorse that he killed a man—even when that man was his enemy and murderer of many.
Superman is also guilty of rather pettily trashing a man’s truck, but is otherwise free from involvement in the film’s other negative content. Chief among the offenses in which Superman is, thankfully, not involved is offensive language. To the filmmakers’ credit, they keep Clark’s mouth clean, but do not take the same trouble with the other characters. “A--” is the most popular obscenity in the film (approximately five times), while “h--l” and “d--n” also show up a couple of times, each. The crudity “d--k” is also thrown in twice. Use of profanities, however, is remarkably low for an action film, with only a few uses of “oh my god.”
Other potentially harmful content includes one brief bar scene, in which Lois downs a glass of Scotch in one swig, and a low-cut dress worn by Kal-El’s mother. There is an intense birthing scene, during which Lara screams repeatedly. A similar type of moment occurs when Superman seals a wound while the injured woman screams in agony. Jor-El also presents a bit of a problem when he shows up after he is dead, supposedly through his still living “consciousness.” In this case, the fantasy elements of any superhero film should already put viewers firmly in the realm of imaginative fiction that could allow for such a situation to occur.
If viewers are not completely aware of the fantastic world of Man of Steel by later in the movie, the filmmakers are not to blame. The obviously gifted production team behind this picture executes a stunning display of large-scale filmmaking at its best. Retelling an origin story that has been told as often as Superman’s would be a turn-off to some writers and directors—an easy “no,” because there seems to be no point in rehashing such a familiar tale. Whether it was director Zach Snyder or screenwriter Goyer, someone on the Man of Steel production team apparently saw that there were possibilities for a fresh new take on the same old story.
Fresh and new is exactly what Man of Steel manages to be, despite the script’s faithfulness to much of the iconic Superman tale. To begin with, this screenplay spends an extensive amount of time, more than any other of the Superman films, showing viewers the world of Krypton. Who knew that there were dinosaur-like creatures and winged animals Kryptonians could ride? The relationship between Jor-El and his adversary, General Zod, becomes a compelling tale, along with the emotional turmoil Lara has to undergo when trying to give up her only child.
Similar originality is equally obvious with the bits that the film reveals of Clark’s early development in Kansas. Rather than showing the predictable moments—first flight, realization of super strength, etc.—the story skips over those clichéd revelatory moments to instead focus on the more compelling, character developing experiences that occur because of Clark’s unique traits. His hyper sensory perception, for example, limits his ability to concentrate at school and even leads to panic attacks when he doesn’t understand what is happening.
Die-hard fans of the Superman-Lois story should be warned that Man of Steel does throw off tradition in the area of their relationship. Rather than having Lois meet Superman only as Clark Kent at first, this take lets Lois in on the Superman secret right away. While this presents advantages and improvements in some ways (who really believed Lois wouldn’t recognize Superman with his glasses on?), the rushed relationship leads to an accelerated romance in this picture. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] Clark and Lois only kiss a couple of times, but they do so without actually knowing much about each other first or having a real relationship on which to base their romance.
Still, the creativity of this film’s premise allows for other benefits, including a mega-villain in General Zod, who is far more dangerous and less clichéd than the predictable Lex Luthor. Choosing an outer space, technologically advanced antagonist also sets the stage for the staggering show of special effects. Even the latest Star Trek feature may have met its match in the special effects employed in Man of Steel’s high-flying, break-neck paced fight sequences, its CGI enabled Kryptonian world and technologies, unbelievably lifelike destruction of cityscapes, and awe-inspiring spacecraft.
Not to be outdone by CGI, the impressive cast gathered together for this film delivers even in the smallest roles. Michael Shannon, though playing the evil General Zod, is a standout of the picture, as is Zod’s antithesis, Russell Crowe as Jor-El. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner provide the anchor of authenticity in the picture with their understated performances as the Kents.
Amy Adams has big shoes to fill and expectations to meet in the famous role of Lois Lane, but she proves up to the challenge with an emotional range and girl-next-door quality that is both effective and refreshing. Henry Cavill is also solid in his role as Superman, though he has room and potential for improvement.
The highly-qualified Hans Zimmer provides an excellent, if somewhat repetitively applied, musical score that nicely undergirds the multiple visual and thematic motifs that are carried throughout the film. Goyer can always be counted on for thematic and character depth in his screenplays, and Man of Steel is no departure from his record.
The welcome change that Man of Steel does reflect is a restoration of Superman as perhaps the ultimate fictional superhero, a hero with ethical integrity, selflessness, and desire to save others at all costs. Jor-El tells Kal-El that, someday, the people of Earth will “join” Kal-El “in the sun” as he leads them to a better way of living. Let us hope that the sun of good triumphing over evil—of hope, love, and compassion—will continue to shine brightly in this rebooted Superman saga.
"I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber."
– Psalm 121:1-3 (ESV)