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Man of Steel-Beyond Human

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Spoilers to Follow. Consider Yourself Warned

I just finished watching Man of Steel. This is not a review, exactly. I need to see the movie again before I can comment on it as a piece of art. Still, I find myself needing to talk about it, which certainly says something about it as a movie.

Man of Steel is a science-fiction myth. It refocuses Superman’s story on his otherness, his alien nature. This is not a movie about a human being, and mostly I think that is the proper way to approach the character of Superman (Henry Cavill). Other reviewers have commented on the fact that the story revolves around Superman’s two fathers, Jonathan Kent and Jor-El (Russell Crowe). The take on Jonathan Kent is interesting. Usually portrayed as a wise, earthy type, Kent(Kevin Costner) is instead shown struggling to deal with how to raise the alien that is his son. Clark’s potential is enormous, and I think frightening to his adoptive father.


Jor-El is interesting mostly for the statements he makes about Superman’s role in shaping the future of mankind. Man of Steel boldly puts forth one of the truths of the Superman myth, that he is better than us. He is beyond human.

The story of the modern hero is so often about his struggle with inferiority that I think we have forgotten about another kind of story. One where the hero struggles with superiority. Audiences seem uncomfortable with this, and often adapted works (which Man of Steel ultimately is), attempt to make heroes from the old tradition more palatable. I am looking squarely at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In adapting it, they made the decision to have Aragorn question his fitness for the throne, and his right to be king. This is a modern narrative, that has no place in that mode of heroic myth. The Aragorn of the books does not struggle like this. He IS the rightful King, and his powers are equal to the task. Read it again, and it is striking how different the character is in the film and the book. Aragorn’s struggle is to become King in the correct way. It is a when and where question, not an “if”. I digress, and perhaps will write about the strange decisions of that film later.

The point is that the writer of Man of Steel understands what the adapters of The Lord of the Rings did not, that Superman’s struggle is how to deal with his superiority. There can be no doubt that he is the one to oppose General Zod. There is no question there. It is beyond anyone else to consider it. Like Beowulf and Grendel, Superman and Zod are both monstrous in their powers. We are shown in the film that the might of Earth is as nothing in the face of the Kryptonians. This is a job for Superman.

We are shown flashes of young Clark throughout the film. He is continually shown breaking cover in order to save people, because he is the only one who can. Because he is again, fundamentally other. Superman’s capacities are infinite, and thus, so are his responsibilities. His struggle is rarely for his own survival. Most continuities depict him as effectively immortal. It is, again, his superiority, not his foibles, that define his struggle.

Superman’s father on Earth instilled a morality in him that will not let him leave innocents to die. His father on Krypton, by sending him to a world where he would become a god, ensured that he would be able to save them. This means that he can never walk away. We take for granted our ability to discount our failures by leaning on the crutch of our own weakness. “I’m only human,” is the explanation for many failures. Superman does not have that crutch.

Jonathan Kent gets it right when he tells Clark that whoever he grows up to be will change the world. Superman is better suited, by virtue of what he is, to fight the monster. To walk away is to commit murder by proxy. This means that his life is not his own. He is responsible for the safety of a people that are not, and never will be, his own. We are often shown characters, and told that “the weight of the world” is on their shoulders. Rarely is it made as true as the story of Man of Steel. Superman is not like us, and that suits me just fine.

Hope you enjoyed this. It’s kind of messy, and I am sure my thoughts on this will evolve. I hope for this to be the first of many new posts to come.


Written by Colin Hodd

June 18, 2013 at 3:25 AM