Superman saves the entire human race in Man of Steel. Yet, one of the major complaints is that he isn’t heroic enough and that he doesn’t save enough people in the film. And that he kills. And Superman never ever does that. Except he does.
What does it mean that he isn’t heroic enough in this film? How is saving us from extinction not heroic? What are the complaints actually about? Let’s get into spoilers here and look at what Superman does in this film. Is he a hero or merely a super powered alien who can hit real hard?
As a child, Clark saves a bus full of children from drowning. His father worries that doing such things will expose him and his powers. He simply wants to protect his son from a world that isn’t ready to accept him. “Should I let them die?” “Maybe.”
That scene is perfect. Clark desperately wants to help, but his father worries too much and his worries are justified. The community already thinks there’s something wrong with Clark.
The Oil Rig
When we first meet Clark, it’s as an adult. He’s wandering the world and there’s a fire on an oil rig. He exposes his secret powers, saves tons of people and fades away. He’s a hero.
He continues to wander and ends up at the site of a crashed Kryptonian ship. Here, he sneaks on board and learns from his dead father about his destiny. He finds his answers, but along the way, he saves Lois who is attacked by the ship. In this new series, this is their first meeting. He again shows his face when he rescues her. This is a huge change from most stories and it leads to her tracking him down based on acts of heroism he did all around the world. She knows who he is right away and is his supporter throughout the film.
Fighting to Save Humanity Not Humans
The villian, General Zod shows up and the film becomes a series of fights. He has left behind the small rescues for the biggest one of all: saving the planet Earth. Yet, during this part of the film, there are still moments of small, heroic acts.
He saves soldiers during the fight in Smallville. He saves Ma Kent from Zod. He saves Lois again.
The problem most have is that during the huge destruction, Superman isn’t helping individual people or taking the fight away from innocent civilians. No swooping by and catching a random person falling from a building. In this film, we have Superman facing the grand threat of Zod’s World Engine.
It’s a “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” situation.
They also say that he causes destruction. That he fights the ship in the ocean far away from humans rather than the one in Metropolis. I’d say in this film that makes sense. This is his first fight really. He’s not going to be smart. He’s going to be scrappy.
That is not a flaw. That is design. Yes, there is absolute destruction, but this is the first time Superman has done anything on this scale in a film before. Most certainly in this one. A bus crash? An oil rig fire? Small change. The last third of the movie is all action set pieces and there are so many moving parts. So much is going on that Superman is overwhelmed.
This is extinction-level stuff he has to deal with. Now, while I quite like the film and liked seeing the scale of the action, I do agree that more individual saves would have been nice, but the action is so big and so nonstop there just seems to be not enough time.
“It’s just disaster porn.” Is the alternative big action where no one ever gets hurt and Superman saves everyone? I don’t think so. Even in The Avengers, as contained as their fight was, things blew up and people got hurt. Here in Man of Steel, you have a gigantic machine leveling Metropolis. People are going to get hurt. It comes with the scale of things.
Would it be nice if the sense of destruction were not so immense? Yes. But I’d argue this is just a case of a movie upping the stakes, both to meet the level of the hero in the film and to top the competition. I don’t find it without meaning, but I guess once you’ve experienced similar in real life, you don’t want it on film.
But in a story, all that matters is how the characters treat the level of disaster. We all have different amounts of carnage and gore we can take. And for many, knowing those buildings were full of people when they were destroyed is too much.
Some will say Superman’s actions, while selfless and heroic are not inspiring. And it’s this that keeps them from embracing what he does. He’s not that kind of hero. The kind who makes humans want to be better.
It is true. The film doesn’t show us a man setting an example. This could have been a chance to have Superman inspire people through his actions. But it’s hard to be inspired by what he does in the movie. Rescuing kittens in trees, rushing into fires, saving drowning kids. That’s the kind of heroics many people really want from Superman.
They want the examples they can learn from and copy. A man who flies around punching aliens is hard for many to connect with. And that is what they mean when they say he’s no hero.
Superman in this film is not yet the example we’ve seen before. But he could be. And in this specific story, I was fine with him not being the big blue Boy Scout. There’s time to become that still.
The one other complaint that seems to have taken on its own life is all about Zod and the choice Superman makes. This seems to be something many can’t get over.
I find the complaint against it noble, but something I totally disagree with. I can get behind less destruction and more heroic moments, but none of that ruins the portrayal of Superman in this film. For many, Superman killing Zod is unforgivable. “He doesn’t kill.”
That’s the issue. Superman can’t be a murderer! Except, he has killed before. It’s been documented online. So there is precedence. So, the “never” arguments don’t hold water.
So, they’ll say he shouldn’t. Which is fine. He shouldn’t kill. So they’ll say he didn’t show enough remorse. So they’ll say it made no sense in the context. So they’ll say it’s a poor way to learn not to kill because he should already know it.
But I like this moment. The setup, the execution of the scene, and Superman’s reaction are all perfect. He does not want to kill. Zod forces his hand. Maybe a smarter, more seasoned Superman would have found another way. But as a learning experience, this works. Killing for him is an easy solution to many things he will face. But he can’t just go around doing that.
Superman didn’t want to kill Zod and it pained him to do so. Some will disagree and that’s fine, but it’s a much better scene than his murder of Zod in Superman 2 where he depowers him, crushes his hand, and smiles as Zod plummets to his death. Here at least he suffers. Maybe not for long, but wait for the sequel.
In the context of this story, it also hurts because Zod was a Kryptonian and there were so few left. He wasn’t just another life. He was a fellow Kryptonian and this killing solidified his position as a human, as a protector, and as the last of his kind.
Man of Steel may not be a perfect movie or a movie for everyone, but it’s right at about fifty percent at Rotten Tomatoes and it has generated plenty of discussion. Flat out bad movies don’t do that. This is what happens when people care passionately about the property. In the end, this debate is good. I like what we’re arguing about. It’s good that this movie generates discussion on ethics and not on costume colors or altered origins.
I know many will still say he was not heroic in this movie. I know what they mean, but what other character will we have this argument about? It’s because he is Superman and we expect so much from him that we are letdown when we see he isn’t being portrayed correctly.