After one of the most exhilarating action sequences in Man of Steel, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) tells her adopted alien son Clark (Henry Cavill), ‘It’s only stuff Clark, it can always be replaced.’ These are important words for Clark to hear from the woman who raised him as it helps reconcile the path of destruction he leaves behind while trying to find his true self. Man of Steel is an unconventional superhero origins films as the focus is not on the discovery and mastery of super-powers, although those scenes are included, but the focus instead is on the character’s psychological development. The result is a surprisingly grim and serious film that attempts to deconstruct the iconic and righteous Superman character to instead present him as a troubled man-child facing difficult moral choices and being traumatised about the nature of what makes him great.
The character is barely ever referenced as ‘Superman’ and instead is referred to throughout the film by both his human name Clark Kent and his Kryptonian name Kal-El. Much of the film is spent resolving his identity and through the film’s adoption narrative, Clark struggles with the fact that he does not have a sense of belonging. He loves his adopted parents and the inhabitants of Earth, but is aware of how different he is. He is haunted by the words of his adopted father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) who warns him about the devastating cultural shock that humanity could experience upon discovering that he is an alien. His attempts to blend in see him continually on the run; an outcast drifter continually reinventing himself every time he tries to start afresh.
Searching for the truth, Clark gains fleeting comfort in discovering he came from a planet destroyed by both civil war and environmental destruction. More importantly in terms of character development, he learns that his birth father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) saw him to be a potential god among the human race. As well as the immense baggage of continuing an almost extinct alien race, he is torn between his natural father’s expectations and his adopted father’s caution. While Clark is mostly depicted in Man of Steel as an adult, the continual flashbacks to childhood, the multiple parental figures and the symbolic rebirths he experiences suggest that the character is in a state of mental and moral arrested development throughout nearly the entire film. Not only is Clark a nomad torn between two worlds, but he is also torn between the possibility that he is a god to be worshiped and the possibility that he is a freak to be feared. Worse yet, is that the many lives he has been covertly protecting on Earth become threatened as a direct result of him being there, when the militarist zealot General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives looking for him.
The culmination of Clark’s psychological origins story is the film’s exploration of how a being with such advantageous powers can act morally. Clark has a genuine desire to be righteous, but as Jonathan explains to him that means making very careful decisions about when to act and when not to, resulting in potential scenarios where neither outcome is ideal. Hence the defeat of an enemy often comes with massive collateral damage that the film gleefully showcases during its big spectacle scenes. Keeping with the notion of Clark as still being in a state of cognitive development, his apparent anti-property attitude suggests the well meaning yet naïve mind of a rebellious teenager lashing out against society and its institutions. Clark nobly resists the temptation to physically hurt an obnoxious man in a bar, but still destroys property that is important to that man. It is a moment of initial catharsis that on reflection is an excessively cruel act that obliterates that man’s livelihood.
During major action sequences in Smallville and Metropolis, Clark’s battles with Zod and his soldiers lay waste to those settings, which challenges whether or not Clark’s actions and approach to defending the Earth are justified. After the unknown innocent bystander body count, the question of destroying the human race to save the Kryptonians and Clark’s final confrontation with Zod, is the moral question of what lives and what principles should be sacrificed for the greater good. Clark’s symbolic coming-of-age is not making the right decisions, but accepting and being able to live with the moral complexity from making the difficult decisions. It is a surprisingly sophisticated examination of what it really takes to make somebody a super human.
Man of Steel also serves as a curious warning about interventionism on several levels. The planet Krypton is destroyed due to over extracting its natural resources and it breaks down on a societal level due to the use of advanced genetics to enable social engineering. General Zod’s attitude towards Earth is one of aggressive colonialism and genocide, setting up a device that as it pulsates into the ground it picks up cars and bits of buildings and then smashes them back down again. The symbols of human civilisation are used as weapons back upon itself, perhaps suggesting some kind of punishment for humanity’s hubris towards how it manipulates its environment. The mass destruction in the film suggests acts of terrorism and reveals how vulnerable our constructed world can be. Notably Clark initially seeks employment in remote environments suggesting his desire to be far from the civilised world of interference. More notable is that he settles for an occupation that requires him to be an observer with supposed zero interference on what he observes.
As a psychological coming-of-age film where the destruction caused by Clark Kent is an external expression of his id threatening to overwhelm rational thought, Man of Steel is really not a conventional superhero film, let alone what is most likely expected from a Superman film. Nevertheless the team of director Zack Snyder, writer David S Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan (among others) do throw in elements that try to help the film resemble what is conventionally contained in a superhero film. Unfortunately this means the inclusion of some clunky exposition, some silly dialogue and an extended final action sequence that loses its potency and inventiveness. All this would barely be noticeable if Man of Steel were simply another inclusion in the colour saturated and hyperactive Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, but because it aspires to be closer tonally to Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the more overt comic book elements feel out of place.
Nevertheless, for the most part Man of Steel is exhilarating and visually engaging. The film has embraced the increasingly fashionable ‘found-footage’/Instagram aesthetic that incorporates lots of sun flares, objects artistically going out of focus, and snap camera zooms and movements to capture objects onscreen that seemingly appear without prior warning. Few of the visual techniques in Man of Steel are new, but Snyder and his team have used them extremely well to blend the emotional drama of Clark’s two families with the film’s science-fiction elements resulting in an impressive photorealistic quality to all onscreen elements. While the action and spectacle in the film ultimately wears out its welcome by being overlong and becoming generic, for the most part it is genuinely exciting. Making a Superman film that does not feel like a Superman film may not have been the plan, but when the result is a mostly-entertaining dark science-fiction parable about morality, those not overly invested in the Superman mythology will find a lot to enjoy in Man of Steel.