Craft vs. Conscience: Thoughts on the Movie MAN OF STEEL

This is not a review of the movie Man of Steel. Mainly because I’m not a good critic, and my review would read something like this – “I saw Man of Steel and l liked parts of it. Other parts, not so much.”

See? Useless review. But I have had some people, readers mainly, ask me what I thought of it. It’s probably because I write a series of books about superheroes and, let’s be honest, the Superman myth hangs over my books like a big . . . thing that hangs over books.

So no review here (unless you count the above, in which case you are awfully easy to please.) What I do want to write about is the story that they told, why I think several of the more controversial choices were interesting from a storytelling perpective, and whether in the end I would have made those same choices.

So if you are interested in reading that, put on your Spoiler Boots and read on! (seriously though, I’m going to spoil the dickens of it. Be warned.)

 

First of all: the controversy. What most folks seem to want to know is how I feel about Superman’s final act, in which he kills General Zod. I’d actually had this bit spoiled for me before seeing the movie (thanks Twitter) so I don’t know how shocked I would have been if I hadn’t seen it coming, or how that would have affected my reaction. That being said . . . I wasn’t all that shocked. As a matter of fact, I thought it was one of the more honest resolutions I’ve seen in a superhero story in quite a while.

“What?” I hear you screaming. “You think it’s okay for Superman to murder? What about when you wrote this!

Relax, put down that plate. No, I don’t think it’s okay for Superman to murder, and I don’t think Superman as portrayed in the film thinks it’s okay either. He’s forced into an impossible situation, and is immediately filled with remorse and shame because of his action.

But let’s consider the alternative typical Hollywood solution: in most films Superman would not have killed Zod himself, but Zod would have conveniently brought about his own death in some kind of last ditch attack. (See Spiderman, see Batman Begins, see Superman II for goodness sake! That’s three Kryptonians who fall to their doom in that one.)

That’s the Hollywood cop-out. Give the audience their catharsis by killing the bad guy, but excuse the hero from any culpability because he didn’t pull the trigger. And that’s lazy storytelling. The makers of this story went a different direction, one fraught with moral implications and repercussions. It served to deepen what is basically “Superman Begins.”

Same thing with Pa Kent. Far from the true moral compass that we’ve seen in other versions, this Pa was a source of doubt in Clark. He instilled in his son fear – the fear of being discovered as different. Sure he was loving and full of pithy sayings, but he was also a therapist’s dream (and here I thought Batman was the hero with daddy issues.) But this decision wasn’t made lightly, I’m sure. Again, it gave Clark depth, inner conflict and a character arc to follow.

So craft-wise, I get both those decisions. They yield story potential, they serve what I am sure was the corporate mandate of “shake this franchise up!”

Now, back to Zod. Would I have ended it like that? That’s the question that I am getting asked, so here is the answer at long last:

No.

Even though I understand and, in some ways, respect the decision of those storytellers, I would not have made the same decision they did. Because I think that with Superman, heck with superheroes in general, there is always another way. They are aspirational, they are inspirational. Even with all their faults and foibles, at the end of the day they inspire wonder because they can do the things we cannot. They think of possible solutions to impossible problems, like how to stop Zod from killing others, without killing him yourself (if only there were a Phantom Zone to toss him into . . .)

Folks might say, “but that’s not realistic.” Nope. Neither is a guy flying around in a cape. We’re telling a myth here, and mythology deals in wonders. Go find another genre if that doesn’t suit you. The body count is high out there in fiction these days, so you won’t have to look far.

Which brings me again to did I like the movie? Parts of it I did, and parts I didn’t. I think it’s obvious which ones.

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