Man of Steel: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on What Went Wrong in Man of Steel!
Written by: Tommy Cook
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Alex Futtersak
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Man of Steel: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up, everyone? Disembodied Jared, again. Man, the DCEU has had a pretty rough go of it. We’ve already broken down what went wrong in Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. But today, we’re going back to the source of all these issues: the movie that began Zack Snyder’s vision of the DC universe, that gave birth to Mustache-gate…Tramp-Stamp Joker… Momoa Dead-Eyes… Wonder Woman (Okay, that one was pretty great.)… The never-ending will they or won’t they… All ultimately leading to the tragically bland, corporate-mandated void that is the Justice League.
But none of this would exist if it weren’t for the film that set the tone — Man of Steel. By trying to graft darkness and grit onto a character devoid of such qualities, Man of Steel stumbles into a mess that would ultimately doom the DCEU. So, let’s rotate the earth back half a decade and see how the DCEU went so wrong, so early. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Man of Steel: What Went Wrong? And as always, spoilers ahead.
Back in 2013, DC Films was riding high after the critical and financial success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Those films successfully merged the pop aesthetic of a superhero film with a previously unmatched sense of weight. Nolan explored the darker aspects of being ‘The Batman,’ questioning whether the vigilante was himself a destructive force. Did Batman begin the very cycle of violence he fights against? Would The Joker, Bane and all the rest of these villains ever have come to fruition if he didn’t exist? If true, what good is Batman, our supposed hero? Is he a necessary evil? These are weighty questions to ask — and yet Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy never tipped over into pomposity, the rare superhero film to be both smart and entertaining.
It’s no surprise, then, that DC wanted to recreate this same success with their other tentpole comic character: Superman. I mean — those Christopher Nolan Batman films sure were successful, so why not do the exact same thing for Superman? Seems like a sure-fire hit. What could go wrong? So, the powers-that-be hired another dark and gritty filmmaker – Watchmen and 300’s Zack Snyder, brought in the co-writer of The Dark Knight trilogy, and even gave our boy Nolan a Story Credit and Producer Role. There’s just one little problem: Superman isn’t Batman.
The darkness and weight intrinsic to Batman, an emotionally scarred vigilante avenging the death of his parents, just isn’t true for Superman. On the contrary, Superman is supposed to be the ideal – all powerful yet completely pure. There’s not a malevolent bone in his body. He’s the ultimate good-guy. So, how the hell do you impose darkness, grit, and weight onto the symbol of hope? “What’s the ’S’ stand for?” “On my world, it means ‘hope.’”
For Snyder, the answer didn’t lie with Superman, but in the world around him. America has changed a whole lot since Superman’s comic book introduction in 1938. Where once upon a time, the good guys and bad guys were easy to deduce and label, at the time Man of Steel was written, the Endless War on Terror had muddied the waters – Guantanamo Bay, xenophobia and insufficient veteran services painting America as a far cry from the supposed shining city on a hill.
Man of Steel questions if Superman – the embodiment of the American ideal – can survive in the current disillusioned America. Will he be accepted or rejected? Ostensibly, it’s a coming-out story – where the central question becomes should Superman reveal himself to society? And lest anyone ever accuse Man of Steel of being subtle — when Clark first discovers his powers during class, he runs away and hides out in, you guessed it, a closet.
So, what answer does the film provide — should Superman remain in the closet or reveal his powers and save the world like the hero he’s always been? Well, the answer becomes far darker and murkier than you’d expect. After young Clark saves a bus full of students from drowning, Jonathan Kent tells him that maybe he shouldn’t have. “What was I supposed to do? Just let them die?” “Maybe.”
Let that sink in: the ‘All American Dad’ tells the ‘Burgeoning Hero’ he should probably let a bunch of children drown. The crazier part — Man of Steel treats this advice as sound. Jonathan, in the same scene, tells Clark that there’s more at stake than the lives of a bunch of children. “When the world finds out what you can do, it’s gonna change everything. Our — our belief, our notions of what it means to be human. Everything.”
Jonathan fears that when confronted with who and what Clark is, people will fear and reject him. Humanity’s very reality will shatter, and the results won’t be pretty. And guess what? Throughout Man of Steel, we see that to be exactly the case. When Clark hides in the closet after discovering his powers, he hears the children afraid of him.
“He’s such a freak.” “Cry baby.” “His parents won’t let him play with other kids.”
When Perry Mason hears about the possibility of Superman’s existence, he remarks, “Can you imagine how people on this planet would react? If they knew there was someone like this out there?” Even Lois Lane, Superman’s true paramour, is afraid when she first sees the all-mighty alien. “The questions raised by my rescuer’s existence are frightening to contemplate.”
If Clark does decide to come out — well, it could end in his death. Case in point: as a teenager, Clark is framed reading a book on the philosopher Plato. Plato actually detailed what would happen if a perfectly just and righteous man were to ever come into the world, a man just like Superman. In The Republic, one of Socrates’s pals suggests that this ‘perfect’ man “will be scourged, racked, bound. He will have his eyes burned out. And at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled.” So… not good.
If Superman were to reveal his identity, inevitably people would turn against him and seek to kill him – a fate we see play out in Batman v Superman. Snyder drives this point home by comparing the hero to the other all-good being in human history: Jesus. “Was an act of God, Jonathan! This was providence.” When Clark debates with a priest about whether he should reveal his identity, he’s framed in the foreground with a stained-glass depiction of Jesus in the background. And later, when Superman rescues Lois from an escape pod, we see him in the classic crucifix pose. Again, not very subtle. By comparing Superman with Christ, Snyder adds a real sense of foreboding to Man of Steel because, well, we all know how Jesus’s story ends.
And herein lies the problem: Clark has to become Superman because the movie’s called Man of Steel, not ‘Hipster Sad Beard Man’; but Man of Steel puts itself into a corner where it’s constantly arguing Clark shouldn’t reveal his powers, that if he does become Superman, he will be feared, hated and inevitably murdered. There’s no logical reason for Clark to reveal himself to the world – so, this leads to two issues: 1) Clark becomes a reluctant hero and 2) The entire film becomes a ‘Refusal of the Call’.
Now, the Reluctant Hero is a well-worn narrative archetype, in which a person is thrust into circumstance where he must save the day despite never really wanting to do so. Think Han Solo in Star Wars or John McClane in Die Hard. This ‘hero’ doesn’t ever look to save anybody; he’s just drawn into situations where he must. Similarly, Clark doesn’t look to save anybody in Man of Steel. He just sort of ends up at the right place at the right time. The school bus crash: well, Clark’s already on the bus — so, why not? The oil rig disaster: Clark’s on a nearby fishing boat — so, why not again? Lois gets attacked by a tentacled etch-a-sketch: Clark’s only a couple feet away — you get the point.
But this Reluctant Hero archetype is the antithesis of the Superman mythos. If Superman is the ideal we strive to be, the hero among heroes, then his reluctance to save anybody runs contrary to this ethos. Further, by making Superman – ‘A Reluctant Hero’, it turns him into a passive character. Things happen to Clark – the bus crash, the oil rig disaster, a stage five tornado – as opposed to Clark leading the narrative through action. The entire film, in turn, becomes a ‘Refusal of the Call’. Per Joseph Campell’s Hero’s Journey, when our hero is first called into action, he chooses to refuse, often because staying at home is easier and far less dangerous.
For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke initially refuses to help Obi Wan save Princess Leia. It’s only when Luke returns home to see his house destroyed and his aunt and uncle dead, that he decides to take up action. The refusal of the call is typically only a brief stop on the hero’s journey. In Campbell’s monomyth, it takes up less than a seventeenth of the hero’s journey. Yet in Man of Steel, Clark refuses the call to become Superman for over half the film, more than an hour of runtime. Imagine if Luke had spent over an hour contemplating the pros and cons of using the force. You’d grow to hate the guy. This becomes the problem in Man of Steel – Clark spends so much time debating the merits of becoming a hero, that in the end, he seems like a bit of a dick. I mean – he’s an all mighty, all powerful being who can save the Earth on one leg with only his pinky — and yet, we, the audience are asked to sympathize with why he shouldn’t save anybody.
When Jonathan Kent gets sucked up into a tornado, Man of Steel’s intent is to depict the moment as tragic lesson, but in execution, well, it’s far less. Clark could save his Pa from imminent death — but can’t because doing so would reveal his powers to too many. “I let my father die because I trusted him. Because he was convinced that I had to wait. That the world was not ready.”
Yet again, Man of Steel treats this as a completely reasonable action. Like, of course, that’s what anybody would do. Superman should let his father die ‘cause there’s at least twenty-five people under that bridge watching. Even more – the blame is placed on ‘the world’. It’s our fault Jonathan Kent died, we’re too ignoble – not the superhero that could have saved him in — oh, I don’t know, two seconds.
Man of Steel carries this cynicism to its conclusion, where Superman and Zod duke it out in Metropolis, nonchalantly killing hundreds of thousands, if not more. But it’s not Superman who is cavalier to this loss of life, but the film itself. Man of Steel doesn’t realize the implication this conclusion has on Superman and his heroic ethos. The ending has treated it as a triumph: Superman defeats Zod and saves the world. Who cares about a couple hundred thousand extras? Lois is fine. Get over it. Humanity never even accepts Superman. After Clark reveals his powers and ‘sorta-saves’ Metropolis, the government tracks him with a drone, questioning his motives. How do we know you won’t one day act against America’s interest?”
Superman too doesn’t trust humanity, destroying the aforementioned drone and telling the government to take a hike, that they’ll ‘never find out where he hangs his cape.’ So in the end, the uneasy relationship between humanity and Superman is still, well, exactly that. The world still isn’t ready. Early in Man of Steel, Clark’s birth father, Jor-El, echoes the idealistic sentiments of Superman’s past.
“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will rest behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
This is the Superman of the 1930s, of Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve, but the words ring hollow in Snyder’s morally-obfuscated worldview. By the end of Man of Steel, Snyder has crafted a Superman who shouldn’t have saved a bus full of children, who let his father die, and destroyed the city he sought to protect. All the idealism of yesteryear has been sucked out, leaving a hollow shell where once stood a beacon of hope.
Man of Steel’s intent is to pave the way for Superman and the DCEU, to showcase the uplifting origins of The Greatest of Heroes and begin a multi-crossover film franchise, but in reality the film has the exact opposite reaction – the wanton destruction of the third act, the wishy-washy hero, the morally obfuscated world – all paint a picture far from idealistic. This isn’t an uplifting story of a hero coming into his own and being accepted by the world. This is a story of a hero forced into hiding, ultimately rejected in fear by the government and people he seeks to protect. That darkness and grit – the very thing Man of Steel adds – ironically enough, becomes its own undoing, swallowing up the inherent goodness of its central character, turning the beginnings of the DCEU franchise into the origins of its end. Thanks for watching, guys. And as always, peace.