I had lowered expectations of a new Superman film, particularly from Zach Snyder, who is definitely a skilled technical director but has zero capacity for compelling emotional drama. Specifically in a story about an essentially invulnerable super human hero with no discernible weaknesses and an unerring moral compass, I was not expecting much from the least sympathetic character in the comic book universe. The one saving grace I was looking for came from the influence of Christopher Nolan in the executive producer role, someone I consider to be one of the most talented and original storytellers in film today. I was looking for his fingerprints, for his capacity to find the most engrossing elements of a story and make them fascinating and relatable, even in the strangest setting. What I found was the expected parallels to Christ treated with equal parts predictability and conscience. I found, in spite of some excessively mind-addling special effects, a good story and an honorable treatment of a superhero that has been too often overrated and too eagerly dismissed. Something we have forgotten while mired in the hubris of Tony Stark, the Messiah Complex of Bruce Wayne, and the fallibility of Peter Parker, is that although it is acceptable for our heroes to have flaws, they are also something we can idealize. They can be someone we can look up to for being better than who we are, without resentment. As both his fathers try to impress, he is an alien to us but he can show us, if he chooses, how good we can be.
Superman has a fear of being rejected and further alienated by humankind if he reveals his true nature and, without the intervention of General Zod, he would have continued in his isolation indefinitely. The choice he makes to surrender himself is both fitting given his nature and the logical way for him to enter our world, it makes perfect sense, particularly in the chosen setting. Hovering over the arid desert, he presents himself in true biblical fashion, returned from isolation at the convenient age of 33, like Christ. And like Christ, he has his moment in the garden of Gethsemane, visiting a Catholic priest for guidance. In the bible, this was the place of Jesus’ betrayal and, like the Son of God, he knows his decision will pave the way to his own end if only to save the people of Earth. The allusion is treated bluntly but there is a depth of feeling here I wasn’t expecting. Like Jesus, Kal-El’s mind is already made up but he needed the words to find his real conviction. Even though the decision was already made for him, he still needed the counsel of an ordinary man to steel his resolve. Because, although we know he is invulnerable and incredibly powerful, he doesn’t, not yet. This is that heroism that exists in those rare individuals, the firefighters, the police officers, the soldiers that run towards danger instead of away from it, unlike the rest of us. The difference here is that he is doing it alone, without a brotherhood or a family, for no other purpose than that it is the right thing to do.
A big question surrounding a Superman film is this: why do we care about this perfect indestructible being? When will we ever believe that he is in danger or worry at all? The answer, as has been addressed in previous films, is in the lives of the people around him. Will he or won’t he show up in time and, in previous films, he always does. Previous films still carried the stigma of camp, the violence portrayed had no real significance or effect. If people died off-screen it was barely supplemental. The only lives that mattered were the principal characters and Man of Steel capably confronts this in its depiction of our military forces failing miserably against superior technology. Casting easily recognizable faces in secondary roles had a powerful effect. And while saving Metropolis and Smallville (heretofore known as Product Placement-ville, Sears, 7 Eleven, IHOP) Superman effectively pulverizes both. The falling skyscrapers and ensuing chaos were pretty horrifying in context, they had a Cloverfield vibe that I really enjoyed. Showing how the ordinary citizen deals with these super beings beating the living hell out of each other in the middle of a major metropolitan city is shown with vivid deference to actual disasters. With the falling ash, the concrete and steel rebar, all the awe and wonder of seeing this other-worldly spectacle evaporates in the ensuing melee. Superman is not there for everyone. Many people die. To quote a more cleverly written film, the definition of a hero is someone who gets other people killed. The reality that if war of an advanced alien culture took place in the middle of a metropolitan city is perfectly realized, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
It is a good thing that we embrace our heroes along with their failures, it says a lot about us as a people and where we are as a civilized culture. Where Batman, Iron Man, and Spider Man are real human beings trying to be accepted and assume responsibility for their demons it is important to realize that there are still higher ideals that we can aspire to. It has become cliche to ask What Would Jesus Do as it has evolved into the world of bumper sticker philosophy and coffee table wisdom but dismissing this ideology because of its trite and possibly pedantic nature is to also deny a truly humane and powerfully positive edict towards living an honorable and good life that has endured for two thousand years. However misdirected organized religion can be, the fundamental message is a personal one, to be interpreted as such. This does not come from a practicing Christian or a particularly idealistic perspective but what I will say that is there is nothing wrong with having someone to look up to, someone who always makes the right choice. These ideas are epitomized in Jonathan Kent and Jor-El; how lucky is Superman’s Universe that these two men were the ones guiding him. Instead of dictating his behavior or badgering him, they gave Kal-El the opportunity to choose for himself, only informing him of what consequence is. Further, what responsibility he has.
This should be the enduring message of how Superman needs to be interpreted in the following films and in pop culture in general. There will not always be a perfect savior that is going to save the day when we need them, he simply can’t be everywhere all the time. He will fight the big fights, the ones that are above and beyond us, but in the mean time we can aspire to be as good as he always will be. And when hope is lost and there is no one to fly in and save the day, ask what he would do. I think he would say, in your darkest hour, when no one else is there, that means it’s your time to be the hero.