Man of Steel: Powerful enough to entertain

Review of Man of Steel directed by Zach Snyder


The Superman story has been told (and filmed) so often that it is undoubtedly a challenge for filmmakers come up with a new ‘take’ on the story that is both interesting to the viewer and faithful to the canon (assuming that “faithfulness to the canon” is a virtue to be pursued rather than a rule to be cast off—which of course is not an assumption we can always make). Chock full of nods to earlier Superman adaptations, Man of Steel strikes this balance well and ends up being an enjoyable (if long) movie.

The Summary

Even if you’ve never read a single comic book or watched any kind of superhero anything, you still likely know Superman’s back story. Man of Steel is mostly a re-telling of this back story, albeit with some interesting modifications and different emphases from previous versions. (The movie is a bit too long to summarize, but you can find good overviews here and here.) The two emphases that stand out most are the focus on Superman as Kryptonian and the sidelining of Clark Kent. That is, Man of Steel is an exploration of who Superman is and where he fits in—is he a Kryptonian or is there a place for him on Earth? The “secret identity” business that is so familiar is certainly there, but it remains in the background.

Specifically, contrasts are drawn between Superman’s Kryptonian origins/upbringing on Earth and the Kryptonian society represented by General Zod (ably played by Michael Shannon). Kryptonian society is basically a Platonic culture built on their mastery of genetic manipulation. Children are created in vats with specific abilities and talents that enable them to fill the roles needed by society. Politicians, soldiers, artisans, and so forth are designed from conception to fit into their proper place (more on this below). Jor-El (Russell Crowe), on the other hand, has taken it upon himself to beget a child in the old-fashioned way so that his child (the first natural-born child in centuries) will have the freedom to choose his own way in life.  In doing so, this child will act as a symbol of hope, inspiring others to follow in his footsteps and live up to their full potential. These two worldviews—predetermined social roles and personal freedom—collide in the persons of Zod and Superman.

The Weaknesses

There are three minor problems in this film.

The first is that the beginning drags a bit. The first forty or so minutes of the movie—despite all the special effects and CGI involved—are just intro material. Necessary intro material, but still intro material. While I don’t know what could have been cut out, I do know that it was a bit of a slog. And while I can’t go into detail without giving away more of the movie than is appropriate in a review, I can say that it’s worth powering through—the rest of the movie is excellent.

Second, as I noted above, Kryptonian society is clearly supposed to be Platonic (at one point we even see a young Superman reading Plato). Unfortunately, it’s really more of a caricature of Plato than anything—the sort of understanding of Plato one would get from a poorly taught intro to philosophy class. Which of course is fine; it’s just a movie and the corruption of Platonic ideas probably makes for a more interesting theme than pure Platonic ideas would. (I’m not sure that I would want to see Superman in a throw-down with a super-powered philosopher king.) But since I teach political philosophy, I thought I should at least point out that if you’re trying to learn Plato from this movie, you’re doing it wrong.

And of course, the biggest weakness of all: the line “Kneel before Zod!” is never uttered. This really is unforgiveable…

The Strengths

Despite the above weaknesses, Man of Steel really is an excellent movie.

First, unlike its immediate predecessor, this is not a movie in which Superman never hits anyone [salty language alert for that link—like, for real]. Superman throws down, and it is awesome. One of the benefits of having General Zod (or any other Kryptonian, for that matter) as the villain is that Superman doesn’t have to pull his punches. He doesn’t have to worry about vaporizing Lex Luthor’s head if he swings too hard—he can let fly with everything he’s got in the way that we’ve always wished he would. So for actiony/CGI wonderfulness alone, this movie is worth seeing.

Second, the acting is excellent across the board, especially in what I believe to be the most difficult role in the Superman series: that of Lois Lane. The character of Superman is easy: you just have to be nice without being a pushover (to the best of my knowledge all of the previous Supermen have done this quite well). The villain is easier; you just have to combine and a delightful insanity with an insatiable lust for power. Lois Lane, however, can be a bit of a weak point in the Superman universe. On the one hand, she is a reporter and is supposed to be an intelligent, competent, modern woman. On the other hand, she has to get into trouble often enough to keep Superman busy saving her. The end result is that Lois’ character is often a strange mix of intelligent forcefulness and blind stupidity. Man of Steel uses Amy Adams well; her Lois Lane does not beg to be left in the stupid mess of her own making. Don’t get me wrong, the other actors nail their roles too; it’s just especially notable that Adams rises to the difficult challenge of her character.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Schaeffer’s Ghost review without mentioning that the themes of the movie are interesting and worthwhile as well. One  regularly repeated theme is the question of whether mankind needs an actual savior, or just an inspirational example to imitate. This obviously has all sorts of Christological implications and brings up the issue of the Pelagian heresy.

But more interesting is the question raised of whether we should be free to choose our own path in life, or whether we should accept the role that society has given us to fill. While the poor showing of Plato may irritate the political philosopher in me, I can at least recognize the value of this discussion in Man of Steel. Obviously, to some extent our answer to this question is going to depend on context, for example, if we’re discussing child-bearing then my gender means that, as a dude, my role in the process is pretty much set. If we’re discussing jobs or political office we’d give a different set of answers, while if we’re discussing marriage and family we might have yet another conversation.

And if it seems like I’m slipping into relativism and postmodern contextualism by challenging the question itself, well, maybe I kind of am. The fact is that as Christians we have a mixed view of freedom and social roles. On the one hand, we believe that man was created to fulfill a certain and specific purpose: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We can’t escape this; it is our telos as human beings. However much the hippie-rebel in us might rail against that statement, the fact is we will glorify God either in our being judged or in our being saved. There is no middle ground and no third way (and no real inherent ability on our part to jump between one and the other).

Likewise, we recognize that there are natural differences between people that clearly exist and should be acknowledged. My wife can sing quite well, while my singing voice approximates rubbing sandpaper on your eardrums. However badly I may want to sing professionally, if I don’t recognize that the wife is closer to that career goal than I will ever be, then I am living in a fantasy world and setting myself up for a good deal of bitterness. Natural capabilities must be accounted for.

At the same time, as Christians we hold that, so long as you are not sinning, you are free to do what you want in this world (though of course “so long as you are not sinning” is a huge caveat). If you want to be a teacher instead of a welder, or a singer instead of a fireman, no one will say you are wrong to do so. If you want to marry person X instead of person Y, or attend school A instead of school B, you are free to do those things. You may very well fail at these things, just as I would were I to try to be a professional singer, but we as Christians want to encourage the civil freedom to pursue these opportunities.

All of this to say that the predetermined roles vs. personal freedom is a bit of a false dichotomy. There’s a ‘both/and’ quality that adds a level of complexity to the question and defies simple answers. We really should go through these problems one issue at a time and have a long conversation with each other and with the world about the proper balance in each sphere of existence. This question involved issues too complex and multi-faceted to be tackled in a single blog post, even a lengthy one like this is becoming…

Fortunately, I do not demand complexity from superhero movies. I demand that Superman hit the bad guy with a train. And Man of Steel more than meets that relatively simple requirement.

Highly recommended.

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Politics at Southwest Baptist University. As much as he does rock, he is not made of steel. 

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  • Alex

    I don’t think it’s exactly fair to say that Platonic ideas are corrupted and then dismiss them entirely. Man of Steel is offering a pretty sophisticated view of Superman as a character (as perhaps an alternative to the Jesus analogies that everyone else is picking up on), and an interesting critique of The Republic.

    Krypton is a corrupted version of Plato’s Ideal City.

    The Rulers are not living up to their role, by ignoring the harm they are doing to their planet (short-sightedness, lack of moderation). Loosing sight of the Good this badly results in their entire planet blowing up.

    The Guardians (Zod) are not staying to their role either. Zod is convinced he has a better grasp of the Good than the rulers, Jor-El, and Superman. Lack of harmony, injustice, unbalanced soul and city.

    Man of Steel is questioning the wisdom of putting Plato’s Ideal City into action, because human (Kryptonian?) fallibility would sink the city. They’re in line with Plato; Socrates admits that the city would inevitably be corrupted. The film now has to deal with this question: since even the beautiful image of the city turns sour when brought into the world, how can we best live together as a society?

    Returning to earth, Clark Kent has to grapple with Platonic ideas throughout the movie. As Superman, he certainly seems to embody the Philosopher King, full of sunlight and visions of the Good. He has total power over the world, but chooses not to abuse it. That’s almost literally Plato’s definition of Justice. Superman has a just soul.

    But his emphasis on personal freedom goes against Plato, and against Zod. Zod is militantly championing the form of Plato’s city (a new Krypton), while going against its principles and virtues, like Justice and Moderation.

    What is the point of following the letter of the law if you don’t follow the spirit? Superman rejects Zod’s society, and embraces the society he finds on Earth – America, with all the personal Freedom it embodies that runs counter to Plato and Krypton. In The Republic, Plato lists democracy as a corruption of the Ideal City, but Superman embraces it instead of Krypton. Clark Kent sees virtue and Good in America.

    If I had to guess at Man of Steel’s message, I’d say that it’s claiming America as the successor to Plato’s Ideal City. It doesn’t look like the City, but it holds many of it’s virtues.

    Of course, audience opinion might differ from that of the filmmakers.

    • cneal

      Alex- first, thanks for reading and commenting!

      Second, I think you’ve probably got a pretty fair interpretation of the movie, if one that’s a bit more generous than I would hold.

      You’re certainly right about Krypton as a decayed Platonic city (with the Guardians and Leaders both failing at their roles). I might quibble a bit about America as the successor to Plato’s Ideal city (whether symbolized by Krypton or not), mostly because the film focuses so little on American society and so much on Superman himself…

      Anyway, excellent comment

  • Alex Lane

    ..another little easter egg I found in the film was in the end when Zod and Superman have it out to the death. Zod’s neck is broken amidst shattered Greek columns. Superman prevails by killing Zod (which you could say represents the necessity of the modern American belief in ends justifying the means). Right before this Zod makes a snide remark about Superman’s past, having come from a farm and presuming that makes him incapable of the level of fighting that Zod is accustomed. I agree with the Dr. Coyle Neal here in believing that these are merely superficial representations, mostly symbol without much substance to delve into.. but that being said, it was certainly a fun experience to be watching these grand action sequences and picking up little hints in the dialogue about the opposing philosophic forces.

    • cneal

      Alex– good catch! That was a great Americanism (farm boy bests professional) that I should have included in the review.
      Thanks for reading!