This past week on the podcast I made a lot of noise about Man of Steel and why I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped to. Part of this is because I am at some level a viciously cynical man. I believe people are in base nature selfish and evil, that goodness is something we have to strive for. But the Superman we see in this film is, at his core, intrinsically good.
This inherent goodness feels jarring because on some level we assume the film is “dark and edgy” in the same way that Christopher Nolan’s Batman was. Only it isn’t. Not really. True, the film looks “dark and edgy”. But it’s hard to be thematically dark with a movie starring Boy Scout Space Jesus.
I had heard the whole “Superman is Jesus” complaint before I saw the movie, but I had no idea how deep it really went. We’re talking about a guy whose “unnatural” birth is followed by a madman trying kill him by killing those around him. He was sent to earth by his father. He goes around doing good through superhuman feats, but early in his life he tries to keep his power a secret. He’s rejected by his own people and so becomes the savior of another people. And that stupid codex subplot that does nothing to advance the actual story? Well hey, turns out that means even though the people of his world are dead, they can one day live again through him.
I mean I get it, Jesus is a hugely influential archetype for story tellers, but some level he’s also kind of unrelatable. How are we supposed to relate to a guy who never does anything wrong? How are we supposed to relate to the kid who never hit back against the kids who were bullying him? (And incidentally, what kind of moron bullys a kid who can lift a bus? I’m just sayin’.)
Man of Steel forces you to think about the question, what is it like to grow up as Superman? Alienated by your peers, dealing with the manifestation of powers you can’t fully control, listening to terrible life advice from your foster dad?
How do you somehow magically turn into a guy who has a distinct moral compass and wants nothing more than to be accepted? Why would you not decide to become god of the planet when you were fifteen? What’s to stop you? At the least you could get a nice-sized cult going. At the very very least since you look like Henry Cavill and you can lift an entire building how are you not making some serious time with the ladies?
And the movie doesn’t answer the question it goes out of its way to pose. Superman is good and we don’t know why. Because despite all that crap about being from Krypton, and growing up in Kansas, and…whatever that was with Pa Kent and the twister, Superman in this movie doesn’t really have an origin story. We know where he came from, but we don’t know how he got here.
In contrast look at some other super hero origins we’ve seen recently. Tony Stark was a millionaire douche who was forced to face his results of his douchery and through that process resolved to reverse the evil he had unleashed on the world. Thor was a arrogant man-child with the powers of a god who was stripped of those powers and banished from his home to a alien world where he learned humility and protected the citizens of that world. Batman was super rich and his parents were killed in front of him but he was still super rich and now he’s all martial arts and stuff but there’s a dark side that he has to keep in check or something and…look I’m really not that big of a DC guy to be honest.
Point being, we get a sense of who these guys are though the telling of who they were. At it’s very core an origin story is nothing more than a character arc, the process of becoming. And Man of Steel has none of that. Superman doesn’t become. Superman is.
And maybe that’s ultimately okay. All that complaining about story mechanics and the lack of character arc, that’s all well and good, but it’s not the end of the story. Because our heroes embody the people we want to be. They’re about the ideals we set for ourselves, the thing we want to become.
We’ve lost a lot of that in this the age of deconstruction. We’ve rejected the ideal for the real, abandoned optimism for cynicism. These days at best our heroes represent who we are. At worst they’re testosterone-fueled wish-fulfillment fantasies every bit as empty as Twilight.
So many films today are dark and edgy. Man of Steel isn’t. It is a light, even if it doesn’t mean to be, and it blinds our cynical eyes.
Superman’s “problem” is that he’s innately good. And that feels wrong on some level because people aren’t innately good.
But as a hero, as someone we created to look up to, he’s still the best there is. Because if our heroes take the form of the people we want to be, if they are the ideal we want to reach, we could do a lot worse than Boy Scout Space Jesus.