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Man of Steel is the 2013 reboot of the Superman story, taking a darker, more fleshed out approach to the origin of Earth’s greatest superhero. Giving deeper backstory to planet Krypton’s final hours and the parents who fought to save their son, director Zach Snyder‘s epic, heavily divisive film is both an extraordinary visual adaptation of the DC Comics character and an often meandering, joyless experience that spent far too much time in a final conflict that wallowed in gratuitous special effects. Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman does an admirable job in a historically difficult-to-portray role, but can’t rise above a far too somber script that weighs heavily on the entire production. A frustrating film that at times soars, it is ultimately a disappointment.
While there are a number of effective moments, none are more so than the relationship between Clarke and his Earth parents. Snyder does these scenes justice and in fact, might well have done more with them and scrapped much of the needless combat. There is great authenticity in these few moments, punctuated by some of the best acting in the film. Clarke, a man of two fathers, is affected by both, though it is the one on his adopted planet that gives the story it greatest humanity, most particularly when a fateful choice tasks Clarke with not doing what he knows he is meant to do. Let’s examine.
For Clark Kent, who arrived on Earth as a baby, he has known only one family, the couple who rescued him after his pod crashed in a nearby field. Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan (Kevin Costner) Kent have tried to protect the child from the outside world, raising him as their own. While his powers gestate and begin to reveal themselves, he is misunderstood and made fun of as a child, but when he uses his strength to save a bus full of children trapped in a river, Jonathan questions whether the cost might have been too high in exposing him for who he is. He rationalizes that if the world finds out what the boy can do, it will change everything about our beliefs and what it means to be human. There is much more at stake than just them. In revealing to the child his true origins, he also confesses that the world is not ready to know who Clark is, that he must, at all costs, keep this side of him secret.
As an adult, still living with his adoptive parents, Clark grows restless, questioning his place in a world he knows little about and feeling overly-sheltered. In their truck driving along a highway, he, Martha, and Jonathan engage in a heated conversation about their roles in his upbringing and what Clark should do. Meanwhile, an approaching storm worsens and as traffic stops, a massive tornado begins to form. Jonathan leaps from the car and tells them to abandon the truck and head for the nearby overpass, telling other fleeing drivers and passengers to do the same (a procedure long recognized as more dangerous than just staying in your car).
When they realize their dog has remained in the truck, Clark attempts to retrieve the animal, but Jonathan instructs him to stay with his mother under the bridge instead and then runs toward the storm. As the horrific twister gains ground, it’s clear that Jonathan will not make it back, even after freeing the dog. When Clark realizes this, he makes a gesture to use his speed to save his father, but Jonathan, sensing that is what he’ll do, raises a hand to stop him, shaking his head as the wind and debris collect him into the maelstrom. Clark screams in agony as he watching the only father he has every known disappear into the void.
As a child, little Clark was a shunned boy, teased by several classmates. On the bus after it goes under water, he has no second thoughts about saving them all, even a bully, lifting the vehicle to safety and rescuing all the students. When he explains to his father that all he wanted to do was help and asks if he should have let them die, he is shaking with emotion. It is a question no child should be burdened with asking. Jonathan understands this, but he also knows that not only will a revelation that we are not alone shock the world, but knowing that the visitor is practically a god, will have profound global implications. He’s right of course.
Once Clark knows more about who he is, he spends his youth hiding in the normality of a farmer’s every day life, purposefully unchallenged. He develops tremendous powers but is shackled by the need to remain anonymous. This, and the natural longing to develop individuality as a person has him on edge. Rebellion is to be expected in any young person, and with Clark, who is not even of this Earth, it comes with great pain. He loves Martha and Jonathan. They are his parents. But he can’t deny he is not like them, or anyone else. Most people don’t know their purpose in life, wondering why they are here and what they should be doing, but Clark not only knows his purpose, it is coursing through him uncontrollably, even if he doesn’t quite get what it means. He has gifts beyond compare, able to be the single most powerful being on the planet, capable of accomplishing feats of good like no other person has ever been able to do, yet he can do nothing about it.
When Jonathan forces Clark to stay under the overpass, he creates an impossible situation for his son. With the storm bearing down, Clark easily has the ability to speed to the truck and rescue the dog and return safely, but to do so would expose his powers to the dozens of others crowded around him, and unlike the isolated school bus with a handful of imaginative children, this time there would be no talking their way out of explaining what he did. To that end, Jonathan makes the fateful choice to try to do it on his own, and when he becomes wedged in the vehicle for a moment, the chance for him to make it back is quickly swallowed up in the high velocity wind. Clark is pressed to save him, but that knowing look and shake of the head from Jonathan keep him still and so Clark watches his father die. It is a profound moment of connection and one that tests the young man’s faith in his father.
He later confesses to Louis Lane (Amy Adams) a reporter for the Daily Planet who has been following the curious tales of a man with great power, that he let his father die because he trusted him, believing that the world was not ready for a man like Clark. When he saved the children on the bus, he was told he should have maybe let them die, and that has weighed on him since. Now, when he took that advice and let his own father die to protect his secret, the weight worsens. This is the burden of being Superman, something that will define him throughout, a lingering sorrow that he comes to accept as being part of who he is, even though no one must know. He is a man of steel.
David S. Goyer (screenplay), David S. Goyer (story)
Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner