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A 'Man of Steel' Ending Spiel

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by Matt Singer
June 17, 2013 1:16 PM
20 Comments
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"Man of Steel."

The following post contains SPOILERS for "Man of Steel" and "Iron Man 3."

Comic book movies often inspire intense debates between fans and critics, but I can't recall one quite as fevered as the conversation that is quickly coalescing around the new Superman film, "Man of Steel," and in particular around its controversial ending.

In it, Superman (Henry Cavill) discovers the true nature of his strange existence and remarkable powers just as a band of soldiers from the planet Krypton, led by the renegade General Zod (Michael Shannon), arrive on Earth. Zod plans to terraform our world, changing its atmosphere and gravity to make it hospitable to Kryptonians (and therefore make it inhospitable to humans, killing billions*). Superman refuses to join Zod's forces, and fights them repeatedly, first in his hometown of Smallville. This fight razes most of Main Street, demolishing, among other things, the local IHOP (thankfully, the local Sears is spared most of the devastation). 

Eventually, Zod activates his terraforming device, the World Engine (while screaming "RELEASE THE WORLD ENGINE!" because Michael Shannon). The machine contains two parts: one lands in Metropolis and begins flattening the city's busy downtown area while the other descends on the Indian Ocean. Rather than destroy the World Engine in the heavily populated area, Superman instead flies to the one that is apparently in the middle of nowhere and poses no immediate threat to human life. After a battle with a bunch of metal tentacle things, Superman punches the World Engine's death laser and heads back to Metropolis. 

Meanwhile, Superman's military allies are able to destroy the Metropolis World Engine by flying a cargo plane into it; everyone onboard dies except for Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Zod. Enraged by his decision to side with the earthlings, Zod attacks Superman. Their fight begins in the blasted-out crater where the World Engine sat and then careens between, through, and into the remaining skyscrapers of the city, causing even more property damage (and likely loss of human life). The conflict concludes at a train station where Zod pins down a small group of civilians with his heat vision. Faced, in his mind at least, with no other choice, Superman snaps Zod's neck, killing him before he can incinerate the bystanders.

Defenders of this series of action scenes offer a variety of evidence on its behalf. In one comic book storyline of the 1980s, Superman did indeed execute General Zod, so that decision has some precedent, however out of character it may seem. And they point out that Zack Snyder's film is about Clark Kent becoming Superman; this is basically his first day on the job, and he's still learning out the ropes. We shouldn't expect him to be perfect, some argue, in the first fight of his life.

And then there's the argument that I actually take most seriously: that this Superman simply isn't the "truth, justice, and the American way" guy that people think of when they hear the name Superman. In 2013, as the argument goes, it's time to reevaluate the character and find the version of him that works for the modern era. And this version shouldn't be held to the standards of previous ones. 

This Superman makes mistakes. He kills people (when he feels he has no other choice). He doesn't always save everyone. He's super, but he's a man, too. These are deliberate changes to this character and to his mythos, done specifically to make him more relevant. Who cares what Superman's done in the past? This is Superman now. 

That argument is particularly compelling because it's similar to one I've used when writing about how comic book movies should be allowed to futz with their source material. Just last month, I wrote a piece called "Defending 'Iron Man 3''s Big Plot Twist" in which I lauded co-writer/director Shane Black for having the guts and the cleverness to rewrite the Mandarin, traditionally a stereotypical yellow peril villain, as a rug-pulling ruse. The guy who looks like the Mandarin from the comics with the flowing robes and the ten rings of power is actually an actor hired by the movie's secret big bad to distract Iron Man from his real plans. 

Some comic book fans rejected this change on principle, but I defended it. "Filmmakers are not court stenographers," I wrote, "and movies are not transcripts." And I chided comic book fans for refusing to accept any deviation from the familiar, adding "It's not just the [comic book] characters that resist change; their audience does too. Everything must remain the same, all the time, over and over again. No wonder so many comics feel so tired; they have to be. Their readers demand it."

So why did I enjoy the Mandarin in "Iron Man 3" and feel so uncomfortable with Superman in "Man of Steel?" If I'm pro-change in comic book movies, why did this change rub me the wrong way? You might call me a hypocrite, but I'd argue I was actual less put off by "Man of Steel"'s unfaithfulness to the comics than by its unfaithfulness to itself.

After all, this Superman is introduced saving lives. In Cavill's very first scene, he protects the staff of an offshore oil rig, propping up its collapsing structure so the rest of the workers can escape in a helicopter. In flashback, we see Clark as a teenager rescuing a bus full of his classmates after they drive off a bridge. His Superman is clearly established as guy who instinctively wants to help people. For whatever reason, though, those instincts never really kick in during the final battle. You could argue the character is actually more heroic in the beginning of the movie than at the end.

One of the explicit recurring themes of this movie -- not Superman comics in general, but "Man of Steel" specifically -- is Superman's ability to inspire the people of Earth with his incredible deeds. In a speech featured in the film's trailer, Russell Crowe's Jor-El tells his son how he will help the human race:

"You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They'll race behind you. They'll stumble, they'll fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."

Jor-El's words are referred to several times throughout "Man of Steel," including the great scene where Superman and Lois discuss his costume; Lois asks him what the "S" on his chest stands for and he tells her "It's not an 'S.' On my world, it means hope." 

These are lovely sentiments, but in "Man of Steel" we mostly get the reverse; it's actually the humans who are generally heroic without much prompting from Superman. Meanwhile Clark, after those early flashes of selflessness, seems more preoccupied with his father issues and his fight with Zod than with protecting the populace of Metropolis. Frankly, it's the regular people who really help Superman accomplish wonders here (like destroying the World Engine), not the other way around.

That's where my dissatisfaction lies; not in the character's "unfaithfulness" but in his stasis; not his change from the comics but his lack of change over the course of the movie. Despite what some of my colleagues argue, Cavill's Clark doesn't really grow into the role of Superman; if anything, he shrinks under the weight of it. It's not that he doesn't feel like Superman -- it's that he doesn't even feel like the Superman introduced in the beginning of this movie. He basically has no arc; at the end of the film, he still hasn't make any huge strides forward from the man we met on that oil rig. And this for a guy who should be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

And If your counter-argument is, "Well, that's all setting up his arc in 'Man of Steel 2,' where we'll see him grapple with his actions and become a true hero," you could be right -- but that doesn't make "Man of Steel 1" any more satisfying. But I guess there's always hope for the future, right? That's what the "S" stands for.

*This raises a question I hadn't quite thought of before: if the yellow sun of Earth makes Kryptonians all-powerful, why would they even want to reshape Earth in Krypton's image? Krypton had cool flying dragons and stuff, but it also, y'know, exploded as a result of environmental instability. Wouldn't it be safer -- not to mention easier -- to conquer the world by leaving it the way it is? This way you're relatively sure the planet won't explode and you've got the added benefit of being a walking god amongst mere mortals.

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20 Comments

  • ran76 | September 29, 2013 8:47 PMReply

    About Superman going to the Indian Ocean to the destroy the World Engine. You're forgetting that the Engine was the immediate threat to the rest of the planet. If Superman went to Metropolis and managed to defeat Zod and the others, the Engine would still be active, doing more damage by the time he got to it, and who knows if Superman would be in any kind of shape to take the Engine out.

  • red | July 4, 2013 9:50 PMReply

    I liked the film..but i am confused by the ending.did a magic fairy come along and fix the city?or did i miss something?.Nothing wrong with the character development..thankfully they gave us complete characters.Good story line.good action.plenty of mayhem....then all of a sudden .clark goes to work in the Daily planet....confused....

  • Bob | June 23, 2013 1:27 PMReply

    Maybe I missed something, but when Superman was in India and destroys the World Engine on that side of the Earth, the sun comes up. Then he flies back to Metropolis, and the sun is still up.. How is the sun up on both sides of the Earth?

  • C.D. Allen | June 21, 2013 5:42 PMReply

    "This raises a question I hadn't quite thought of before: if the yellow sun of Earth makes Kryptonians all-powerful, why would they even want to reshape Earth in Krypton's image?"

    At no time was it suggested that the sun would be altered, or that there was a means to do so.

  • karan | June 28, 2013 1:49 PM

    Correct : the terraforming of Earth to Krypton would allow most species of Krypton to survive.. with the Yellow Sun. a double WIN!

  • Fantsy | June 19, 2013 6:58 PMReply

    Hey,
    I could not tell at the end. Did Superman SAVE the family snapping Zod's neck in the opposite direction or did he use Zod's own force against him and flip Zod's neck in the same direction of the family thus killing them and Zod at the same time??
    Great movie, can't wait to see it again on Imax!!
    fantsy

  • Jim | July 7, 2013 11:17 PM

    Agge - I'm with you on this one. I thought the exact same thing - that Superman knew he had to kill Zod in order to save the human race (who Zod vowed to kill "one by one"), but that he had to sacrifice the family to do so. The whole cry of anguish thing I saw as for the family, not for Zod. I'd have to see the movie again, but I was sure leaving the theater that's what the scene was about - Superman sacrificing some to save many more. I never thought that he was anguished about Zod - hell, he threw the entire rest of the Krypton contingent into a black hole.

  • AGGE | June 27, 2013 11:55 AM

    * that killed = that Superman killed

  • AGGE | June 27, 2013 11:52 AM

    Well, what do you know... I had the exact same thought, that killed the human family in the process of breaking Zod's neck. I was absolutely sure about it to be honest, but no one agrees with me, and the official MoS novelization says nothing about the humans getting killed. So I guess they weren't killed after all.

    Odd though, how Snyder chose to present this scene... He doesn't show those people leaving their spot alive. Instead he shows Superman staring strictly at their direction (not Zod's) screaming in utter anguish, then crying, collapsing, the room being completely silent (while their family's pleading voices were constantly heard until he snapped Zod's neck). And the movement of Superman's arm while twisting Zod's neck was, as seen from the audience, a short but very clear move to the left, and then a big move to the right. The move to the left would definitely kill those people.

    There are two options here imo. One, that Snyder is on purpose messing with our heads, and two, that his direction is poor and sloppy to say the least.

  • emil | June 18, 2013 7:29 AMReply

    as someone before me said - your facts are wrong.

    regarding the world engine - they needed both of them gone.

    then you might also consider the distance factor. we know both of them needed to be destroyed. and i'm gonna assume this was a time sensitive thing. flying half way across the world in a cargo plane vs superman flying half way across the world ... do the math.

    then ... conquering a planet with billions of inhabitants with a handful of soldiers ( even if you do have advanced tech ) is a little harder than simply removing them altogether. particularly when you have no use for them.

    and krypton exploded cause they we're extracting energy from the planets core. not cause of it's atmosphere ... :/

    then ... does no one get that zod also wanted revenge against jor by punishing kal ? why does no one get this fact. he literally calls it out when he is captured at the beginning of the movie.

    furthermore ... you basically missed the whole point of the movie - in this iteration superman is no longer the guy that turns back time by flying around the world :|.

    he is a little bit more alien and a little bit more human.

    it was said and repeated that they wanted the movie based more in reality.

    superman is superman ... but he can't be everywhere at all times. he can't save everyone. especially not when zod and his soldiers are after him at all corners.

  • Guest | June 17, 2013 7:06 PMReply

    Enjoyed your article. My counter would be that saving your school mates or some workmen if it's in your power to do so is a natural instinct that any person would attempt but consider: Kal El has spent his entire life being special, essentially better than everyone on the planet. It's all good. Then in the same week the emotions of virtually the entire population of his adopted homeworld narrow from distrust to outright fear oh and yes for the first time in 33 years he feels true, nerve-searing pain at the hands the last remaining survivors of his long dead planet who, incidentally, want to kill him and every living soul on Earth. He's not confronted with drowning children but by a half dozen trained soldiers who, for all he knows, could actually kill him. "Should I fling this chick pummeling me into the ocean? How many people will she kill on the way back? Well, I have about 30 milliseconds to decide so there's that. Whoop! Can't let this nice family get incinerated like that last 5 dozen people. Better get to it."

  • Matt Goldberg | June 17, 2013 4:16 PMReply

    Responding to this part of your thoughtful article:

    that this Superman simply isn't the "truth, justice, and the American way" guy that people think of when they hear the name Superman. In 2013, as the argument goes, it's time to reevaluate the character and find the version of him that works for the modern era. And this version shouldn't be held to the standards of previous ones.

    I don't necessarily mind that they changed him, but I believe there are core values that make Superman special, and the challenge shouldn't be to clear Superman of those values and force him to adapt to a more "realistic" world (whatever that means) but to find a place for those values today. That's the "inspiration" the movie lauds but never finds. If you clear away those values, then you just have a guy with superpowers wearing a colorful suit.

  • Nico | June 17, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    Dear writer,

    I'd argue about the other points but I'll just point out one very fatal flaw in your analysis.

    The lovely little humans wouldn't have been able to shut down the world engine and use Kal's ship to send the kryptonians back to the Phantom Zone if Kal-El didn't destroy the machine over by the Indian Ocean first. They discussed this in the base before all the Metropolis action happens. The gravity beam wouldn't allow anything human near it, and I'm guessing kryptonians wouldn't be able to fly near it either since its basically turning the area into Krypton's gravity.

    I really wish all the critics would get their facts straight before criticizing the movie.

  • COL | June 17, 2013 2:51 PMReply

    "it's actually the humans who are generally heroic without much prompting from Superman."

    Chris Meloni declares him no enemy after he and his troops were moved by seeing Superman in action as a good guy. You can see how they revere, fear and are inspired by his actions.

    "Meanwhile Clark, after those early flashes of selflessness, seems more preoccupied with his father issues and his fight with Zod than with protecting the populace of Metropolis."

    Fighting Zod was defending Metropolis (and the world). You think he could have lured him away from Metropolis? At that point, Zod is so consumed with destroying every soul on the Earth, Superman had no choice but to fight this better-trained warrior on his own terms. The collateral damage is great, but how many lives did his actions ultimately save?

  • Govna | June 17, 2013 1:58 PMReply

    I rather enjoyed the conflict Superman was presented with here, as well as the resolution - yes, he is obviously capable of saving people. And yes, that's the Superman we all know and have seen before. I'm certain that the oil rig and school bus scenes were just a few examples of his feats of idealism and heroism in this universe. The scenes simply showed how he already was a "super" man - he just needed to step up to a monumental challenge, which reared its head right when we was beginning to understand the full extent of his capabilities. It made me really feel for the guy, a hard thing to do when the guy in question is invincible. He finally finds out where he came from and what he could achieve if he chose to, and then boom - Zod mucks it all up.

    I think the cry of pain after he kills Zod is the final expression of his internal struggle/journey, which is what the entire movie is about. He finds out he's an alien, not at all human, and then has to make the choice to banish/kill the only other living examples of his species. It's an awful decision to make, and you truly feel his pain.

    The story arc is just that - his struggle with the ultimate choice: should I be a savior, and more importantly, for whom? What a colossal weight to have on your shoulders! I felt this was the first Superman story to truly explore what it would mean if a hero like this existed. I guess to some, that level of realism felt like "darkness," but I found it to be an incredibly uplifting tale.

    At the very end of the movie, his earth mother tells him his father always knew Clark would become a savior. But Clark had to figure that out on his own. It took choosing a side, and he chose humanity.

    He even says at the end of the movie that he's going to become a reporter so he can keep his eyes on things. He found his purpose, which is to save people, and now he's going to do just that.

  • Philip | June 17, 2013 2:06 PM

    I had the thought that the major theme was Kal deciding which heritage he was going to accept but I hadn't realized that one way or the other he would be the savior of one by rejecting the other. Very interesting.

  • areacode212 | June 17, 2013 1:56 PMReply

    Another thing that bugged me about Superman breaking Zod's neck was that it came on the heels of all the heavy-handed Christ imagery. Snyder & Goyer aren't even committing to their own theme!

  • will1138 | June 17, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    I totally understand your point of view, but if Superman hadn't concentrated on killing Zod Earth would have been destroyed. Even pausing to save a few people here or there would just be a stop-gap measure.

  • Philip | June 17, 2013 1:36 PMReply

    This is actually the best dissection of the ending I've seen. Everyone's talking about how "it's not how Superman would act" and my response has been "EXACTLY." And while I'm not sure I agree with your conclusion, You've certainly been the first to make me reconsider how I feel about it.

  • Col | June 17, 2013 1:28 PMReply

    To your asterisk, Krypton was environmentally unstable not because of the nature of the planet, per se, but because the authorities were sapping its core of energy. And I could understand why Zod would want to recreate Krypton because being a super being with mere mortals in thrall to him are of no interest to his genetically ingrained duty to preserve Krypton and its people. Super powers or no, Earth would not have been Krypton. And what good would the super powers be if they're just going to wipe out the humans anyway?

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