"Man of Steel": Figuring Out If Humanity’s Worth Saving

Jor-El says goodbye to his son, Kal-El in Man of Steel. Kryptonian technology will allow Russell Crowe's Jor-El to become the most dangerous ghost in movie history. And unquestionably, he's got dad-of-the-year down.
At one point in Man of Steel, Superman, or Kal-El, his Krytonian name, is asked if he trusts fellow Kryptonian, General Zod.

Kal-El makes it clear that he’s still trying to figure that one out—it won’t take him too long to do so—but at the same time, Kal-El notes he does not know if he can trust humanity either.

Naturally, that is a problem, with a world of humans so insanely terrified of losing control, and hysterical that anything alien is bad—which you know is kind of true when it comes to most Kryptonians—Superman is not really sure how far to commit himself to saving humanity.

And that becomes especially true when, for a moment, Kal-El realizes that the survival of his own people—whomever he decides those are—will necessarily pit him against another team (of aliens).

That is not Kal-El’s choosing, but rather it is the Kryptonian way, at least the way of the Kryptonian military elites—basically a Super-Seal-Team—who show up on Earth (long after Krypton was destroyed) to save the remnant of the Krytonian race. Unfortunately for the people already here, saving the Kryptonians will render Earth a death-planet for humans.

There are a number of things that help Kal-El, who had spent years wandering around the world ignoring his destiny, make up his mind about what to do, and which species to save—for he has it literally within himself to save either one. Why not both? Yeah, well, compromise isn't too popular these days.

The women in Kal-El’s life, including his Earth mom, Martha Kent, own his heart.

Kryptonian General Zod, plyed by Michael Shannon, is a monster for what he calls "a greater good". As noted, he is similar to many of the thugs running our military and intelligence services right now. Superman, on the other hand, is pointedly UNmilitary, and at one point Zod laughs about Kal-El's lack of training in the killing arts. But Superman is applying a different ethic than Zod, an ethic aimed at saving people, which is one of the key conflicts in the movie.
The scene where Superman drags General Zod over miles of Kansas farmland, smashing his face, telling Zod to leave his mother Martha ALONE! rocks. And of course, Superman will fall totally for Lois Lane, whose intense drive as a journalist takes her way beyond the pale of safe reporting in her search for the truth.

But in the end, this is a tale of two fathers and their son.

First, is Kal-El’s, or Clark Kent’s, Earth-dad, the Kansas farmer Jonathan Kent, who takes his illegal-alien son and transforms him into the most American icon ever. Choosing Kevin Costner for this role is cheesy, not because Costner is bad at it (he isn’t), but because he’s the poster-child for amber-waves-of-grain stories. George explains to Clark that, while he may not know exactly why his strange son has come to Earth, it must be to do some extremely important thing for humanity—which needs help beyond measure.

Nevertheless, Jonathan advises caution to his adopted son. The Earth people are too fearful to know a good alien when they see one. So, Clark Kent will go easy with most of the superhero stuff for a while.

Jor-El, on the other hand, is the biological father of Superman. Unfortunately, being long dead, the only way Kal-El can know Jor-El is through a computer-generated image and voice of the ancient Kryptonian’s consciousness. Kal-El’s ghost-dad, like Hamlet’s dad, appears to give Kal-El the truth about his origins and to give him his mission.

Unlike General Zod, who if he were human would either be locked up, or running the NSA, Kal-El’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El, played with ruthless affection by Russell Crowe, is a creature of deep wisdom, and extremely deep devotion to his son. Jor-El has a couple of the most kick-ass scenes in movies of a father doing anything and everything to make sure his son has some chance to live.

If all dads were like Jor-El...

But that’s one of the real problems with Man of Steel. Basically, and this is very unlike the several-decade trend of making superheroes dark and complicated, Superman is driven by a deep sense of decency and mission. He is really still a product of the 1930s, when being "super" meant being kind and helpful more than being a loudmouthed moron who can blow shit up. But at the same time, this is a reboot, with a Superman operating in a harsher, and really dumber, world, than ever before.

Superman contemplates the enormity of his mission in a moment of quiet. Some reviewers have complained Superman seems distant and too perfect to care about. But the point is that Superman's perfection is a relative thing. As his Earth dad tells him, he's going to be great, whether he's a good person or a bad person. Lately, in the USA, people have decided that division is too simple, and that being good sometimes calls upon us to do bad things, and to do those things so regularly and casually, it calls into question what alleged goodness we were trying to preserve. Man of Steel considers this question as well.
Many people have objected to the fact that at one point in Man of Steel the new Superman kills an enemy. Now, I personally do not have any problem with this, as it made sense in the context, and Kal-El clearly felt like shit about it.

It is difficult to imagine Tony Stark or Batman caring that some poor collateral, much less an enemy, got killed in their crazily destructive efforts to put things right—or somewhat less fucked up anyway.

Superman is different.

He is the anti-Thor, a god-like man who actually DOES care about everybody it seems. Of course the deep humanity (that is, the perfected view of that) of Superman is an ironic consideration. Much like Jesus Christ, Superman is supposed to show us one idea of a far better way for people to behave.

And so different is this better way from what we now have as our reality, with our leaders—around the world—competing with one another to more effectively rob us all of our humanity and make us nothing but ants in the service of their power schemes, that this makes Superman seem even more alien than perhaps he did decades ago.

At the end of the day, Superman is supposed to make you feel hopeful—that's what the big "S" stands for in Kryptonese—"hope".

But instead, The Man of Steel is deeply depressing.

Nobody is going to land here and save us.

And nobody in charge gives a rat’s ass about being inspired by a more humane way of doing things.

The real Earth, the one we have tolerated up to now, is ruled by low-rent General Zods.

Unfortunately, Superman, and Jesus Christ, are just characters in pieces of fiction.

Man of Steel, 2013, directed by Zack Snyder, with Henry Cavill as Superman (Kal-El, Clark Kent), Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Michael Shannon as General Zod