Robot 6

‘Man of Steel’ and Superman’s new heroic motivation


Jonathan Kent with little Clark Kent

So have you heard there’s a new Superman movie out? It’s mostly playing in small art-house theaters with a minimal marketing budget, so you might’ve totally missed it. You should check it out.

If you haven’t seen it, fair warning: Here there be spoilers.

This isn’t a review because, honestly, you’ve probably already made up your mind. However, it is a look at how the changes to the Superman mythos made in Man of Steel have altered the origin, and indeed the character, intrinsically.

A lot of these observations were inspired by a podcast discussion of the movie at Part-Time Fanboy, in which host Kristian Horn caught on to something that hadn’t really stood out to me on my first viewing (the episode was recorded earlier in the week and should be available today). Since the recording, I’ve been thinking about what he said, and the more I think about it, the more I see how it seriously alters Clark Kent, and may in fact be the root of my problems with the Man of Steel.

Most people just looking for an exciting movie or a badass Superman enjoyed Man of Steel, and there is plenty to like: There’s some excellent design, particularly of Krypton, the bar has been raised on super-person battles, and most of the acting is fine to actually quite good; Kevin Costner’s delivery of the line “You are my son,” despite being over-used in trailers, choked me up.

Complaints usually focus on the last act, which comprised mostly of excessive and protracted fight scenes between combatants surprisingly oblivious to the destruction and mostly off-screen death around them, and more so the death of Zod at the hands of Superman. Those were my biggest problems, too, until the recording with Horn, who focused on an earlier scene that disrupted the movie for him (listen to the episode because he tells a beautiful and very personal story of why Superman means so much to him).

I’m building up to the tornado scene, which ends with the death of Jonathan Kent due to Clark’s inaction at his adoptive father’s insistence. Clark obeying at that moment, and allowing his own father to die fundamentally changes his motivation as a hero. Like Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker, Clark Kent’s decision to use his abilities to help people is now inspired by guilt over death. In all three instances, each character blames himself for the death of his parent(s) or parent figure. Previously, Clark was motivated to become Superman out of a desire to help people because of the moral guidance he received from his rural upbringing.

Not only is Jonathan and Martha Kent’s parentage less intrinsic to the mythology of Superman, Jonathan actively discourages Clark from helping people. Most parents live in fear that their kids somehow will be hurt by the world, and an urge to protect and even shelter them is common. So Jonathan’s “maybe” response to Clark’s question of whether he should’ve let his classmates die in a school bus accident is difficult, but most parents will probably relate to it on some level. That creative decision might be more realistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for a superhero/science-fiction story. This means Clark has to find a reason to be a hero from somewhere else, and this is where things get messy.

The filmmakers’ solution is that he’s motivated by guilt to roam the world secretly helping people until the arrival of General Zod compels him to go public. (This conveniently happens right after the Lois Lane story he’s conveniently investigating leads him to a ship that conveniently explains his Krypton lineage so he’s prepared when Zod shows up.) The problem is that the guilt motivation isn’t quite the impetus it’s set up to be: Clark is already instinctively helping people as a young boy; he does so on a number of occasions, we’re told — so much so that one neighbor challenges the Kents about their mysterious son, which they dismiss with folksy country charm. So Clark didn’t receive his moral drive to help people from Jonathan Kent, or from guilt over his death. And it certainly wasn’t from Martha, although she does help him focus and control his super-senses. It’s not from Jor-El, either. By the time Clark “meets” him, he’s already been covertly saving people for some time. So where did it come from? Why does Clark feel the need to help people?

Story continues below

The only explanation left, given what we’re shown and told, is that there is something within Clark that compels him. It’s a core element of his character. It’s not nurture, it’s nature — it’s something genetic. And as we know, Clark is genetically Kryptonian, the first in centuries to be born naturally. Unlike Zod and his army, and even Clark’s biological parents, he wasn’t born from those strange baby pods, which somehow tinker with each baby’s genetic makeup to sculpt them for a needed job. Instead, Clark was able to be born on his own and decide his own interests and fate — and ultimately the naturally born and naturally raised Clark defeats the unnaturally born and raised Kryptonians. Nature defeats science. It’s also worth noting that Krypton was destroyed because of the unfettered technological consumption and leeching of the planet. For a science-fiction movie, this is a surprisingly anti-science or anti-technology stance to take.

It doesn’t all quite work, though. Despite his Kryptonian heritage being the source of his heroic drive, he rejects it. “Krypton had its chance,” he finally says to Zod’s repeated appeals for an alliance. He hardly hesitates in destroying the few links to his home planet and family, including that old colonizing ship he found earlier that answered so many questions for him. He chooses Earth by turning himself over to Zod and helping to stop hiss plans.

Another spanner in the works is that Clark’s birth wasn’t quite as natural as Jor-El intended. Almost immediately after Kal-El is born, his father implants him with a DNA database of every Kryptonian using the codex. What influence does that have on Clark’s genetic makeup? Does it influence his personality, his goals?

Muddying the waters further is Clark’s lapse in his ingrained concern for life during the climactic battle through Metropolis, and to a lesser extent in Smallville. Screenwriter David Goyer admitted that “clearly hundreds if not thousands of people” died while the gravity machines were running. An expert estimate places the initial death toll of the entire Metropolis battle at 129,000 with a 250,000 more missing (likely a portion of that number adding to the dead over time) and 1 million injured (again with some of those probably dying later from injuries). That is a lot of people, and his careless crashing through skyscrapers and tearing up the city absolutely contributed to that total. Was it due to Superman’s inexperience, or did he get caught up in fighting? Not once did he make an effort to move the battle to a less-populated area. Even if Zod were to direct it back to Metropolis, doesn’t a hero try?

So if it’s not a nature over nurture influence guiding his choices to save life, maybe it’s more about free will. By letting Clark be born outside of those Kryptonian birthing chambers, he’s given the choice to decide his own fate, something the citizens of Krypton gave up centuries ago. This promotes a message that giving people free will results in them picking the right and just path, as opposed to Zod’s programming, which corrupts and ultimately destroys him. Of course, that still doesn’t explain the above lapse: If Clark chose freely to ignore saving lives, maybe it’s not so good after all.

In the end, we’re left with no clear source for what drives Clark to live up to the high expectations put upon him by both fathers, and perhaps that is why he fails to live up to them, and why ultimately the movie ends as a bit of a downer. We’re continually reminded that he is a symbol of hope — he is literally labeled as “Hope.” We’re told he will be like a god, that he will be something for which humans will strive, that he will be an example. And what does this shining paragon of heroism do? He steals and he kills.

Is Superman false hope? Perfect characters are boring, so I don’t mind a flawed hero. But shifting the source of Clark’s motivation, whether it’s mimicking the guilt of Batman, some kind of statement about nature vs. nurture or about free will, all it accomplished was weakening the character’s perspective. This makes it easier for his concern for life to be put on hold for the sake of a more flashy battle. This inconsistency is why the third act falls apart for those who didn’t love the movie.

Every version of Superman influences other versions in comics and other media, but I hope this take on Superman’s origin remains unique to Man of Steel and its inevitable sequels.



Man of Steel was great! It wasn’t perfect — but what movie really is? Even the classic and Great SUperman : The Movie (1978) is flawed. I’m so tired of hearing people claim that they know Superman so well and he would never kill anyone, including Zod. He had to kill Zod! He had no choice! And I suggest you so called Superman fans that hated that ending, go back read John Byrne’s Superman issue #22.

Man of Steel kicked ass! It was a serious sci-fi superhero movie, and I loved it! Save the jokes, as well as the hate, for Iron Man.

My thoughts on the tornado scene are two-pronged. Obviously, Clark was raised to “honor thy mother and father,” so when Johnathan motioned him not to come to the rescue, he didn’t. While that decision may haunt him, I don’t believe it is driving him to do what he does. In addition to that, I think the filmmakers wanted some kind of equivilant to the “All the things I can do, and I couldn’t even save him” scene in Superman: The Movie, but they needed something with more spectacle than a heart-attack.

Thank you, Corey. You are correct that Superman, in Man of Steel, as no real motivation to help people, and it shows. When Goyer and Snyder decided to make Superman kill Zod, Nolan and Time Warner were initially against it, because that is not who Superman is. Man of Steel presents a warped view of Superman. Jonathan and Martha do not raise Clark to believe the best in everybody. Clark does not have a moral code that evolved out of his upbringing and his own exploration. Superman may be willing to save his planet, but he does not seemed particularly concerned with individual humans.

I’ve seen many comments that say people don’t believe in the Boy Scout, that people aren’t really that good. Actually, most people are pretty decent and Superman is Superman because he is that good. Deciding to change Superman because they did not believe they could present a Superman who did good because it was right and than audiences would not accept it if they did, seems to be evidence of Goyer and Snyder’s contempt for their audiences and for Superman.

Corrected Jonathan Kent’s quote. Thanks to Dean Trippe for catching me on that one.

Thank you also for the comments, everyone. While the movie is frustrating for me, it’s generated a lot of thought and discussion, so it clearly did something right.

Hey, Goyer and Snyder say now Superman knows killing is bad. And he only killed one person before he figured that out! That makes him a real hero. I had to kill fifteen or sixteen people before I figured that out.

Michael Sacal

June 19, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Goyer is fool. How dare he kill Jonathan with a tornado? Doesn’t he know that he should die like he did in the 60s, from a comic booky disease he catches from sunken pirate treasure or some dumb thing like that? (sarcasm).

Michael Sacal

June 19, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Thee is no indication at all that Clark was driven by guilt from failing to save Jonathan. The indication is clearly that he was inspired to act in secret to honor his father’s wish that no one would find out who he is. That is the takeaway.

Jonathan’s main concern was that people would discover the truth of Clark’s origin and hurt him. Clark’s desire was to help people. As he grew up, he found the middle ground between what he wanted and what Jonathan wanted; to use his abilities furtively to help others, making sure that they never see him and never know who he is.

This followed up to the rescue in the oil rig, which is the first time anyone lays their eyes on him and sees him use his abilities. The reason why we can discern that it’s the first time this happens is because movies usually always show the first time anything happens to a character because first instances are always important for the plot moving forward.

The guilt you mention over failing to save Jonathan is one person’s interpretation of the story, but as far as the movie goes that isn’t really there. In other words, there is no time in the movie where Clark remarks that in spite of all his abilities he was unable to save his father, like he did in the Donner version. That remorse simply isn’t here.

What IS there is Jonathan’s fear that the world will discover who Clark is. Clark remarks this a few times while talking with Lois (i.e., “my father believed that if the world found out who I am”, or words to that effect. THAT is the plot thread).

Michael Sacal

June 19, 2013 at 6:23 pm

“Not once did he make an effort to move the battle to a less-populated area.” Space must not count. Did you miss the part where he and Zod fight on the Wayne Industries satellite?

Zod was not going to chase Superman. Zod was not going to let Superman carry him away. Zod was intent on killing people.

In all this talk about Superman’s character people have forgotten to discuss Zod’s character.

Phineas Potter

June 19, 2013 at 8:12 pm

“(This conveniently happens right after the Lois Lane story he’s conveniently investigating leads him to a ship that conveniently explains his Krypton lineage so he’s prepared when Zod shows up.)”

Zod shows up BECAUSE Clark finds the ship. This part of the film is actually pretty sound, causally.

I have no issues with him killing Zod..I kind of did at the time but since then i have thought about it more and .in the end look at it this way….an armed man is about to use a machine gun on a family nearby….and the only way to save the family is to push him towards something that you know will kill him but will save the family that includes a couple of kids….(again assume its the only option)

what would you do? Although I believe killing is wrong I’m pretty sure I would have to save the family. Yes in the end it would haunt me for the rest of my life but guess what…not saving the familly would haunt me a lot more.

The issue i have isn’t that…its the fact that Superman did not seem to try and get the battle away from the populated area…the battle up to that point had killed a lot more people and where was his morale at this point?

Michael Sacal

June 19, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Why do people assume that the military didn’t evacuate the people? Why do complainers assume that the buildings had people in them? We saw the Planet staff evacuate. Do you think they were the only ones who left? Of course not. In all likelihood, those buildings that were destroyed during the fight were empty.

And I reiterate, Superman DID take the fight away from Metropolis, up to space. Why do people ignore that?

Did I see the only version of the film that had him and Zod fighting in outer space on a Wayne Enterprise satellite and crashing through a pretty desolate mountain range? It seems like that way at times at least.

Anyway, having seen so many versions of Superman. From the gangster tossing original, the Superdick who played cruel jokes on Lois & Jimmy, silly version who had his head turn into that of an ant, to Byrne’s down to Earth approach, to Married, to Birthright and Secret Origins to currently New 52. (and thats only comics, not counting movies, live action tv & animated series and radio shows) I’ve come to expect and accept that Superman is a character that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

I guess it is good that the movie has garnered so much attention that everyone wants to talk about it. (nice to see talk aout something superman is doing, not whats outside of the story) Yet I wonder when exactly we hit the critical mass of I don’t like it, so you shouldn’t either and here’s why!/I loved it, stop being a hater! articles before enough is enough.

At the end of the day it was just a movie. Some liked it, some didn’t. It looks to be a success so we’ll be seeing another soon, I’ve actually become glad that they are pushing the sequel up a year now apparently. I’m ready or something else to talk about. lol

Mayank Gautam

June 19, 2013 at 9:17 pm

There are many instances in the movie when Superman saves innocent by-standers, even when he is caught up in the fight with other Kryptonians. Like the time in Smallville battle, he save the pilot of crashing helicopter or when he save the General from certain death when he is getting into a duel with Faora. The first time he meets Zod in Smallville, his first instinct is to take him away from people into the farm. Or what about the final sacrifice he makes when he decides to kill Zod, scarring his own soul to save the innocents.According to this article, this superman must not have an iota of care about whether those people.

Also there was a great monologue which Jonathan delivers after that ‘maybe’ piece which all of the critics are quite conveniently choosing to forget.

At the end , you see what you want to see.

Interesting perspective on the film, Blake. I like that you pointed out that the naturally-born factor may have influenced his ability to over take the podlings. There are a lot of stairs to go down in this film which makes it stand out in my opinion. Any movie that leaves people writing interesting posts like this is a job well done, wouldn’t you say;) As far as the collateral damage in the last battle, yeah it was probably in the thousands/millions, but when your looking at global destruction-it’s a small price to pay. Besides, I thought it was rather entertaining to see people get knocked through not 1, not 2, but 3 or four skyscrapers. And when we get around the ending of Zod, I mean to even fathom the seriousness of that cosmic neck snap is just mind blowing in itself. For me, this is by far the best Superman release since Christopher Reeve. I might even have to buy a flat screen and blu-ray when it hits the stands. Nice non-review, great read…Cheers

It seems people are assuming this was the fully experienced Superman at the peak of his powers. It wasn’t. He was still finding the limits of his own abilities. He was hopelessly outmatched by Zod and his soldiers. They were experts at combat. They had superior weapons and superior numbers. Superman was overwhelmed at every turn. No other hero would have lasted two seconds against this force. He tried to take the battle away from people, but he spent a lot of time just trying to recover from the beating he was getting. It would be fairly difficult to control a battle when you are on the losing end of it for a significant amount of time. This Superman got the king of all villain experiences on his very first outing.

Also consider that this wasn’t the typical spat between elite beings. This was a war. I think Superman was trying to end it as quickly as he could. Zod and his forces made it clear that they were NEVER going to stop. They would keep killing people until the world engine wiped out humanity. What choice did Superman have? Superman was torn apart at the end when he killed Zod. Has any other hero expressed such anguish? No. They typically provide a cool one-liner, a smirk, and walk away to theme music. Besides, everyone is forgetting the first rule of comic books – no one stays dead. Superman carries the DNA of every Kryptonian in his body. And his blood is also in the Phantom Zone with the rest of Zod’s forces. They could bring him back.

As far as his motivation to do good, it is apparent that it still came from the upbringing provided by the Kents. Superman isn’t perfect. And he doesn’t have all the answers. He did the best he could in an impossible situation and will undoubtedly learn from this experience. This same debate happened in the 80’s with Capt. America. Would the ultimate good guy in Marvel ever kill? Even if he is a WW2 soldier who killed plenty of Axis foes? Of course he would if it was war and necessary. Otherwise he avoids it as much as possible.

It says a lot about our respect for Superman that this is even a debate. Other Superman-types have killed and don’t get anything close to this kind of response. Didn’t Batman kill Ras Al Ghul and Harvey Dent? What about Optimus Prime killing all those Decepticons, including Megatron?

He’s still Superman. He pulled it off and saved the world. This wasn’t a cat in the tree. It was the planet at stake. Sheesh – even the 70’s Superman likely let people die in the earthquake just so he could save Lois. By the way, didn’t he kill Zod in Superman 2? He removed his powers and then threw him into a crevice in the ice. Did he conveniently retrieve him afterward?

The Man Of Steel version of Superman seems designed to address some of the typical non-fan’s critiques of the character: He’s to much of a one-dimensional do-gooder “boyscout”. He’s too powerful for anything to be a challenge, so there’s no drama. Hiding his identity from Lois (who he supposedly loves) is doubly ridiculous – it diminishes Lois’ intelligence and credibility as an investigator by making her oblivious to whats right under her nose and also paintes her as somewhat shallow and cruel in that (in the Donner film) she has to almost completely disregard a humble nice guy in Clark while falling in love with the flashier Superman. And the red “underwear”! The bumbling incompetent henchmen! etc.

They’ve intentionally taken hacksaw to those elements of the story and the character. He may not always be able to find the impossible solution when faced with a no-win situation (no turning back time here) and be forced to compromise his principles. Although powerful enough to defeat the world engine, Zod was threatening to overtake him in strength and control of Krytponian abilities, so he can still be outclassed in power. Lois’s character is stronger in that she is pro-active and is out covering a story no one else even notices and discovers his secret. This also gives Clark a confidant, some one he can have a conversation with about his situation other than a hologram of a dead parent. The dual-identity aspect is kept alive with the rest of the public for those that find that appealing.

Perhaps this amounted to more of an “Elseworlds” version of Superman than the ideal comics version, but I enjoyed it a great deal and hope they have a chance to build on what they’ve started. In time, he may become the Superman who knows “There’s always a way” when faced with the impossible choice.

I know a lot of my friends disagree with me on this and so will some here, but I for one am glad that Metropolis got trashed and that there was the amount of collateral damage both structurally and most likely humanly. It has nothing to do with wanting to see things go boom or people get waxed, it has to do simply with me not wanting to be taken out of a good film with ridiculousness.

To explain, You have Superman/Clark. God like alien with unimaginable powers and virtually indestructible. Then comes Zod and his soldiers, also nearly as powerful and indestructible due to the yellow sun. The movie would have been unwatchable during the fight scenes had there not been destruction. When you have multiple “Gods” for a lack of a better term settling scores in a major city or in Smallville things are going to get trashed and unfortunately people are going to lose their life. It was a war, that was the point of Zod being there, he was fighting for his world to become anew and Superman was fighting to save his adoptive world. In war people die and things are ruined.

And as for the “why didn’t Superman take the fight somewhere uninhabited” crowd, lets think about this. If it would have been so easy for Supes to just chose to take the fight to a big empty place the whole time it would have meant that he would of then had the ability to end and win the fight quickly because he would of course have been much more powerful then the soldiers in the first place being able to chose the fight location and force them to it. Obviously he was not and Zod chose the locations and Superman had to fight it out where he was because he had no choice.

Hmm… Well for me you’re kinda missing the point here. The twister scene is about trust and consequence. He is protective over Clark and is prepered to die rather than put Calrk is harm’s way.
If you watch the scene obviously Clark gets his values from him as he is the one going back to save others whilst telling Clark to look after his mother. No matter how fast he is he would still be openly seen and Jonathan would have been the cause. Guilt is not the factor here-trust is.

The question of trust is answered in the form of the Superman persona-which he directly answers at the end of the film and at his fathers grave with Lois.

Another point to mention is people are being a little lazy with reference to the outcome of action scenes. He does save people as and when he doesn’t have his hands full in each battle he is in-warning people away, saving soldiers etc.. Also he tries to take the fight away from civilians at various points but the Kryptonians are clear they want to kill the natives “for each one you save we will kill a million”. Zod echoes this at the end until we have the no win scenario. He makes the leap of faith and chooses humanity-at the cost of his own people. An act he immediatley mourns but was unavoidable.

The stakes were high so a dramatic outcome was suitable. In this situation in this type of narrative this is true to the character of Superman-if anything it humanises him more and makes him less of a cartoon.

“It seems people are assuming this was the fully experienced Superman at the peak of his powers. It wasn’t. He was still finding the limits of his own abilities.”

You know, this is a good point. If you go back and read Superboy comics, he was killing people left and right. Almost as many people as got killed in the last reel of Man of Steel, even!

Michael Sacal

June 20, 2013 at 8:23 am

@Andy M,

Your post about the tornado also made me realize that the takeaway there is that Pa was teaching Clark the meaning of self-sacrifice. Pa chose to sacrifice himself over letting Clark expose his secret to save him. In that, Clark learns that the safety/good/well-being of another is more important than his own.

What I meant about his inexperience and growing powerset was that he didn’t have the vast wealth of experience to lean on to find some clever solution. He was in the middle of a nightmare and was being pushed to the limit. Imagine holding on to Zod in that moment, knowing that your barely holding on and that he intends to kill you and everyone else on the planet. There’s no time for a neat, easy solution. Your every effort to move him is met with equal force resisting you. It’s a stalemate at best unless you take that final step.

It doesn’t make Superman flawed, dark, or less moral. It was absolutely moral for him to act in that moment. Superman isn’t a conscientious objector. He is someone of the highest moral character who can be trusted to make the best decision possible during some of the most terrible circumstances.

You do realize it’s not a documentary, right? There’s only “no other choice” because the writers decided there couldn’t be one, because they wanted to watch Superman murder a guy. There’s no bravery or morality at work, just bad writing.


It wasn’t murder. He didn’t take an innocent life. Of course it isn’t a documentary, but at the same time this is the story we have to deal with. And we should make the effort to understand what they were trying to tell us in the story. I don’t think it’s bad writing. if they had done some Silver Age ending everyone would have said it was more of the same boring stuff that makes comic book movies trite and formulaic. Comics have dealt with serious issues before. Would Superman be relevant if he never faced the same problems we face?

What was the solution to the “Zod” problem? The Phantom Zone portal was closed. No jail on Earth could hold Zod. He couldn’t be reasoned with. What’s a rookie hero to do? Fast forward 10 or 15 years and Superman might have had a better answer. On his first time out? Not happening.

“What was the solution to the “Zod” problem?”

Better writers.

I get your point. I don’t disagree with it. I’m no fan of Superman killing. But I think they handled the topic fairly well. I liked the movie – thought it was a definite improvement considering the last few efforts. Like I said earlier – it showed us that we really do care about Superman because this has been such a hot topic. Did anyone care about Superman before this? He was starting to collect dust. I can imagine the fictional people of Metropolis having the same conversations about the death toll and whether Superman should have killed Zod. This movie sparked our imagination again and caused people to actually think about Superman and what he means. Another static re-telling of his origin followed by some decidedly non-super action would have failed.

Do you think they should have stayed with the original idea of trapping Zod in the Phantom Zone with the rest of his army? How would you write it?

Against my better judgment, I’m going to chime-in and then run away because I don’t want to get into another week worth of arguing whether I know my Golden – Modern Age Superman. I’m a girl, a geek and I own way too may of the comic books a lot of you have called boring – I get Superman.

My father served for 25+ years in the US Army and, as a result, we know way too many people who have served overseas in places like Vietnam (before I was born); Iraq; Afghanistan and Somalia. All who were under fire said the same thing, the people attacking always tried to take the most possible life/cause the most possible damage and that did include civilian casualties. I’m not going to debate who was right or wrong for any of the four I listed.

Think of how we even fought our own Civil War, we burned through our own country.

Ultra Dude –

Exactly! This has reinvigorated interest for a character many said had no place in modern pop culture! I for one am very interested in where they g with this, and I respect anyone who didn’t like it but I don’t want to fight because I did enjoy it!

Back to my Twitter cave.

Leave a Comment


Browse the Robot 6 Archives