Man of Steel is a Thematic Muddle

Man of Steel gets a middling 57 percent rating from critics at Rotten Tomatoes but a superior 82 percent from viewers. That’s fairly big split. In this case I think the division is between those who enjoyed Man of Steel as a spectacle and those who had to actually think about it enough to say something about it.

Man of Steel is by far the most epic and most expensive version of Superman ever to appear on screen. It works as a summer spectacle movie. But the visuals can’t overcome the serious thematic problems in the film. Specifically, what exactly is this movie trying to say, if anything, about science and faith. [From here on there will be some spoilers so be warned.]

Early in the film we meet Jor-El, Superman’s father. Jor-El is the foremost scientist on Krypton. He is also a rebel who rejects the idea of genetic destiny and the illusion of a perfectly ordered society. He and his wife have a child naturally (by chance) who can become whatever it is he chooses to be. Jor-El is a scientist who believes in randomness and human freedom.

Jor-El is opposed by General Zod who prefers both social order and imposed destiny. Zod’s own purpose is to protect the people of Krypton, especially from Jor-El’s son who represents a threat to the old order of things.

Both Jor-El and Zod have suits with family glyphs on them. Jor-El’s glyph, which Superman keeps on his costume, looks like the letter ‘S’. Later in the film there is a scene in which Superman explains that the glyph of his house represent “hope.” Hope? Jor-El was the planet’s chief scientist, not it’s chief priest or chief optimist.

We eventually see, via flashbacks, images of a young Clark Kent doing science projects with his adoptive father Jonathan Kent. If anything, the ‘S’ glyph Jor-El passes down to his son should stand for science. In fact, we learn from Jor-El that he has chosen to send his son to a planet on which the interaction between the planet’s young, yellow sun and Clark’s cells will make him a super being. It’s a midichlorian explanation of Superman’s powers. It intentionally demythologizes the character.

In another early scene, a neighbor visits the Kents after Clark has rescued a school bus full of kids from drowning. The mother of one of the rescued children attributes what Clark did to God, which brings a bemused glance from his adoptive parents (played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner).

But a young, conflicted Clark asks his father if the neighbors are right. Did God make him different? Who is he really? It’s at this point that Jonathan Kent shows Clark the spaceship and tells him he is the answer to whether or not humans are alone in the universe. A faith based interpretation of Superman’s nature is being corrected in favor of a scientific one. Again, the ‘S’ in this movie clearly stands for science. Science is Superman’s birthright in the film.

Meanwhile, General Zod arrives on earth. There is a major battle in which Zod’s right hand woman (a highlight in the film, played by Antje Traue) tells Superman that she and Zod are evolutionarily superior because they lack morality. Her concluding line is something like “evolution always wins.” Up to this point morality hasn’t really been an issue in the film but in this scene the filmmakers are associating the villains’ cruelty with evolution and thus, from the audience’s perspective, with science.

But there’s a problem. Recall that Kal-El/Superman is the only Kryptonian alive who was born as a result of chance rather than a pre-determined social order. Zod and all his henchmen are fighting to reinstate that old order in place of chance. In effect, Zod’s crew are fighting against evolution not on its behalf. Meanwhile it was Jor-El who rejected a predetermined destiny in favor of chance. He is effectively fighting for random evolution.

Your confusion will only grow when, at a crucial moment in the movie, Clark decides to give a kind
of confession to a local priest. The scene is shot so that images of
Christ appear over his shoulder in the background. He is told to step
out in faith. Later in the film
he adopts a Christ-like pose as his father’s ghost is telling him to
save the planet. This is clearly Superman as Christ figure. Indeed the filmmakers took efforts to market this idea to churches.

At this point, with the dialog and the action of the story at odds with each other, you may
want to throw your hands up and ask: What the hell this movie is trying
to say? Superman is the son of science but also the symbolic Son of God.
He is the opponent of amoral evolution but also the living embodiment
of it. He is a respecter of human life who lets his own adopted father die. Anti-fate but respectful of religion. He is anti-Zod and pro-God.

If there is a message relayed by the action in Man of Steel it is that those who believe in personal destiny and purpose (as opposed to chance and individual choice) are liable to become monsters. Ultimately, Zod failing is that he can not stop being a creature of the system from which he derives his own sense of meaning. On the other hand, Superman sets his own course according to his own free will.

Underneath the billowing cloak of Christian and Jewish symbolism, Man of Steel is actually a very atheist friendly film. No doubt the producers knew that message would be a tough sell in the United States and elsewhere so they ladled in some mythic imagery to lend balance to the proceedings. The result is a movie that manages to make rubble of two worlds without ever really explaining what is at stake beyond the immediate threat to life and limb.