A formal warning, right here at the very start; I am going to be talking, in some detail, about Man of Steel, its critics, their criticism, and several key plot points and scenes. This post absolutely will contain spoilers. Anyone who hasn't yet seen this film, but wants to, and wants to do so un-spoiled, should not read this post.
Man of Steel has now supplanted Superman III as the most contested of the Superman films. Pretty much everyone agrees that I and II are good, if a little slow and uneven and very 70s; likewise, pretty much everyone agrees that IV and Returns are awful. Before this, III was the go-to movie if you wanted to find people actually arguing about whether a Superman movie was good or not. But now we have Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, and all of a sudden the presence of Richard Pryor's comedy stylings in a Superman movie seems a downright quaint point of contention. Ah, progress.
I haven't exactly sought out reviews critical of Man of Steel, but I haven't really had to. My preferred comics news source, Comics Alliance, has been pretty unrelentingly critical of the piece. But there have been others, and if you've so much as peeked into a comments section on any MoS-related article, the arguments for and against have been hard to miss. This movie has inspired real passion in people, whether they love it or hate it, a far cry indeed from the collective apathetic shrug that greeted the franchise's last cinematic outing. And the more I read about why people don't like Man of Steel, the more I see an underlying thread, a shared starting point from which the movie diverged from their expectations of a 'proper' Superman film. Now, I'm not saying people are wrong to have their opinions. I want to make that clear. No piece of art is universally beloved, nor should any artist expect their work to find such total acceptance. Tastes are personal and subjective, and you simply can not please all of the people, all of the time. My tastes and opinions are no more 'right' than anyone else's.
That being said, yes, there does seem to be a common through-line for those who dislike Man of Steel, not as a summer action blockbuster in general, but as a Superman movie in particular. And it's actually kind of a bizarre complaint. Keep in mind, we're talking about Superman, here. The ur-example of the superhero. The ultimate power fantasy. A single character with more abilities than whole superhero teams. Faster than the Flash, stronger than the Hulk, able to fly back in time and lift Mjolnir and sing the perfect note into the Miracle Machine to restore the multiverse.
So with all that in mind, how strange is that so many of the complaints about Man of Steel seem to ultimately boil down to 'things aren't easy enough for him'?
I know, that sounds insultingly simplistic. But time and again, it seems to be the bedrock of so much of the negative critical reception. Jonathan Kent, afraid for his son, says maybe Clark shouldn't have exposed himself saving that schoolbus; his parents aren't morally perfect enough! Clark, as a teenager, responds to a lecture from his adopted parents about the course of his life with the perfectly realistic 'you're not my real parents'; his relationship with his parents isn't perfectly wholesome enough! Clark, as a man grappling with his powers in an era of near-total surveillance, risks exposing himself by helping people but doesn't go out of his way to seek out problems; he's not being perfectly selfless enough! The Kryptonian attack does real, meaningful damage to Metropolis, destroying a large swathe of buildings and undoubtedly killing thousands; his enemies are too powerful! Zod, intent on genocide as so many other Superman villains profess themselves to be, actually sets out to carry through on his threat; it's not easy enough to limit collateral damage when they fight! With no phantom zone and no kryptonite, Superman has to confront and resolve the threat of an equally powerful being intent on murdering every single person on the Earth; there wasn't an easier way to deal with Zod!
At every step of his life in this film, Clark is confronted by challenges, large and small, all of them honest and real within the context of the movie's universe, and all of which he ultimately overcomes to the best of his (considerable!) abilities. And time and again, the complaint amongst those who dislike the feel seems to be that the challenges were too great, and his successes didn't come quickly or easily or neatly enough.
This is, to me, the sort of criticism that could only really come out of the culture surrounding long-running American super hero comic books. Because these books very rarely deal with origins, and never with endings, they exist in a sort of perpetual second act. The hero is always at the peak of his power and wisdom, with all his resources and contacts established, and the villain is always foiled but never ultimately dealt with. It's a medium specifically predicated on the idea of presenting what appear to be challenges, but ones that the hero can overcome with no real effort, and certainly no meaningful sacrifice. Obviously there are exceptions to this, event comics like Civil War and Final Crisis, and storylines like Knightfall and House of M and the Death and Return of Superman. But these are just exceptions, and soon enough the system always returns to the status quo, because that's what superhero comics are all about. Things should be the same at the end as they were at the beginning, because the end of this month's story is just the beginning of next month's. From that perspective Superman's victories and efforts in Man of Steel are underwhelming and over-exaggerated, it's true. But that's only because that perspective is built on a narrative constructed specifically to always present an established and experienced hero with the tools and abilities necessary to resolve the situation with neither serious struggle nor lasting sacrifice.
Man of Steel, on the other hand, is very much the first act in the larger story of Superman. His parents are good people, but they're not so good that he can't grow beyond them. He does his best to help in little ways as Clark Kent, so he can rise to greater challenges as Superman. His first real fight causes considerable collateral damage, so he can learn to fight with greater finesse. And yes, he kills Zod. And in doing so, he feels full-force the horror of ending another life, so that when he's inevitably confronted with Luthor, an unaugmented human being who poses absolutely no physical threat but who insists on trying to challenge him in the course of his crimes, he can say 'because it's wrong' with total conviction when the question is asked, 'why don't you just kill him?'
I don't think it was absolutely necessary to have Superman kill someone, and I'll even admit that the story was deliberately engineered to put him in a position where he had no other choices. But narrative contrivance isn't bad in and of itself, and I would argue that here, it's been put to use for a higher purpose. By killing Zod, leader of an alien invasion force and a clear and present danger to every human on Earth all on his own, Superman has demonstrated to the people of his adopted planet that he will do whatever is necessary to protect them. This is important, because here the world's first experience with Superman was as a fugitive from an imperialist alien race bent on exterminating humanity. Superman very much needs to be able to present something to humanity, to say, when the hour was darkest, when things were at their worst, when your survival was absolutely on the line, I did everything in my power to help. I've seen people claim that humanity can never trust Superman because he's killed, but frankly, given the nature of the threat and Superman's connection to it, I'm not sure humanity could have trusted Superman if he'd held back. At the same time, however, his scream of anguish in the aftermath of that action drives home the idea that Superman truly does consider all life, even that of a genocidal alien warlord, sacred. Unlike Batman, Superman has no particular reason not to use lethal force, when appropriate. There's no defining personal tragedy that drives him to shun killing an enemy. It's fine to say that Superman shouldn't kill because killing is wrong, but it's a weak argument; the military and the police are allowed to kill people, and if they could've they certainly would have killed Zod and the Kryptonians, and nobody would've claimed they were wrong to do so. Even private citizens are allowed to use lethal force in defence of themselves or others. There's nothing legally objectionable about Superman killing someone like Zod, or Starro or Darkseid or Mongul or whoever, and in most human belief systems there's not even anything morally objectionable. So for Superman's 'no killing' policy to carry real weight among viewers, you have to be able to present something more than just someone saying that he doesn't kill because he doesn't, or because all life is sacred, or what have you. If you're going to do Superman with any kind of seriousness, and not just have him continuously facing off against the cartoonishly evil (but never actually evil) real estate-obsessed Lex Luthor, you're going to have to do a better job exploring this idea. And while there were some problems with the execution (the sorrow beat should've lasted longer, and having him look tired or pained when he knocks down the satellite would've gone a long way), I still think that Snyder's choice is a valid one. I don't think Superman needs to kill, but I also don't think Superman can never be allowed to kill without immediately ceasing to be Superman.
A lot of the critics who have come down hardest on Man of Steel have done so because they went in with a pretty specific expectation. They wanted a four-panel, primary colour real life Silver Age comic book, a perpetual second act adventure translated onto the big screen. And hey, that's not bad, either; All Star Superman is a great story, and things like Green Lantern: First Flight and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse and Justice League: Doom manage to translate that comic book aesthetic into life beyond the printed page. But that's not the only way you can tell a Superman story, and I think it's unfair to complain, not that Snyder and crew told a bad story, but that they didn't tell the story the 'right' way. Like I said earlier, Superman is the ultimate superhero, with three-quarters of a century worth of history and more superpowers than some major super teams; he's a big enough character to carry just about any kind of story you'd care to tell.
Except Superman: At Earth's End. There's just no justifying that one.