/ Man of Steel

Canon, Continuity and Curation: The Strange Reactions to Man of Steel

I am archiving older pieces I have written on other sites, making this the definitive home for all my work. Enjoy!

I stopped writing film reviews and reaction pieces a good long while ago during a hiatus in which I didn’t see very many films. I’m not about to restart the habit, but I was prompted to write this piece by the wildly inconsistent (and in at least one case, incomprehensible) reactions to the release of Warner Bros. Superman reboot, Man of Steel.

At the time of writing, the film has a Metacritic score of 55 and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 57%. The neutral and/or negative reviews are very interesting, and begin to reveal a theme. “What it fails to supply much of—surprisingly, it must be said—is fun.” “…serious-minded…” “…businesslike to a fault.”

One particular review’s excerpt is fascinating: “…the scene in which a lady police officer watches with her mouth wide open as Superman tosses aside tanks like Tinker Toys. ‘What are you smiling about, captain?’ asks another cop. ‘Nothing, sir — I just think he’s hot.’” What’s fascinating about this? It never happened. It’s an amalgam of an imagined first part (we never see cops watching Superman toss tanks aside) and a completely displaced second part (a female Army captain assigned as a protocol officer to a General utters that line, after Superman and the general have a tense but respectful conversation about his right to privacy—after the external threat has been dealt with).

And so it goes. Review after review faults the film not for its own shortcomings, such as being a tad overlong, but for failing to supply the reviewer’s preferred, preconceived notion of Superman. Spandex and red trunks. Truth, Justice and the American Way. Saturday morning breakfast cereal and The Super Friends!


Most people discover Superman in their youth. They read a few comics, maybe watch a tv show or cartoon, or television or radio serial, depending on which decade they were born in. Then they get a little older, get jaded and pretty much forget about Superman. He ossifies in their memories exactly as he was in their childhood. But Superman changes, and continues to change. All long-running comic books change. They have to, or Superman would be a little over 100 years old, and Peter Parker would have retired, perhaps passing the family business on to a son? Comic book characters live in a near-eternal present, and that forces periodic reboots and retroactive continuity adjustments (“retcons”) to shed accreted baggage and streamline the narrative. X didn’t really happen, it was just a dream sequence. Y happened on an alternate Earth, to a different Superman. Et cetera.

What this means is that when it comes time to adapt the property to a different medium, there is a massive amount of canon available to pick from—or to disregard. It means that any one person’s notion of Superman isn’t THE canonical Superman, but rather an excerpt, a rendition, a cover by a contemporary writer from their youth.

With Nolan at the helm, given the tone of his Batman trilogy, we had to expect a somewhat grimmer, more “messy reality”-based Superman, and we get it after a fashion, but we also get Superman’s sense of joy and wonder. We see him find his roots, discover where he is from and acquire an understanding of his place in the world. He embraces the philosophies of both his fathers, and in so doing becomes the son of two worlds.

But it’s not all dancing in the sun. A theme that Nolan and Snyder introduce early is how humanity might react not only to the knowledge that we are not alone in the universe, but to the abilities of the alien. We would view it as a threat, fear it, and seek to destroy it. Understanding that, Kal-El’s human father Jonathan Kent urges his son toward discretion, if not secrecy, and even pays the ultimate price to shield his son from view.

Under such circumstances there is no simple way for Superman to make his presence known to us, until an external aggressor also hailing from his home planet outs his existence and introduces the conflict that consumes the second half of the film. Some people may legitimately be bored by the special effects and collateral damage, but it is all coherent and internally consistent with the rules and premises of the cinematic world revealed so far.

People are, of course, entitled to their opinions. I merely argue that Man of Steel is not a poorly made film, is not “proof” that Zack Snyder is a hack, or any other lazy, facile negative trope you may encounter. it is a distinctive, interesting take on Superman as first contact narrative. It’s worth a look.

Notes

There are lots of interesting details and small tweaks in Man of Steel. The world-building on Krypton and establishing the society and culture as rigid, conservative and decaying is well done; the addition of predetermined roles and artificial birth with Kal-El the first natural birth in thousands of years is an intriguing element that sets Superman’s existence in a philosophical context in addition to the traditional physical. Smallville presented a Jor-El who had visited Earth before and scouted it as suitable for Kryptonians, and who was a totalitarian task master determined to have his son rule the world (for our good, of course!) Man of Steel presents one who is convinced of the value of individuality and choice, and acts accordingly. His words to his son throughout the film reflect that optimism.

The handling of the Clark/Superman secret identity is hinted at near the end. It’s easier because most people never actually see Superman, and even fewer see his face in any detail. It’ll be interesting to see how it is dealt with in the sequel.