I saw Man of Steel Friday night in the company of a whole slew of friends, and afterwards we repaired to a diner near the movie theater and hashed over what we'd just watched. We did a lot of hashing.
Let's get the obvious question out of the way: Did I like the movie? Yes — while at the same time seeing things in it that I could see people taking exception to. I know it's not perfect, and I forgive most of its imperfections because they're part of a package I enjoyed.
But there's little question the movie has been divisive, both with mainstream audiences (and critics), and self-identified comics fans. Some people adored it, some only just liked it (and wondered why they only felt that way about it and no more), and some loathed the film to such a degree that you'd think Zack Snyder, David Goyer, and Christopher Nolan had driven over to their houses in the middle of the night, soaped their car windows, and slathered their dogs with Nair.
Whenever I come across something divisive, I collect arguments on both sides of the issue — as many as I can pro and con — and lay them side by side. Before I'd walked into the theater, I'd already compiled four major camps of negative criticism. After I walked back out and sat down in the diner with coffee and rice pudding, all of them had been put into perspective. Two of them were silly or just plain stupid; the third, less so; the fourth was truly problematic.
WARNING: MAJOR AND TOTAL SPOILERS follow. If you haven't seen the film, come back later.
Criticism #1 (Silly): The Christopher Reeve Argument
Is there even any sense in arguing the merits of Christoper Reeve as Superman? His version of the character was wonderful, and it's a big part of the reason why the 1978-79 Superman still holds up at all — especially since a lot of both I and II have not dated well. Yes, you could construct an argument that Man of Steel will look dated in its own way in time, but a) that's something most any film is susceptible to and b) it's not even central to the criticism being made.
Yes, I miss Reeve — and not just as Superman, but as a person. I genuinely liked him. His injury and his too-early death from complications of same were painful to witness, the way he soldiered on through it all showed that it's not what happens to you but what you do with it that is crucial. He did more lying down than most other people ever do standing up.
But none of that means the original Superman is either sacrosanct or impossible to ring changes on. If people are so attached to Reeve as Superman that they can't think of any other way for the character to be embodied, they're only doing both themselves and Reeve a disservice.
Criticism #2 (Also Silly): The Argument Against Changing Anything
This one's redolent of the first: why "update" Superman? Why does he have to be tinkered with to suit the conceptions of the age? Why can't he be the timeless symbol we need him to be?
Well, for starters, even a cursory look at Superman's history in comics shows that his "timelessness" is more a product of the fact that he's been around for so long than because he has never changed. Most every decade has brought changes — some good, some bad, some idiotic — and each of those sets of changes was in some way a product of its moment in time and the talent involved. Grant Morrison's Superman wasn't the same as Alan Moore's, or Mark Millar's, and while you can argue the merits or demerits of each incarnation you can't deny that the whole point of the character — or any comic character that passes through different hands — has been to be the embodiment of different approaches.
It's one thing to complain about the end results being not to your taste, and another thing entirely to complain that other tastes have no right to exist.
Criticism #3 (Not So Silly): Superman Does Not Kill
This is where we go into the Spoiler Zone and never look back.
At the climax of Man of Steel, General Zod — who is obsessed to the point of derangement with fulfilling his role by recreating Krypton on Earth — takes out his anger on Superman / Kal-El / Clark by attempting to use his heat vision on a crowd of bystanders. Superman has Zod in a headlock at this point, and he begs Zod to stop. No such luck: Zod never had qualms about targeting the innocent. Aghast, Superman breaks Zod's neck (major gasps in the theater here) and cries out in despair at what he's been pushed to do.
Talk about divisive. So divisive, in fact, that this criticism has two sub-criticisms:
Criticism #3.1: Superman Should Not Kill Because He Never Did Before
Except that he has — in fact, he killed Zod and his henchmen in a previous comic storyline. He didn't like doing it, but he was in a position where the only alternative was to let Zod destroy everything and everyone he had come to care about.
The same thing happens here, and it's also not as if Superman has no immunity from the consequences. Granted, the brunt of those consequences are self-inflicted, but in-universe, where Superman doesn't really yet exist as a paragon of anything — he's still an anomaly at best and an alien invader at worst — it makes sense.
Criticism #3.2: Superman Should Not Kill Because That's Not What The Character Is About
This is where things get thornier — but again, walk with me on this one.
1. Superman has evolved over a long period of time. His reluctance to kill (note the word: reluctance) was largely a product of Comics Code Authority compliance, and once that was lifted it became possible to put his morals that much more to the test. Which leads me to:
2. Untested morals are essentially nonexistent.
It's one thing to say that you won't kill, when you have never been in a position to have to do so. It's another thing to say, "I really wouldn't want to do it," but to know that the world sometimes does not give you the luxury of absolute morals. Superman knew at the end that the only way to stop Zod was to kill him, and that Zod had gone to exorbitant lengths to put Superman in that exact position.
Letting the world burn for the sake of an abstract moral stance is not moral behavior. Doubly so if you are in a position to do something about it. (Note that there are more granular levels of complexity that can be teased out of this argument, but I'm not sure they apply in a story this closed-ended.)
3. Also, if the whole point of the movie has been to show the development of his character, then no, it's not "out of character", because his character has not been completely developed yet. The movie has been mainly about Kal-El and Clark Kent, and only at the end is it really about Superman, after he's been put all the way through the fire.
Criticism #4 (Legitimate): The Level Of Destruction And Collateral Damage In The Film Is Seriously Unbalancing
Devin Faraci made this point, and it's not one I can dismiss out of hand.
For one, Zod is specifically targeting innocent people, and thus trying to get him out of Metropolis is probably not going to work — in fact, I suspect that was the whole point of the zoom up to the satellite, to show that as a failed tactic on Superman's part.
But. You do have to worry about the implications of showing Superman adopting too much of the same punch-the-other-guy-through-the-building combat style as his opponent (never mind who's actually in that building). To brush it away like so many crumbs cleared off the table is to ignore that the story is also allegedly trying to say things about the morality of being a superhero. You can't have it both ways. Well, you can, but at the cost of the story becoming incoherent and self-defeating.
There's always the chance this is something that will be used as a hook for the next film, assuming there is one (how can you trust a protector who allegedly does as much damage as the very things we're being protected against?). But as someone else pointed out that's one of the problems with franchise-building as opposed to storytelling. Or, rather, the way the latter can suffer at the hands of the former. Things that should be addressed now are saved up for later at the cost of immediate cohesiveness.
Another possible way to look at it, and the one I've more or less resorted to, is something Devin also pointed out: there's simply no other way for Superman to learn how to do this stuff right without making huge and terrible mistakes. Still, it would have been nice if the movie had acknowledged it a little more explicitly. For him to be horrified that he had to kill Zod doesn't automatically also tell us that he was mortified at the damage he did to the world around him in the process. The two needed to be addressed apart from each other.
Superman is a character, not simply a collection of powers or even an attitude, and that's one thing this film does understand. It's a shame it doesn't address that as thoroughly as it could have. The additional shame of it is how easily that could have been done — a line of dialogue here, a shot of Superman swooping people off the ground there (okay, he does rescue that soldier).
But maybe the only superhero training is, after all, the on-the-job variety. Kind of like everything else in life.