Breakin’ Necks With Kal-El & Zod

Reconsidering a now-mostly-irrelevant superhero movie, and the dangers of meeting a story halfway

Last night, Instagram was doing what Instagram does, serving up never-ending sets of short videos in an attempt to hone in on what’s going to get me hooked on the app even more.

One of those was a video of clips from the climax of Man of Steel, with some unidentified narrators explaining how Kal-El straight-up murdering Zod [spoiler?] was not only perfectly in character for Superman, but it was necessary. Superman had no choice! Saving a defenseless family from getting heat-vision obliterated by a mad Kryptonian was the most Supermanest thing that Superman could do.

Because Instagram only cares about views and not context, I don’t have any idea of how old the clip was or who was doing the talking. Was it cobbled together from Bluray special features? Is it a fan video essay? Is anyone anywhere still talking about this movie, now that the “Synderverse” has pretty much fizzled out completely? Is it at all relevant?

I say it’s at least a little bit relevant, because I was dead wrong about the movie after I saw it. Reading back on my review 11 years later, I’d classify it as “charitable” more than “effusive,” and the things I mostly liked about the movie then are the same things I remember fondly about it: great cast, great final line from Lois Lane, and lots of Henry Cavill with no shirt on. Plus I like that it leaned into the idea of “Superman is an alien,” dildo-shaped spaceships and all, instead of “being an alien is Superman’s back-story.”

But the rest of my review hasn’t aged well. At the time, I said I was looking forward to seeing more in the series, which was clearly false because I still haven’t seen any of the other DC movies apart from Wonder Woman and Aquaman.1I’m not sure if The Suicide Squad and Black Adam are in the same universe? Also I’m not sure if I care? And those only because they suggested a novelty and weirdness outside of Snyder’s interpretation of the characters.

Most of all, though, I was wrong about the climax of Man of Steel. Like the people defending it in that aforementioned Instagram video, I said that the moment made sense in the context of everything that came before it, and with the overall premise and tone of the movie. Which is bizarre, because it absolves the filmmakers of having any control over the premise and tone of the movie. It values being tonally or thematically consistent, over being tonally and thematically appropriate for one of the most well-defined characters in popular culture.

In my case, I think it came from the mantra “judge the story that exists, not the story you wanted.” After spending a lot of my 20s and 30s being arrogant and judgmental about popular media (and writing some insufferable stuff on this very blog), I committed to trying to meet every movie, book, TV series, etc halfway. To separate the question of “does this accomplish what it’s trying to do?” from “should they have been trying to do this in the first place?”

I still feel pretty strongly about it when it comes to “The Pixar Problem,” i.e. the fact that almost all of the studio’s pre-pandemic movies were led by white male writers and directors telling stories focusing on male characters. There were a disappointing number of reviews of Toy Story 4, for instance, that seemed to be faulting the movie itself, when they were actually complaining about the makeup of the studio and the politics behind it.

I insisted — and still insist — that the magic and universal appeal of a lot of Pixar movies is because they were very personal works. The solution to the lack of diversity was to open the process to a more diverse group of people telling their own personal stories. Not to expect each individual entry to conform to universal representation, as opposed to specific stories with (hopefully) universal appeal. It seems like they started to do exactly that, which resulted in stuff like Coco and Turning Red. (Now, it sounds like they’re back-pedalling on that, which is extremely frustrating and disappointing).

The most obvious difference with Man of Steel and the following movies is that they aren’t, and could never be, strictly personal works. They’re using existing characters with decades of legacy, and there’s an obligation to understand the characters and what makes them appealing, to stay true to their core.

It’s possible to make more grounded versions of super-hero stories that aren’t campy in the sense of comic-book goofy, or campy in the sense of The Boys‘ hyper-violent satire. That’s basically the whole premise of the MCU, at least before it fully-embraced Marvel continuity wackiness. And Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies still aren’t my thing, but they work because they’re still 100% Christopher Nolan movies, which still respect (mostly) the aspects that are core to the existing characters.

As always, the counter to bad or disappointing art is to make more art. We’ve seen this play out with Netflix throwing Netflix money at Zack Snyder to make his own thing in his own style. And because I’m not a fan of his style, and it isn’t being applied to characters that I’m already interested in, I’m free to completely ignore it. Win-win all around.

This plays out over and over again in the excuses that people make to defend questionable decisions in art. And it always reduces down to a lack of imagination. The classic example is insisting that it wouldn’t be “realistic” to include women fighters or non-Western-European characters in fantasy games, but it’s fine to include dragons. But repeatedly, the things that get drummed up into being culture war battlefields are people yelling across each other, assuming maliciousness or selfishness on the other side. (And of course, being manipulated by people who only want to stir up shit for their own advantage, but I’m only interested in arguments made in good faith).

It’s exhausting being a fan of comics, or Star Wars, or any nerdery, and seeing every single thing getting drummed up into a culture war. When you remove the shit-stirrers trying to drum up political points, and actually consider what people are saying, everybody wants essentially the same thing: to be heard and to be represented. I can be, and often am, dismissive about Zack Snyder movies as pandering to adolescent white male power fantasies, but that’s pretty shallow.

The reason they have such popularity — along with Nolan’s interpretations, for that matter — is the same reason the whole grimdark era of super-hero comics, and Frank Miller in general, became popular: the audience who loved comic characters felt like they were finally being taken seriously. I love Richard Donner’s Superman, and still think it’s easily one of the top 5 super-hero movies ever made (if not the best), but I can still see how somebody invested in the comics might not like the sense that a movie was always winking at them. Acknowledging that us grown-ups know that this is all kids stuff. That’s not intended to be a justification for gate-keeping, but just a reminder of where a lot of it is coming from.

And at a high level, at least, it seems to be the one area where popular media is moving in the right direction2Look forward to a future post where I acknowledge I was as wrong about this as I was about Man of Steel.. More stuff!3Until it’s pulled from release for tax purposes. People frequently (tediously, incessantly) complain that Star Wars and Marvel have been “ruined” because there’s so much stuff out there now, and none of it feels “special.” The reality is that having so many “flavors” of Star Wars and the MCU mean that it’s more likely everyone will get the version(s) that appeal(s) to them. Don’t want dumb old girls in your super-hero movies? You can skip The Marvels and barely have to wait at all for the next installment. You’ve got strong opinions that Andor is the “right” way to do Star Wars and the only good thing to come from the franchise since the Disney acquisition? Well, aren’t you an aesthete! And good news; they’re making more of that for you to watch, while I’m over here enjoying the hell out of The Mandalorian. Everybody wins!

Well, except General Zod. But then, he clearly had it coming.

  • 1
    I’m not sure if The Suicide Squad and Black Adam are in the same universe? Also I’m not sure if I care?
  • 2
    Look forward to a future post where I acknowledge I was as wrong about this as I was about Man of Steel.
  • 3
    Until it’s pulled from release for tax purposes.