Superman saves people. That’s his main job. He’s not a crime fighter like Batman. He’s the guy who plugs up exploding volcanoes, who rescues crashing jets, who plucks kittens from trees. To some extent all superheroes do that sort of stuff but for Superman that’s the whole job. Yeah, he sometimes butts up against the criminals in Intergang and he sometimes has to take down archfoe Lex Luthor or stop an invasion by Brainiac, but left to his own devices Superman is first and foremost a protector.
That’s an important thing to keep in mind when we’re talking about the havoc wreaked during the course of Man of Steel. In our modern era of reboots and remakes and hip new reimaginings I’ve thought a lot about what makes a character the same character, about how many ways you can change Captain James T Kirk until he’s no longer the same character. I understand that it’s 2013 and there are elements of the Superman mythos that need to be updated and brought into the modern world, that some characters reflect outdated, almost century old mores and gender norms. But there are some things about Superman that are so vital, so central to the what sets him apart from other superheroes, that to change them is to alter utterly the character, rendering him Superman no more. And one of those things - maybe the ultimate central thing that makes Superman who he is - is his status as a protector.
To Man of Steel’s credit the movie gets that aspect of him right a lot. I wasn’t fully sold on Superman’s first costumed appearance being a scene where he is surrendering to the authorities, but in many ways that’s a great way to show him as protector. He is laying himself down for Zod so that no humans are hurt. It’s not as gripping as having him save a crashing space shuttle (as John Byrne did in his Man of Steel reboot miniseries back in the 80s) but it encapsulates who he is.
So where is that aspect once the punches get thrown? The only time Superman seems to show interest in the well-being of civilians is during the beginning of the Smallville fight, when he tells people to get indoors. He then proceeds to help destroy all the buildings in which those people were hiding, but at least he gave their well-being some casual thought. The Smallville fight is where you sense things are going a little off the rails in the movie because a small town in farm country is actually the easiest place to reduce collateral damage - Superman and the Kryptonians are never more than a few hundred feet from open farmland. When the military sends in the jets to attack it doesn’t feel like a holy shit moment, it feels like a reaction in kind. A true Superman story would see our hero attempting to keep the incoming bombs away from Smallville while also fending off his foes. Instead, Clark Kent’s hometown is essentially wiped off the map.
Then the action moves to Metropolis. There General Zod begins straight up massacring people; his World Engine destroys what seems to be square miles of prime business real estate in the middle of the work week. That’s awful, but he’s the bad guy, and so killing innocents is his bag. The stakes are being upped here as we see Metropolis laid low, and we even have some characters we ‘know’ trapped in the rubble.
Here the film makes an interesting choice. There are two World Engines on opposite sides of the globe. One is out at sea, pretty far from people. The other is right in the middle of Metropolis. Superman goes to handle one, leaving the other to the US military. He chooses the one in the middle of the ocean.
This really bothered Mark Waid, a veteran comic book writer whose thoughts on Man of Steel are worth reading. It bothers me less, but it is a strange and unlikely choice. The most pressing threat in that moment is clearly in Metropolis, where innocents by the thousands - millions? - are dying. The World Engines work in tandem, so destroying one will stop the terraforming of the Earth; while both need to be dealt with, they could be taken out one at a time*. I do like that the humans get to have a real role in the saving of the world - that feels right for Superman as inspiration to humanity - and I understand that Superman could get to the South Pacific much faster than the US military, but it’s still a strange choice. One that is a harbinger for what comes next.
After the World Engines are destroyed Superman and General Zod begin their drag out, knock down fight. It is, without a doubt, magnificent spectacle. It’s the sort of epic throwdown that we imagined reading splash page punches in comic books. But it’s handled completely, totally wrong.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the destruction during the Metropolis fight - and the continued presence of civilians, who had to be CGIed in to sequences so they’re certainly not there accidentally - comes from Christopher Nolan, who wrote the story with David Goyer. The huge scale of devastation and the sense that the hero is just as much of a menace to the city as the villain are hallmarks of Nolan’s Batman films. But where that sort of cynical mistrust of the hero fit in The Dark Knight, it’s stunningly out of place in a Superman movie. It also demands that the script rob Superman of his best qualities, as well as take away one of his greatest vulnerabilities.
In superhero comics the heroes often do not go as hard as the villains. They can’t, because they don’t want to hurt innocents. Villains have historically understood this, and so they use innocents as shields or distractions. This is an old trope, but an effective one. It starkly illustrates the difference between the good and the bad guy and it allows the good guy’s idealism to be expressed through action. Many comic book battles end with the hero allowing the baddie to go free so he can rescue a civilian in grave danger.
In fact it’s the dilemma - rescuing innocents versus stopping the baddie - that is the final moral choice Superman makes in Man of Steel. It’s a great moment, a truly hard decision that clearly impacts him immensely. Unfortunately it’s a hollow decision because Superman just saved four people after letting hundreds of thousands die.
Says Mark Waid:
Particularly in this last sequence, his utter disregard for the collateral damage was just jaw-dropping as they just kept crashing through buildings full of survivors. I’m not suggesting he stop in the middle of a super-powered brawl to save a kitten from a tree, but even Brandon Routh thought to use his heat vision on the fly to disintegrate deadly falling debris after a sonic boom. From everything shown to us from the moment he put on the suit, Superman rarely if ever bothered to give the safety and welfare of the people around him one bit of thought.
It would have been as easy as having Superman save ONE baby in a stroller to show his concern. That’s all that was needed. Hell, instead of having Perry White standing around the rubble have him aiding in the evacuation of the city so that we can understand the city has been evacuated. The movie instead goes out of its way to have Superman speed at Zod alongside a (likely populated) building and punch him so hard the sonic wave collapses that building. It’s an awesome moment, a stupendous illustration of the power of these two, but it’s also so absolutely tone-deaf in terms of how Superman should be handling this fight.
Some people online have been wondering why the ending of The Avengers didn’t result in the same complaints. There are a couple of reasons, the biggest one being that the destruction in The Avengers is tiny compared to that in Man of Steel. The entire battle in The Avengers is kept in a few city blocks. In Man of Steel Superman punches Zod away from the destroyed section of the city to go fight him in populated areas.
What’s more, the best parts of the final fight in The Avengers deal with saving civilians. Captain America creates a battle plan intended to contain the chaos, and then he has a great, wonderful moment where he convinces jaded New York City cops to help evacuate people. Then he rescues civilians from the Chitauri. And then Iron Man, not as much of a protector hero as Superman, sacrifices (he thinks) his life to save New York City from being nuked. Finally, the film has a sequence where the aftermath of the battle - including a wall of pictures of the missing civilians - is revealed.
The two fights aren’t comparable because The Avengers did it right.
In his review our own Evan Saathoff puts it perfectly: Zack Snyder “successfully delivers the flawed concept we have all clamored to see.” Way back in the 80s Alan Moore examined what it would be like if superhuman beings really went at it in the world, and that comic, Miracleman, ended up with horrific wholescale destruction and the eventual creation of a fascist state governed by a Captain Marvel clone. Placing these sorts of battles in reality, as Man of Steel sort of does, results in a sad and ugly aftermath of rubble and body parts. Unlike The Avengers, Man of Steel doesn’t want to examine what that means, even in a quick montage. Which is weird in a movie where half the expository speeches are telling Clark Kent to be mindful of how his presence will change the world. It’s as if Goyer and Nolan got to the end and realized the way his presence would change THIS world is that everybody would hate him and he would be seen as a mass murderer. We’re supposed to cheer at the end when Superman brings a destroyed spy drone back to the military, but after his recklessness in Metropolis why would any government trust him?
It could be argued that the Battle of Metropolis is a formative learning experience for the new Superman. Moving forward he’ll be more mindful of the collateral damage he causes. But going back to the question of what changes you can make to a character before you distort that character beyond recognition, is that a Superman you want? A Superman who has to learn through mass fatalities that he needs to be careful in battle?
Maybe I’m an old guy who can’t let go of my version of Superman. It’s a flawed world, and we get a flawed Superman. But the fact that it’s a flawed world is what makes me need that old time Superman more than ever. I live in a country that spies on my emails, that sends drones overseas to kill innocents, that still struggles with granting basic human rights to gays. Superman is known as the Man of Steel, but he’s also the Man of Tomorrow, and I want him to represent a better tomorrow than the today we have right now.
* Maybe. This is one of many moments in Man of Steel where a line of dialogue would make all the difference in the world. Having someone explain that the southern hemisphere World Engine is creating an effect that renders the Metropolis one invulnerable would have given enough reason for Superman to choose that task first.