WARNING: SPOILERS FOR MAN OF STEEL
The following is not a review of Man of Steel. That would be far too short (“I loved it!”) and hardly interesting. I am going to keep these kinds of posts rare — I think you would rather read my fiction than my pop culture ravings — but I was so intrigued by a certain aspect of Man of Steel that I just had to write about it. Feel free to comment and start a discussion.
A great flurry of nerdly debate has raged for the last few days, ever since Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel film debuted. This debate centers around one of the film’s controversial decisions: Superman is forced to kill General Zod to end his reign of terror. The two sides of the debate can be summed up as those that believe Superman Does Not Kill, versus those that believe a “grittier” and more “grounded” Superman would make the right choice in committing the act. Here is what I believe: it is not an interesting debate and is far from the most interesting, controversial choice made in the film. Throughout Superman’s long history, and especially in the modern era of the last 40 years or so, Superman has grappled with this question time and again. it is a go-to moment for Superman writers, simultaneously generating the aforementioned controversy, as well as milking the hero for all the pathos he is worth. Sometimes, as with a previous comic book iteration of General Zod as well as with the rampaging behemoth Doomsday, Superman chooses to take the life to save thousands or millions. Other times, such as against the darker, grittier anti-heroes of both Kingdom Come and The Elite, he goes to the edge, only to pull back and show everyone killing is not necessary. By having Superman kill, or not, the creator in question is able to make a statement about heroism, violence and Superman himself. In Snyder’s version of this classic trope, Superman must kill but is anguished by it, establishing a very good potential reason for Superman’s future self-imposed prohibition on killing (which would be served well for a movie or three, leading up to the inevitable encounter with Doomsday in a Death of Superman film).
All that said, the really interesting choice that Snyder and Company make in Man of Steel is how Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent comes to be the Clark Kent we know. I submit that, in Man of Steel, Clark begins as Kal El and becomes Superman, but in the end emerges from this trial by fire as Clark Kent. Most interestingly, the one who guides him to that identity is Lois Lane in an almost perfect reversal of her usual role as uncoverer of Clark Kent’s secret identity. In this case, she is instrumental in forging it.
Allow me to unpack this to some degree. First off, I should define the terms Kal El, Superman and Clark Kent. Kal El is the son of Jor El, the Alien Among Us, the one that Lex Luthor of the comics fears so desperately. It is Kal El, the outsider and the “nerd” that gets bullied in school and rages against his adopted father and, however impressively, lashes out at the mean old truck driver. Kal El takes on assumed names and works menial jobs and wears a beard and a ball cap to hide himself in plain sight. This is the character we first meet, whose birth is so natural that it is unnatural, even on his alien homeworld, and whose very existence is a heresy. Superman, by contrast, is the Hero, the Messiah, the Divine Being whose power is unmatched (except hy his opposite number, of course). Superman already exists in Kal El, of course: part of the latter’s alienness is the former’s great power, and the skulking Kal El does so in order to give room to Superman to save lives and right wrongs. Kal El might have destroyed the truck, but Superman kept him from destroying the trucker.
Clark Kent is another thing entirely, especially in Snyder’s mythology. In the traditional Superman story, Kal El becomes Clark Kent the moment he is found on the side of the road by the the humble and pure yet strong and convicted Jonathan and Martha Kent. Clark Kent becomes Superman at some later date — it varies depending on the telling, sometimes still as an adolescent and sometimes well into adulthood — and then only much later becomes aware of and embraces his identity as Kal El. In these narratives, Clark Kent is the real person, the core of the character, and Superman is not a masquerade but a vehicle with which he can do the most good, while Kal El is a legacy identity. Snyder’s Clark Kent, however, is different. Though he owned the name, the identity meant nothing to him. He had thrown it away for the even more generic “Joe” when we first met him, in fact. We see, in flashback, him reject this identity when he rejects his adopted father.
The thing allowed me to make sense of Snyder’s strange take on the old Superman identity triangle was this: as adults, a key component of our identities are our professions. “Hello, my name is Ian. I’m a land surveyor.” (Or, “Hi, my name is Ian. I’m a writer,” if I am feeling especially optimistic.) Clark Kent is a reporter. As the nature of news media has changed, so has the kind of reporter Clark kent has been, but integral to the Superman mythology has been his place at the Daily Planet. In many origin retellings over the years, Clark chooses a career as a journalist because he loves it and he is good at it and it allows him to help people in a non-superheroic way, but the core reason, ever since the beginning, has always been that it allows him to be in places where trouble is brewing. This offers the dual benefit of keeping Superman close to the action, and allowing regular crises during which Clark Kent can easily disappear. Narrative specifics aside, part of the very definition of Clark Kent is “reporter.”
Lois Lane is a reporter, by definition, as well. Her character has oscillated between frozen harpy and smitten kitten over the years (the latter especially during the quiet era between the golden and the silver ages) but she was most often a resourceful, tough, beautiful female reporter, doing it better and faster than any of the men around her. In most traditional tellings, she is Clark Kent’s professional rival long before she is his romantic pursuer (usually because Clark makes an early splash with Superman exclusives), so it is of particular interest that Snyder chooses to depict her relationship to the Clark Kent reporter identity the way he does. Here, Lois not only unmasks Kal El, she introduces the world to Superman and helps create Clark Kent. It is a notable reversal of the usual direction of their story, where Lois disdains Clark and loves Superman and only later discovers they are one and the same. Most importantly, Lois creates Clark Kent. She not only gives him a human connection that matters in their budding romantic relationship, she helps him forge his way into the offices of the Daily Planet so that he may enjoy all those previously mentioned benefits for a super-hero in having a secret identity as a reporter.
Now, I know there was no textual evidence in the film for Lois’ direct involvement in his hiring. To that, I can only say, Come on! Given the complete lack of any evidence Clark Kent went to college, let alone studied journalism, the only reasonable explanation for Clark becoming a daily planet reporter is Lois going to bat for him, probably secretly given that she pretends not to know him when he is introduced. While it is certainly possible to drive a truck through the plot holes presented by this turn of events, the fact remains that this is what happened. Lois Lane, rather than eventually peeling away the costume of Clark Kent to reveal Superman, created it for him.
What this says of the relationship between Lois and Clark, relative to previous iterations of the mythology, is profound: they are partners in Superman’s never ending battle. It is not unexplored territory. It almost always becomes that after many years and the dramatic possibilities inherent in the secret identity and romantic entanglements subplots were thin. To have it occur at the inception of Superman’s career, however, and to make Lois not just important but responsible for it put the two characters on equal footing in a way that I believe is unexplored. Surely Lois will still need saving from supervillains and very long falls (both of which we saw in Man of Steel) but what she does not need saving from here is the incongruent, oftentimes insulting girlish stupidity foisted upon her. Who has not wondered how it could be that Lois, who had kissed those super lips and been held by those super arms, could be fooled by a pair of glasses? Who has not questioned her chops as a Pulitzer winning journalist when she could not make the simple connection that every time there was a crisis, Clark Kent ran away and Superman appeared? Who could not vehemently dislike the woman who spurned her good natured, intelligent and talented colleague for the flying man she hardly knew? These aspects of the character, all established during the decidedly non-progressive era of Superman’s creation, have, in the modern era, served to undermine the character as believable or likable or both.
Whether any of the potential consequences of this choice are explored in future films is an open question. Big budget action movies, especially sequels, are not well known for their nuanced depictions of relationships. Even if the status quo asserts itself, however, the choice was made and will influence the way future iterations of the Superman myth is told.
I really enjoyed Snyder’s interpretation of Superman for many of the reasons you’ve outlined here–particularly that backward journey from Kal El to Clark Kent. I thought it was a really neat approach and it makes a lot of sense, particularly now, when people are wondering and wandering for longer, trying to figure out who they are.