There’s No Superman in Man of Steel


It’s a decent action/sci-fi movie… but Superman doesn’t appear in it.

Man of Steel is a fun picture in many respects; it’s got a nice hook, some very good performances, and some really terrific visual design and special effects. But they’re marketing it as a Superman movie, and I don’t know why. Yes, there’s a super-powered alien raised by Earthlings in it, but he’s not Superman. He’s not even called Superman. The one time someone refers to him as Superman, it’s treated as a joke, as though it’s embarrassing and kind of stupid to call anyone that.

Superman is the original superhero, the prototypical model, and superheroes are often laughed off as mere pubescent power fantasies. Indeed, the boys who first dreamed up Superman were no more than teenagers, but that meant that they had the unfiltered passion of adolescence, and they dreamed a power fantasy that has resonated down all the decades since.

Yes, Superman asks the question “What would it be like if I were so powerful I could do anything I wanted and no one could stop me?” But to end the analysis there is to miss the answer to that question that has always been part of the character, the answer of an idealistic kid: “If I could do anything at all. I would do good. I would be good.”

Superman is, ironically, the retort to Nietzsche, the embodiment of a morality so deeply internalized that when all strictures are removed, he acts out of pure goodness and human decency anyway. He protects the weak, he fights for the powerless, he saves lives and rights wrongs and he never takes a life, because he has that power, but not that right.

That guy does not appear in Man of Steel.

I could list a lot of moments that demonstrate that the hero of Man of Steel is not Superman, but for me it all comes down to one shot. When the baddies throw an eighteen-wheel gasoline truck at the hero in the middle of Metropolis, he uses his flight power to cunningly dodge between the truck’s two sections, landing deftly on the street and walking unruffled toward his enemy, as behind him the truck plows into a presumably-populated building and explodes, demolishing the building. The hero doesn’t even glance back; cool guys don’t look at explosions.

There’s a dozen more moments as callous as that, all reflecting the same problem. Like The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel treats the everyday, ordinary people of the world with something between disregard and open contempt. Which is okay for a lot of movies, just not a Superman movie. Because treating ordinary people with contempt is one of two things Superman never does.

The other thing is, after an obligatory spoiler alert, perhaps the clearest example of how the people who made this movie don’t seem to know who Superman is or why anyone would like him.

Those defending Man of Steel as a Superman movie argue that the killing of General Zod is not out of character, because Superman in the comics executed Zod with Kryptonite. And that’s true. In that storyline, Superman agonized over an impossible decision, and realized that under the circumstances, he had no choice but to violate his absolute code against taking life, in the process wiping out the last members of his own species. That terrible decision nearly broke him, and it was a while before he was himself again.

The guy in Man of Steel also kills Zod, but who cares? He’s got no code against killing. It’s not a moral choice for him. Not for a single second at any point have we seen this guy express compunction about taking a life. So when he acts as though this was a wrenching and terrible decision afterward, it makes no sense. It has no context. It’s some guy we don’t know who basically seems pretty okay with death, and now he’s all upset? Whatever.

Superman in the comics does what his wholesome farm parents taught him growing up: look out for other people before yourself, especially if you’re stronger than they are. The hero of Man of Steel does what his wholesome farm parents taught him growing up: cover your own ass, however many lives it costs.

I can’t imagine why anyone would think those two are the same character, though.

About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. KC Krupp says:

    The very early Superman was not a paragon of morality, in fact for his first several issues he was a tool (If you hang out at Cracked at all they like to remind their readers of this on a semi-regular basis.) My guess is the Chris is right and that the first movie was supposed to display him before he really “becomes” Superman.

  2. I think you are missing the point that (clearly) this film will have sequels. If you look at the Batman films (and it makes sense to do so, since Man Of Steel was written by Goyer and Nolan, just like TDK), you essentially have three Batman’s across each three of the films – 1) an emotionally broken loner, 2) a hero who exists to put the city ahead of himself 3) a reluctant hero/martyr.

    The idea that Superman as a character would be ‘perfect’ or all things you might expect him to be fresh out of the oven (given that he doesn’t even put on the suit until half way through the film), is a case of missing the point. I think the Superman you speak of is still to come

  3. superman takes alot of lives, only fake fans would claim hes never killed.

    superman can kill but he saved it for other supers like zod or titan usually although he killed to humans who found out his identity

  4. wellokaythen says:

    The sci-fi aspect was just the form that the movie took. At heart it’s not really a superhero movie or a science fiction story.

    It’s basically an allegory about interracial adoption. What do you do when your adopted child is curious about his origins? How does he relate to people from his country or subculture of origin? What do you do when you have one lost biological father and one adopted father who you think of as your real father? What do you do as an adolescent when you feel like you’re from another planet and no one seems to understand you? Do you keep your origins secret, or do you embrace them?

    Watch it again with this in mind and you can’t not notice it. Any white Americans adopting a baby from China should see it.

    Tune in later when I explain how World War Z is basically an allegory expressing deep-seated anxiety about illegal immigration.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Or Man of Steel could just be the vehicle for the break-out launch of the actress Antje Traue. More of her, please….. : – )

  5. Cornelius Walker says:

    Tell the truth, this was all just a post hoc rationalization for why you really didn’t like the movie: the missing red underwear.

    • Jameseq says:

      speaking of underwear.
      i find the groin, or absence of it, on the new superman quite interesting. that ‘groin plate’ is far too small for the suit. thats the first thing that hit me when i saw the redesign.
      makes him look very odd.

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