Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
Man of Steel
The Beautiful Truth of Freedom, Love and Choice
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
“The single point at which everything we know and everything we question exist in one place; the ultimate crossroads in the journey of discovering the true meaning of “self”; the collision point of science and religion, tangible and ethereal, physical and philosophical; the place where a question that may never truly have an answer can be embodied in a singular character; in many ways, that is the why of Superman.” Zack Snyder
Snyder is knowledgeable of the myths and icons that influenced the creators of Superman (Moses, Philip Wylie’s “Gladiator”, Voltaire’s “Micromegas” and Doc Savage) and mined the vast comic history to build his vision to honor the character. Snyder’s depiction isn’t an Elseworld, alternate universe, Injustice or New 52 (outside of a few nods) version as some have claimed - it’s a respectful, composite amalgamation of 75 years of stories, and the evidence is overwhelmingly visible. Snyder and Goyer did not create a “darker” take on Superman (as common surface readings proclaim), they re-introduced the character in today’s world and depicted how differently he would be perceived. Superman was conceived as a sci-fi character, and Man of Steel returns the character to his roots through a “first contact” story. This was to be the first in a 5 film arc that Snyder was hired to create.
The character of Superman is a highly complex moral agent and stories about him are strongest when they reflect that complexity. A Superman that doesn't grow, that isn't challenged and never falters cannot tangibly inspire. Clark has lived the human experience and shares relatable experiences people go through every day. The title, Man of Steel, is fitting because steel is actually strengthened and refined as it is heated and tempered. The film focuses on the humanity of the iconic character, depicting a spiritual journey of a man discovering his mental, emotional and physical strength. A large part of why Man of Steel was controversial with audiences was precisely because the characters confront complex dilemmas, and the audience was challenged by and wrestled over those difficult decisions.
The film opens with Krypton, establishing the themes that will ripple through the story. Krypton was originally a martial empire (similar to Sparta) thriving in a “harsh environment”, and they had expanded to the nearby planets. At some point, Krypton abandoned its imperial outreach and focused inward to alter its society: through population control and replaced natural reproduction by genetically engineering people for specific functions to perform in the regime. This idea (the use of science or education to propagate the state’s political ideology) is a distortion from the philosophy Plato constructed in “The Republic”.
Plato theorized how a society could effectively produce fulfilled people, by instilling meaning and ensuring lasting societal progression. Plato lived in Athens, which was very focused on the rich and sports celebrities. Plato affirmed that these are the wrong role models, it matters who we admire because they influence our attitude, ideas and conduct. Plato therefore wanted to give the people new celebrities, ones with wise and good character, he called them “Guardians”, models for everyone’s good development. He also wanted to revise democracy, observing how people rarely think properly when they vote, and therefore the society receives sub-standard rulers. He didn’t want to replace democracy with a dictatorship, but he didn’t want people to vote until they started to think rationally, that is when they became philosophers. Plato proposed that a “just” society would need to distribute the citizens into different roles: Producers, Philosophers and Guardians, each to work in their pre-assigned responsibilities for the greater good of the society. This was Plato’s Ideal City. Jor-El distinguishes Krypton’s version of this idea saying “each child was predetermined to fill a role in society: as a worker, a warrior, a leader, and so on.”
Krypton became a corrupted version of the Ideal City. The culture’s decline and fall resulted from their efforts to replace nature with technological control, which lead to the depletion of the natural resources and the destabilization of the planet’s core through excessive mining. The planet deteriorates not as a tragic accident, but because Kryptonian society lacked the virtues that Plato asserted were necessary.
In order to be a good leader, Plato’s “Guardians” would need to pass certain trials. Superman will undergo many trials and conquer them by holding to his convictions. Superman will be the embodiment of the Ideal City. The Ideal City is a metaphor for the human soul. The Codex is Krypton, and Krypton was originally the Ideal City. Kal-El has the “soul” of Krypton, the codex, embedded within him. Furthermore, Plato wrote that the City is a “city of the mind” (an ideal), and as Jor-El tells Kal that “[he] will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards.” In the film, the two halves are compared to one another: Superman against Krypton, ethical philosophy against political philosophy, soul against city. The film will revolve around Clark choosing between Krypton and Earth.
The film deliberately opens with Lara-El giving birth. Kryptonian birth had become industrial, clean, painless, silent, robotic and artificial. Lara’s birth is personal, messy, painful, human, real and organic. Having removed themselves from natural childbirth, Krypton created a society without choice, chance or free will. Each citizen was grown and engineered for a specific purpose. Krypton became culturally stagnant. They once were a race that achieved wonders: exploration and innovation are the products of hope, dreams and curiosity.
Jor-El realized that the only hope for Krypton would be a return to nature (to choice and chance) and he began with the risky process of having a natural baby. His wife gives birth in secret, and they are immediately filled with love for their own child, as opposed to a child of the state. Their child, Kal-El, is the first natural birth in centuries. Kal’s destiny will not be sealed by government programming, he will be free to make his own choices. Jor-El now cares for both his people (society) and his son (individual), and he plans for both their futures.
A few days later, Jor-El meets with the Council on Kandor (the Capital) and pleads with them to make a change. He tells them he has a plan to save Krypton: that they need to “return to the stars [to their roots, to tradition]” The meeting is interrupted by General Zod proclaiming a coup to overthrow the government; he shoots one of the council members to assert his force, and he tells Jor-El that they must “cut off the degenerative bloodlines [that lead their culture astray]”. Due to Zod’s programming, he doesn’t know how else to respond other than with force. Jor-El tells him “I’ll honor the man you once were Zod, not this monster you’ve become.” Zod orders his soldiers to take Jor-El captive for his refusal to cooperate.
Jor-El escapes and steals the “codex”, the Kryptonian genetic database, and arrives back at the Citadel. Lara has prepared the launch, and Jor-El embeds the material (the culture’s future) into his newborn child (literally making him the last son of Krypton).
Jor-El is so certain of his convictions, that the planet will be destroyed: he has put his reputation on the line, and furthermore by taking his stand and stealing the codex - he puts his family at risk. What if he was wrong? What if Krypton didn’t explode and he had sent his only son away, adamant that his convictions were the truth?
The launch ejects and Jor-El watches in awe the ship leave the Citadel. Zod, feeling betrayed, stabs Jor-El through the chest. Lara runs to Jor-El’s side, telling Zod that her child “is beyond [his] reach.” Lara stakes her life and the life of her child on her husband’s convictions. She chooses to give her child away, she just lost her husband before her eyes and though she will never know the fate of her son: she will still stand resolute as the planet explodes around her.
General Zod is also a man of strong conviction, though his dedication flows from his lack of freedom. Zod was programmed from birth to be a military leader and protect the Kryptonian people: he didn’t have to earn his position. Zod would not have had his position challenged, and he would be used to being considered supreme as an entitlement. Zod obviously didn’t expect that his rebellion would have failed, Zod didn’t think Jor-El would beat him, Zod wouldn’t consider a different way of life, conversation, or diplomacy. (Also Zod’s regime is paralled with communism, Zod’s crest resembles the Communist symbol and images of Zod’s military parallel Communist propaganda.)
Zod is captured for his failed coup and sentenced to the Phantom Zone for rehabilitation. Zod says, “You won’t kill us yourself but you’ll damn us to an eternity in a Black Hole!” (Note that the council cannot kill). By sending Zod and his soldiers to the Phantom Zone, the Kryptonian council are neglecting to respond to the situation facing their world and simply continuing their procedures. When Krypton is destroyed, Zod is able to escape the phantom zone and pursue his genetic mission of rebuilding the Kryptonian people. He first searches the colonial outposts for possible recruits, though they all perished in the absence of Kryptonian direction. He moves on to his goal of obtaining the Codex, which he hopes survived with Jor-El’s son.
Kal's ship travels from Krypton towards "Mother" Earth, and as Kal’s pod enters Earth’s atmosphere, the film transitions to Clark (as an adult) on another boat at sea. Beautiful symmetry. The first shot of adult Clark in the film is on a fishing boat (symbolizing his preparation to be a fisher of men, Matthew 4:19). (Fun fact: the ship is named the “Debbie Sue”, likely after Snyder’s wife: Deborah. As Zack and Deborah are a creative team (director & producer) on each film - like Jor-El, Kal’s creation and arrival would not be possible without his wife’s teamwork). A large crate falls and Fisherman Byrne (named after John Byrne, an author the film took inspiration from) saves Clark, pushing him out of the way. This is a great way to establish the protagonist, having him be saved by someone else: while he has extraordinary powers, he is just a guy (trying to do the right thing).
As an adult, Clark lives a nomadic existence and travels the country searching for his purpose, using his abilities to help when possible. Each time he saves or helps someone, he keeps his anonymity by changing jobs and moving on. When Clark went into the world on his own, his desire to help others meant putting himself in harm’s way (more than he ever had in Smallville) and while that has lead him to some understanding of his powers: they’re ultimately still a mystery to him. He knew his powers may make a difference on the oil rig, though it’s likely that holding up the steel beam was the first time Clark has been tested to that degree.
Clark has grown up feeling alienated and questioning if he would be accepted when revealed to humanity. Clark remembers when he was in grade school, he was overwhelmed by his developing sensory powers and ran into a closet. The teacher allowed other students to crowd around the closet, and responded to the situation with force by banging on the door and amplifying Clark’s anxiety. Clark’s tears reveal that he’s not invulnerable to emotional distress. Martha arrived and immediately took a knee, bringing herself to the same level as her son. Martha told Clark she’s there for him and Clark replied, “the world’s too big, Mom.” Martha replied, “then make it small. Focus on my voice, pretend it’s an island, out in the ocean. Do you see it?” “I see it.” “Then swim towards it, honey.” Martha showed Clark the power of mental control and focus to calm his senses and anxiety. She expressed her concern and reached Clark without exposing his secret to the surrounding spectators. When Clark left the closet, Martha immediately embraced him. (This scene displays why Clark helps people: his parents. The strength from Martha’s love and her positive influence on Clark would be less apparent if the story was told chronologically. With the poignant flashbacks, the film can reflect on Clark’s past trials with the hope of the hero that he will become.) The film then cuts back to Clark underwater to reinforce his present day memory. Martha’s ocean metaphor is a primary reason Clark recalls this memory, and he sees another association in a mother whale leading a baby whale.
Clark emerges on shore in tattered clothes. He regretfully steals a jacket to preserve his secret.
There is a Bible verse [Luke 5:36] on the house behind him (a frequent technique for Snyder) which exemplifies the themes of the film, and this scene in particular. In the verse Jesus says “no one cuts up a new garment to use as a patch on an old, torn garment, otherwise you will have ruined the new garment and the new cloth won’t match the old garment.” In context, Jesus was saying his teachings could not simply be used as a patch for the Judaism of the time, which was heavily law-based and legalistic. The adherence would have to start anew with His teachings, which are principle-based, and tend to require wisdom, discipline and grace. Jesus’s teachings showed the hypocrisies and counter-intuitive nature of strictly adhering to the law. The film portrays this clash of a rigid, legalistic old structure compared with an organic, principled new path. The rule-based legalism of Krypton to a new ideal that Clark would embody as Superman. Zod aims to simply continue the old ways (with a pre-programed populace) on a new planet.
Clark recalls another memory when he was in middle school: he risked revealing himself when he saved a school bus that crashed into a lake. Clark tells Jonathan “I just wanted to help”. A popular misconception is that Jonathan told Clark to never reveal himself. Actually, Jonathan told Clark to wait for the right time and until he's ready. (In fact, the Kents advising a young Clark to wait has been consistent characterization since Action Comics #1.) Jonathan knew how Clark’s reveal would impact the world. He talked seriously with his son about the complexity of hard decisions, weighing saving the school bus up against the harsh consequences of Alien contact and the loss of his son. Jonathan is reaching back to Biblical wisdom (Eccl 3:1-8) by telling his son it might not be the right time for him to be revealed, and while it may be painful to refrain, waiting may be for a greater good. "There's more at stake than our lives and the lives around us, when the world finds out what you can do it's going to change everything: our beliefs, our notions of what it means to be human, everything.” Jonathan encourages Clark to bide his time, until there is a proper time to live out his “other father's” plan.
Jonathan is a rural farmer wrestling with the unique complexities of how to best guide his son. Growing up Clark knew very little about his powers, and he sincerely asked if God had given them to him. For him that wouldn’t be without precedent: perhaps his strength was like Samson’s or heat vision like Elijah’s fire. Though (before Jonathan reveals the ship) Clark didn’t know if testing his limits would be akin to testing God or allowing his hair to be cut. Jonathan realistically feared Clark being taken away by the government, who’s military has access to tanks, missiles, guns and bombs. There’s no way that protective father would want to test if Clark was impervious to weapons. Jonathan didn’t know Clark’s limits, and he didn’t want to. Especially raising Clark in his youth, he wanted Clark to be safe.
Clark did not have flight or super-speed growing up. (Compared to the television show Smallville, where Clark had super-speed from day one, which allowed him to intervene and preform heroics while essentially invisible. Contrast that with this Clark, who cannot run faster than the eye can see: afterward he would still there for everyone to witness.) So understandably Jonathan puts a high concern on secrecy, because Clark has to be (far more) deliberate about the protection of his secret (without flight or speed). Clark’s power has the potential to be dangerous (power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely), so wisdom is important for Clark so he doesn't become corrupted. He needs to first learn discernment and how the world works (something frequently overlooked).
Jonathan takes his son to the storm shelter to see the space ship and there are dozens of newspaper clippings and research about extra-terrestrials on the wall. This information and burden was carried alone by Jonathan and Martha up to this point. They did the best they could in an era without internet and limited resources. Jonathan reveals the ship to Clark, and tells him what he knows of his origins. Jonathan is sharing this with Clark out of love, but also placing a burden and responsibility onto Clark with the knowledge of what he is and the quest to understand why. This scene plays out like a religious confirmation, (a subsequent ceremony to a baptism to affirm principles to live a just life). Confirmation means an acceptance of responsibility for one's faith and destiny. Kal's transport to Earth symbolized his infant baptism into Earth's atmosphere, and this talk symbolizes his confirmation.
Jonathan tells Clark that “[he’s] the answer to ‘are we alone in the universe.’” Clark says “I don't want to be [the answer to extraterrestrial life].” Jonathan reassuringly replies "I don't blame you son, it would be a huge burden for anyone to bear, but you're not just anyone, and I have to believe that you were sent here for a reason. All these changes you're going through, one day you will think of them as a blessing, and when that day comes: you're going to have to make a choice; a choice of whether to stand proud in front of the human race or not."
Clark asks "can't I just keep –pretending- I'm your son?" "You are my son,” he instantly affirms, “but somewhere out there you have another father too, who gave you another name, and he sent you here for a reason." Jonathan calls Clark forward, to seek the purpose/direction laid out for him by his otherworldly father, “even if you spend the rest of your life searching, you owe it to yourself to find that reason”. Jonathan imbues his son with meaning. Both Jonathan and Martha taught him to defer his immediate preferences for the sake of the greater good and to keep searching and moving toward his purpose. “You'll just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark, because whoever that man is, good character or bad, he's going to change the world.”
Using his powers and saving others is what has kept him hoping. Eventually his hope is rewarded when he finds the Scout Ship and meets his biological father. Finally meeting (his “other father”) Jor-El after over a decade of searching, affirms that Jonathan was right. Jor-El gives Clark his “other [birth] name” and expresses pride in “[his son standing before [him].” Clark has “so many questions”, wanting to know why he was sent to Earth, his identity, and his purpose for being. The paradigm that he has lived his entire life up to this point has completely changed, and he receives a new revelations addressing the questions he has been asking his entire life. Jor-El tells Clark about their world and culture, he refers to the defects of Krypton, but calls Clark to the position of redeemer: able to bring out the “best of both worlds”. Jor-El gives him the principle for their house: “the hope that every person has the potential to be a force for good.” This is a principle to be measured and weighed with reason and grace, not blindly applied without regard for the consequences. Jor-El tells Kal-El what his “reason is” before he sends him out into the world. He says, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
Clark emerges from the scoutship (presumably there was a passage of time that wasn’t shown, where Jor-El answered all Kal’s questions) reflecting on Jor-El’s words. “Why am I so different from them?” “Earth’s sun is younger and brighter than Krypton’s was. Your cells have drunk in its radiation, strengthening your muscles, your skin, your senses. Earth’s gravity is weaker, yet its atmosphere is more nourishing. You’ve grown stronger here than I ever could have imagined. The only way to know how strong is to keep testing your limits.”
Jor-El’s answers provide peace, relief and comfort for Clark; he’s now provided the rationale for his powers and how he can reasonably test his limits. Furthermore he’s released and encouraged to do so. Clark boldly steps out, in the isolation of the artic, without restraint or repercussions. In addition to the powers he already had: Jor-El tells him he can fly.
Clark practices by taking great leaps at first (harkening back to the character’s flightless origins where he could only leap skyscraper heights). On his largest leap, he wills himself higher, and he laughs with joy. Then he loses it and plummets, demonstrating his durability as he decimates a mountain. This shows that flight is delicate: a momentary loss of faith, will or focus and he will drop. Flight is driven by willpower and is something he has to hone and focus.
Now gifted with flight and purpose, Clark ends his pilgrimage and returns home. For Martha, this is an emotional reunion as well, she is happy to see her son and excited to learn of his origins, but that also now means he's no longer just her son, he has other parents now too. Martha reflects on his childhood “when you were a baby, I used to lay by your crib at night, listening to you breathe: it was hard for you. You struggled. And I worried all the time.” Clark thought she was “worried the truth would come out.” “No” she affirms “the truth about you is beautiful. We saw that the moment we laid eyes on you. We knew that one day, the whole world would see that.” Martha says “we” speaking for Jonathan as well, and reinforces that they always intended Clark to be known to the world eventually. “He always believed you were meant for greater things, and he knew when the day came, your shoulders would be able to bear the weight.” Clark says “I just wish he could have been here to finally see it happen.” Martha affirms “he saw it Clark, believe me.” The “beautiful truth” (the opposite of Bruce’s “beautiful lie” in BvS) is the assurance of love and family: together and vulnerable, a family is made strong. Through finding Clark, both parties see they are not alone, they have in common love, hope, dreams and innocence. All that makes it worth being human. Baby Clark’s vulnerability is an invitation to relationship and love. Jonathan and Martha loved Clark with their all, and in return he freely loved them. Jonathan and Martha had hoped and dreamed for a child, and Clark represented their dreams realized: “[they] held the hope [the beautiful truth] in their hands” and they became a family. Martha affirms Clark’s sonship.
Lois has discovered the scoop of the century: an alien living among us; she could have career advancements and win another Pulitzer Prize. Perry wisely tells her to: “consider the impact on the world.” And she reflects on the same issue that Clark wrestles with: if there a timing issue. She questions if she should scoop this story for her newspaper and for her own glory. Through the process of her investigation she is able to see Clark's inherent kindness and heroism. While she was saved by him first-hand, she also heard from countless strangers about the good things Clark has done. Lois sees Clark's inherent goodness but also the pain he has experienced from ostracism and not fitting in. Ultimately she decides against using this story for her personal gain. She knows in her heart that it's his choice to reveal his identity, not hers. She leaked her initial story as a way of reaching out to and communicating with Clark, as she tells him “I figured if I turned over enough stones you’d eventually find me.”
Clark has his own investigative skills and reasonably kept a close eye on Lois. After meeting with Jor-El, his personal identity has changed, but also potentially his public status as a result of the military seeing the scoutship. Until Clark could connect with the outside world, he wouldn’t know if the military had issued a public statement, or if Lois had published all she knew to the world. The meeting at the cemetery is the result of their mutual investigations. “Let me tell your story”, At this point, Lois has gathered enough information to conclude Clark lives a lonely existence. Although Clark has struggled to stay under the radar, he is committed to helping people, he has continually risked that cloak of anonymity and become an urban legend. “What if I don’t want my story told?”
Clark opens up to her by sharing the story of Jonathan's death.
“I’m tired of “safe”, I just want to do something useful with my life.” (While presumably Clark has minimally used his powers since the bus incident, Clark is also taking his parents for granted. Safe is a good thing: safe means being healthy, having a roof over your head, warm clothes, regular meals and knowing it will all be there for you tomorrow. Even if the Kent’s got nothing else right, they gave Clark a mostly peaceful childhood, a home, a family, a community, an education, strong values, the knowledge they will be there for him, a sense of security and as much of a normal life as a special child could have.)
“So farming, feeding people – that’s not useful?” “I didn’t say that.” “My family’s been farming for five generations, Clark.” “Your family, not mine. I don’t even know why I’m even listening to you, you’re not my Dad: you’re just some guy who found me in a field.” “Clark!” “That’s alright Martha, that’s right, Clark has a point: we’re not your parents, but we’ve been doing the best we can and we’ve been making this up as we go along, so maybe our best isn’t good enough anymore.” “Look, Dad…” Jonathan stops the car as they notice the tornado.
Jonathan tells them to get to the overpass. An overpass does not represent absolute safety (though this was a popular myth in 1997, when this film event took place). When a tornado strikes there would still be a risk to those within proximity, and to Jonathan, the most precious thing was his wife (and the other civilians, including the little girl he handed to Clark) and he’d rather Martha face that risk with Clark by her side. His wife is concerned about their dog still in the car, he knows that his son or his wife may go back to the car, (no one thinks they will die) so he puts the strongest man on the planet next to his wife where it's safe, and he goes himself. Rescuing the dog is not a reflection of how much Jonathan valued the dog but how much more he valued Martha (and Clark’s secret). He thinks he's helping his wife and he's protecting the hidden nature of his son.If Jonathan had stayed with Martha and Clark was sent, Martha would be unprotected against any of the tornado’s risks and Clark would have risked exposing his secret. If Clark ran to save his Dad from the tornado and the bridge may have collapsed, leaving Martha vulnerable. As much as Jonathan was willing to sacrifice himself to protect Clark’s secret, he was certainly willing to sacrifice himself to keep his wife and the mother of his child safe as well. This all takes place in a matter of seconds and there is little time to process.
Years ago, when Jonathan processed the bus accident with Clark, he communicated to Clark that there may be a situation when he will have to wait to act and abstain until the right time for him to be revealed. Jonathan now has to practice what he preached, when he is crippled standing by the car with a tornado behind him: Jonathan stands (with a broken ankle) on his convictions, and models for Clark sacrificing for your beliefs. You can say "the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few', until it's you. The one that Clark should "maybe" not intervene for is his father who said that. Clark’s last line in the flashback is the anguished cry, "DAAAAAD!!!" (affirming his parenthood that he questioned moments ago) as he obeys his father’s final instructions to continue to wait. While the audience knows what the character is capable of (due to 75 years of history and stories) - Clark does not know the extent of his strength and durability. (Additionally, there is no narrative evidence Clark has super-speed at this point. He only uses that ability after he meets with Jor-El and gains flight). He chose to obey his father's wishes. It was not an easy choice and he has to live with it.
Clark is unburdening himself to the first person he can speak about this with openly. Clark tells Lois that “my father believed if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me. He was convinced that the world wasn’t ready.” He earnestly asks her “What do you think?” [Clark is saying: ‘given these facts, my father’s conviction and sacrifice, and what you know about me, and the world: was he right? Was I? Is it time yet? Can you accept me? Is the world ready yet? Will it ever be?’] These are the questions he’s been asking for the past 16 years, and he values her view. Lois listens, considers it carefully and responds positively which gives Clark hope. Clark’s faith in humanity is beginning to be rewarded because despite Lois having every reason to reveal who he is, she chooses to trust him. This gives Clark a realistic basis to love and appreciate Lois. Lois respects Clark’s humanity and is changed by it. Finally a new status quo has been reached for Clark, and he can take a break/rest from his years of searching before determining the next step.
Soon Zod arrives on Earth, and the reality of extraterrestrial life is unveiled to the world. The aliens are very similar to humans (identical in appearance) and the residents of Krypton also call themselves people. Clark had believed that he was the last of his kind and now witnesses the arrival of others from his world. Clark has always wanted to know that his struggle was not unique. He has a deep yearning to meet his people and relate with someone else on the same terms. The first words from Zod are: “you are not alone”, and this speaks specially to Clark.
Clark did not have much time to live with Jor-El’s new identity-changing information, before the threat of Zod’s ultimatum. By having heeded his father’s wisdom to wait, Clark's reveal now can come when there is a global threat. If there was ever a time when the world would recognize him as a hero, if there was ever a time for him to be accepted: this is that time. If Superman (as the most powerful being on the planet) had simply appeared one day: every army in the world would want to destroy him and every nation would fear him. By heeding his earthly father's call for patience and endurance, his revelation truly comes as savior in a time of need.
Clark remembers a confrontation with some childhood bullies, who taunted Clark to fight: though Clark showed restraint and Pete, a former bully, helped Clark up. Recalling this memory is an encouraging affirmation for Clark that people can change. Back when he was a child, Jonathan could help Clark process and refrain from easily reacting with violence. Now Clark can draw on his parents’ wisdom and his experiences. (In this scene, Clark is shown with the book The Republic in his hand. This serves to alert the audience to the film’s themes, but also shows Clark training his virtue.)
Reflecting on what to do, Clark goes to church and tells the priest that his instincts tell him that “Zod can’t be trusted, but neither can humanity”. The priest tells him to “take a leap of faith [that they will make the right decisions]. The trust part comes later.” As Clark speaks with the priest there is a stained glass window behind him depicting the Garden of Gethsemane, just before Jesus was arrested and taken to trial (which could parallel his situation, but also characterize the Priest’s projection: how he “sees” Clark).
Further recounting Clark’s experiences with humanity, he had adoptive parents who showed him unconditional love, though being his parents, he likely thought this wouldn’t generalize to humanity at large. But as he grew he encountered positive signs, such as Pete Ross shifting from a bully to a friend. Pete showed Clark that people can change and accept him once they see his character. That could be an indication that once Clark reveals himself to the world they will accept him as well. Additionally there’s his interactions with the military: the soldiers are initially hostile, though eventually transition to partner with Superman, personified as General Hardy proclaims “this man is not our enemy.”
Clark submits to the government, “to the people of earth”, in an act of cooperation and goes with the military to meet Zod. Clark thanks Lois for her faith and belief in him, his faith in humanity has begun to be rewarded because despite Lois having every reason to reveal who he is, she chose to put her trust in him. Lois is a source of Clark’s hope in humanity, she is the first person (besides his parents) to know the full range of his identity. This can be very intimate to be known to such a degree, especially for someone who's has been treated like an outcast. Moving forward, Lois will have the strength and transparency of being a full partner in a full relationship with Clark. Colonel Swanwick refuses to hand Lois over to Zod, through Lois bravely chooses to go to the ship with Superman. Clark and Lois enter the ship, while Clark trusts Zod will keep his word, though he takes a safety net (the command key). Clark learns that Zod intends to terraform the Earth into Krypton. Jor-El guides Lois to an escape pod and gives her key information to dismantle Zod’s plans. As Lois Lane is falling to Earth in a defective escape pod, Jor-El tells Kal, "You can save them, you can save all of them." Clark glides out of the ship in a “cross” position, psychologically choosing the ideal he will strive towards. He turns his aim to Earth and flies home.
Zod travels to the Kent Farm, presuming the codex is hidden there. Zod (an alien general, wearing monster-like armor who has declared he will kill every person on Earth) threatens Martha and she bravely tells him to “go to hell”. Clark flies in and tackles Zod away from the area, protectively screaming, “you think you can threaten my mother?!" (This references both Clark’s adoptive mother and his metaphorical mother, Earth). Clark and Zod crash in the middle of a street, and Zod adjusts to the atmosphere. Clark has never been in a fight like this (or any) before, this is the first time anyone has been able to match his strength. He tells other people to "get inside", but he doesn't know what will happen. Clark saves people when he can, though predominately he is trying to survive and not get himself killed. For most of his life he has been the strongest being on the planet, now other Kryptonians arrive who match his strength, and one of them is a battle-hardened, tunnel-visioned military commander who was “bred to be a warrior, trained [his] entire life to master [his] senses.”
Zod soon initiates the Black Zero world engine and begins to terraform Earth into Krypton. Clark, with the help of Lois and the military, is able to dismantle the Kryptonian technology.
Clark and Lois were bonded together through the shared experience of saving the world against the Black Zero. That's a potent recipe for romance. They survived a massive event, emotions took over, and they kissed. This is a realistic, adrenaline-fueled reaction.
The destruction of Krypton at the start of the film helped to relativize the truly global threat posed by the World Engine. And although the World Engine is destroyed, Zod still threatens the lives of every human on the planet. He vowed the genocide of the entire human race. Zod states he has nothing else to live for, "[his] service is to his people, and now [he] has no people, [and thus no purpose].” Zod affirms that it’s “[his] soul - that is what you have taken from me." Zod no longer had any purpose or meaning to his life. Through ensuring they fight in public places, Zod is not only taking revenge on Clark, but trying to get Clark to kill him. "There’s only one way this ends Kal, either you die, or I do." Zod made it clear he would not stop until the Earth was destroyed. Zod’s past actions, no matter how violent or cruel, were in his mind for the greater good of his people. Now that Zod is released from that genetic destiny: he is able to exercise free will. Zod could have mourned in anguish and accepted the loss of Krypton, however he chooses the only path he’s ever known: destruction, cruelty and violence, even though it is no longer justified. Having lost his purpose, Zod’s first act of free will is to make Clark’s pain his new purpose. Opposed to a swift defeat, he wants Clark to be awake, alert and to suffer. Zod’s pride is his downfall. He could not fathom Clark choosing the lowly humans over Kryptonians, nor could he imagine Kal-El or humanity ever being a threat to him. If Zod considered Clark an equal on his level, he would fight Clark with the same respect as he gave Jor-El on Krypton (it was only when he saw the heresy that he fought dirty). While fighting Clark, Zod stops to mock him and plays games with objects that are unlikely to hurt Clark (such as throwing trucks or satellites).
Zod has been in control of the fight from the start, and wants the fight to take place where people would be affected. Zod keeps bringing the fight back to populated areas. He throws Clark through most of the buildings just to create more collateral damage. Clark may have seldomly done the same to Zod, but that was more an act of desperation. Clark acted realistically and did the best he could. In his first day on the job, Clark fights because he is needed: it’s the right thing now. He was born because of hope, he was blessed to save those dreams and he was raised to help. Despite the hurt and humiliation of fighting, he has a spirit that doesn’t give up while Zod knocks him down again and again. Clark continues to get up and fight to save humanity. Where some only see this fight as a mindless action spectacle, this is an incredible display of Clark’s character and courage. Through the fight Clark shows the strength of enduring will, even when things are stacked against him. Anyone can be like Zod, confident and a bully when they have the upper hand. Fewer have the character of Clark, to persevere, do what is necessary and hope for change.
Clark gains a momentary advantage because Zod was dazed enough after the fall to be put in a headlock. Zod reiterates that he will kill all of humanity, “you can mourn for them”. Imminent death right in front of them, and Clark had to decide. Clark accepts that not everyone can be saved, even from themselves. There is no kryptonite, no prison on Earth that could hold Zod and no phantom zone. Zod's death was the only way to save Earth. Clark screams in agony and snaps Zod’s neck. By killing Zod he killed the last Kryptonian, killed the last chance at connecting with his culture and killed someone who knew his birth father. Killing is the ultimate statement this person cannot be a force for good. Clark does not take the choice lightly. He saved the billions who would've died. Clark was the only one capable of stopping Zod, while he was alone, outmatched and overpowered, he persevered and saved everyone on Earth. Clark becomes the Super-man that his two fathers called him to be and embodies the best of both worlds. Both of his fathers embodied the ideals of hope and sacrifice and formed Clark to be a man who knows what he is capable of, formed a deep connection with humanity and has a clear understanding of his aim. Jor-El and Jonathan instilled in Clark a growth mindset, and values of competence and discipline. Clark has now been refined and become a Man of Steel.
Man of Steel is a celebration of fathers, family, freedom, discipline and choice. The film juxtaposes men and women of great conviction who risk everything for a higher purpose, emphasizing that we need to have truthful convictions, otherwise they will have disastrous ends. "There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death." (Prov 14:12) The film began with the birth of Kal-El and concluded with the birth of Superman, opening with a city being destroyed, and ends with a city prevented from being destroyed. Clark continuously sacrificed himself: by surrendering to the military (“the people of Earth”), sacrificing himself to stop a machine that saps him of his abilities, he sacrificed the ability to reproduce his race when he destroyed the Black Zero, and finally he sacrificed the last of his people, General Zod, to save others. Zod’s death symmetrically echoes Kal’s birth at the beginning of the film. The film is about Clark choosing to be Superman and choosing humanity. He doesn’t choose to serve and sacrifice because his parents were murdered or because of guilt: it is because he is a good person. He is now Superman, a title bestowed to him by the people of Earth.
"Hope is faith directed toward the future."