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Man of Steel is currently killing it at the box office, and not everyone in Geek Nation is happy about that. Some fanboys and a few critics have blasted the global smash ($235 million worldwide in six days) for exalting a new era Superman that falls alarmingly short of the ideal of perfect heroic character that the king of comic book superheroes is apparently supposed to represent. Shame on Superman for abandoning Metropolis during a crisis (to deal with another crisis on the other side of the planet threatening to extinguish all of humanity)! Shame on Superman for causing billions of dollars in property damage and not rescuing imperiled civilians (while devoting himself wholly to the urgent, all-consuming labor of stopping a psychotic, super-powered maniac)! Shame on Superman for saving the day by doing the thing that Superman is supposed to never do (even though soldiers and even policemen are often forced to do the same thing to stop those who would threaten our lives)! Man of Steel is a Superman of Lies! It is heresy! Bad screenwriting! A horrible, horrible movie!
Perhaps you agree. Perhaps you don't. Perhaps you think all of this is really, really, really silly. But before your opinion of Man of Steel becomes set in stone, we'd like to inform your thoughtful deliberations by showing you how this new articulation of Superman could have been much worse. He could have been?Christopher Reeve's Superman. For if we're going to use the yardstick of moral perfection to take the measure of Superman, you can only come to this conclusion about an incarnation of the Man of Steel widely considered to be the gold standard for silver screen superheroes: He is a selfish, solipsistic, stupid, deceitful, cowardly, callous, sociopathic, sexually perverse, creatively bankrupt jerk. So basically Don Draper. Or Don Draper if Don Draper killed people. Because Christopher Reeve's allegedly ''super'' Superman did that, too.
Please, allow us to elaborate?
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10. CLARK KENT WAS A TERRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD SUPERBOY.
You might be, too, if your father made you hide everything that made you strong and special and forbade you from exercising the fullness of your super-duper nature. No sports! No romance! And for the love of Pete (Ross), don't ever race a train in full view of all the passengers just for the angry show-offy hell of it! Yet adolescent Clark Kent did exactly that in Superman: The Movie (1978) after one particularly emasculating afternoon of picking up jock straps as the lowly equipment manager for the high school football team. Worse, he jumped the tracks, narrowly avoiding a collision (which, of course, would have hurt the train more than him and possibly killed everyone aboard). How reckless! How dangerous! How profoundly dumb! A perfect character Superman would never do this. With a son so stress-inducingly reckless and volatile as Clark, little wonder Jonathan Kent died of a bad ticker. Way to go, ''Superboy.'' YOU KILLED YOUR DAD.
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9. CLARK KENT WAS A SELF-INVOLVED LUNATIC WHO NEGLECTED HIS ELDERS AND DIDN'T READ THE BIBLE.
Almost immediately after Pa Kent kicked the bucket, Clark — heeding a call of destiny only he can hear — decides he must go ''find himself'' by hitchhiking into the Arctic and planting a green rod in the ice that can grow a mammoth icicle in the shape of the Fortress of Solitude. Has there ever been a more selfish, utterly insane reason for a teenage child to run away from home? Worse: He abandoned his elderly, just-widowed mother to manage a pretty large piece of farmland all by herself! So what if she gave her blessing? Good sons don't do this. Despite growing up in the vicinity of The Bible Belt, Clark clearly was not familiar with James 1:27, which has something very specific to say to perfect character wannabes, particularly those who aspire to be all Christ-like: ''Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.'' Or maybe Clark was familiar with the passage and thought: Waitiaminute: I'M an orphan. AN ORPHAN FROM OUTER SPACE. And since James puts orphans before widows, tie goes to ME. Sorry, Ma! See you in the funny papers! Nice loophole, Clark. You should have been a lawyer.
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8. CLARK KENT WAS A CON MAN AND PROBABLY A PATHOLOGICAL LIAR.
Maybe not always in word, but certainly in the way Christopher Reeve's adult Clark Kent lived life as a fake bumbling, falsely modest, totally fraudulent nerd. Think about the kind of disturbingly flexible psychology one must have to maintain such a charade each day, every hour, minute to minute. That long clap you hear, Clark? That's Tom Ripley. He's your biggest fan. Clark Kent is Don Draper, if the super-suave mid-century modern superman decided to fake his death and become dorky loser Dick Whitman. A perfect character Superman could never subscribe to such Nixonian/Clintonian compartmentalization, let alone allow himself such a rubbery relationship to the truth. The Man of Steel does not live ironically, because the Man of Steel is, to his core, a man of his word, and that word is ''sincerity personified.'' (Okay, so two words.)
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7. SUPERMAN WAS A PERVERT.
Superman used X-ray vision to sneak a peek at Lois Lane's undies. What a super-creep! Apologists will say: Times were different then! I say: There's now a Sexual Predator Registry for people like this. Memo to the past: PEEPING AT PEOPLE'S PRIVATES WITH X-RAY VISION HAS ALWAYS BEEN WRONG.
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6. SUPERMAN WAS AN EMOTIONALLY COMPROMISED, OVERLY SENTIMENTAL AND DANGEROUSLY TEMPERAMENTAL FOOL WHO COULDN'T BE TRUSTED WITH THE LAWS OF REALITY.
Distraught by the death of Lois Lane, Reeve's Superman willfully ignored the booming STOP sign voice of his father Jor-El (''IT IS FORBIDDEN FOR YOU TO INTERFERE WITH HUMAN HISTORY!'') and turned back time to rescue her from the Reaper. In his defense, Superman does have the power of super-omniscience, so he was totally aware that his act of changing the past would actually produce a better future for all of mankind, and not screw us over by Butterfly-Effecting a million billion deaths and the extinction of chocolate. Oh, wait: SUPERMAN DOES NOT HAVE THAT POWER. A perfect character Superman should never, ever do stuff like this. Tampering with the laws of nature is just a big no-no. This is why no one should ever create nanotechnology, teleportation, or cures for cancer. The only thing worse, I suppose, is?oh, I don't know?probably, say, murdering a bad guy who wants to rule the world and/or kill the human race. But we'll get to that in a moment.
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5. SUPERMAN LOVED SEX MORE THAN YOU.
We now jump to Superman II (1980). Deciding emotional and physical intimacy with the woman he loved was more important than upholding his responsibility to a world that desperately needed him, Superman gave up his extraordinary physical talents and became a wimpy joe like you, minus the Christopher Reeve good looks and the sci-fi oyster-shell sex bed that no woman can resist. Look, it was kinda unfair that Marlon Brando's Jor-El insisted that Kal-El live like a eunuch on his adopted planet if he wanted to serve mankind. But hey: Rules are rules. And a perfect character Superman always follows the rules, always puts humanity's needs above his own human wants, and always, always keeps it in his spandex.
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4. DURING A BATTLE WITH KRYPTONIAN INVADERS, SUPERMAN ABANDONED METROPOLIS AND ALLOWED COUNTLESS CITIZENS TO SUFFER AND DIE.
No, we didn't brain-fart and transpose the much debated third act of Man of Steel onto Superman II. This actually happened: After failing to best Zod, Ursa and Non in battle, the Kryptonian demigod — this allegedly perfect character savior of humanity — turned chicken and flew away with his cape between his legs, leaving The Phantom Zone villains to literally blow away numerous civilians with hurricane-force bad breath.
Before we move on: MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING! The No. 3 reason why Christopher Reeve's Superman was a morally reprehensible cinematic Superman reveals a major and quite controversial plot point about Man of Steel. IF YOU WISH TO SKIP, CLICK HERE.
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3. SUPERMAN WAS A HOMICIDAL SOCIOPATH.
The legendary ending of Superman II saw Superman use some trickery to rob The Phantom Zone villains of their powers. If Christopher Reeve's Superman was a perfect character Superman, this is what should have happened next: Superman would have slapped the cuffs on these alien terrorists and turned them over to the World Court for trial. But no: Superman just murdered them. First, he threw Zod's body against the wall of the Fortress of Solitude and let him slide down a dark crevice into icy oblivion. When Non tried to take a flying leap at Superman, the lumbering brute stumbled and plummeted into another hole to nowhere. Superman did not try to save him. When Lois Lane punched Ursa in the face, causing the rogue to fall down yet another crack to hell, Superman looked momentarily shocked, yet did nothing. He then beamed happily and (ewwwww!) PDA'd with Lois in front of Lex Luthor. This is my killer girlfriend, with whom I am well pleased, and totally turned on by!
In Man of Steel, Cavill's Superman snaps the neck of Michael Shannon's Zod to stop him from incinerating civilians with heat vision and to prevent him from moving on to commit more murder and mayhem throughout the world. Some purists and critics are appalled by this. Perfect character Superman should never do this, they say. Others seem to believe that Superman's action is perfectly reasonable and even morally just within the context of the movie and the historical context of Superman himself. But surely both sides of the argument can now come together and agree on one thing: As bad as Cavill's killer Superman might be, Reeve's killer Superman was three times worse.
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2. SUPERMAN WAS A THUG.
One of the last scenes in Superman II had Clark Kent returning to a diner in Alaska to pick a fight with a trucker bully who earlier in the film hit on Lois Lane, then beat him bloody. Re-imbued with super-strength, Clark went back for payback. He tossed the nasty trucker into a pinball machine (TILT!), an act of violence disproportionately worse than the injuries done to his body and pride. He then gave the diner a wad of cash for the damage. ''I've been working out,'' he quipped. Oh, how we laughed!
But that was then. Today, we're more morally refined, and we need — nay, demand — that superheroes model healthier, more innovative forms of conflict resolution. Hence, in retrospect, let us now be ashamed of this creatively bankrupt Superman for abusing his physical advantages to indulge vengeance and prey on the weak. What a hideous example of manhood for boys and justice for all people. Would you please join me around the bonfire tonight as we burn every print of Superman II in existence? Feel free to bring your copies of The Catcher In The Rye, Are Your There God? It's Me, Margaret, your complete set of Harry Potter and Twilight novels, and anything written by Roald Dahl and S.E. Hinton, for young people can't be trusted with or learn anything from flawed, morally ambiguous fictional ''heroes.''
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1. CLARK KENT ROOFIED LOIS LANE.
Taken together, Superman and Superman II did not trace the evolution of a superhero. What we now see through better, enlightened eyes is the story of a troubled boy who grew into a misguided monster who traumatized women with forbidden sci-fi oyster shell bed sex and exposed them to psychically damaging acts of violence, then slipped them memory-fogging mickeys the morning after to cover his tracks.
Okay, maybe that's a little extreme. A perfect character Superman would never neutralize an inconvenient woman with his ''amnesia kiss'' ability, because after all, SUPERMAN DOESN'T HAVE THAT ABILITY. Talk about hacky screenwriting to resolve a story problem! Amnesia kisses?! Seriously?!?! This isn't a comic book, people! This. Is. CINEMA!
NEXT: In summary (and a disclaimer)?
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I owe it to legions of fans and the memory of Christopher Reeve to be explicitly clear: I am just kidding. Superman and Superman II are among my favorite superhero movies ever — two of my favorite movies, period — and Reeve's portrayal of the Man of Steel remains my favorite incarnation of the character in any media. I was a never a big fan of Superman until those movies. I related better to the angst of Spider-Man and The X-Men. Superman? Couldn't see myself in him at all. But I remember walking out of Superman II in particular with the last scene ringing in my head — Superman flying to The White House and promising the President that he'd never let him (or us) down again — and thinking: I'd like to be like that guy. An exceptional individual of admirable character, whose commendable qualities included the capacity to recognize his flaws and mistakes. What finally captured my imagination for Superman, then, was a movie that dared to depict him as less than perfect. Christopher Reeve's Superman movies didn't just make me believe a man can fly. They made me believe that a man could fall and get back up again — and that we can be a culture that can forgive and allow such souls a second chance to soar.
To be honest, the White House moment now makes me a little uneasy: Promising renewed perfection seems like setting yourself up for another fall. I'd love to see a new era Superman teach us the meaning of perpetual grace — for himself; for all of us — while also modeling a never-ending commitment to pursue the good. Perhaps Henry Cavill's Superman is the Superman that does this. I enjoyed Man of Steel for many reasons, although it's a flawed film, for sure. I wish it was a more complete picture instead of an elaborate set-up for more movies. I wish it had given more time to explore its intriguing themes and less time to spectacular fight scenes. I understand the desire to see Superman solve the problem of Zod differently, but the bigger failing, in my view, is that movie did not give us a scene that showed us Superman reflecting on his actions in the final battle. A movie that aspires to be relevant to the times needed to give us that beat, because that's exactly where we're at: What have we become? Where do we do from here?
But the least of its flaws is a depiction of a Superman who isn't perfect. It's not even a flaw at all. Imperfection is exactly the quality Superman needs, so he can do the thing we need Superman to do, now more than ever: Inspire us to be better than we are, and show us how it's done. Hopefully, next time, the Man of Steel will try harder.