by Rev. Edwin C. Dwyer

I’m rather surprised so many people disliked “Man of Steel” so much. It was as if they were shocked it was an action/adventure, sci-fi, summer blockbuster. That’s what I paid to see, and I saw a great story develop around great action, with even greater themes. I expected not Citizen Kane, but Star Wars (no prequels!), and I got it without the pantheistic problems of “The Force”.

If one does not like the genre “Man of Steel” adopted, I understand, but what I don’t understand is grading the movie on a curve with the likes of A Man for all Seasons. I don’t care for girly romantic movies, so I really didn’t care for Donner’s Superman films (including Singer’s love letter to Donner in Returns). Nevertheless, I recognize that Donner’s two films were mostly good, and magical for anybody who saw them in the theatres. So I write this review to answer the criticisms of Man of Steel in no particular order.

Criticism 1: Too much action.
I addressed that this is largely a genre preference problem, but I did find it overdone the first time I watched it. Fr. Barron, however, shed light on this for me in his negative review. I picked up on the political theory clash right away, but Barron made the connection to how destructive that clash between individualism and totalitarianism has been in history, and how the disregard for human life accompanies it. Upon a second view I found what might have been mind-numbing as a chilling commentary on the human condition.

Criticism 2: Superman allows and executes violence.
Nobody dies from falling glass, debris, or car-crushing bat-mobiles in movies ever, and now we complain about it because it’s Kal-El? Every building Superman flies through on his own is empty, and he also has those neat eye tricks that would inform him of a building’s occupancy. The massive destruction was executed by Zod and friends, and it demonstrated how hell-bent one can be on establishing one’s utopia at any cost. The move was also a bold one by the story-tellers in that ole Supes finally was placed in a situation where decisions were not black and white. Zod made it clear he was going to kill all humans, and Kal-El had to make grave, difficult, and life and death decisions in seconds. Those are real decisions more people you sit next to in the pew have to face regularly. Many of you will have to decide whether to put your loved one’s through painful, extraordinary medical procedures or allow them to die from disease.

Criticism 3: The characters are one-dimensional.
Again genre, but this film handled it well. As the Bard says, “Brevity is the soul of wit”. We had short character interactions that let us in on the qualities we needed to know. Could we have known Ma and Pa Kent better had we seen them away from Clark? Yes, but this was about getting to know Clark through his relationships with them. I also found that when the explosions ended and I put thought into the motivations of each central character, I found complexity. I wonder if as soon as the critics saw Jor-El’s martial artistry they gave up on character complexity.

I present Lois Lane. She gets out of a helicopter in the Artic and stands up to the boys club while mentioning how she won a court case on foreign soil to arrive at the scene; she tenaciously seeks the truth. She goes inside an alien vessel; she’s brave, but maybe foolish. She gets attacked and is saved by Kal-El; she can’t do it all on her own anymore. As she continues to seek the truth about this mystery man, she falls in love with him, a great theme of Christianity.

Criticism 4: The movie exploits Christianity to gain another demographic.
Really? Are we really going to complain that an action/adventure film utilizes Christian elements in a positive way? I used trailer 2 to teach teens how to pick up on Christological symbolism in literature with great success. With the right facilitator this movie can be an apt tool for teaching. Oh, and the story had a solid pro-life message. So what if they know this turns a profit? That means we are influencing the culture again, and getting more than just a squeaky clean Pixar flick every few years. It ain’t EWTN, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Criticism 5: The story is too dark
This smacks of my criticism of contemporary catechesis. We present Our Lord, Our Lady, and our saints without the darkness that surrounded their earthly lives, or, at least, without a good sense of that darkness. Don’t get me wrong, I love artwork that emphasizes their holiness, and their presence in heaven, but, in our story-telling, we often forget how much grit they endured. The Bible is dark, folks; it’s themes, heroes, and promises are not, but it’s honesty about the human condition is dark. The key to the Bible and the film is to see the hope through the darkness. The key to becoming a saint is to capture that hope and let it shine. Sugar-coating the reality of what comes with living a saintly life helps nobody live one. I somehow doubt “steel” referred to Kal-El’s physicality as much as it did to his willpower.

(For the record, I was Escanaba’s Class Optimist in 2001, and am still described as one.)

Criticism 6: Superman represents extreme individualism.
This is Fr. Barron’s critique. I love and respect Fr. Barron as much as any other priest living today. The man is a gift to the American Church, and this was only the second movie review of my former professor’s that I found lacking (Inception, but that’s another post). May God have mercy on me!

Barron reminded us that “Superman” comes from the Nietzchean idea of an evolved human being who would be able to use his advantages to will to power. Barron’s take seemed to be that this story’s Kal-El represented this idea, but I disagree. The movie demonstrates that Jor-El, Pa Kent, and Kal-El all believe that a greater truth/goodness exists outside of themselves. I found this most appropriately symbolized when Clark visits a priest before he makes the decision to turn himself into Zod’s custody to save mankind. (Going back to character development, this scene told me, a priest, that Clark is known at this church fairly well as the priest does not find him to be a nut-case who thinks he’s an alien first. Also, I only ask what a person’s gut tells him if I know him to be a man of good conscience).

Criticism 7: Product placements
Agreed. The second time I saw it, I was looking for a Citgo on Krypton.

It’s summer, and I’m a student-priest now so I will likely see this movie one or two more times in the theatre. The Christological symbolism was obvious for the casual observer to pick up, but I noticed more subtle ones the second time (remember “El” means “God” in Hebrew), and I’m hoping I’ll find more a third time. If not, it’s still 2.5 hours of well-planned adventure that leaves one wanting to be a Christ-like hero.

Final score: 9.5 out of 10

  • Loss of .5 for product placements
  • Gain of .5 for Christological placement
  • Loss of .5 for Jonathan Kent risking and losing his life for a dog (Really? It would have been bad enough if it was a hippie from Berkley saving Fido from a Prius, but this was a Kansas farmer. Farmers don’t risk their lives for animals, ever.)
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  1. Last point about the dog is false, Nevin Spence a professional rugby player from northern Ireland was killed alongside his father after going in after a dog which fell into a slurry tank, great movie review though.

  2. I disagree about the dog. I certainly agree with your point that farmers do not ever risk their lives for animals (unless said animal is sapient), but there is more going on here.
    Remember that this all occurs after Clark has gotten angsty to the breaking point about using his power. He is in a crisis of conscience because he is forced repeatedly to choose between revealing what he is and watching people die. Up to this point he is only ever able to choose the former; to really be able to choose he needs to demonstrate his ability to watch people die in order to do what is best. Think of what Christ must have felt as he walked across earth for 33 years able to alleviate the suffering of so many of his Father’s children, knowing that his time had not yet come. Clark has to become like Christ, able to maintain self-control to the point of suppressing (immediate) compassion in order to attain the greater good.
    Pa Kent knows the crisis his son is going through, and no matter what he says or how well he thinks it over, he can’t give Clark a satisfying answer. It becomes apparent that words are not enough.
    Observe that his escape attempt from the tornado is quite lame. Though furious, it is somewhat lackadaisical. A man with the will to survive would escape from that car a lot faster and run like he has never run before in order to survive. Survival stories are often imbued with inhuman strength or speed or will; the immanence of death grants new life, and Pa Kent showed absolutely none of this. When he finally wriggles his way out of the car, he just stands there and keeps Clark at bay with a headshake. Granted, he probably would not have been able to make it to the overpass in time, but if he wanted to survive he would have at least tried.
    We can argue about the morality of offing oneself to make a point, but that is another story. I think, given the circumstances (super-powered alien life, cosmic angst, etc.) we can give the writers the benefit of the doubt on this one. The point is, Pa Kent walked into and accepted death because he believed it was the only way to teach Clark to suppress himself, to watch his fellow man, his father, suffer, and to walk in silence until the time came. The dying message of his father was what was required to teach Clark to wait, and to give Clark the freedom to wait.
    At least that’s my take on it. But yeah, I thought dying for a dog was pretty dumb at first glance as well.

    • I don’t know about it being moral, but this is awesome. And totally true.

      In regards to the post, I thought it was a great movie with great themes and literary connections (Aeneid, Dante, Beowulf, Brave New World). It could’ve also been a lack of comparison, as I’ve only seen ~3 superhero movies.

  3. Josh,

    Great literary takes on the parallels to the hidden years of Christ. I totally get why John Kent died for his son’s sake, but the plot device was stupid. I’d have preferred he died for a human being.

    • Great review Father! I think John Kent couldn’t have died to save another human because then Superman would have stood by and watched another human die that he could have saved. His dad made a sacrifice by telling him not to save him but another person would have wanted to be saved. So I think a dog was the best that they could do!

      This movie helped me to reflect on Christ’s childhood and what Joseph and Mary must’ve went through raising Him.

    • If he had died for a human being it wouldn’t have been as obvious that he died on purpose. The point is that he would only go for the dog to make the point. But yeah, it was pretty stupid; if I was a writer I would probably spend a long time pacing back and forth to resolve that one better.

  4. Thank you for the great review! It made me think about this movie in ways I hadn’t yet. There is so much about this film that is still sinking in with me.

    Also, you’re right about the dog. When I saw that it was a dog that Jonathan was saving I actually said, out loud, “Really?” That bit was a let-down.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with this article. I have two boys, 19 and 12, and while there may be problems with this movie, or Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and the like, I find these kinds of “action movies with a purpose” (if you will) to be excellent tools for catechesis with my two sons. It was also very heartwarming to see the positive portrayal of a priest, after so many recent negative portrayals. I loved it and plan to see it a few more times as well. Fr. Dwyer, thank you for your very well written article as well.

  6. There may have been excessive touches of things that made the story and tone too dark but it made things more realistic I think. Yes it’s not the “happy” and “cheery” film of past Superman movies. That alone sets it apart from the pack. It does draw on our darker side but also our desire to see hope in those circumstances when sometimes their just isn’t or it is and is not as brightly lit. Just like for those who see Revelation as utterly dark and depressing. With it’s utter desolation of humanity or at least human institutions and ultimate judgment of Mankind. I’m not saying the story was on Revelation’s level but I’m saying I can see how people can just look at all the darkness and be overwhelmed by it if they don’t see or infer enough light. I think the fact Superman stands up for what is right in spite if being “persecuted” by the army initially and won them over for the most part by his actions shows hope. Then, as Superman is forced into the worst possible circumstance that tears at his long established character(by us and some overly-pacifistic idealist writers). But even there is so much “darkness” in Revelation or even through out the Bible there’s always hope and redemption that prevails even thought the going isn’t pretty or battle easy. As is there in Man of Steel. I to wish Superman could have done more to save others during the big brawls taken the fight out side of the city or even town of Smallville. That would have been ideal but he wasn’t placed in an ideal world… Nor are we.

  7. I’m not entirely sure I agree about farmers never risking their lives for animals either. A dog is one thing, but an animal that represents the farmers livelihood or that would be a great loss of income for him, such as a livestock animal, they just might.

  8. Great Review Rev Eddie!

    I was willing to give the critics the benefit of doubt, but after having watched it, they were totally going in with clear expectations of what they did and did not want. Many compare it to a “Michael Bay” explosion extravaganza but considering this is super-powered aliens battling it out for supremacy of the world I don’t know how you could go small. That is especially true since some critics have said in the past that he should fight someone who has similar strength etc.

    I would have to disagree with your friend Fr. Barron. The original “Superman” or Ubermensch idea from Nietzsche’s was an inspiration for Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel when creating their “Reign of Superman”. However this character in his dubious morals and look/feel and actions is more similar to Lex Luthor. Kal-El became the antithesis of this. That is why I liked Smallville. It was able to show the dichotomy of the two characters and why they were inevitable enemies.

    The themes in this movie were AWESOME. I have never been to a more pro-Christian Superhero movie. Which is probably why the critics hated it. From themes of protecting our environment, to one of anti-contraception, to that of free will and trust. The philosophical allusions are great as well. The Kryptonian society was similar to that in Plato’s Republic, with everyone having a specific role and then showing how Clark is reading Plato when he’s being “beat up” by the football players.
    I also loved how they handled Jor-El, this was a master scientist and great warrior. He was going toe to toe with Zod, their greatest general and he realized the culture of death that their society had fallen into. His warnings went unheeded but unlike some other incarnations I thought he was a strong, kind and caring father, even though he had to send his son across the stars.

    My biggest complaint was the handling of Pa Kent. This is Pa Kent

    Kevin Costner did okay, but the scene with the dog was ridiculous and you should NEVER, EVER go underneath an underpass. If that tornado when anywhere near it the winds would have tunneled through there, increasing there speed by at least 10-20 mph which would have sucked them all but Clark out. Which would have thrown “hiding” his secret out the window. A ditch with some cover or wood over you would be better.
    Meteorological discrepancies aside The movie seemed plausible to me. I thoroughly enjoyed it and yes there was humor. It was subtle, but good humor usually is.


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