Reflections on Man of Steel

Part Three: The Characterization

(I know, you’re thinking I’m insane to have this many thoughts about a movie, but I do. If anyone other than my mom is still reading this, thank you. I love you, and I will give you a Dr Pepper and a Snicker’s bar the next time I see you. Not that I am endorsing Dr Pepper or Snicker’s. They are just perfect.)

You can read Parts One and Two here and here if you are joining this nerd party today.

Characterization comes in many forms. Some storytellers tell readers about their characters. They don’t stop at a physical description of the character; they tell the character’s thoughts, motives, aspirations, fears, and prejudices through extensive passages. Simply put, these storytellers tell about their characters. Most storytellers fall back on this form of characterization, because telling the reader about a character is far easier than showing the reader a character.

Showing a character occurs more subtly. Showing requires more skill. Most storytellers do not show their characters, because showing is hard work both for the storyteller and the story-reader/watcher. Showing a character requires that the person reading or watching the story think about what they are reading or watching. In other words, I, the person warming the seat in the movie theater, must actively engage my brain in the art of contemplation while the actors and actresses on the big shiny screen run around pretending to be people they are not.

Most movies these days do not show their stories. They slap viewers in the face with telling, and we are, for the most part, lazy movie watchers as a result. Thus, I believe, that a portion of folks plunked down in their seats for Man of Steel expecting to be told everything about everything and then shuffled out of the theater at the end of the movie wondering why they didn’t know much of anything about anything.

First, yes, I agree: Clark is the most developed character in the movie. Of course he is. He is the star of the show. He also is a brand spankin’ new Superman, and the movie powers that be have invested heaps of cash into this movie spawning a series of Superman  movies. That means we as an audience must be convinced that Henry Cavill is Superman and Clark Kent. That means the movie had to focus on richly developing his character, which they did. There is no arguing there. They spent two hours knitting together this version of Superman, and I, for one,  quite like him.

Second, yes, I agree: the other characters are not as well developed as Clark/Superman. That is because they are not main characters. Part of the art of storytelling is understanding characterization. You have main and minor characters. You have round and flat characters. You have dynamic and static characters. They each serve their purpose in a story, and when the purpose of Man of Steel is to set up a DC universe for a new movie franchise, you just can’t fully develop a dozen characters in one movie. You don’t want to do that kind of character development in one movie, because then what would you have left for the other movies?

That said, I maintain that characters such as General Zod, Lois Lane, the Els, and the Kents were better developed within the context of their roles than some people think.

general zodGeneral Zod is a static antagonist, which means that he is the unchanging source of conflict in the story. Because General Zod is a manufactured product of his society who serves a single purpose: protect Krypton at all costs, he stays fixed to that course. His genetic code prohibits him from changing as a character. Yes, he can adapt. We see that when Clark foolishly tells him that his earthly parents taught him to focus on what he wantsto see and hear in order to block out all distractions. Zod hears and utilizes that wisdom from the Kents and hones his own senses so that he can equal Clark in strength, speed, and agility. His character adapts, but his purpose in the film does not. What shocked me about General Zod’s character is that at the end of the movie, when the final fight is about to begin between him and Superman, I feel pity for him. That, to me, is the mark of a well-conceived villain. I pity him, because he has no choice. His people programmed him to be a warrior who protects Krypton at all costs. He does not possess free will. All Zod can do is what the codex (the master genetic code that predetermines the role of each Kryptonian in society) programmed him to do. When Superman eliminates Zod’s final chance to resurrect Krypton, Zod no longer has purpose, and I pity him. I pity his wretched circumstance. I pity that Krypton took from him what all beings should rightfully have: free will.

lois and clarkIn contrast to Zod’s static antagonist role, Lois Lane is a round main character. Is Lois as fleshed out in the movie as she could have been? No, certainly not, but, again, there are going to be more movies, and this particular story was about Clark, not Lois. Lois is a prime example of the showing part of storytelling. Rather than tell us tons of information about her, we must discern her character through her actions. We learn through her interactions with the military personnel that she knows how to interact with them. She is a persistent risk-taker who does not shy away from danger when she is on a story, which we see when she follows Clark (then a stranger to her) into an ice shaft in the middle of the night in -40◦ F temperatures. She is sensitive to and respectful of Clark’s story, particularly the part about his father Jonathan’s sacrificial death. She fiercely protects Clark at every chance and exhibits loyalty, courage, and self-sacrifice when she willingly boards General Zod’s ship. She has good instincts, which we see when she trusts Jor-El’s consciousness aboard Zod’s ship. She is vulnerable. She humorously lets Clark know when he kisses her that she has a bad track record with relationships, but she deeply cares for him and finds him worth the risk. We know this, because she shows up at the last moment when Clark kills Zod, and she is the one who comforts Clark. Do they tell us Lois’ backstory? No. But is her backstory really needed in a movie that focuses on Superman’s story? I don’t think so. I think her story can come into play in the next movie. Part of good storytelling is knowing which story lines to save for later, and I think they made a good choice to save Lois for another movie.

jor and lara elSuperman’s birth parents, the Els, are dynamic supporting characters. Like General Zod, Jor and Lara are both the products of the Kryptonian codex, which means that they were assigned their roles as scientists before they were born. We see, because of their societal roles, that the Els are capable of more growth and change than Zod. While he is confined to the role of warrior, they are scientists, which means that they are designed to explore, adapt, and change as needed to further the progress of Krypton. The Els, for the sake of Krypton’s survival, bear “the first natural-born child in centuries.” This natural-born child – Kal – possesses free will, because the codex did not determine his genetic make-up. Their decision to commit “heresy,” as General Zod calls it, demonstrates the Els’ love for Krypton, their courage, and their ingenuity. They risk their lives for their dream and then strap their only begotten son (more on that imagery later) into a ship bound for Earth, because they want Kal to serve as a beacon of hope that inspires mankind to fulfill the potential for good that they believe we all inherently possess. The Els are people of faith: they believe their son can and will carry out the vision they cast for him even when they know that he has that tricky thing called free will that neither of them possess. They are people of vision and conviction, and they are fearless in their resolve to save Krypton by the only means they have. Do we know how they met? No. We don’t know the details of their relationship or the complexities of their home life, but what we do witness in their moments on screen are deep, trusting interactions between a husband and wife who know and trust each other at a rare depth. We don’t have to know all of the details in order to know their hearts. Their actions show us who they are.

jonathan and martha kentTheir little Kryptonian baby lands in a field in Smallville, Kansas where a childless farmer and his wife find him and adopt him. Keeping with the standard lore, the Kents keep their son’s origin a secret from him and everyone else until one day Clark asks his dad why God did this to him. Why did God give him these abilities that are such an oppressive burden on an adolescent boy? Jonathan tells Clark the truth, and in that moment, Clark asks if he can just keep on pretending to be Jonathan’s son. “You are my son,” Jonathan replies with a hitch in his voice as he embraces Clark. Jonathan’s claim on his son does not change simply because of Clark’s birthplace. Jonathan understands the mystery of adoption. He understands that it doesn’t matter where a child comes from when you love that child and take him into your heart as your own. Jonathan also demonstrates wisdom, humility, loyalty, and love. He is a thoughtful, gentle father who listens to his son, hears Clark’s heart, takes on his boy’s pain as his own, and then instructs his son in the way that is best. Every conversation that Jonathan and Clark have in the film reflects these character traits. Jonathan, like Jor-El, is a hard-working man with convictions that reside in the very core of his being – convictions he willingly dies for.

Alongside Jonathan is his wife, Martha, who is reminiscent of Lara-El. Both women stand in unity with their husbands. They are not weak women who shrink in the face of opposition. They rise up to meet their enemies and display courage, boldness, and strength. They both also love their husbands and son fiercely. Lara can only send Kal to Earth, because she knows that if she doesn’t, he will never have the opportunity to grow up. She sends him across the universe out of her love for him. Martha welcomes this alien child into her heart and rears him with grace, compassion, and tenderness. When Clark returns home after discovering the truth about his heritage, he tells his mom, Martha, and the pain in her eyes speaks what her mouth does not. Though she has always wondered where her son came from, the moment of revelation is bittersweet, and the truth rubs against a tender spot. But she doesn’t want to hurt Clark by speaking freely. She thoughtfully, kindly, steps around her ache to focus on Clark. She puts him first, because that’s what good moms do.

The characterization in Man of Steel is subtle. Viewers must pay attention to the characters’ actions, both obvious and subtle, in order to appreciate fully the depth of characterization that the movie actually possesses. This layered story-telling offers viewers the opportunity to engage with Man of Steel in ways that most comic book movies don’t offer, especially in light of the director’s decision to embrace a long-used literary device in regards to Superman’s character: the Christ-Figure.
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Part Four: The Christ-Figure will come soon.

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