MOSAIC has tackled a number of peripheral issues relating to the controversial tornado scene in Man of Steel. We’ve talked a little about the incorrect assumptions about available powers, unknown limits and vulnerabilities, distinguished this scene from the bus rescue, and more (with much more to come in the complete analysis), but I just wanted to touch on an aspect that layers throughout that analysis and goes to some of our gut instinctual biases rather than engaging our intellect, imagination, and empathy.
Problem with Perception
Essentially, it has to do with our intuition about age.
Part of the gut reaction to Jonathan Kent as the man of action while Clark stands by… comes from seeing a man in the prime of his life staying in place, while a man nearing his sixties is performing a rescue. To make things a little more concrete, Costner was born in 1955, Cavill in 1983. At the time of filming (August 2011 in Illinois) they’d be around the ages of 56 and 28 respectively. Hair and makeup did a great job, but there’s still that dissonance. We want the adult Clark to rebel, to take initiative, to demonstrate the capability that is so plainly visible in his strength and youth… meanwhile the older man, approaching his 60s, seems like the better candidate to run to presumed safety.
Within the timeline of the film, we know Jonathan is 46 and Clark is about 17 in this scene, on the cusp of becoming an adult. Both actors were dealing with a decade plus gap. Costner was 56 playing 46 and Cavill was 28 playing 17. Incidentally, Dylan Sprayberry was 13 when filming and is 17 today.
Reasons for Using Cavill
So why did they use Cavill instead of trying to age-up Sprayberry or use another actor?
I’m speculating, but I think the filmmakers felt that this was a critical moment of continuity for Cavill; showing his Clark experienced this moment which carried forwards, through, and until becoming Superman. With another actor, Cavill is denied a moment to work with Costner and the audience perhaps separates this seminal event with the contemporaneous Superman. Maybe. I know that for myself, I don’t quite think of Reeve as the one who witnessed his father’s heart-attack, but instead that was something left behind on the farm or in a cave by someone else.
Inserting a fourth (fifth, if you count Kal-El on Krypton) Clark into the mix may introduce additional risk of confusion or alienation. Continuing to use Sprayberry might mitigate the confusion but might fail to show how close Clark was to manhood (something highly significant that we’ll definitely analyze in depth in the future) and ready to set out on his own.
So trying to de-age Cavill was a calculated risk with sensible reasons. Even if it challenged audiences to consider how old these characters were supposed to be. That choice wasn’t entirely without precedent in the story of Superman: Tom Welling was 24 playing 14 and Jeff East was 21 playing 17. It tends to be something expected and requires some suspension of disbelief from the audience.
In retrospect, aging-up Sprayberry and suggesting that Clark developed a little slower than everyone else might have been better; However, we’ll never know.
Examples of Actors Age 46 and 17
Of course, age 46 and 17 may perhaps still not be intuitive; so to illustrate, let’s consider some actors who fit these demographics right now in June 2015. Jonathan Kent was a healthy active fifth-generation farmer. Consider these other men who, today, are about Jonathan Kent’s age in that scene:
Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, Gerard Butler, Will Smith, Eric Bana, Timothy Olyphant, Josh Brolin, Aaron Eckhard, and Terry Crews.
Although it’s a little harder to find 17 year olds who’ve distinguished themselves, consider the following teens who, today, are about Clark Kent’s age in that scene:
Dylan Sprayberry, Asa Butterfield, Chandler Riggs, Jaden Smith, Max Burkholder, Rico Rodriguez, and Tye Sheridan.
If you match up the men, age 46, with a teen around the age of 17, the dynamics of the tornado scene are more intuitive. Jonathan Kent’s protectiveness of his teenaged son is easier to grasp. Remember, that just prior, Clark expresses his frustration with being “safe”… meaning that for the past 4 years, nearly a quarter of his entire life and the time Jonathan has spent with his son… was with the powers suppressed, safe, and unseen. Jonathan had spent the last 1,500 consecutive days with just his son Clark and not his abilities.
Just as we, the audience, struggle to overcome our intuitions and assumptions based on what we see… for Jonathan, when he looks at Clark, he doesn’t see an alien filled with powers or abilities… he sees his teenaged son who still needs protection and guidance.
Of course, that imagery isn’t necessary for us to imagine or empathize with that attitude. It simply makes that empathy a little easier and more intuitive. Certainly we all have had, know, or been that parent who can only see their child- no matter how grown-up, independent, or powerful- as their little boy or girl to be protected. In that sense, no matter how mature Cavill’s Clark looked, Costner’s Jonathan would and could still see the same baby he cradled, boy he took fishing, teen he had long talks with, etc. I don’t think stretching our empathy (challenging it) rather than manipulating it (with a younger actor) is necessarily a bad thing.
Why Would Jonathan Be Protective?
It’s a little bit ridiculous to believe that Jonathan performed a careful dispassionate utilitarian calculation in the face of a sudden emergency. Instead, he went with his gut which reasonably sought to protect a son three decades his junior. Jonathan didn’t do some heartless calculation, but even if he did, he be missing gross amounts of data and figures critics routinely assume as immutable facts known to the characters. How would Jonathan know that Clark would be safe against one of the most incredible and destructive forces of nature? A tornado contains 6 times the energy density of a hurricane and even average or typical tornadoes pack the power of 300 gallons of jet fuel, much less a tornado ranked 4 or 5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale (throwing cars through the air).
For this level of threat, as far as Jonathan knew, Clark was as in just as much mortal jeopardy as he was. So the father did as you’d expect: prioritize his son’s life over his own. This is self-evident with respect to his own rescue, since Jonathan prefers Clark to live free from persecution, for a time, over his own life. Clark, meanwhile, has reason to trust and obey the man who has lived three times as long and done nothing but love him his entire life.
However, we’ll get into all that soon, for now, the takeaway: while the film does present us with a 28-year-old actor following the wishes of a 56-year-old actor… if we consider what the scene is to meant to convey, we might overcome some of the biases based on perceived ages instead of what the story tells us their ages are and expand the capacity and thoughtfulness of our empathy.