A Realistic Approach to Hope and Morality

I disagree with the Comic Alliance editorial’s position that Man of Steel is devoid of hope and morality, rather, it is a realistic view of hope and morality.

Originally Posted by Comic Alliance

This is not a movie about truth, or justice, or heroism, or sacrifice, or hope. Hope gets a mention. We’re told the symbol on Superman’s chest represents “hope,” but I can’t think of any moment in the movie that shows us that ideal. The characters standing in the wreckage at the end of the movie seem to represent grim endurance rather than hope. We do see a glimpse at the end of the movie of young Clark Kent playing outside with a cape around his neck. That seems hopeful. But as it’s a moment from his past, before everything went to hell, it also suggests that hope is naive.

If he reads the film as presenting hope as naive, I think he’s confusing the message of the film versus his 4-color image of hope which is naive. Hope takes endurance, not just idle and effortless wish fulfillment.

If you step outside the film for a bit, Henry Cavill was a kid who’s nickname was “Fat Cavill“, nevertheless he determined to be a Hollywood Actor at around 16. Not just an actor, doing theater and what not, he wanted to be in big pictures and big roles, across the pond in America. He had hope. Back then a big star, Russell Crowe, supported his hope, but told him no lies… he instilled into young Cavill the Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

So Cavill had faith and would bartend, save money, come over to America where he would work as a waiter or walking dogs and audition until his money ran out and he’d go back to England, save up, and start the cycle of hard work and rejection again. He was denied Bond, Twilight, Harry Potter… and he was set to become Superman when a creative change denied him that role as well.

Then, after watching others succeed in the roles that he wanted or seeing the failure of the would-be franchise he almost helmed, he was given another opportunity and this time he got it. His hope was justified not because be blindly believed, but because he took action and made it happen by persevering and not losing hope. He’s become Superman ~15 years after determining to become a blockbuster Hollywood actor.  Faora’s actress had a similar story. She worked call centers and waited tables and grew heartsick over the rejection giving herself an ultimatum which didn’t come because she held out.

In the film, we’re shown that Jor-El and Lara’s hope takes risk, boldness, and significant cost… you don’t just get to sit and have your dreams come true, you have to challenge the status quo, take action, and sometimes be branded an outlaw, a heretic, or have to pay a great cost. Jor-El’s hopes, for Kal-El, are largely realized… his hopes for Krypton are yet to come.

Clark is instilled with great hope not just as a birthright but by Jonathan and Martha. He was the realization of their hopes as Martha watched him at night. Jonathan was sure to reaffirm Clark’s son-ship. With little factual basis, but based on faith, Jonathan affirms that Clark is the answer, was sent for a reason, would change the world, and that all his answers would come one day. The reason Clark isn’t a Marvel Mutant is because of that great destiny Jonathan communicated to him as a boy. He had to sit on that destiny for 17 years, but that doesn’t mean Jonathan didn’t instill in him that genuine hope. For the next 16 years after Jonathan’s death, Clark suffers under the substantial weight of that event (did he do the right thing?), but never gives up hope that he’ll find the answers that Jonathan promises. If he did, Clark would have resigned himself to the farm. The film establishes that Jonathan’s hopes- and Clark’s childhood caped dreams- were realized after life’s toil.

As far as hope of rescue is concerned… it’s absolutely there, repeatedly, in the film. Superman shows up just in time again and again to save the day just before the ax falls. While some people aren’t saved, that’s also life… sometimes hope isn’t enough, that doesn’t mean you don’t do it.

One of the great pillars of Superman’s moral universe is his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent. This movie removes him from that role. In most tellings, Clark Kent learns his values from his decent and upstanding parents. In this movie his father teaches him to lie. He teaches him to put self-preservation ahead of the lives of others. There is no truth and justice here. There is a sacrifice, but it’s not heroic; Pa Kent dies because he’s too stubborn to see that he’s wrong. We know that he’s wrong, because the premise of Superman depends on it. Pa Kent could have been a moral guide; the filmmakers chose to go a different way.

This is a perverse view of Jonathan not supported by the film. Jonathan is always honest and forthright with Clark. When Pete’s mother provide an easy cultural out for Clark’s differences, Jonathan doesn’t blame God, but reveals the ship to Clark. When Clark is bullied, Jonathan admits that part of himself that wishes Clark had hit back. When Clark says Jonathan isn’t his father, Jonathan doesn’t bark platitudes back, he acknowledges the truth of Clark’s statement and addresses Clark’s frustration, rather than his injury, Jonathan admits his own limitations as a parent and foresees that more may be needed for Clark to realize his promised destiny.

All of this is tempered by reality. Not stubbornness, not sin, not self-preservation, but that the path to hope may require patience or detours. In Jonathan’s mind, Clark’s destiny went beyond his life, Clark’s life, or those immediately around them… Clark was destined to change the world. He had that optimistic conviction irrespective of his humble surroundings or the lack of an instruction manual accompanying Clark. To realize that conviction, meant taking realistic real-world steps.

If Clark had been discovered before he met Jor-El, before his origins and powers were explained, he would have been captured, tested, and tormented. He would have been grilled with questions he couldn’t answer and live in perpetual fear of them discovering some way to control or harm him. He would have been twisted as a person and god-forbid that monster ever escaped or released onto the world. Without his answers, being discovered would cause more chaos than good. At the same time, Jonathan recognized not moving forwards was an issue as he confessed the day he died. After meeting Jor-El, secure in his identity, his purpose, and his powers, Clark could actually affect the world as he believed he was destined to do.

If this is unconvincing, there’s cultural precedent so far as the stories of Moses or Jesus are concerned.  Clark’s journey parallels the identity crisis of Moses’s youth.  Meanwhile, Jonathan’s prudence mirrors Joseph and Mary.  When Herod hunted the infant Jesus, Joseph and Mary didn’t attempt to defy common sense by standing on Jesus’s destiny… they fled.  Later, when Jesus as a young boy stayed in the temple during the family vacation (they discovered him missing three days later), his parents came back and admonished him… they didn’t just pretend his destiny made him immune to the practicalities of abandoning his family during a pilgrimage.

Jonathan isn’t coming from the comic book world where the secret identity is always conveniently protected by tropes and plot twists, where everyone who discovers suffers a concussion and subsequent amnesia or a timely demise.  Jonathan’s actions come from weighing the consequences in a realistic and protective manner.

Man of Steel laces reality with its themes giving them more weight and resonance than the typical 4-color cartoonish spoon-fed themes that are pervasive in comic book films.

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One Comment

  1. The ComicsAlliance article disappoints me, mainly because of these two pages from Superman: Birthright’s sixth issue. proving Kal-El/Clark will sully his hands in blood and take proactive measures to change the world for the better, just like in Man of Steel. http://imgur.com/a/NMP62

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