No, he died for Clark’s future. Jonathan believed Clark’s destiny was to change the world. However, Jonathan also acknowledge that Clark could grow up to be a man of bad character. If the world discovered Clark before he had answers, before he was ready, it would have captured him, persecuted him, and experimented on him. Clark would have been tormented by questions that he couldn’t answer and subjected to all that, his character likely would have soured. A being with Clark’s strength and abilities who had been made to hate the world would not change it for the better. Jonathan was convicted that the world wasn’t ready for Clark and Lois (and Perry) agreed.
Was it unrealistic to go back for the dog?
Not at all, it has happened more than one occasion Hindsight is 20/20. In Jonathan’s mind, he jogs back to the car, opens the door, the dog jumps out, they jog back to safety… simple as that. Instead, the dog resists coming out, a car nearly crushes him, and his foot is broken. In the moment, he judged the risk as acceptable and most pet owners would have too until vehicles started going airborne.
Why did Jonathan go back instead of Clark?
The overpass did not represent absolute safety. During a tornado event there is still a certain amount of risk to all those in the proximity. To Jonathan, the most precious thing was his wife (and all the others, including the little girl he handed to Clark) and he’d rather her face that risk with Clark by her side than without. Going for the dog is not a reflection of how much Jonathan valued the dog but how much more he valued Martha (and Clark’s secret). If Jonathan had gone with Martha and Clark was sent, Martha would be unprotected against any of the tornado’s risks and Clark meanwhile risked exposing his secret.
Why didn’t Clark use super speed to rescue Jonathan invisibly?
We don’t have proof that Clark had speed yet. Certainly the film gives us a precedent for Clark discovering powers afterwards (flight, obviously). It’s possible he didn’t have the power yet. Even if he did, Clark has not been demonstrated as capable of using the power without affecting his environment. He can’t magically appear and disappear or whisk people away without consequences. The speed we’ve been shown has impact… he creates sonic booms through his movements (even his punches), he slams into things… trying to blitz Jonathan would have turned him into a red mist!
Why didn’t the filmmakers have Jonathan rescue a human life?
“A good death is its own reward.” – Subcommander Faora-Ul. Dying for another person would have given Jonathan’s death a separate significant purpose and glorified it. Clark could have rested in the knowledge Jonathan gave his life for someone else, dying a hero. Having died in the rescue of a dog, the weight of Jonathan’s death rests heavily on Clark’s shoulders. Jonathan died for Clark, or at least Jonathan thought he was. Why did the filmmakers want the weight of Jonathan’s death on Clark’s shoulders? Read on….
Why didn’t they make the situation more clear like the end of the film?
The filmmakers made an intentional choice to stall Clark’s development such that he would not elect to debut as a costumed superhero until encountering Jor-El and Zod forces him to in order to overcome an issue with traditional tellings of the origin. Deciding, spontaneously, to become a costumed hero is a difficult pill to swallow in a relatable way.
In Byrne’s version, Clark was a fully developed persona even before he put on the cape and Krypton was a mere footnote that he finds out about later. In Donner’s version, Clark was again a fully developed persona, but he puts on the cape and debuts although there’s no pressing need for him to do so. This is problematic for film for two reasons: 1) If your character is fully developed even before debuting, it leaves little room for character arc and development afterwards; 2) Modern audiences need rationalizations for actions that break societal norms… dressing up in a cape because it’s your heritage and you’re about to meet your people makes sense… deciding to do so without prompting is nuts!
Having Jonathan’s death be plagued with ambiguity supports the characterization of Clark being not quite able to get past Jonathan’s death until he meets Jor-El. Clark will always ask himself if he did the right thing, if it was Jonathan’s fault, if things could have been different, etc. Clark poses the scenario to Lois as a question, not a certainty, because it very much remains a live question in his mind.
If Clark had been able to get past Jonathan’s death sooner, then most self-respecting young adults would move on with their lives, start a career, settle down, decide on his own morality of rescue vs. secret. However, being forced to wrestle with Jonathan’s death / convictions vs. his own desire to help, he ends up a vagabond until we meet him in the film. Making the situation more clear cut for the audience… would have made it clear cut for Clark! His character would have formed earlier on… against the intentions of the filmmakers.
This way, we get to see Clark become Superman on screen and earn his paragon status.