Tornado Topics: Adjusting for Age

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.

tumblr_mwky1r2rAV1rei3gfo3_1280Part 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?

1461348_624250417620917_1461800411_nI’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.

MenOfACertainAgeWould any of these men seem out of place as men of action? As having the authority to command their 17-year-old teenager? To be respected and listened to by that 17-year-old?

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.

Age17forMOSIf 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.

approxJust 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?

45It’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).

15-kevin-henry-dianeFor 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.

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  1. Spider-boyN2Jesus

    I DO wish they could have somehow used a younger actor as Clark in that scene, but I can understand your proposed reasoning not to. I mostly understood the scene on my first viewing and completely with subsequent viewings ;P. So it never really bothered me THAT much, but I would still prefer a younger actor ;P.

  2. Hi there, I’ve recently found this website and I’m amazed by your ability to break down things.

    I want to ask you something: Some people also critique this scene because, according to them, it doesn’t “humanizes” Clark as a heart attack does. The latter is supposed to show that with all his powers, he can’t save everyone, that life topples even him.

    Maybe you have already covered this in an older episode, but I’m new here and I have only heard the first 5 episodes, so maybe if you already answered this in one of your podcasts you can tell me on which? Or maybe you can give me a summarized version if you want.

    I really like your work, and I always enjoy reading all this, you’re a real genius!

    • I haven’t tackled it yet directly (though I have a ton of notes on this) but I do touch on it briefly in:

      The gist is that people who make that criticism are imposing a meta-lesson without appreciating the film as presented. They propose Superman needs to learn powerlessness and limitations because that’s what Superman ’78 or the mythos presents. However, if you watch the film, powerlessness and limitations aren’t something THIS Clark needs to learn. If anything he’s frustrated by his limits and lack of power to overcome rejection, be accepted, find his answers, and be who he’s meant to be… no amount of power in the world will make people unafraid, quite the opposite! So it’s ridiculous to propose that a heart attack would somehow humble THIS Clark who is already struggling with feeling powerless against the things that concern him most: Who is he? What is his place? Will he be accepted? Why does he have these powers?

      THIS Clark can’t turn back time, kiss away memories, turn his powers off like a light switch, repair a continental fault-line, undo a monsoon or tornado, or rebuild a Great Wall with his eyes. THAT god needed to learn limits. However, it’s an oversight to propose that THIS Clark needs to learn limitations and powerlessness when he’s spent his life living with limitation, having to hide and run from relationships and jobs to protect his secret because he can’t even fly (until 16 years later and he doesn’t demonstrate any super speed until then) as a means of preserving his cover (one of the major reasons he couldn’t intervene with Jonathan is the aftermath). If it’s a question of the fragility of life and mortality, clearly, THIS Clark doesn’t need to learn that lesson either since he risked exposure to save his classmates despite being told not to reveal himself and, in the end, Jonathan still dies so the finality of death still exists with this version

      It seems like some people expressing a preference without necessarily thinking through the implications or consequences.

      The filmmakers instead provide a scene that densely teaches a ton of vital lessons that you WANT a Superman to know and have at his core, but that’s coming up in our commentary episodes which are right around the corner (last commentary episode, Clark just learned how to fly… so meeting Lois in the cemetery and relating the story is soon). However, as a preview, consider if what prevents you from doing good is more often impossibility or will?

  3. Professor Va-Kox

    Hey Doc,

    Really appreciated this article, was an interesting perspective I had not considered.

    In regards to photos of the actors, you can find pictures of a young Henry Cavill at 19 by googlin’ “Henry Cavill Count of Monte Cristo” and Kevin Costner by googlin’ “Kevin Costner The Postman”. You don’t have to imagine anything, you can see how a younger, more rugged Costner and a baby-faced Cavill would look, and like you said – it really would have changed the dynamic of the scene greatly.

  4. Hi Dr Awkward,

    Nice perspective on this article.

    I would like to know about your opinion on dc vs marvel movie approach.

    I understand that Marvel currently is very favourable by the general public because Marvel took their time and effort to build up the solo movie of each of the heroes before uniting them all in the avengers movie. Through this way, Marvel managed to make a audience emotionally invest in each of the avengers members first before crossing over with all the character. You can say their big payoff is in avengers movie where all the audience have already invested with each of the character through their introduction in their previous solo movie. This still maintain a public interest even in now current marvel movies

    DC from what I understand they decided to do it backward where they decided to skip the solo movie for each dc hero and straight on doing the justice league. From what i understand, DC intended to go for a very large and epic scales and scopes for the justice league story before branching it off in the solo movie for each dc hero. This approach kinda remind me of lord of the ring. However i have seen quite number of articles criticize the dc movie approach. Most of them said that by having no prior build up or the introduction of each of the character in their solo outing, audience will not be invested or emotionally care for who are these character that appearing in the justice league. By having no prior introduction, audience may not care for the dc character in justice league because they don have a build-up like marvel. They said that audience emotionally care for the character is the key importance. You can take a look at this article for example:

    Don worry i’m not asking to debate about dc vs marvel. I just wamt to hear your opinion about differences in marvel and dc movie approach and what could key advantage in dc movie approach by zack snyder so far

    Thank you

    • Professor Va-Kox


      I can’t speak for Dr. Awkward but I have always felt that “each character in the ensemble needs their own movies, or no one cares” is very easily disproved by looking at highly successful ensemble films that didn’t use this method and still worked just fine. (a brief reminder: this is how every single ensemble movie worked before Marvel’s model). Here are some examples: The Ocean’s 11 series, the Great Escape, Dirty Dozen, and the Lord of the Rings movies. Heck, the very first X-Men movie by Bryan Singer really only gave small, brief backstories for Wolverine, Magento, and Rogue. The rest of the cast just walked on screen and did their thing and I don’t think it prevented anyone from caring about Professor X or the rest. So I think we can say that the notion that “you MUST introduce each character in their own film before joining them to the team or audiences won’t care” is pretty much provably false.

      But is it more effective? Ah, now there is the rub, because quite simply – it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with your narrative.

      One thing that people have failed to bring up is that Marvel has perfected the model of selling you the excitement and hype of the next chapter of the story IN THE CURRENT STORY YOU’RE WATCHING, which is actually an incredible trick that nobody has ever accomplished in cinema before. That is to say, if I were disappointed in Avengers 1, well I knew that all these guys were gonna go back to their own movies and do their own things and have their own adventures and then come back together in Avengers 2 and so my anticipation and interest levels stayed high. And this is a pretty incredible trick, it is the equivalent of a “narrative parachute” on your story. You can imagine the pitch would go something like this: “Oh, you weren’t very satisfied by Thor: The Dark World? Well guess what, in 18 months he’s gonna be kickin’ butts in Avengers 2 so don’t be sad! And after that is Thor: Ragnarok, doesn’t that sound great?” And it does. And it also helps that I personally don’t feel that Marvel has ever made a “bad” film, sure there’s been quite a bit of mediocrity but nothing that I found actively offensive.

      But one thing that hasn’t been addressed is what happens when Marvel runs through Infinity War? I mean, that’s what everything has been building to, a literal universe-ending apocalyptic throw-down that spans all of their cinematic properties. And once this is over…then what? Will they be able to go back to pitching monster-of-the-year stores for each of their superheroes? I honestly don’t know.

      And in this respect I think that DC has the advantage, because DC has tons of material and structure to pull from where entire planets and galaxies are threatened and the heroes swing into action. And if Snyder & co can find a way to successfully combine the higher-stakes, more serious DC action with their higher-concept, galaxy spanning stories then they might actually prevail in the long run. As Marvel expands into the truly comic book epic stories they may run out of gas. And this might be precisely where DC starts to shine.

      • Hi Va-Kox,

        Thanks for your insight. It is great to have at least a positive insight on how DC set-up their shared universe. I just don’t like most of the people keep on saying that DC rushing to catch up with marvel. I’m personally a bigger fan of batman and superman. Sometimes I think you don have to keep on repeat the marvel formula for other movie franchise.

        Thank you for reminding me on the example of ensemble films that has been done before. I almost forgot about it. I have a feeling that justice league is gonna be as epic as the lord of the ring.

        Another gripe I have on some people comment on Man of Steel superman is that superman is supposed to be colourful and lighthearted character. I guess those people are probably either too old fashion to realize that superman has changed a great deal or they refuse to acknowledge a serious interpretation of superman. What do you think?

        • Professor Va-Kox

          Well Leon, that’s a good question. And a complicated one. The beginnings of an answer, I think, can be found in a Neil Gaiman article written for Wired that was published in 2006, around the time Superman Returns came out, called The Myth of Superman And there is a very interesting quote in there that explains a lot of what happened with Man of Steel:

          Superman is different because he doesn’t really belong to the writers who’ve created his adventures over the last 68-plus years. He has evolved into a folk hero, a fable, and the public feels like it has a stake in who Superman “really” is.

          If you take Superman as a folk hero, suddenly a lot of people’s perspective suddenly becomes understandable and a lot of the “not my Superman”/”Superman MUST do this” start to fall into place. The fact is, folk heroes have a couple of really popular illustrative stories and very broad traits they are known for…and not much else. They are used more as human stand-ins for some admired aspect of the national character and not as real, fully-formed characters.

          By way of example, let’s construct a an alternative take using a recognizable folk hero. Let’s take Paul Bunyan. Now I know he’s not as popular as Supes, and people don’t feel the same for him, but he’ll serve as an example. Giant guy, lumberjack, big blue ox named “Babe”, if you know who I am talking about you probably learned about him from Disney’s animated short. If not then here’s the first part of the short:

          Good fun. Except…did you know that for 30 years prior to anyone writing anything down about Paul Bunyan, loggers had been telling stories about him, he wasn’t a giant, and his big blue ox didn’t have a name? Now let’s imagine that someone made a Paul Bunyan movie, and the director was a real true blue Paul Bunyan fan and so they decided to strip the character down a bit toward his logging camp roots, he’s not a giant anymore and he’s skating around on a giant stovetop while wearing hams(yes, this really happened), with no blue ox and when he does get one it doesn’t have a name.

          Well, what would people’s reactions be? Despite the fact that this is perfectly valid take on the character it’s hugely at odds with what people know, because 99.99999% of the public didn’t get their Paul Bunyan stories from being a worker at a logging camp. They got him through the Disney cartoon and that’s the image in their mind and the purpose he serves: as the symbol of an industrious, hardworking outdoorsman. He’s not supposed to be anything else.

          It’s the same with Superman. To the public at large he is a symbolic folk hero. The evidence is simple: Superman comics have very low sales. I don’t say this to be mean or disparage the character, but the fact is that month-in and month-out he rarely tops the comic book charts and does sub 100k print runs on his titles. The general public is not interested in current stories about Superman. On the other hand the IDEA of Superman is enormously popular and well known and he is one of the most recognizable characters in the world.

          And so what we are left with is a character that a tremendous amount of people care about – as a symbol of truth and justice and all that good stuff, but not as a character in and of itself. To most of the public he’s a static character, there isn’t a lot of interest in his ongoing stories, it’s more of a “hey if you’re looking for a human stand-in for the concept of overwhelming power being used responsibly I have just the guy for you”. And if they have seen anything beyond pictures of Supes being heroic and striking a pose it’s most likely the Donner Superman movies which is an EXTREMELY traditional, light-hearted, colorful and reverential take on Superman where this folk tradition has been upheld.

          But now we have a problem: when you take Folk Hero Superman and put him in the movie where he’s more of a regular guy trying to do his best and not a symbol anymore (YET), where you intentionally pull the color and go from light-hearted to very grounded and very real consequences it’s going to make people upset, and not just in a “they changed cannon, his costume is different” way. It attacks their very concept of power being used responsibly. Man of Steel deconstructs a very simple symbol that they feel very positive about (probably from a very young age) and says some very adult things about that symbol, such as “hey, using violence to solve problems isn’t clean or neat or harmless” and “even the most powerful can’t save everyone”. Which are all things that Superman comics have been saying for years, but no one is reading them. And these are very challenging concepts to deal with.

          So to bring this back around: a lot of people, when they say “I want a light-hearted, cheerful character” what they are actually saying is “I don’t want to be challenged by movies” or (to be charitable) “Superhero/Superman movies should not challenge me, they should be that eternal easy symbol that I remember”. That’s a perfectly understandable perspective but ultimately I feel that it straightjackets the character, and reduces them to irrelevance. A Superman who ignores modern issues with surveillance, the military, our relationship with our idols and our own understanding of the limits of power is doomed to become a hokey throwback. Like Paul Bunyan.

          • Professor Va-Kox

            Oh I screwed up and forgot to mention: if you read Superman stories you are probably one of the people who see him as a literary character and not a Folk Hero. So seeing him changed up, a la Man of Steel, doesn’t bother you, because you have a different relationship with the character than the people who view him as a symbol.

            Also, a reminder: lots of people liked Man of Steel, it has good scores on IMDB, good ratings on retailer sites, it’s the #13 best selling Blu-Ray of all time. So people are open to the character being reinterpreted. I’m just trying to explain what I think is the mentality of people who don’t.

          • Hi Va Vox,

            Sorry I don’t understand your meaning between literary and folk hero?

            Personally I’m bigger batman fan. However, I also really love about superman ideal and what he representing. I also really impressed with how superman decided to use his power which to me is quite inspiration as I inspired with Batman. Through these 2 heroes, then only i am exposed and aware of other justice league members. I’m only a dc fan through this my 2 favourite heroes

            Wait a minute, maybe that’s why DC decided to kickstart their shared universe by pitting batman and superman. DC may actually using these 2 big name to introduce to audience the other presence of dc hero and establish the justice league instead of doing it in each solo movies. Perhaps is a smart move from zack snyder. What do you think?

            For the record, i don really read much comics. I only mostly expose to batman and superman through their films and animated. Yes i did see the animated all star superman and i am really touched by it.

          • That is a very interesting insight on superman. It does make sense why man of steel being quite a polarized movie. I really can’t believe that even the critics also cannot accept this modern reinterpretation of superman. Take example like Mark Waid who is the renowned writer for superman birthright comic which i believe is the influence source material for the Man of Steel.

            I understand now about the folk hero. From what i have read through the zack snyder interview from the EW magazine, Zack Snyder already confirm that the tone of dark knight trilogy will the tone for the current dc shared universe. There are quite number of people who accuse zack of trying to make superman or other dc hero to be like batman or the tone from dark knight trilogy is only work for batman but not for other dc hero. Do you think other dc hero can be open for reinterpretation as well?

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