Was the drone scene pointless?

What was the point of the drone scene?

Some allege the scene was pointless, out of Superman’s character, and out of place. The scene is only about 1 minute long and contains only about 10 lines of dialogue, but it does an incredible amount of work and is densely packed with meaning, mechanics, and motives.

Far from being a pointless scene, it is vital for setting the ground work for the new status quo following Zod’s death.

Consider the mutual trust being shown.

You can’t down a drone against North Korea merely to make a point.

Against more despotic nations that would be an act inviting all-out war. That’s not the United States of America. Superman is banking on America to take the slight as mild discipline within the realm of acceptable diplomacy. He knows his actions are not going to be perceived as an attack… and he’s right. Swanwick exits the car calmly, incredulous at Superman’s destruction but hardly acting like one who had just be attacked or threatened. He trusts Superman, even if he finds this action brash.

Imagine if Swanwick was facing off against Zod or an equally powerful but humorless being. Can you start a conversation with General Zod by asking him if he’s stupid? Inherent in Swanwick’s dialogue is the trust and understanding that Superman isn’t going to punish him for asking the question.

Why try to uncover his identity after he declined to share it?

From the Government’s perspective, they know from Lois Lane’s first article that Superman did not reveal his identity to her during that encounter. His reticence to provide that information suggests that he didn’t volunteer that information to Lane, but instead that she uncovered it. Nonetheless, Superman has protected Lane rather than reducing her to a pile of ashes to protect his secret.

So it stands to reason that while Superman doesn’t want people to know his secret identity, he will tolerate you learning it, like he did for Lane. Therefore, the Government justifiably attempts to find out Superman’s identity in a “proper” way by tasking drones onto Superman. The Government doesn’t attempt to get the identity the easiest, but wrong, way by extracting it forcibly from Lane… something other despotic governments in the world wouldn’t hesitate to do.

Why did Superman down a drone?

Superman downs the drone as an act of discipline. Indicating that he’s not okay with the Government attempting to uncover his secret identity. Superman is making his terms clear and lightly slapping the Government on the wrist to let them know there could be consequences greater than this if they don’t stop. There’s an economic tax on them crossing his line, but note also that he found a high ranking military officer in the middle of nowhere and literally rained fire from the sky near him. It is reassurance laced with a gentle rebuke, not “agree or else” but instead “look what I could do.”

Downing the drone is also calculated to equip Swanwick with the leverage and attention necessary to start a meaningful dialogue with Washington. If nothing is at stake but mere words, Swanwick could petition on Superman’s behalf until he’s blue in the face but Washington would do nothing but hold endless debates about what to do. However, by attaching a dollar figure and tangible assets and interests to his statement, Superman has ensured that Swanwick will be listened to and heard.  The drone gets things moving.

Can’t they figure out his identity anyways?

Note that Superman doesn’t say, “You can’t.” He says, “You won’t.” Superman isn’t commenting on their inability to uncover his identity, he’s commenting on the terms he has implicitly set by downing a surveillance drone meant to find where he hangs his cape. They won’t because they’re going to agree to stop. Swanwick implicitly agrees to this term, otherwise his next line could have been about how uncovering Superman’s secret was inevitable. Rather, Swanwick concedes the point by beginning his next sentence with “Then”… in other words, “Fine, we won’t continue to investigate, but we have additional concerns.”  Swanwick’s “Then” assumes that Superman’s assertion that they “won’t” is true.

An honest question elicits a trusting answer.

Swanwick is both diplomatic and candid, going directly to the heart of their concerns, “How do we know you won’t one day act against America’s interests?”

Superman appreciates Swanwick’s concession on the secret identity and his candor, so he offers something of himself as an extension of trust. He reveals that he grew up in Kansas. Superman is acknowledging that the Government has the power to uncover his identity. He offers a clue to it not to assist in that inquiry but as a symbol that he’s trusting them not to use it against him. Superman reassures Swanwick his interests align with America’s. However, Superman has conditions and asks Swanwick to be his messenger and advocate.

Why go to Swanwick rather than the Press?

Superman is a man of action, so he’s always going to be operating outside the law. However, he recognizes proper channels. Telling the public, “I’m here to help.” is counterproductive if the Government deems you an illegal alien and an enemy combatant. Addressing Washington allows his actions to be legitimized and sanctioned by the State.

At the same time he’s not going to be so hung up on formality that it stops him from helping the people. If Superman wanted to formally follow all proper channels he could have retained a law firm to insulate him from liability and issue a statement to the US Government. That’s no version of Superman. Superman has always stood for the ideal of justice above and beyond the letter of the law. Superman was not going to spend months petitioning courts to determine his legal status before taking action, he was always going to help even if it meant skirting the law.

If Superman were an utter wildcard, he wouldn’t even ask for Swanwick’s assistance and simply do whatever he wants without regard for the Government’s concerns or interests. Here, he strikes a perfect middle ground for the kind of hero Superman is intended to be. Not so thoughtless and careless as to wander into metropolitan or government airspace without an invitation, but not proper to a fault, binding his ability to help without explicit government consent or paperwork.

This is completely in character.

This is Man of Steel‘s version of Superman entrusting Kryptonite to Batman. Almost always the scene is precipitated by some conflict or issue between the two. There is typically an aspect of discipline or veiled reassurance. The Justice League threatens to vote Batman out.   Or Superman enters the Bat Cave uninvited. However, Superman ultimately entrusts a piece of Kryptonite to Batman as a symbol. Superman isn’t saying Batman couldn’t obtain Kryptonite on his own. Superman isn’t giving Batman every piece of Kryptonite in the world for safekeeping. Superman isn’t even saying that Batman is necessarily the best equipped to use it. It is, primarily, a symbol of trust. The scant details Superman provide to Swanwick and the task he gives him is Superman embracing the idea that humanity is worthy of his trust. The film makes it as about as explicit as it can in the scant few seconds spent on this scene.

“I don’t know, General. Guess I’ll just have to trust you.”

This scene does a lot of work!

The scene helps establish what the government thinks about Superman, what Superman thinks about the government, and how they’ll develop their relationship going forwards. Additionally, the scene helps the film shift in time and accordingly tone. Superman goes from mourning to confidently setting terms with the Government.

The scene helps the film have a shift in tone and in time.

Although the shift in tone is jarring, it makes it clear to the audience that time has passed. Superman is no longer in mourning, the world is no longer shell shocked, and Superman causes people to smile at this point. The scene allows us to know that there are still unanswered questions but that they’re proceeding work them out. It lets us know there is trust in this world and that the world is ready to smile and laugh again, even if the audience hasn’t had that time yet. It lets us know that a fully confident, optimistic, trusting, and trustworthy Superman is here. The scene’s placement allows us all this information and cleanses the palette to allow for a heartfelt scene with Martha while preserving the film’s perfect final lines.

For more information.

The podcast covers many related topics. In MOSAIC Episode 2, we talk about why Superman has cause to be optimistic starting with this scene and why the shift in tone is justified. In MOSAIC Episode 9, we talked about how Superman’s secret identity was still preserved in the drone scene and why it made sense to trust General Swanwick.

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