Man of Steel : A Spoiler-Heavy Review

This is late. This is soooo late. And it’s far too long. Ugh. What is wrong with me? Why do I even exist? I shouldn’t. I’m sorry.

I love Superman. That’s why I wrote this piece almost one year ago (and this piece shortly after that. Just in case you wanted to give my site some traffic or whatever. It’s cool, though, it’s totally cool. Just…y’know, if you want to). And I want you guys to know, I was REALLY hoping that Man of Steel would, against all my expectations, be an amazing film. I know that sounds egocentric…because it very much IS. When a superhero movie comes out (especially a superhero as iconic as the Man of Steel) I can’t help it: I DO feel like it should be tailor-made to my sensibilities. I also nitpick it to death and pass judgment on it when it fails to live up to my ludicrous standards. And, as I feared, I was right about Man of Steel. It wasn’t the great movie I desperately wanted it to be. Now the viewing experience itself wasn’t terrible, but it reminded me of The Dark Knight Rises: a film that’s enjoyable on the surface, but immediately falls to pieces upon closer examination. I hope this list adequately explains how I can be a Superman fan and not be a huge fan of his latest cinematic “triumph.”

NATE’S HATES

1. The Cinematography

I am not the hugest fan of Zack Snyder. I was desperately hoping that Brad Bird or Darren Aronofsky or even Martin Campbell would snag the director’s spot for Man of Steel. But once Snyder was on board, I figured we would at least get some decent action scenes. Maybe slow-motion would actually be a great way to depict Kryptonians battling. But guess what? Zack Snyder decided to abandon his strengths and cling even tighter to his weaknesses.

First of all, everything is shot through a color filter. Krypton is a drab parade of different shades of brown. Earth is a bleak gray wasteland. An ultimately pointless scene in which Zod invades Kal-El’s mind was obviously written into the movie so that Snyder could show off his “visionary” style of film-making  and cram in some of the same kind of “subtle” and  “symbolic” imagery we’ve come to expect from the man behind Sucker Punch.

The action scenes are especially disappointing because Snyder uses no slow-motion, which (as I said) could have really worked in this instance. But no, everything is fast-paced, hyper-edited, and out-of-focus. Perhaps that works for, say, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or the Bourne series, or even the most recent James Bond movies, but not here; not when you’re showing alien demigods battling for the Earth’s future. That kind of conflict should feel epic, and it doesn’t (weirdly enough, the most “epic” battle scene is the one that’s the most similar to Superman Returns, in which Superman destroys an inanimate object that causes him pain).

2. Plot Problems

Let me lay out a few of these in roughly chronological order. And yes, this one’s going to be a long segment:

How is Jor-El, genetically engineered to be a scientist, able to easily defeat Zod and his troops, genetically engineered to be perfect soldiers? How does the Phantom Zone work? If it’s another dimension, Why does there have to be a giant ship, and freeze-y tubes?

How could Superman’s suit (complete with the symbol of the House of El, no less) be in a scout ship that arrived on Earth 20,000 years ago? Did Jor-El (or his AI) program the ship to build it? If so, why make it blue, red, and yellow, colors that we haven’t seen exist on Krypton? Why doesn’t the suit look more like the armor that Jor-El wears instead of the body stocking that Kryptonian soldiers apparently wear under their combat suits?

What exactly gives Superman his powers? Jor-El said that the Earth’s lighter gravity gave him his ability to fly, and the radiation from Earth’s young sun supercharged his cells, right? The whole thing about earth’s atmosphere was just a throwaway line at the time; something about it being more nutritious than Krypton’s. Well, that line apparently only existed to justify the moment when Superman is on Zod’s ship and he blacks out and loses his powers. Why? Not because of the sun. Not because of the gravity. Because Zod’s ship artificially duplicates Krypton’s atmosphere. Now I know that an atmosphere is determined by the gravitational pull of a planet and that it contains ultraviolet solar radiation, but did we really need to be SO scientifically accurate that it seemingly contradicts Superman canon? Was it just to be “realistic”, Nolan-style? Weirdly specific time to do it. Why not just say it was red sun radiation?

How did Krypton’s destruction free the prisoners from the Phantom Zone? Why was it so easy for a prison ship (that Jor-El designed, by the way) to be taken over and converted into a vessel of war? How has Zod aged appropriately over a span of 33 years, but Faora hasn’t? Why would Zod reveal his presence to earth, when it would have been so much easier to search the internet for references to alien activity, locate Lois Lane, discreetly abduct her, use the brain-raping technology we know they have, and take Kal-El by surprise? I’m assuming that would have been just as easy (if not easier) than creating a broadcast that automatically translates words into every known language on earth, so why did Zod take such a big risk and tip his hand? Because he has “a flair for the dramatic”? WHY? He shouldn’t be susceptible to that kind of vanity if he was really genetically engineered to be the perfect soldier, right?

And if  Zod’s ultimatum was some kind of psychological tactic intended to terrify and intimidate, it failed; Earth still tried everything in its power to resist his incursion, and all the broadcast did was give them time to mobilize. Plus, you don’t need to break the spirits of a population if they already aren’t a threat to you AND you intend to completely destroy them, not subjugate them, right? For that matter, why did Zod NEED to terraform the Earth into a Krypton-style planet? His explanation was “We don’t want to endure years of pain adjusting to these abilities like Kal-El did.” WHAT? What kind of soldier throws away a tactical advantage like that? They spent more than three decades living in a flying prison! How could that be worse than spending a little time getting used to your completely AWESOME GODLIKE POWERS?! Plus, his argument is completely moot, since only a few minutes later he’s completely adjusted to his powers and he’s fighting Superman to a standstill!

For that matter, why does Zod need Earth to be the new Krypton? If he has a world engine that can terraform ANY planet into a duplicate of Krypton, why inconvenience himself by choosing Earth? He says he has no interest in the powers a yellow sun gives him, so why Earth? The whole reason Superman resists him is because he plans to use the codex to repopulate Earth with Kryptonians. Easy solution: find another planet (there are plenty of them, as Zod would know), use the world engine there, tell Superman you have no interest in threatening his adoptive planet, and then he’ll gladly cooperate and help you find the codex and use it. Or, why not use the world engine BEFORE coming to earth, show up in a non-threatening vessel, and tell Superman you need his help to revitalize Kryptonian culture. Boom. Done. Remember, this version of Zod doesn’t have anything personal against the House of El (unlike Zod in Superman II). He was even friends with Jor-El. He should have no reason to punish the earth, and he shouldn’t have any animosity against humans or Kal-El. He just wants the codex, which is not an inherently dangerous item.

Of course, Jor-El DID imply that Zod wanted to eliminate the bloodlines of Krypton that he deemed impure or whatever. Now, let’s leave aside the fact that Zod (as he himself states) was genetically engineered for the sole purpose of protecting Krypton, and therefore shouldn’t be:

A) capable of starting a destructive civil war that divides his people during a planetary emergency.

B) jeopardizing Krypton’s future by eliminating any portion of a highly-structured gene pool perfected over generations of planning.

If Zod is willing to destroy the traditional version of Krypton to begin with, why not use his own people as templates for a new Kryptonian society? You know, his loyal followers, the highly skilled people all willing to die for him? Just have them start breeding, or have the creepy German guy whip up some clone-ish stuff. They have the technology, since they were going to use the codex anyways, and Zod already planned on rebuilding Kryptonian society in his own image.

Speaking of all this genetic engineering stuff, Faora has a line during her fight with Superman that is infuriating in its scientific…uh, notness. As they fight, she brags about how he will lose because he still has morality. She, on the other hand, does not. Why? Because she has evolved beyond it. Because she has…what the hell, guys?! Seriously?! First, Faora is one generation removed from Superman; she has not evolved anything that he, a YOUNGER Kryptonian, doesn’t have too. Also, if she has no morality, then why is she doing any of this stuff? You don’t orchestrate and participate in a planetary rebellion, travel across the galaxy for decades, and constantly put your own well-being at risk in order to rebuild your home if you don’t have a set of morals. Faora has to believe that what she’s doing is right. And guess what? Zod, also a genetically engineered soldier, HAS MORALS! He explicitly stated that he did what had to be done, no matter how unpleasant, in order to protect and preserve Krypton. MORALS! But hey, even if Faora was born without morals, it wasn’t because she evolved past them: she was genetically engineered. That’s not evolution. That’s LITERALLY INTELLIGENT DESIGN.

Okay, that was exhausting. Moving on to the other problems. Oh yes, there are more:

3. Jonathan Kent is a Prick

Putting aside the irritation I endured with Kevin Costner’s predictable monotonous drawling  (I think I’ve heard him refer to it as “acting”), Man of Steel‘s version of Jonathan Kent is an awful parent, an awful mentor, and an awful role model. He tells his son that he has to decide for himself whether he’s going to be a good or bad person. It’s not a good idea to use your powers to help people, he warns, because the world isn’t ready for you, and they’ll reject you. He wants Clark to stay with him in Kansas and be a farmer, yet at the same time he keeps telling him that he’s going to change the world and that he must find out for himself what his glorious destiny will be. And when he tries to rescue the family dog (yes, the DOG) from a twister, he refuses to let his son save him because he has to keep that side of himself a secret. Are you processing this? DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHY THIS IS TERRIBLE?! When your son is an all-powerful alien, you owe it to him and the world to at least TRY to teach him right and wrong and, raise him to have compassion for his fellow man. The Jonathan Kent of the comic books did. The Jonathan Kent of the first Superman movie did. But from this paranoid, morally ambiguous Jonathan Kent, we only get empty platitudes, grandiose speeches, and the worst parenting style since Robert Downey Sr. Bottom line: Superman should have become a hero BECAUSE of his parents, but in Man of Steel he becomes a hero DESPITE them.

4. Superman Can’t Be Bothered with Bystanders

Superman’s respect for all life is a common thread in all of his depictions. That respect is evident in virtually any battle he finds himself forced into. If he has to fight an enemy, his first priority is to either move the battle away from a populated area or find a way to clear out civilians and cut down on collateral damage. In Man of Steel, Superman couldn’t care less about bystanders. When Zod threatens his mother in rural Kansas, what does Clark do? Tackle him, and fly them both OUT OF an isolated cornfield and INTO a busy urban area. Oh sure, he tells the civilians to get inside because it isn’t safe, but then he proceeds to destroy the town around their ears. Gas stations blow up. Helicopters crash. Buildings are reduced to rubble. Of course there are casualties, and now Superman is just as responsible for their deaths as Zod is. And that final battle? Oh, my God. We can see horrified spectators watching. We can see these two titans of destruction leveling skyscrapers and construction sites and blasting their heat vision left and right. PEOPLE ARE DYING, SUPERMAN, AND YOU ARE KILLING THEM.

That climactic moment when Superman has no choice but to snap Zod’s neck in order to save some humans? Fine with it. In the comics, he executes Zod and Faora with Kryptonite when they leave him with no alternative. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial at all. But I also say this: given his blatant disregard for the THOUSANDS of people he and Zod endangered during their little scuffle, Superman killing Zod for the sake of a small family of tourists and then screaming in anguish has a hollow ring to it.

5. Clark’s Too Old For Pranks

It was a short scene: Clark is a cook at a truck stop diner in the middle of nowhere. A pretty waitress gets harassed by Thaddeus D. Redneckington III, and Clark steps in. He shows restraint when the trucker makes fun of him, pushes him, and pours beer on his head, because he is a mature adult. Two cops (who are apparently also sociopaths) find that funny instead of, like ASSAULT or something. Clark leaves, upset. Thaddeus leaves the diner hours later, only to discover that–Wha?! His truck is completely wrecked and the shipment of timber he was hauling is ruined! BA HA HA HA! Boy, Clark was a real cut-up when he was a teenager! Of course, that was before he became a mature adult and–Wait, he’s 33 years old?! How is destroying a man’s livelihood, a company’s profits, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment any better than beating up the guy?! I thought the whole “33 years old” thing was a clumsy and unnecessary reference to the Superman/Jesus parallel, but I don’t even think teen Jesus would be that petulant.

6. Golanitis

I’m quite proud of this one, actually. “Golanitis” is a term I have invented (unless the internet did it eight years ago in which case I’m sorry). The “Golan” is a combination of Christopher Nolan (also his brother Jonathan when applicable) and David S. Goyer, the men behind the Dark Knight trilogy. “Golanitis” is a condition the characters in their movies suffer from. It renders them incapable of saying anything in a short, simple, or even remotely understandable way. Instead they have no choice but to deliver stilted, melodramatic, and pretentious yet endlessly quotable dialogue that:

A) Awkwardly telegraphs huge plot points.

B) Reminds the audience that the movie does indeed have a theme, and is indeed serious and important because Hans Zimmer’s score is getting louder.

C) Is initially intended to answer a question or make a point, but instead devolves into a long story or symbolism-heavy speech that ultimately does neither.

D) Makes a great Facebook status because it sounds deceptively profound; bonus points if it can be used out of context in support of a political, religious, or personal agenda.

E) All of the above.

See, it’s easy to use superheroes (especially Superman, given his Christ-like attributes) to stage a morality play. That’s not inherently bad. But when you focus on having a big, important, serious, thematic motion picture epic without focusing first and foremost on, say, character development (or simply having a good movie with a smart plot), well, you’ll feel obliged to fill your movie with trite, hackneyed sayings that don’t sound like real people talking to one another about important things; instead, they sound like somebody reading off the inventory at a motivational poster factory. If you want a perfect example of how a superhero film avoided this trap despite having an inherently silly premise and requiring a massive suspension of disbelief, watch The Avengers. Joss Whedon knows how people talk, how to let a story’s themes speak for themselves, and how to give a colorful and absurd popcorn flick something it MUST have in order to matter: subtlety and genuineness.

ON THE PLUS SIDE/IN CONCLUSION

Now for some positive things about the movie. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I appreciated the acting talents of Russell Crowe, Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, and Christopher Meloni. Even though the idea of the Nolan boys and David S. Goyer controlling the DC Cinematic Universe makes me anxious, I’m happy that Man of Steel takes place in a shared universe. I enjoyed the church scene. I liked the overall idea of Superman and humanity earning one another’s trust. Lois Lane knowing who Clark Kent is almost from the beginning is a good change. All of these things make me hopeful for the future of DC movies. We’ll get there eventually.

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Why I Love Superman (Part 2: Addressing Criticisms of the Character)

Last time, I discussed my views on Superman. They were very positive.  I am of the opinion that Superman is the quintessential superhero, with rich potential for consistently excellent high-concept stories. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way. I see a lot of anti-Superman sentiment these days, be it on the internet or in conversation with friends. For the most part it seems to be coming from non-comic book readers rather than hardcore nerds. This is probably because they only have the Superman films and a handful of cartoons to judge him by. Now, the nicest thing I can say about Superman’s appearances in other media is that they have been a bit…um, inconsistent. Sadly, there’s been a lot more bad than good. So hey: if you’ve never read a Superman comic, but you saw Superman IV: The Quest for Peace when you were seven and you think he’s lame, I completely understand. You get a free pass. Stick around, you might enjoy finding out that you’re wrong.

But I have heard plenty of negative things about Big Blue from the other side of the aisle as well. And if you’ve been reading comics as long as I have and still think Superman is lame, or even that he’s less interesting than other superheroes: well, shame on you. Shame. You should know better. You have Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Superman: Birthright, and All-Star Superman and Kingdom Come and Must There Be a Superman? and countless other stories starring the Last Son of Krypton to serve as evidence to the contrary. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Well, no matter. In the next several paragraphs,  I’m going to examine the three most common criticisms of Superman (or at least, the three I seem to hear the most often) and do my best to explain why I don’t think they’re valid. Here we go:

1. Superman is not relatable because he has too much power. 

“I know you’re stronger, why would you even AAGGGHHH!”

This one is, without a doubt, the most popular argument I’ve heard from the anti-Superman camp. On the surface, it has merit. After all, Superman can lift mountains. He can fly faster than you can think. He can use his heat vision to put a crater in the moon while he’s sitting on the Kents’ front porch. How can a character who can do all of those things possibly be as relatable to young people as, say, Batman, who uses only his wits and skills to fight crime? In fact, no superhero can come close to matching Superman in terms of power. So how can a character who’s virtually all-powerful and indestructible be relatable to readers?

Well, here’s your answer: Superman is plenty relatable. It doesn’t matter how powerful he is or how often he wins. See, people in the comic book world toss around the word “relatable” a lot. A lot. It’s like a mantra to them. But to me, the word has lost its true meaning over the years. A character being relatable doesn’t mean that their circumstances resemble yours. No, a relatable character is one whose behavior is realistic and nothing more. If you, the reader, can understand why a character does what he does, mission accomplished. You can relate to them. You don’t have to agree with their actions, nor do they even have to be the actions you would have taken in the same situation. As long as the writer has clearly explained them to you and you think to yourself  “Yeah, that makes sense,” then congratulations; you’ve just related to a fictional character. Have you ever met someone who, despite their flaws, is smart, responsible, thoughtful, kindhearted, and selfless? I know I have. Well, go read a Superman comic. If it’s a good one, you’ll be able to relate to Superman because you know that there are people with similar qualities who might do the same thing if they were in his position. Pretty cool, huh?

Before I move on, I just want to bring one thing up. Even if you believe that a superhero’s life circumstances do play a part in making them relatable, consider this: taking away the elements in their lives that require suspension of disbelief, Clark Kent’s existence is probably much closer to yours than Bruce Wayne’s. After all, Clark had a relatively normal childhood, works a regular 9:00-5:00 job (one he’s probably stressed about losing since nobody reads newspapers anymore), he’s married, he lives in a modest apartment that costs more than it should because it’s in the big city, and his co-workers take advantage of him because he’s a nice guy. Bruce Wayne was raised by his butler, travels the world, drives a luxury automobile, lives in a mansion, runs a billion dollar company, and attends or hosts charity balls and parties all the time. Which one of these two men has a life that’s closer to yours, hmmm?

2. There is no tension in Superman stories because he doesn’t have enough weaknesses.

“And magic! It, uh, it turns your kids into demon worshipers! Yeah…”

 I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. Hell, you might have even used it yourself. Superman’s only real weakness is Kryptonite (well, that and magic, but it’s mostly comic book nerds who know that). If the baddie is going to be a real threat, he’s got to have Kryptonite, right? That’s got to get boring after a while, right? And if he doesn’t have Kryptonite, the fight’s over before it starts, right? And okay, if magic counts too, that’s only one other kind of villain Superman can fight who might be able to threaten him. Batman and Spider-Man have to worry about dying in a thousand different ways on their adventures. That gives them tension and drama that Superman just can’t have, because as much as he might pretend to the contrary, he’s immortal!

I have several responses to this argument, which might actually be the easiest one to address. First, a truly creative writer can give his villain plenty of ways to take down Superman without using Kryptonite or magic. There are plenty of examples to draw from, but I won’t go into detail here (red solar energy, sensory overload, distraction from the real target, cutting off oxygen, mind control, etc.). Second, it’s truly sad if the only thing that makes our heroes interesting is how easily they can be killed. I’m all for comics having serious themes, but an obsession with the mortality of the characters appearing in them damages their escapist element to a degree I’m just not comfortable with. Third, Superman’s conflict with villains is not where the tension comes from (or at least, it shouldn’t be). It’s on a bigger scale than that.

I talked about this a little bit in my last blog post, but it’s worth restating. Superman has the power to remove a great deal of suffering from the earth. He could disarm every country with nukes. He could unseat dictators. He could alter the landscape of nations in order to put more space between warring people groups. With the technology he has access to at the Fortress of Solitude, Superman could probably fix most of the world’s problems.

But he can’t. Well, he won’t. He has too much respect for free will to do that. Superman always worries about whether he’s doing too much already. What if his attempts to help earth are actually keeping its people from realizing their own potential? What if they become so dependent on him that they won’t know how to solve problems on their own? In fact, that’s one of the reasons that Lex Luthor, Superman’s archnemesis, hates him so much. He worries that the Man of Tomorrow might someday try to use his power and resources to rule the world in order to save it. Admittedly, Lex doesn’t exactly have the planet’s best interests at heart, but he’s got a point. Superman could rule the world if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. He’s too responsible and too humble to presume that he knows what’s best for everyone. And he’s too concerned that he’s already limiting the natural development of earth and its cultures. That’s where the tension in Superman stories comes from. It comes from Superman’s mission to inspire change, not force it. If you’re American, you might find that conflict especially relevant today. Understand that when you read Superman comics from now on, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy them more.

3. Superman’s Clark Kent disguise is dumb.

“But, I’m mild-mannered! Superman’s not mild-mannered!”

 I almost didn’t include this one because it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the other arguments I’ve mentioned, and it is also quite easy to address. So real quick, here we go: no, glasses and a different hairstyle are not a good enough disguise to fool so many people. But that’s not the most important part of Superman’s disguise. It’s about muscle control, practiced mannerisms, body language, a different voice, baggier clothing, and an overall attitude. Keeping in mind the fact that the Clark Kent disguise was developed by Siegel and Shuster before TV or decent quality photographs, and there you are. If you want, watch the scene in the first Superman movie where Clark switches personas back and forth while trying to decide whether to tell Lois the truth about Superman and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

Now, I know there are other, more specific complaints about Superman that you may have. But, if you think about them carefully, you’ll see that they probably can fit under the umbrella of the three broader issues I listed above. If not, let me know. We’ll talk. As always, this was an opinion piece. If you disagree, I understand. I’m just trying to give some love to an icon who deserves it. Superman is still relevant, you guys. Maybe now more than ever. I hope this helped if you doubt that.

Why I Love Superman (Part 1: How I See Him)

I watched The Dark Knight Rises this past weekend. It was great (EDIT: Having seen TDKR multiple times since, “great” is not the word I’d use now. Impressive, perhaps. Maybe even entertaining. But “great” is giving it too much credit). One of the previews we got to see before the movie was a minute and a half teaser for The Man Of Steel, Zach Snyder’s Superman movie. Since the movie won’t be released until next summer, there obviously wasn’t much interesting footage. What little I did see disturbed me, though. Right from the beginning, the logos for DC comics and the production studios were displayed in the same black and gray as they were before The Dark Knight Rises. Then we see gray overcast skies and a depressed, bearded Clark Kent working as….a fisherman I guess. Then we hear Kevin Costner give a voiceover about how Clark has to decide what kind of man he will be. Then a reeeeallly short clip of Superman flying, and that’s it.

Like I said, they probably don’t have much footage to work with at this point, and certainly not enough for me to make a definitive statement about the quality of the movie. But, until I see evidence to the contrary, I now have no reason not to assume that this new Superman film will be grim and full of angst (similar to what Tim Burton was planning to with the character for his failed Superman Lives film). And that’s too bad. Because I love Superman, and I don’t want to see his character altered to reflect the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Maybe that is what most moviegoers want to see. Maybe they want all of their heroes to be flawed and unstable and perpetually brooding. Because that’s the only way they can be “interesting”, right? Well, I don’t think so.

Apparently Superman killed Mystique and wears her skin as a trophy.

You see, I love Superman. I’ve always loved him, and I always will. Not so much for what he can do (which is admittedly awesome) but for what he represents: our potential. I don’t mean flying and invulnerability and heat vision. No, I mean our potential as a species to become better people. Someday maybe we can also be selfless, compassionate, and noble. Those are the characteristics of Superman I most admire. I’m less interested in the Man of Steel than I am in the Man of Tomorrow. To me, Superman symbolizes everything that is good about us. He is all of our best qualities externalized. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

We don’t like being reminded that most of the time we aren’t living up to our potential. We want heroes who are like us instead of heroes who are what we could be. We’d rather have a hero who is motivated by negative emotions and a tragic past, who copes with his issues instead of trying to overcome them. There are valuable lessons to be learned from those kinds of characters, it’s true. But I don’t believe we should be content merely with heroes that cope. We need heroes who learn from mistakes (whether their own or others’) and move past them, heroes who grow and change with time. We need heroes who do what they do to help people, not to make themselves feel better. Superman is a hero for all of the right reasons, and he is a hero in all the right ways. So how should movies depict Superman? How should comics be depicting Superman? Well, here’s my take:

When I think of the Man of Tomorrow, I think of him as being the synthesis of two of my favorite fictional characters (maybe these choices will seem a bit random to you, but I grew up watching both of these guys on a regular basis, so I can’t help jumping right to them). The first of these is James McKay, the main character of William Wyler’s 1958 western film, The Big Country. He is a retired sea captain who moves west with his fiancee, only to discover that everyone there, including said fiancee, expects him to constantly prove his manhood in public displays. But McKay has sworn off this foolish behavior. His father died years before in a pointless duel of honor and he doesn’t want anyone to go down that same path. He has a quiet determination, he’d rather talk than fight (but fight he does when he finds it necessary), he shows mercy when he has the chance to kill his enemies, and he tries to broker a peace between two warring families of ranchers.

Movie posters used to be WAY cooler.

I’d highly recommend you watch The Big Country if you want to know more about the movie. It really is a gem. The thing that stood out to me the most, even as a child, was how cool McKay was. He’s not a western hero in the traditional sense, but that’s the point. His conduct throughout the movie essentially shows the audience that traditional western heroes aren’t really that admirable. Far more admirable is a man who wants to solve problems with words rather than guns. He doesn’t show favoritism to either side, providing solutions to their problems and pointing out their foolishness when they need to hear it the most. By the end of the movie, McKay’s actions and his sincerity have convinced many of these antagonistic ranchers to hear the wisdom in his words. Some of them don’t, or at least, they don’t care. But that’s the way it always is, right? (Psst! That applies to Superman!)

The second fictional character I see in Superman is Jean-Luc Picard, my favorite captain of the Enterprise. While James T. Kirk is certainly an awesome dude, I have to say that Picard really lives out the creed of Starfleet and The Federation of Planets the best. It’s pointed out more in Star Trek: The Next Generation than any other Trek show that Starfleet is not a military organization. The crew of the Enterprise are primarily explorers, ambassadors, and relief workers. Occasionally they do have to fight battles, but it is always as a last resort, when there are no acceptable alternatives. Picard, more so than Kirk, really exemplifies those principles.  He has some flaws, of course, but that just reminds us that humanity can always improve, even in the enlightened era of the 24th century.

“Make it so.”

One thing I want to specifically mention is how Picard interacts with less advanced cultures. Starfleets’s number one rule is called the Prime Directive, which forbids interference with the development of alien cultures. While he sometimes interprets the Prime Directive a bit loosely as the situations dictate, Picard upholds the spirit of it at all times. He understands that some worlds are just not ready for the kind of knowledge and power he has at his disposal. Whatever choices they make, it must be them making the decision. If Picard used Starfleet’s technology to solve all of a more primitive society’s problems, they would eventually lose the motivation to solve problems for themselves. This leads to all kind of conflicts within the show, of course. When should the Prime Directive be broken, if ever? How much assistance given to a world that desperately needs it is too much? (Pssst! See how this also applies to Superman?)

I hope you could see how all this tied into Superman. But allow me to spell it out just in case I wasn’t clear enough: this is how I see Superman. Obviously there have been many writers over the years who have tried a number of different approaches to the character, and many of them have been successful. But this is the approach I feel is best suited to The Man of Steel: a fusion of James McKay’s wise outsider with quiet strength and Jean-Luc Picard’s philosophical ambassador of the future.

I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone but me, and if that’s the case I apologize for wasting your time. But do me a favor: if this has piqued your curiosity even the slightest bit (whether you agree or disagree), watch The Big Country, and a few episodes of Star Trek: TNG (“First Contact”, “Who Watches the Watchers”, “The Measure of a Man”, “The Offspring”, “Wounded”) just to get a feel for what I’m saying. If you like your Superman to be more of an action hero than a philosopher, I get that. I do. I know I used to feel the same way. If you like a darker hero, I also understand. Sometimes dark heroes do seem more interesting than “boy scouts.” This post was purely opinion. Anyways, stay tuned for part two, in which I discuss some of the criticisms of Superman and whether they stand up to scrutiny.