I saw Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel three times before I felt like I could really write about it fairly. Like many others, I was shocked and conflicted during and after the first viewing. Upon leaving the screening, a friend asked me what I thought, and all I could muster was, “Superman doesn’t kill.” Almost as disturbing is the portrayal of Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) as a man who would consider letting a bus full of kids drown to protect his own son’s secret or sacrifice his life, leaving a wife and child, when he knew he could be saved…easily. So, that first viewing was tough. I did not walk away feeling like the character and story had been reborn. It just felt like a cheap trick to darken Superman for a focus group raised on Batman.
I decided to see it a second time, though, to give it a chance and to try to experience it fresh, without the shock of the various twists influencing me. Honestly, the second time, I found myself completely distracted by the gratuitous amount of destruction in the movie. The assaults on Smallville and Metropolis are so relentless (and lengthy), they make the demise of the entire planet of Krypton appear pretty tame (and short) in comparison. I left wondering if the destruction of every office building in Metropolis was really necessary to drive the story forward.
I happened to see Man of Steel a third time by accident. I had passes, so I went for it, thinking maybe another viewing would help. And believe it or not…it did. For some reason, the third time around, the movie played out as a pretty strong gay parable for me, hitting subtle, but profound notes on bullies (both childhood and adult), unexpected allies, family acceptance and pride in who you are and the tough choices we often make when our identity is in conflict with the world around us. Early in the film, Jonathan warns young Clark, “People are afraid of what they don’t understand.” Clark is distraught. He knows he’s different, and he knows other people can sense that difference. His father hopes that by concealing his true nature, Clark will avoid the bigotry and hysteria of the world until some uncertain time, in the distant future, when he will find a more accepting audience to whom he can reveal himself.
Superman is a gay icon, perhaps more so than any other superhero (sorry, Wonder Woman). Throughout his 75-year history, he and his creators have popularized the secret identity trope and explored the isolation and danger of being “other.” So many of Superman’s powers are wish fulfillment fantasies for anyone who may feel weak or threatened, but for a gay kid, his strength and commitment to others are beacons of hope. I grew up in a rural community, so much smaller than Smallville, and the idea that being different could be an asset, one that could take you far away from your suffocating surroundings, was very empowering.
Jonathan’s sacrifice also touched me this time around, and I forgave him, much the same way I forgave my own father upon realizing he never asked for a geeky, gay son in rural Oklahoma. He did his best (for my protection and his own), even if he didn’t have all the information or insight to make the best decisions. I was also moved by Lara’s and Martha’s quiet dignity and strength, and even picked up on the Rowlingesque protective spell that mothers unconsciously seem to cast on their sons, even when they appear to be indestructible.
When Clark returns home, Martha tells him she used to worry about him when he was a baby. Clark says, “You worried the truth would come out,” and Martha is almost offended by the idea. “No. The truth about you? You were beautiful. We saw that the moment we laid eyes on you. We knew that, one day, the whole world would see that.” Unfortunately, not every gay kid can take his parent’s love for granted, so when a mother declares her unconditional love to a child challenged with hiding his true identity, on the verge of “coming out,” it’s a powerful moment of affirmation. (I admit getting a little teary-eyed behind my 3D glasses.)
I also caught something Martha says after her house is destroyed. She rescues the family photo albums (remember photo albums?) and reassures Clark that the rest is just stuff and can be replaced. Later, when Kal and Zod are leveling Metropolis and Zod has made it clear what the stakes are, I was finally able to rationalize all the destruction. Maybe it was because it was my third viewing, but when the fate of the human race is at stake, the rest is just stuff. It can all be replaced. (Though I imagine the destruction of those Lexcorp tanker trucks is going to cause some problems in future sequels.)
Admittedly, it probably shouldn’t take three viewings to come to terms with a movie, but I’m not going to apologize for being cinematically cautious. In interviews, Snyder has explained the choice to have Superman kill Zod as the “why of him not killing ever again.” Even though he’s 33, this is newborn Superman we’re seeing. He hasn’t yet figured out his superheroic code of conduct. Zod’s death will haunt him, dictating the choices he makes with other villains in the future. I still hate that it happened, but maybe that’s the point. Kal hates it as much as I do. Probably more.