Sunday, June 16, 2013

Man of Steel and Healthy Masculinity

This post is a part of my summer blockbuster series. I'll be tagging the whole thing as 2013 blockbusters

Between a nasty stomach virus and a really busy work week, I'm afraid that I've fallen behind on blogging...particularly on my summer blockbuster series. I've seen both Man of Steel and This is the End, so I figure while I have a moment, I should at least catch up on one.

I'll start with Man of Steel. I'm still trying to decide if I'll write about This is the End, but I'll figure that out another day.

Let me preface this with a number of disclaimers. Firstly, for the purposes of this series I simply analyze the movies through my personal interpretations. That is to say that I do not take anything from the source material into account (in this case, decades of comic books, cartoons, and other films) partly because I haven't read or seen most of it.  Secondly, I do try to remain relatively spoiler free in this, but there's no guarantees.

[Image text: Henry Cavill as Superman]

Listen, I'm going to come right out and say it. I really liked Man of Steel. From strictly a film making perspective, I thought it was done incredibly well. I was invested in the characters, and moved by the humanity of it all. It was action packed but not to the degree that my brain turned off. The story was fresh and pulled me in far more than any other Superman incarnation has ever before. It seamlessly wove stories from Clark/Superman/Kal-El's past with the present action. The performances were great, with Henry Cavill as the lead, his adoptive parents Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, his biological father Russel Crowe, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and the rock solidly creepy Michael Shannon as the supervillain, General Zod.

Plus let's just be honest...Henry Cavill is easy on the eyes.

Beyond that, there were themes and elements that interested me, specifically the various depictions of masculinity.

Superman, who was raised on Earth but is of Krypton, struggles understanding how these two identities will play out in his life. On one hand, he cares deeply about humanity, but on the other hand, he has witnessed the persecution of being different and the fear that can be directed at him for what he is.

But luckily, he had two fathers who taught him compassion, one his human adoptive father, Jonathan, and the other his biological Krypton father, Jor-El. Jonathan taught Clark all throughout his childhood that he was meant to be something important to humanity. He taught his son morals, compassion, and sacrifice. In this incarnation of the story, Clark as an adult, is able to interact with the spirit of his biological father, Jor-El. Jor-El reaffirms Jonathan's lessons and shows how Clark was saved and sent to Earth as the hope of his people. He teaches Clark how the Krypton people lost their way by pillaging planets and breeding all people for certain jobs, robbing them of their free will. He tells Clark how much more him and his biological mother wanted for him.

In other words, Clark/Superman/Kal-El is given two men who serve as lessons of strong, healthy masculinity. This all stands in grave contrast to General Zod who, in my interpretation, represents the dangers of unchecked hyper-masculinity. Zod was bred to be a general and the predisposition for war and violence runs in his very veins. He cares singularly for ensuring that the Krypton people survive, but his methods are cruel and ruthless. At one point in their final battle, Superman gives Zod one last chance to agree not to kill innocent people and when he refuses, then and only then, does Superman realize he has to destroy Zod once and for all. While Zod is from Krypton like Superman himself, he represents the dangerous ambitions that Jor-El intended Kal-El to stand against, and so he does.

I took this scene to be Superman finally, fully choosing a path of honor and taking a place as the Earth's protector. And thereby choosing healthy masculinity over anger, rage, and violence.

Pretty great stuff.

All that said, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I was disappointed by the women in the movie. Superman's adoptive and biological mothers don't really contribute much to the story or action. There's another woman who is one of the evil General Zod's crew. She plays the villain role perfectly--ruthless and cruel, but that's all she contributes. The main female character, Lois Lane, does display some important agency. She's an excellent reporter and stands up bravely in the middle of some pretty terrifying situations. But ultimately, she's Lois Lane and her main purpose in the story is to be rescued and adored by Superman. That much has not changed.

People of color were also underrepresented in the film. Laurence Fishburne plays Perry White, the head of the Daily Planet and Lois Lane's boss. The United States General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) who helps try to defeat Zod alongside Superman, and is keeping an eye on this strange, new protector of the world, is also African American. But when I try to think of any women of color who play a significant role in the film, I come up short. It's a classic case of intersecting oppressions, rendering women of color nearly invisible in this story.

Ultimately, I'm happy that this film contained some messages that I can get behind. But that happiness is dampened by the same old disappointments linger in my mind after watching nearly every superhero movie.

Why do white men get to have all the fun and glory?

Please see the commenting policy before replying to this post.


  1. First of all, I think this review is very good, and I really appreciate the reviews of this movie that take masculinity into account, because that shows an understanding for what Superman represents in the culture at large. I also thought the movie was focused on transforming traditional masculinity, and I think it's part of the reason that this movie is seeing such a strong negative backlash.

    I'm a little confused by your disappointment in the female characters, maybe I'm so impressed because I'm putting them too much in context (past movies, comic portrayals, ect.) and not judging them on their own? Here's a rundown:

    Lara- not the worst, definitely on the damsely side, but she's got a lot of nerve and the birth scene impressively focuses on her, the one who is doing the birthing. All of her scenes DO take place less than 24 hours after she's given the planet's first natural birth in at least a decade if not a century, so she's not really action-ready and can't be blamed.

    Martha- Holy crap do I love and admire this woman. She's played with nuance and conflict like never before and she's the kind of woman I long to have long chats with. She's a fierce mother, a great spiritual guide even when grappling with forces that are completely beyond her, and she marches down her front porch steps just to tell General Zod to go to hell. As the person who loves Clark most in the world, and a citizen of the planet, she has the most to lose and she handles her personal tragedies with grace. ("It's just stuff, it can be replaced.")

    Lois- This is my favorite Lois of all time, a spot formerly held by Erica Durance, and I would also gay-marry either of these Loises in a hot second, so forgive me if that exposes any bias. She is the Scully to his Mulder in this movie, she is smart and capable and a fierce reporter with enough heart to drop an amazing story to become fierce protector. Lois as a character is a demonstration of the fact that there is more than one way to fight, a lesson that I think will profoundly effect Clark's growth in the future, since Superman is traditionally all about punching and being punched, and this young man makes some very impetuous moves in his first adventure. She has two instances in which she requires "rescuing," even though really it's mostly catching- which, if you're a JLA fan, or saw the last Avengers movie, you'll notice the flying character is responsible for catching the non-flight-capable characters. She also dispenses the information that saves the world, capably understands the plan and helps to implement it. After all that, Lois and Clark experiencing a romantic connection seems pretty inevitable, given how amazing both of them have proven themselves to be. They are a great team, as they were always meant to be.

    As for women of color, as an ally and not strictly a member of the community, I don't mean to make any presumptions about who is not white and who is, and I certainly don't want to make apologies for the whiteness of the main cast members, but I believe Ayelet Zurer (Lara) is an Israeli actress, Jenny the intern at the Daily Planet doesn't appear to be white, and neither does Christina Wren, who plays Major Carrie Farris.

    1. I definitely take your points about the women and I have to say that my "disappointment" isn't the same as saying they are weak characters. I just wanted more, I think. For example, you say you'd love to have long chats w/ Martha, and I wish I could say I feel the same. I would have loved to hear more from her to get a better sense of who she was. I remember SO MUCH MORE about the lessons that Jonathan imparted on Clark and he wasn't even alive in the present day, so in theory we could have had more opportunity for Martha to be on screen. The most critical scene with her was the "sound of my voice" thing. Important, yes, but just not enough for me.

      And I do agree that Lois was a great reporter and brave, etc. like I said in the blog. But again, I wanted more from's hard for me to express in words, I just had a sort of "eh" feeling about her at parts. Sorry I'm not more articulate about that.

      I stand firm by my assertion that WOC were underrepresented. Respectfully, I feel like you're kinda grasping for examples, especially given that they each have just a few lines and (except for Lara) contribute nothing to the forward motion of the film.


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