A Superman story that’s pretty much the same as the original, except he has a different reason for being a hero.

It’s not because he feels he should help people since he has superpowers. It’s not just because he’s a good guy at heart.

Superman went to the Fortress. He saw the history of Krypton. He knows what led to the planet exploding—his parents’ neglect.

Jor-El was a skilled scientist, so he knew what was wrong with the planet. But he was arrogant. Instead of raising an alarm, he wanted to fix it on his own.

Lara was on the governing council. People’s safety should have been he top priority. But she was too comfortable with the status quo.

Besides, the House of El was high society. If anything really bad happened, they had escape pods ready. No problem flying off planet.

Arrogance and laziness. They both shirked their responsibilities.

And Superman knows.

It sickens him.

He’s trying to make up for their shortcomings. Every person he saves. Every disaster he stops. It’s because his parents wouldn’t step up.

It’s the reason Clark became an investigative reporter—to make sure people in power are honest and ethical.

He spends both lives, as Clark and Superman, making sure that no one hurts people out of arrogance or neglect.

Superman isn’t interested in bringing back Krypton.

He wants to make sure it never happens again.

Hero, Sidekick, Villain

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a classic trio of characters with his Sherlock stories: hero, sidekick, and villain. For example: Sherlock, Dr. Watson, and Moriarty.

I took a look at other stories to see how closely they fit Conan Doyle’s setup. These aren’t in any particular order and this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list — just off the top of my head.

Story Hero Sidekick Villain
Sherlock Sherlock Dr. John Watson Moriarty
Harry Potter Harry Ron, Hermione Voldemort
Merlin (v1) Merlin Arthur Morgana
Merlin (v2) Arthur Merlin Mordred
Fringe Peter/Olivia Walter, Astrid Walternate
Superman Superman Jimmy Olsen Lex Luthor
Batman Batman Robin The Joker
Doctor Who The Doctor [companion] The Master
Teen Wolf Scott McCall [his pack] [multiple]
Haven Audrey Nathan, Duke the Troubles
Chuck Chuck, Sarah Casey [multiple]
Back to the Future Marty Doc Brown Biff
Dresden Files Harry Murphy, [multiple] [multiple]
Roswell Max [his friends] FBI
Matilda Matilda (none) her parents, Trunchbull
The Sandlot Benny Smalls the Beast
Star Wars (original triology) Luke Han, Leia Darth Vader

I finished reading It’s Superman! by Tom De Haven, and one of the things that struck me in the book is that Clark thinks he is dumb. He mentions it briefly at first:

Especially since he’s not smart the way that he feels he should be, all things being equal. Intelligence to match his physical powers: is that too much to ask?

Later he  thinks about it again:

Because no matter how strong he is or how fast or how far he can see, he is still a farm boy, as Lois rightly called him, a twenty-year-old wheat from Kansas who never figured out the mysteries of the slide rule, who can’t fathom electricity or the principles of music theory, much less radio transmission, and who is utterly mystified by the atom, the X-ray, and the salinity of the ocean. So just how is a guy like him supposed to take on and best somebody like Lex Luthor, a grown-up, a millionaire, a genius who evidently can snap his fingers and make whatever he wants or doesn’t want vanish into thin air?

I took Superman’s intelligence for granted. He is super strong and super fast. I thought super smart was a given, especially since his Kryptonian brain should be able to process thoughts faster and remember more than the average human brain. I still think that’s the case, and the key point is that Clark in It’s Superman! isn’t really Superman yet—he is Clark Kent running around town in a movie costume.

It makes sense that Clark Kent, new to the big city, still discovering what he is capable of, doesn’t realize his full potential. Maybe it’s just a matter of him trying to learn something new on his own, and then he’ll be able to pick it up quickly without a problem.

I’ve always been interested in Clark Kent’s story, pre-Superman, and It’s Superman! does a great job showing us what Clark is like when he is figuring out what kind of person he is and what he should do with his power. I’m glad Tom De Haven specifically points out Clark’s intelligence, because a Clark Kent who doesn’t think he is smart is not something I’ve seen in other Superman stories.

Spoilers for Man of Steel.

I heard mixed reviews about Man of Steel and these two things kept coming up:

1. Way too much destruction. Buildings fall apart. Explosions. Lots of civilians in danger. But Superman wouldn’t put that many people in danger. He would take the fight away, out in the middle of nowhere (or even into space).

2. The first half of the movie feels different from the second half. Stylistically, visually. It’s like you’re watching two films mashed together, and they don’t mash well.

As I watched the movie, I thought these were valid points. Man of Steel has its flaws, but it also got a lot of things right. I’ll go through the bad stuff first, and then get to the good stuff.

The bad stuff

1. Too much destruction, and I know why it happens. This version of Clark doesn’t don the suit until he faces Zod. Clark hasn’t faced major threats before, human or otherwise, so when he fights Zod, it’s messy and desperate. Clark doesn’t have enough experience to control the situation, and that’s why there’s so much destruction. I still think it’s excessive, but I understand why it happens.

2. Stylistic changes. One issue is with the flashback scenes. I like seeing Clark at different ages, but a few of the flashbacks feel forced and interrupt the flow of the present action. I don’t know if there was a better way to include them. Another issue is all the fighting in the second half of the movie. Lots of explosions, broken glass and stone, and loud noises in contrast to (relatively quiet) scenes around the world in the first half.

3. Clark doesn’t work at the Daily Planet until the end of the movie. I have mixed feelings about this. I like seeing on-the-farm Clark, but the mild-mannered reporter is a big part of the character and usually a more prominent role for the actor. One of the best things about Superman I is seeing Christopher Reeve shift from Clark Kent to Superman, but Henry Cavill doesn’t have the opportunity to do that.

4. Zod was born to be a soldier and protector of Krypton, but we find out too late. Jor-El says that for centuries, everyone on Krypton was born for a specific purpose, but Clark was born naturally and with the freedom to become whoever he wanted. Zod was born to protect Krypton, and that helps us understand why he is willing to do whatever it takes to build a new Krypton on Earth. Clark takes away the purpose of Zod’s life, and that’s a Big Thing, but the revelation comes too late in the movie for us to care.

5. Jonathan’s death was sort of…ridiculous. In other versions of Superman, Jonathan dies from a heart attack. It’s fine if the writers want to do something new, but Jonathan’s death in Man of Steel could have been prevented so easily. Jonathan should have picked up the little girl and gone to the overpass with Martha. Clark could have rescued the dog and used the excuse that he “got really lucky” that he didn’t get hurt. I understand that Jonathan was willing to die in order to protect Clark’s secret, but this was a poor way to show it.

6. Lines that failed miserably. I’m sure there are more, but these two stuck out to me:
—Zod: “Where did you train? On a FARM??” This sounded cartoony, like a cheesy villain. What Zod meant was, he dedicated his life to protecting Krypton while Clark had relatively insignificant experiences on Earth.
—The female military officer at the end who said Superman is “kinda hot.” Completely inappropriate. Her character wasn’t even well developed and still that line was out of character.

The good stuff

1. Clark as a drifter. We haven’t seen this stage in Clark’s life on screen before, even though it’s been hinted at a few times. Man of Steel has thirty-three year-old Clark moving from place to place, job to job. He has this great power and he isn’t sure how he should use it, so he helps where he can. It’s nice to see Clark in ordinary situations. Bus boy at a bar. Part of a ship’s crew. He wears t-shirts and jeans and even though he looks ordinary, there’s an Otherness about him. He wasn’t pretending to be a bumbling reporter and he wasn’t a demigod with a cape yet. Just Clark trying to figure out what he is supposed to do.

2. Lois is an ace reporter and she respects people’s boundaries. Lois finds out where Clark lives and says she wants to tell his story. When he explains to her that the world isn’t ready to find out there’s life on other planets, she backs off. She keeps his secret and doesn’t push him. Other versions of Lois Lane (but not all of them) have her arguing for the sake of arguing. If someone says she can’t do something, that’s all the more reason she wants to do it. It becomes predictable. “Lois, don’t get into trouble.” And then oh, there’s trouble and there’s Lois. This Lois thinks about more than the news story. She realizes there are some things she shouldn’t do, even if she has the ability to do it.

3. No Kryptonite. No meteor pieces that came to Earth with Clark’s spaceship. No crutch for the bad guys to use. I like what the writers did instead. Clark adapted to Earth’s conditions and so he has a bad reaction to the Kryptonian air on the spaceship and the Kryptonian atmosphere spewing out of the World Engine.

4. Jor-El is AI you can see and trust. Russell Crowe’s Jor-El is visible (and not a translucent hologram) and integrated with the alien ships. He explains things to Clark in a straightforward way, no mind games, and Clark trusts him. What bugged me about Jor-El in Smallville was that he was always ambiguous—Clark never knew if Jor-El was manipulating him. It is so refreshing to see Jor-El as a guiding figure that Clark can work with.

5. Normal danger doesn’t faze Clark. In one of the flashbacks, Clark is on a school bus that goes off a bridge and into water. All the other kids are screaming as the bus fills up with water, but Clark is looking around, observing, because he knows he can force his way out of the bus if he has to. The other kids are scared because they’re trapped but Clark is calm because he has a way out. It’s part of his Otherness, that he can’t be hurt as easily as humans. In contrast, Clark is cautious when he fights Zod and Faora-Ul because they are actual threats to him.

6. Heat vision is uncomfortable for Clark. The skin around Clark’s eyes turns dry and veiny, which is something that might happen if searing heat suddenly burst from your eyes. In fights, Clark uses heat vision in desperate moves and it takes him a moment to shut his eyes and turn it off.

7. Superman teams up with humans. The military needs Superman’s help and Superman needs to coordinate with them in order to defeat Zod. It isn’t Superman as mankind’s savior but rather Superman as a leader. Which is how it’s supposed to be. Superman leads mankind into the light, not Superman solves all of your problems for you.

8. Lois knows Clark Kent is Superman. She tracks him down to Smallville, and then she keeps his secret. The writers completely bypassed the notion that Clark’s disguise fools Lois, and it suits the characters perfectly.

9. Coming to Earth was about repopulating Krypton. This was the central conflict: would Superman help Zod build a new Krypton or would he defend his adopted home? It’s an internal conflict for Clark and it has external effects and consequences. In theory it would work well, but the movie doesn’t quite get there.

Man of Steel focuses heavily on Kal-El’s side of the story. It’s a film about the last son of Krypton with some flaws and some highlights. I’m still waiting for a story about Clark Kent. Scenes hinted at what that would be like…young Clark suffers from sensory overload; middle school Clark risks revealing his secret in order to save his classmates; young adult Clark is frustrated about what his purpose is. I want to see a story about what an extraordinary man does in an ordinary world, but the Superman movie we usually get is an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.