Superman has No Free Will — The #ManOfSteel Failure of Character


I have already written a bit about the recent Superman movie, but only in reaction to another, positive look at the film. Currently the film has about a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it lower than the 2006 reboot film, though no where near as bad as Superman III or Superman IV. Those latter two movies certainly are the most flawed, but there are a few things that make me think that the newest film, directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) and produced/written by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception), should receive more contempt.

In particular, there is a major flaw with the story, and it is the very character of Kal-El (a.k.a. Superman). What is worse is that the set-up for him should have made this problem stand out even more, and that is the Man of Steel seems to have no real will of his own. Just about all of his major decisions are made by others. There is the obvious bit about him becoming a dweller of the Earth because of the decision of his Kryptonian parents, but babies don’t have much choice there. However, his human parents basically dictate his life choices, including letting Kal’s father die (in a very stupid way). When Kal discovers his real father (as a computer simulation) he is told what clothes to wear (the suit), what to do, and this has his purpose. Later, CG Jor-El tells his son to save Lois, and Lois tells him how he will save the world. Over and over again, Kal is told what to do, where to go, and his every decision is dictated by others. That’s even true with Zod and his orders for Kal to come to him (and yet never is he told to kneel before Zod).

What highlights this tragedy of will is that the very birth of Kal-El was supposed to be such that he could choose his own destiny. Zod, for example, can only be a military leader; he was literally breed to be a warrior. But Kal is supposed to be unique, not farmed-out to be born to some particular task for Krypton and its society. He is explicitly said by Jor-El to be given free will. But every significant point of his destiny has been decided by others. The writers failed to bring to life the very thing that was supposed to make Superman unique among his kind, and that is a pretty big failure of story-telling.

Compare that to the 1978 film, which has Superman at the end find a way around the directive of his father not to interfere with human history in order to save Lois. The way it is done is a massive deus ex machina, but it at least highlights Kal’s character and ability to solve a problem without being told how. In fact, Kal’s early rescuing was not what his father wanted, but he did them anyways and “got carried away”. His character motivated his actions, not what he was ordered to do.

That is a major contrast to the Superman in Man of Steel. There he is just a symbol rather than a character, a bland cut-out of the hero to be talked about. People say what he will do rather than him choosing what to do. It is rare that Kal makes his own choices, such as killing Kryptonian fetuses (as I mentioned before), and killing of Zod himself to save a few tourists in Metropolis. The angst Superman feels after having to kill Zod then has no power because his decision was forced, and never earlier on what it established what he would or would not do. Superman just does; he never is.

It’s also why Superman never does anything clever, never outwits anyone, never shows him planning or thinking ahead. He does what he is supposed to do, and that really takes away any way of being interested in him. Kal-El isn’t a person, he is a cape.

Now, one may wonder if this was on purpose to some degree. Plenty have been seeing the Superman/Jesus parallels, strained or not. But suppose that the makers of the film are trying to fit Kal into Christ, then this may make sense. Jesus is sent to Earth to learn obedience to the one who sent him (cf. Philippians 2), allows himself to be taken in and go through a passion, all for the sake of fulfilling another’s plan. Then we have Kal, obedient to his father (or fathers), even when it’s apparently stupid (letting human-dad die, or being told to let children die so Kal’s powers can remain hidden), and he is taken into the authorities and undergoes a passion. If the producers of this film are going for this parallel, it’s only showing how one can make Jesus an uninteresting character; in the Gospels he at least had wit when “battling” the Pharisees.

No matter the case, this film was detrimental to the hero. Now, a sequel is in the works super-fast as well as a Justice League film, and one can hope that Kal-El can come into his own. Or is Lex Luthor going to dictate all of his actions next?

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One thought on “Superman has No Free Will — The #ManOfSteel Failure of Character

  1. Its hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what youre talking about! Thanks

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