The Greatest Conservative Films: Man Of Steel (2013)
“I grew up in Kansas, General. I’m about as American as it gets! Look…I’m here to help. But it has to be on my own terms. And you have to convince Washington of that.”
Before we begin, I picked this specific film in honor of this specific weekend. Happy Easter, everybody!
Some of you may know exactly where I’m going with that. If you don’t, just yet…well, read on. It won’t be long.
SPOILER ALERT, by the way…though it’s been four years, honestly. You probably know how the final battle ends, by now.
WHY IT’S A CONSERVATIVE FILM:
That line, up there. That…line.
If it didn’t have anything else, that line of Superman’s, spoken to a general who’s just helped him save the world, would have still locked Man of Steel firmly on this list. No, I’m not breaking my rule of “patriotic doesn’t necessarily equal Conservative”. It’s the whole thing, including that:
Passionate, solid patriotism, plus rugged individualism and a possible analogy for free market libertarianism. What Supes is saying to General Swanwick, in effect, is “I’m a patriotic American, who loves his country and wants to help her be great, and I’ll always do what I can to protect and defend her…but I don’t want the government looking over my shoulder, and telling me what to do with my life.”
Can’t get any more Conservative than that.
But that’s not all, of course. It’s a good jumping off point, though.
Return of “The American Way”:
It’s worth noting just how patriotic this version of Superman is, compared to the sad misfire that was its predecessor. Yes, I mean Superman Returns.
Now…mind you, I didn’t mind that film, that one time I saw it—not too much, per se. But what killed it, frankly, was the fact that it was far too “safe”—it tried too hard to pick up where the classic Christopher Reeve films (the good ones, anyway) left off, stylistically and narratively. And like the originals…well, once again, they had a magnificent actor playing Lex Luthor, who could have made him a menacing, intimidating, convincing archvillain…only to have him play it for laughs. For goodness sake: We complain about Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex, and we’re okay with…essentially the exact same thing, just older?
But I digress. Meanwhile, what that film did “update”…
For one, that classic slogan of Superman, that he’s fighting for “Truth, Justice, and The American Way.” In Superman Returns, it’s said dismissively, as a punch line—and worst of all, it’s not even said all the way, as someone asks if Supes still believes in “Truth, Justice, and all that stuff”.
More recently, a notorious one-shot in the comics had the Man of Steel renouncing his American citizenship, on the grounds that “The American Way…it just isn’t enough, anymore.”
Man of Steel bucked that trend. In director Zack Snyder’s vision, America is worth fighting for, because it is special. It’s the country that gave Superman a home. And he’s eternally grateful for that.
The Small-Town American Way:
As Supes makes clear to the general, he’s a Kansas man, through and through. While his hometown doesn’t have quite the exposure it did in that series which bears its name, Smallville is nonetheless viewed with affection. Yes, Supes faced some bullying, and alienation as “the other”…but that subsides. As Lois finds, you really get the idea that this small-town community is pretty much in on Clark Kent’s secret…and they’re keeping it.
As for those who’d treated him as “weird”, as kids…well, if Pete Ross is any indication, there’s redemption to be found. All too appropriate, of course…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Meanwhile, it’s the values of small-town America that Clark treasures and keeps in his heart. They’re not “hypocritical”, and they’re not “paranoid”—remember, Smallville accepts him. Those basic American values—embodied in Jonathan and Martha Kent—shape Clark into the man he’s to become. He wouldn’t be Superman, otherwise.
The Value Of Faith:
Connected to the above…at a vital moment in the film, when the villain demands that “Kal-El” turn himself in, Clark faces a major dilemma, on whether or not he can trust humanity to accept him, at last. So who does he go to, to sort out this inner crisis?
The Kent family’s pastor, Daniel Leone (who’s a character from the comics, by the way). And unlike the long stereotypical depiction of ministers and priests in Hollywood, as out-of-touch at best, hypocritical and repressive at worst…Rev. Leone (I know, the collar implies a priest—but he wasn’t one, in the comics; maybe he’s Lutheran) gives him an important word of wisdom, which Clark takes to heart:
Cue the very next moment in the film—Superman introduces himself to the world, “surrendering to humanity”.
By the way…that sequence, with Rev. Leone, includes in Clark’s close-ups a stained-glassed window of Jesus Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane…going through an intense inner struggle of his own. And that brings me to why I chose this film for Easter Weekend.
Embrace of Christianity:
See…Superman’s parallels with Christ have long been pointed out, discussed, and dwelt upon. A wise and loving father sends his only son to Earth, to be raised by human parents…with the mission to show humanity the path of righteousness—and to save them. All they have to do is accept him.
In Man Of Steel, the parallels are fully embraced—and emphasized. Superman notes “I’ve been on this planet for 33 years”—the age Jesus is said to have delivered himself to humanity. He extends his arms at one point while floating in space, in a familiar gesture. And Lois Lane, the love of his life, is quite a convincing personification of the “Bride of Christ”, the Church—seeking him, finding him, putting her trust in him, and seeking to proclaim him to the world…though she finds she has to wait until the time is right.
(Actually, Snyder himself reached out to the churches of America, encouraging them to approach the film as a “study guide” tool.)
Speaking of Lois and Clark…
“Where Men Are Men”—And Heroes:
Here’s the other ideological problem with Superman Returns. There, Lois has moved on from Superman. He can’t take it, and goes off to win her back. Wasn’t she married? I don’t recall; frankly, I don’t care enough to look back and check. The point is, it was creepy and very problematic. As my colleague Ronald Rowe’s often noted, we’re essentially meant to approve of Superman stalking her—but, hey, it’s Lois and Clark!
As the boys at Breitbart noted, Superman’s pretty much emasculated in that film—a “sensitive” Beta, who’d abandoned humanity to visit the remains of his world…and seems surprised that he didn’t find anything more than “a grave” or something.
Not here. Here, Clark Kent is a man—a drifter, perhaps…but one ingrained with the knowledge that “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”. He defends a waitress who’s getting harassed. He keeps his strength under control…but he’s not beyond using it to teach said harasser just the right amount of lesson. He takes charge when he has to—and knows how to speak with authority, when he does. He sacrifices his secrecy to save a certain spunky reporter he’s just (sort-of) met, named Lois Lane (in a sequence memorably playing up Clark’s masculinity in a clear…romantic subtext…).
And when an oil rig goes ablaze, he makes sure to use his strength to ensure that “No one gets left behind”. Because that’s what a Real Man does.
That’s what a hero does.
As Jonathan Kent makes clear to then-young Clark:
“You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Because…whoever that man is, good or bad, he’s…he’s gonna change the world.”
“What kind of man”. Howard Hawks and John Wayne would be proud.
Oh…did I mention Henry Cavil’s chest hair?
Lois Lane, Hawksian Woman:
Full circle. Remember that Rosalind Russell’s heroine of Hawks’s His Girl Friday served as a major influence in the development of (the admittedly already-established) Lois Lane. And so, it’s all too appropriate that the angelic Amy Adams’s portrayal of everyone’s favorite journalist would return the character to those roots.
Further, this version fixes one of Lois’s most irritating problems: How the heck does a brilliant Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist, (back when winning a Pulitzer actually meant something, and wasn’t just a political “reward”)…somehow miss for so long that the man she loves and so actively pursues is a guy she works with every day?
Here, in pure Hawksian Woman fashion, this girl knows her man—putting together the pieces of his personality, through her quest to find and thank the man who saved her life (again, in a subtextually intimate way). And when she finds him, she makes clear how well she knows what makes him tick:
“The only way you could disappear for good is to stop helping people altogether—and I sense that’s just not an option for you.”
Lois knows her man. He is a hero, and he can’t help being one. And that’s a big part of why she loves him.
Meanwhile, Lois is a tough-as-nails gal who verbally smacks down a colonel in her introduction…but does so with a light smile and a twinkle in her eye. Confident and cool, she’s also highly playful, sweet, and yes, feminine—especially around Clark. She even lets out her nurturing, “maternal” side, comforting him when he needs it most.
In so many ways, that’s what makes Amy Adams so perfect to play her. Perhaps more than any other actress today, Amy is a master of playing such heroines. Guaranteed, this series will see more of her, later.
The Individualist Hero:
Both Clark’s biological mother and adoptive father share the same fear—that the world would reject him, and treat him as an outcast and a “freak”. But his being an outsider is a part of him being what he is—he can see things in a way others can’t (as he himself notes to Lois, early on). And he shares this with many an individualist hero of old. Shades of Raymond Chandler: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…”
With his power, Superman is accountable to no one but God, except by choice—and he knows it, and lets General Swanwick know it.
And yet, as Jonathan tells his adopted son:
“It’d be a huge burden for anyone to bear. But you’re not just anyone, Clark, and I have to believe that you were…that you were sent here for a reason. …You have another father, too—who gave you another name. And he sent you here for a reason, Clark. And even if it takes you the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is.”
Clark Kent is a free man—free to do whatever he wants. But as Jonathan taught him*, with that freedom comes responsibility—a responsibility he has to bring to the table, himself.
Meanwhile, Jor-El—Superman’s true father—notes that the “hope” of his family crest (the “S” logo) is hope “in the potential of every person to be a force for good”. And that potential is to come about through inspiration and choice—not “social conditioning”. Which brings me to…
Eugenics Takes It On The Nose:
In the prologue, General Zod offers Jor-El, Superman’s true father, to join him in his coup of Krypton. Their exchange frankly sounds like the clash between the “Progressives” and the Classical Liberals (now Conservatives and Libertarians) of the last turn of the century:
“Degenerative bloodlines”…the disgusting words of Margaret Sanger, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and all those “Progressives” who supported selective breeding to “weed out the unfit”—the pseudo-science behind laws against “miscegenation”, and ultimately the gas chambers. Zod proclaims a “master race”…to the point of plotting to annihilate humanity so as to provide a new home for the “superior” Kryptonians.
In fact, as Jor-El’s hologram later explains to Kal/Clark, it was precisely “artificial population control” and breeding—creating “designer babies” with set “uses” in society—that set Krypton on the path to ruin—both environmentally, and socially:
“Every child was designed to fulfill a pre-determined role in our society—as a worker, a warrior, a leader, and so on. Your mother and I believed Krypton had lost something precious: The element of choice, of chance. What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended for him or her? What if a child aspired to something greater?”
Jor-El thus proclaims a Conservative/Libertarian ideal—a society where you follow your dreams, and rise as far as your aspirations and ability take you. And Kal was meant to embody that ideal. He is Krypton’s salvation—along with Earth’s. And what is Kal?
“Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries. And he will be free. Free to forge his own destiny.”
And rather than doom him to death, Kal’s parents send him off to Earth…to be adopted by a loving family.
Almost a subtle pro-life message…isn’t it?
Lois And The Military:
As I noted, this film is highly respectful of the armed forces—in a specifically Conservative sense. That is, it engages in a clever “bait-and-switch” I always love, whenever I see it—setting up a Leftist trope…and then pulling the rug out with a Conservative “twist”.
Whereas a Leftist sensibility would’ve probably set Lois directly against a corrupt and paranoid “military-industrial complex”, considering the “secrecy” plot point…here, Lois comes to learn the value of a simple truth: “the public’s Right To Know” or not, sometimes secrets exist for a reason. As she even admits early on, keeping secrets is “what [the Pentagon is] supposed to do!”
Further, her intro establishes that one of her most beloved pieces is a series of articles she wrote while embedded with the 1st Infantry Division. She has nothing against the military. She just doesn’t like obstacles in her path, period. (Incidentally, the comics have long established that Lois’s father is a general. Interesting note: Amy Adams is a “military brat”, herself.)
Even when she does come into conflict with higher-ups, it quickly subsides. Yes, her intro has her verbally smacking down Col. Hardy, for trying to keep her away…but the tension quickly subsides, and they even share a teasing banter over her “room’s” amenities. Yes, she gets captured by Col. Hardy, and held by him and Gen. Swanwick until Superman demands her release…but all tensions, again, get thrown out with our hero’s help. And meaningfully, it’s the colonel himself who sticks up for Lois against Faora, referring to her as “one of our own”.
And yes…initially, in the battle of Smallville, the troops are ordered, by the colonel, to target all Kryptonians. But after Superman saves him and his men from death, it’s enough to earn Hardy’s full respect, causing him to declare, “This man is not our enemy.”
The Spin Stops With Lois:
The thing is, we often get a lot of idealized portrayals of journalists from Hollywood—everything real-life “mainstream” journalists wish they were seen as, as opposed to the biased hacks so many of them are. But here—as well as in Batman v. Superman—we have that, with a major caveat. Namely, we see Lois chafing against everything the “mainstream” media has become—a go-along, get-along hack machine that’s long abandoned any honest pursuit of truth. Perry White, for his part, is not unsympathetic…but here he seems to represent the “old guard” who just doesn’t want to rock the boat.
As such, Lois’s passion for her work demands that she pull a Sheryl Atkinson and leak the Superman story online—albeit anonymously and on a site of questionable credibility, apparently to ensure no one gets hurt. (The site’s runner, Woodburn, has been compared to Matt Drudge, but considering Lois apparently called the site “a creeping cancer of falsehoods”, I somehow think it’s more like Buzzfeed or Gawker.) But her honor later demands she drop the story—and accept the penance Perry White slaps her with.
She is everything a journalist ought to be, and so many sadly are not—and the film knows it. She’s honest, and when she realizes her assumptions have led her in the wrong direction, she owns up to it.
Further, to Lois, journalistic ethics actually mean something—and she refuses to give up Clark’s identity, even when the government, Woodburn, the “mainstream” press, and even Perry himself demand she compromise just this once, to appease Zod. But she won’t. She gave her word. And no one takes that away from her.
A Time To Kill:
Again, it’s been four years, and you almost certainly know about this, anyway—perhaps the most controversial part of the film: In the end, Superman kills Zod.
Cue the outcry that “Superman’s a MURDERER!”
Such comes from the frankly Leftist mindset that there would never be a legitimate situation where a civilian would have no choice but to use violence to defeat evil. And the truth is, if you watch the scene, it’s pretty clear that Superman had no choice. For Gen. Zod has made it absolutely clear: This is a fight to the death…and if Kal can’t bring it within himself to kill him, Zod will never stop his mass murder—and we see him struggling to try and burn an innocent family. Superman has a few seconds to act—and if he doesn’t, a family will die. There’s no time to think up a loophole like “lobotomize”—the kind of thing that’d require time to focus. It’s now or never—either Zod dies, or innocents die.
Simple as that.
(For what it’s worth, Superman’s conflict with Zod as a rule has the ultimate end of Supes killing the general—in the comics and in Superman II. It’s always what establishes his resolve to always try his best to find another way. Alas…sometimes there is no other way.)
By the way, we also see Lois toting a Kryptonian gun while escaping from Zod’s ship. The Jor-El hologram guides her a little, but she’s clearly a fast learner, gunning down her fair share of baddies. (Incidentally: I happen to know from experience that gals, as a rule, learn how to shoot quicker than guys do. It apparently has to do with why women ask for directions more often than men….)
For Bonus Points:
Remember that scene where Superman says that “I’m as American as it gets” quote? He’d just punched out a drone sent to spy on him—an American citizen. Keep in mind, at the time the film came out, this was a direct swipe at Obama’s approach to surveillance—and drone warfare.
WHY IT’S A GREAT FILM:
To invoke a certain president, it made Superman great again.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from Superman Returns is: Superman needed new life breathed into the mythos—not the Same-Old-Same-Old with the patriotism stripped out. Supes needed a “fresh” approach—one that delivered the goods, but did so in a way that made him relevant, and believable. The original Christopher Reeve Superman had the advertising tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” With Man of Steel, we can believe Superman could exist in a world so much like our own.
It’s a reconstruction, not a deconstruction. Upon first seeing the film, I felt it took the best elements of the two good Reeve films, and channeled them to brilliant effect…especially the beautiful pathos of Clark’s origin story, as he discovers his destiny…and his limitations.
For Clark Kent is, indeed, an outsider—and for a time, he walks the Earth like a Japanese ronin or a Western drifter, struggling to find his place in this world. And through many trials and discoveries, find it he does—and answers along with it.
The drama is so very human. The humor—and yes, there is a generous amount of that—works wonders…especially between Clark and Lois, whom we see developing a very comfortable and playful dynamic, from “What does the “S” stand for?” to “Welcome to the Planet.” (My personal favorite involves Supes telling Lois to step back “Maybe a little bit more.” He’s clearly just showing off, to “impress a girl”…and the girl knows it—and loves it.)
There’s also the action. Long as the final battle is, it’s all convincing, and awe-inspiring. “You’ll believe a man can fly” indeed.
Henry Cavill’s Superman:
Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, this is, very much, the Superman we knew and loved from the Christopher Reeve films…just thrown into a “real” world. Cavill’s Clark quips when the situation’s lighthearted enough for it—and contrary to claims of detractors, he smiles a lot. He also brings, again, a great deal of pathos—especially in that tragic moment where Clark has to stand by and watch the death of the only father he’d ever known.
And there’s much more opportunity for that pathos. This is not the world of the Reeve films—that’s the difference. And an idealistic, somewhat naïve hero in such a world would feel saddened by quite a lot, and struggle with his role in this world, and his destiny.
And yet, he would also find joy, in the good things of life. That memorable sequence where, having put on the suit, he tries out his power of flight for the first time…we see him grinning with excitement, overjoyed and just having fun. Even if he does crash and (figuratively) burn, at first. And then, he’s all smiles and tears of gladness as he tells Martha Kent, “I know where I come from, now.”
His pain is real, and his happiness is real. And though he struggles with his questions, he does find his answers—and through them, we see him preserve his hope—and with it, his belief in himself…and in us.
It’s not a “dark” take on Superman. It’s a real take—and frankly, an even more inspiring take than of old. Again, it’s the notion that, even in our world, Superman could still have a place, and discover that he can make a difference. The emotions—and yes, the hope—of that are something to behold, in this film.
Amy Adams’s Lois Lane:
First off, who are these people saying Cavill and Adams have “zero chemistry”? I’d like to know how they define “chemistry”, because these two connect beautifully—and through them, we see perfect partners in Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
Lois begins the film with a down-to-business, cynical exterior that something tells us is just an act—something she puts up to handle all the darkness. Constantly “pulling weeds” and sifting through the muck’s taken an emotional toll on our girl, and she’s struggling to prove that she doesn’t care. But she’s an idealist, in spite of herself—passionate, aglow with childlike wonder at the interiors of a Kryptonian spacecraft. And thanks to Amy’s acting, we always know fully what she’s going through.
Superman’s existence becomes something of a lifeline for Lois. A hero can triumph, after all: ideals are worth fighting for. To her, Clark’s the embodiment of good actually winning in this world—standing strong and proud, prospering in the end. And so, she coins the name “Superman”, with a smile and a sparkle in her eye. Clark is her super-man—her hero, and the man she loves.
Meanwhile, Lois is Superman’s own ideal—everything about humanity that makes it worth saving. Even when putting up that “realist” shell, she’s a Romantic—noble, pure-hearted, and even innocent, despite everything. And so, when Clark tells of the death of Jonathan…we see Lois fighting tears. And that big heart, along with her sense of honor and integrity, demands she drop the story—and keep her word to him, no matter what.
“For believing in me.”
“…It didn’t make much difference, in the end.”
“It did to me.”
They give each other hope to fight on…and through that, comes their love. And appropriately enough…their first kiss comes right after he saves the world.
Michael Shannon’s Gen. Zod:
Apologies to the great Terrance Stamp, but the truth is, this is the far better Zod, by a mile. The Zod of Superman II, while certainly charismatic, is somewhat faceless—he wants power and so forth, he’s cruel, etc.—basic “bad guy” stuff.
This Zod, however, has a face…and of all things, a heart. We see the reasons for his attempted coup of Krypton—the exact fears of Jor-El. Unsurprisingly, they were once good friends, before Zod allowed desperation to drive himself to madness. He’s charming, charismatic, and quite diplomatic.
And we see his reasons for why he wishes to destroy humanity. All he wants is to save his own people…and honestly believes that can only happen with the destruction of our own. And so, despite everything…we end up feeling for him, somehow, even as we hate him.
And yet, hate him we do. His sympathetic side makes him all the more disturbing, and compelling—especially when coupled with the madness, the eugenics, and yes, the anti-human racism.
By the way, for those wondering how Zod is able to adapt to Earth’s environment in time for the final duel—two words: military discipline.
The Rest Of The Cast:
Russell Crowe as Jor-El. Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. Diane Lane as Martha Kent. Laurence Fishburn as Perry White. The heavy-hitters are here in full force—and all deliver powerful, masterful performances.
Crowe both pays masterful homage to Marlon Brando, and brings his own gravitas to the wise, sage, compassionate father of Kal. Lane is at once playful and haunted, both filled with joy and pride at her adopted son, and saddened by all they’ve lost.
In Fishburn’s Perry White, we see that beneath his worn-out, seen-it-all demeanor, there’s still a heroic crusader inside—which comes out when holding an employee’s hand, as they struggle to save her from the wreckage.
Costner isn’t known for much of a range…but here, he gives one of the greatest performances of his career, especially when asked by young Clark, “Can’t I just go on pretending that I’m your son?” The tears reach Jonathan’s voice as he manages to say, “You are my son!”
The humanity in this film—the authentic human emotion—that’s what makes the film so great, more than anything else. And it’s why I’ll defend Zack Snyder’s vision of Superman, and the DC movie universe, to my dying day.
By The Way…
Trivia notes: For those who understandably get a little bored with the long final showdown between Superman and Zod, there are a few nice Easter eggs (no pun intended!), including a truck marked “LexCorp” and a satellite marked “Wayne”. Oh, and when the fight reaches a construction site, Superman hits a sign saying “This job has worked 106 DAYS without an accident”—only to reset it….
Also, the modern master of Conservative-friendly (at the very least) cinema, Christopher Nolan, produced this film—and help craft the story. Sure explains a lot.
*(Note: a controversial issue in this film is Jonathan’s attitude that “maybe” Clark should’ve let some kids die. In context, though, all he’s saying is 1) Clark can’t save everyone, and not accepting that will just make things worse for him, inside as well as out, and 2) at this early point in his life, he has to wait until he develops and “matures” enough to channel his desire to do good, along with his powers, to do the most good. The world has to accept him, for that to happen.)
Buy this classic conservative film here. And stay film-friendly, my friends.
Any recommendations for films to make this series? Read the rules, here, and let us know!
Eric was raised by Conservative Christian parents, but first became especially passionate about politics in high school, through reading up on economic theory. He also first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged around this time, for the ARI's essay contests. He now owns a great deal of Ayn Rand's work. Also included in his library are the collected works of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, etc.
Eric is no stranger to writing commentary, as the writer of the Conservative Considerations column on CampCampaign.com, and as a film critic and commentator on FlickRev.com. He has also carried on the Conservative tradition of talk radio commentary, as the host of "Avengers of America" for the USF student radio station, Bulls Radio. In the meantime, he is practicing what he preaches: Striving to enter the professional realm of Hollywood, he has already written and directed short films for the Campus MovieFest, which can be found on his YouTube channel, Hard Boiled Entertainment.
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