Move over, General Zod. I’m going to have to play the bad guy for a few minutes, particularly if you are the parent of a young kid who has been asking to see the new Superman reboot Man of Steel.
Warner Bros. makes a calculated move releasing Zack Snyder’s movie into theaters on Father’s Day weekend. Kal-El (Henry Cavill) might be pop culture’s most famous orphan – yes, more famous than Harry Potter – and the dueling advice dispensed by the superhero’s two fathers means plenty of families might be planning Man of Steel trips to the movies.
But you might have to be careful about the violence and darker tones in this purposely grittier take on the Superman legend. Man of Steel is closer in tone to The Dark Knight than it is to Richard Donner’s lighthearted Superman movie from 1978. Now, raise your hands if you’ve shown your kids Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
This one’s going to require some discussion. So, let’s escape the crumbling Krypton, reconstruct our Fortress of Solitude, defend Metropolis from an alien leader and figure out when you can watch Man of Steel with your kids.
Green Lights: “I just wanted to help.”
Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer make noticeable changes to Superman’s mythology in Man of Steel, but the core values to the classic DC superhero are intact. It’s part of the reason why parents might be thinking it’s OK to bring kids to Man of Steel. Superman never was Batman. He stood for hope and justice, where Batman fought crime from the shadows.
But Nolan’s Batman trilogy changed everything, so Man of Steel leans closer to The Dark Knight than it does to the action-packed, but more accessible, The Avengers. More on that in the Red Flags section.
Superman’s nickname is the Big Blue Boy Scout for a reason. The superpowered savior always wrestles with the amount of help he’s able to give to the citizens of his adopted planet Earth. Man of Steel embraces that conflict, with young Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) choosing to hide his identity on the advice of his adopted father (Kevin Costner) because he believes that our society won’t accept him.
As per expected, we get scenes of Clark being bullied by Smallville thugs, and the threat of General Zod is omnipresent. But Goyer counters these requisite growing pains with admirable messages about Superman becoming a force of good, a beacon of hope for a downtrodden community. Costner and Diane Lane, as Superman’s adopted parents, believe their child is special, and they do their best to set him down the right path. They instill morals that we hope to pass on to our children, and they dip their toes into the universal question about whether we, as a human race, are alone in this universe.
The sci-fi element of Man of Steel, in fact, might be one of the main reasons this movie is aimed at older kids. But again, more on that in a moment.
The reasons we’ve adored Superman for decades are present in Man of Steel, though they’re sometimes obscured by a nonlinear storytelling approach and an onslaught of bombastic action. Yes, the action sequences are going to be the main reason why your kids are going to WANT to see Snyder’s Superman movie. But by failing to pull a punch – literally and figuratively – Man of Steel becomes a hammering exercise in devastating movie violence, and might not be what a parent is expecting.
The more I thought about Man of Steel, the more I realized there were more Red Flags than Green Lights, so let’s get into them now.
Red Flags: “The entire world is being threatened here.”
Yes, those are skulls Superman is buried beneath.
You know, it wasn’t even the violence that surprised me about Man of Steel. It was the language.
Snyder was tasked with delivering a Superman movie that allowed our hero to finally hit someone (after Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns took a pacifist approach). When the final 45 minutes of the films descended into chaotic sequences of city-destroying carnage, I rode out the storm of two superpowered beings clashing like titans even though I had little emotional investment. When the action kicks in, Man of Steel resembles a Transformers sequel – wonton devastation and perilous human consequences that young viewers might view as being too realistic.
(SPOILER: Please don’t read if you don’t want to know... but the savage way Superman and Zod's fight ends clearly states that Snyder isn’t making Man of Steel for families, but rather for older teenagers who want conflict and bloodshed in their superhero movies.)
But back to the language. "Ass wipe," "dick splash" and "asshole" are thrown around by characters in completely unnecessary moments; aggressive curses that aren’t going to fly over a kid’s head. A friend compared it to the use of "penis breath" in Spielberg’s E.T. – so unnecessarily harsh, you wonder why it was included.
Some parents don’t fret over language, and that’s OK. I think you might wrestle over the level of violence on display in Man of Steel. General Zod (Michael Shannon) plans genocide on our planet, and uses devastating tactics against Superman and the residents of both Smallville and Metropolis. Again, teenagers will love the carnage – and Snyder employs the best digital tools at his disposal – but the devastation on-screen in Steel approaches Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen levels… and that’s too damaging for most kids to see.
One scene really works to Snyder’s disadvantage. A tornado bears down on Smallville, calling to mind recent devastation in Oklahoma. But in that scene, we also witness Clark standing helplessly by as someone is sucked into the void and killed. It’s tough to endure.
I think that there’s an audience out there who have been waiting for an edgier Superman, and Man of Steel delivers on that promise. For years, Superman has received a somewhat gentle, entirely accessible silver-screen treatment. You can pull Richard Donner’s original Superman movie off the shelf and show it to most ages.
Man of Steel isn’t meant to be that movie. It was made in direct response to that movie. It’s a Superman movie for the Dark Knight crowd. It has a deep, convoluted sci-fi mythology. It gets confusing with its villainous motivations. And it’s action packed, but also violent.
My nine year old has been begging to see it. I hate having to break his heart.
I think Man of Steel earns its PG-13 rating. And I also think that was Snyder’s intention. Man of Steel isn’t a borderline summer blockbuster that tows the line to try and lure in all ages. It’s a darker, edgier take on Superman’s mythology that purposely thinks on an epic scale – but leaves behind its potential younger audience in the process.
I wouldn’t bring my sons, ages nine and five, to Man of Steel. They want to see a Superman movie, obviously, but the language, violence and often-confusing nonlinear approach to the storytelling would turn them off. This is a somber movie. It’s deadly serious. It isn’t very fun. And that makes it a tough sit for young kids. I think the movie’s going to make a killing with its target audience. I just don’t think every member of the family fits that description.
As always, if you do take your kids to the movie, please let me know how it goes!
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That with My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.