Anybody who watches the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother is likely familiar with Barney Stinson’s rather unique take on film criticism. In short, Barney determines the protagonists of Hollywood blockbusters in a very literal way. He sees the T-800, not Sarah Connor or Kyle Reese, as the true hero of The Terminator. Die Hard is the story of gentleman thief Hans Gruber, who literally dies hard at the end of the story. Barney even goes so far as to name Johnny Lawrence and not Daniel-san as the true Karate Kid.
Even though Barney’s anti-hero revisions are meant to show how out of touch he is with reality (and human empathy) by virtue of his high-paying job at Goliath National Bank, they got me thinking about if it was possible to reframe Man of Steel along similar lines. And as you’ll see, what began as a piss take actually turns into a not entirely awful reinterpretation of Man of Steel as the tragedy of General Zod.
Let’s begin with the obvious. On a literal and figurative level, Zod is much more apt to claim the title of “Man of Steel” than Kal-El. In almost every scene we see Zod wearing his Kyrptonian battle armour. Only at the end does he willingly discard it for his final battle with Superman. Meanwhile, Superman spends the entirety of the film in either human clothing or his Kyrptonian spandex.
One point for Zod as the Man of Steel.
If we consider “steel” as a defining character trait, then Zod also stands head and shoulders above anybody from the House of El. From his rebellion on Krypton to his death on Earth, Zod is resolute in his righteous belief that Krypton must be preserved. Unlike Jor-El, who would have left Krypton’s fate to chance genetics, despite sexual procreation being so out dated on Krypton that it was deemed heresy, Zod was willing to make the hard choice of building a life raft out of the best and brightest of Krypton’s gene pool.
Furthermore, Zod embraced Jor-El’s plan for a diaspora. Yet in the face of a disagreement on how best to facilitate the exodus, Jor-El commits the ultimate act of selfish cowardice. He steals the Kryptonian genetic Codex and imbues it within Kal-El, who then gets blasted into the depths of space. In two moves, Jor-El single handedly screws over any hope for Kyrpton’s future, conveniently repackaging a desire to secure his progeny in the lofty cloak of good intentions.
When Zod emerges from the Phantom Zone to find Krypton destroyed, he does not despair. Zod and his crew take to the stars, an act which is equal parts duty and genetic predisposition, to find some last vestige of Krypton’s empire, a task made infinitely more difficult because of Jor-El’s selfishness.
And during those thirty years spent wandering in the wilderness, what is Jor-El’s legacy doing on Earth? He’s lamenting his powers, wishing to be human instead of what he is. He’s defying the pragmatic advise his adopted father, a man more like Zod than anybody is willing to admit. Case in point: when Jonathan Kent tells young Kal-El that letting a bus load of children perish might have been the right thing to do, he is showing the sort of steel that we will never see in Superman.
As an adult, Kal-El seems incapable of taking action on his own. The last son of Krypton needs a human priest to stir him to action in the face of Zod’s arrival. Stop and think about the irony of that for a moment. A Kryptonian needs a human who espouses myths about a big man in the sky, a myth which Kal-El could shatter at any moment by virtue of living and breathing, before he can decide to protect his adopted planet. I ask you, where is the steel in a man who needs to be manipulated into action by backwater mystic?
Two points for Zod.
Let’s change gears for a moment and look at the narrative structure of the story. In doing so we will see that Man of Steel is no adventure in heroics, but the chronicle of a doomed man, fated to die for being who he is. Zod fits all of the criteria for a tragic figure under the Aristotelian model. Zod is a moral character. He does not “make fortune from misery.” Compared to Jor-El, who is utterly selfish, and Kal-El, who is indecisive and lacking of internal fortitude, Zod’s sole motivation is to preserve Krypton. As supreme commander of Krypton’s armed forces, Zod is “highly renowned and prosperous.” And most importantly Zod’s downfall comes not from any weakness or frailty, but from his source of strength. He is utterly dedicated to Krypton. That dedication, which borders on fanaticism, proves to be Zod’s ultimate undoing.
Some might argue that Zod’s characterization is that of a meaningful antagonist, and not an anti-hero. In that light, Man of Steel should remain Kal-El’s heroic tale. And perhaps it would were it not for the morally dubious actions Superman takes in his attempt to protect Earth.
If the events of the film make anything clear it’s that Superman could have killed Zod at any time, thus ending the threat to Earth. Why not break Zod’s neck before wreaking billions of dollars of insurance claims in Metropolis? Superman kills Zod when the General is at his most powerful, having fully acclimatized to life on Earth. Conversely, Superman is at his weakest during this battle, courtesy of the Kryptonian world engine. Ergo, Superman chose to let the battle play out as it did.
Above and beyond that, Kal-El willingly commits an act of genocide against Krypton in destroying the ancient scout ship. Could there not have been a third way on that point? Smash the engines but save the unborn Kyrptonians so that they might one day be resurrected to live in peace with humanity on Earth? Maybe settle them on Mars or Europa? But no, after fifteen minutes of remedial Kryptonian history lessons, Superman assumes the ersatz moral authority to decide that “Krypton had its chance.” How heroic.
Of course, if hologram Jor-El had it in him to smash Zod’s mothership into the moon (if he can change the atmosphere, he can steer the ship. End of Line), Kal-El never would have had to choose between Earth and Krypton. On that note, I’m not sure who is the bigger coward: the ghost who doesn’t want to die, or the super being who hides behind humanity. Certainly neither man deserves the mantle of hero.
Thus do I submit that General Zod is the only morally unflinching man of steel in Man of Steel. He lived and died in the service of Krypton, which is more than we can say for either Jor-El or Kal-El. Zod’s story is the story of a man driven by genetics and principle to protect his civilization no matter what the cost. His death is a tragedy at the hands of a lesser man. The irony is that if Kal-El had heeded the lessons of his adoptive father, he probably would have had the stomach to do what was necessary when the time came, rather than dragging humanity into a war of the worlds which would effectively exterminate the last vestiges of his homeworld. General Zod lived and died as a Kryptonian. The tragedy of his death signals nothing less than the loss of the last true son of Krypton.