Byrogbngp, writer at
I love cinema! I have a special affinity for the science fiction, fantasy, and superhero genres.

This article pertains to a plot element of in Man of Steel. If you haven't seen the film and don't want to be spoiled then read no further.

A friend of mine and I recently enlisted the help of another friend (who is this weekend watching Man of Steel) to act as a tie-breaker on our debate about the following question:

In Man of Steel is Jonathan Kent's death scene 1) just plain stupid and unbelievable, or 2) does it work dramatically for the overall story that is being told about Superman in that film?

The scene in question is this one:

in which Jonathan Kent forbids Clark to rescue him just as he is about to be carried away by a tornado--and Clark complies. The next moment Jonathan dies. And the event evidently has a very deep impact on Clark.

The Case for a Traditional Jonathan Kent

My friend argues that no in no way, shape, or form would Superman obey Jonathan's refusal to be rescued in such a circumstance, as occurs in this film. Rather, Supes would have ignored such a command and saved Jonathan--period. No ifs ands or buts. Because that is morally who Superman is at the character's core. Similarly, as the character is written in MoS, Jonathan Kent would not be so preoccupied about what will happen when the world discovers that a god-like extra-terrestrial lives among them that he would suggest to Clark that keeping his identity secret (still as a teenager) trumps saving a bus full of school children from drowning!

In a nutshell, my friend feels that the Golden/Silver/Bronze age comics' Jonathan and Martha Kent are essential to the Superman mythos--and they should not have been altered so drastically (or at least as Jonathan is). It was Ma and Pa Kent who instilled salt-of-the-earth, rock solid, unswerving moral virtues in Superman. And also just in a dramatic sense, he feels that Jonathan holding his hand up in a "Stop! in the Name of Love" manner as the tornado swoops him up is patently ridiculous.

Leave him on the doorstep? Ring and run, I guess...
Leave him on the doorstep? Ring and run, I guess...

The Case for MoS's Jonathan Kent

I will concede that Jonathan Kent's death scene in MoS does strain credulity. But I was able to buy-in to the premise because of how this event fits in to the greater weave of themes in the film. My thoughts on it are detailed here.

There is no question that MoS presents a revisionist characterization of Jonathan Kent. MoS gives us a more humanly complex, vulnerable, and mythic Superman character--and that is really what the film is about in my view. It takes the fantastic premise of the character and extends it into more of a real world storytelling approach that asks "what would this look like today if the story actually took place in our real world?" (The same approach will continue in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.) This clearly requires revision of the source material. Some changes to Jonathan and Martha are to be expected as such. If you're unversed in comic book lore, even just a quick browse of a Google image search of Golden, Silver, or Bronze Age Superman comic books makes it abundantly clear why. Suffice it to say that the comic book and a blockbuster action film are two entirely different mediums (and with different audiences: children from the 1930s through 1960s; more targeted at adolescents, young adults, and older comic book nerds in the 1970s to mid 1980s; versus a wide cross section of modern day theater-going adults currently).

A core conflict for Superman in this film is not just the question of how the world will react to him as a god-like powerful space alien--it is also who Superman has the right to be for himself. (It seems clear from the trailers that is a theme that will be developed in BvS.) In order for Superman to be presented in this way the film uses Jonathan's death to intensify why Clark feels lost. We see in MoS that Clark wanders for a time as a kind of a lost soul following the death of his father. It is developmentally appropriate at his age to struggle with some basic existential and identity issues. But here of course he also has a lot of 'baggage' handed to him by Fate (his Kryptonian history), and by Jonathan's deep concerns about how the world will react to his true identity--even to the point that Jonathan sacrifices his life over it, and forbids Clark from intervening (making his son watch helplessly). This traumatic event is intended to make Superman more vulnerable and relatable as a person.

We see from Jonathan's conversations with Clark in MoS that he was very troubled by the thought of how humanity will react to Clark once they learn of him. And I imagine that this is in part due to Jonathan's anxieties about the nature of the race that sent him to earth, and what their intentions were in doing so. Just as compelling a reason is Jonathan's intuition is that human civilization will instinctively fear and reject what is unfamiliar and strange when the learn about Clark's powers and extra-terrestrial origin. And, we may extrapolate, then how Clark will react to that. In any event, Jonathan clearly feels that Clark isn't ready for all this in the moment that he forbids Clark to rescue him from the tornado.

For Clark to comply with this order by his father puts him in a moment of torment in which he probably freezes, and it costs his father's life. It isn't hard to imagine that after this event Clark terribly regrets not having defied his father's wishes and to have saved him anyway. But he was unable to act to do so in the moment. I would submit that all of this is intended to make the character more human, relatable, and in some sense tragic. I think it is fair to say that MoS's telling of the character has a prominent tragic feel, which is mirrored by the film's somber emotional tone and blue/gray color filtering. In MoS Superman is certainly a soaring and majestic figure, and truly a symbol of hope--but he is also framed within a tragedy, at least to start. His story continues obviously.

Okay, so there ate the two sides of the debate, and I hope I have done justice to my friend's position. I invite you to please cast your vote and explain your rationale for it!


Is Jonathan Kent's death in MoS unforgivably stupid, or does it work dramatically to add greater weight to a number of larger themes?


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