When I Finally Got Superman’s Dadby Ian Carlson
I should preface this piece by stating that I am a lifelong, true-blue Superman fan. I grew up with the Christopher Reeves’ movies and a Super Powers action figure whose s-shield was well worn from constant backyard play. I was in grade school when The Death of Superman rocked the comic industry (and made the nightly news), and I’ve followed Supe’s adventures regularly since the time I could scrounge a few dollars to buy his books from the local newsstand (naturally progressing to a stellar local comic shop).
When Bryan Singer released Superman Returns I was the right age to appreciate the tribute film he was creating to Donner’s modern classic. However, it was clear this was an endcap and not the beginning of a new franchise. With this in mind, like many fans of the Big Blue Boy Scout, I was overjoyed to find myself (just a few years later) sitting in the theater ready to experience Man of Steel. Admittedly, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Zack Snyder’s work, but Henry Cavill seemed like good casting, and the promise of an action-packed Superman film was very intriguing. Not surprisingly, like many, the film left me with a lukewarm feeling.
I loved the casting, I dug the atmosphere, I questioned some of the plot points and character motivations, but I could look beyond them as I kept telling myself this was a slow-burn origin story. However, the one thing I could not accept was the portrayal of Jonathan Kent.
Why was this such a hang up for me? Well, like many Superman fans, I have always held to the belief that Clark’s true power is (ironically) his humanity, his selfless character- a trait instilled in him, in almost all the iterations of the character, by his adopted father, Jonathan. I grew up deep in the Dan Jurgens era of 90’s Superman comics (if you don’t know him, look him up), where Jon was still alive and a constant sounding board for the adult Clark, always there to offer clarity and sage advice. When Smallville appeared on the WB (the precursor to the CW), John Schneider acted as the moral compass for the burgeoning boy of steel. I knew there was a chance Jon wouldn’t make it through the movie, as that becomes a defining moment in Clark’s hero’s journey, but I still expected to see a familiar rendition of this pivotal supporting character. So, like many, I was shocked, bewildered, downright angered by Kevin Costner’s portrayal in Man of Steel. To add insult to injury, I’m a 90’s kid, I absolutely loved Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and yes, even Waterworld. To me, like many of my age, Costner is Hollywood royalty, so to see him give such an unrecognizable performance of Jonathan was incredibly frustrating. I found myself perseverating on this performance, and tying all the films missteps back to this performance. A Pa Kent who suggests Clark maybe shouldn’t save the bus of classmates? A Jonathan who made Clark stay hidden when he knew he could (probably) save lives in a tornado (including his own)? -This was not the wise father figure I expected. This was a man of questions, with ambiguous answers, and a way of looking at the world in shades of grey, not black and white.
I know this may seem ridiculous to many, but if you’re still reading you’ll most likely understand when I say this Pa Kent broke my heart for all the wrong reasons.
Then, in summer of 2016, something happened.
I became a dad.
That fall I found myself at home with a sleeping newborn and nothing to watch, so I thought I would give Snyder’s version another try; if for no other reason then I couldn’t find my copy of The Avengers.
I’ve had the experience of coming back to a novel years later with a fresh set of eyes and leaving with a different perspective, but never with a movie. Well, not until that quiet Saturday afternoon.
I’m not going to tell you that Man of Steel became my favorite movie, but I will tell you that Costner’s Jonathan Kent all of a sudden made perfect sense to me and that he has become, unequivocally, my favorite version of the character. Quite the 180, I know.
Why? Well, it’s actually quite simple, Jonathan is a father, who loves his son more than anything (and proves it by sacrificing his own life). When my son was born, like most fathers I know, an innate, almost indescribable protector mindset became hard-wired into my psyche. I saw day-to-day life in a different way. Of course, I want my son to grow, learn, love, but with every ounce of my being, I am driven to keep him safe. Upon second viewing, that is what I saw in Costner’s Jonathan Kent. Of course, he didn’t want a bus of children to drown, but he knew there would be negative ramifications, threats to his family unit, and while a loving, kind man to many, like most fathers this Jonathan prioritized the safety of his child first.
The reflection after the bus-saving scene that bothered me so much in theaters all of a sudden made sense. Clark, like all of us, wants to be told what to do; wants to be told what is right and wrong. Jon doesn’t give him an easy answer, not because he’s morally questionable, but because he knows Clark must come to these conclusions, these actions, and accept the consequences on his own. In a sense, Jonathan is keenly, sadly, aware of his own mortality in this scene, recognizing that he won’t always be there for Clark and that asking questions to help a boy grow into a young man is always more powerful and moving than dictatorial edicts of what is right or wrong. If we take a step back, we’re seeing the real struggle of a father as he realizes that in the end, the greatest hope is that you have become a lasting influence for your child- not shaping them to be a carbon copy of you, but their own person.
When I rewatched the tornado scene that originally bothered me so much I found myself, no joke, choking back the tears. Here was a father, knowing his son is capable of immense strength, but still, Clark is his son. Protecting him from exposure to a cruel world, in those final moments, is all that matters. When I first viewed the scene I was only paying attention to Clark, but really that scene is about Jonathan, and it is a beautiful, albeit painful, tribute to fatherhood. My son could grow up to be a Navy SEAL or a pro football player, but as long as I draw breath I will do everything in my power to protect my son. That is what we see when Jonathan raises his hand, silently, indicating to Clark to stay back. It’s not about logic; it’s about love.
And with that, I finally got Superman’s dad.