Tempering the Man of Steel

I am not one who makes a habit of following Superman. I respect the challenges faced by authors who must write compelling stories for such a complex and powerful character, but other than the foundation of self-control and morality on which he is built, Superman holds little attraction for me as entertainment. All that said, I enjoyed the hell out of Man of Steel. That is the first time I can say that about a Superman movie ever. Even as a child, as much as I enjoyed seeing Reeve’s Superman fly, I had my complaints when we left the theater.

No Spoilers

Worlds of Wonder

This new take on the Superman franchise gives us two brilliantly realized worlds for the price of one. As I sat in the thundering darkness of the theater at midnight to watch the film, I was captivated by the alien visions of the world, technology, and people of Krypton, and was equally captivated by the harsh and majestic environments shown on Earth from the towering scapes of glass and steel office buildings, to the snow-capped mountains, and down into the steel grey seas. The film gives us vistas worthy of Superman, and peoples them with strongly-themed characters we should expect from the source material. 

From a gaming point of view, providing this sort of wonder through word alone is often seen as one of the greatest challenges faced by the GM. I know I wrestle with how to find the things in my players which light up at the hints and suggestions I try to provide so that they weave their own worlds around our emerging story. Long ago, when I tried to paint their imaginations for them, it was even harder – and much less fulfilling.

Sitting in the theater, I found myself pleased that although the movie has its faults, it doesn’t concern itself too much with exposition for the sake of explaining everything. While it does make nods to making sure the main threads of plot are served in explicit dialogue, it does not try to encapsulate the soul of tired and dying Krypton into a voice-over or divergent story thread. While we do get a history lecture, it lets us understand the why of things, while leaving all the gory details to the true fans to ponder, debate, and rant about. The film hints at culture and a dying race, but directs our attention at hope for new life and new ways.


The part of the film I expect to cause the strongest reactions in the viewing audience is why the victims and survivors of Krypton, Superman included, do what they do. A good portion of it is seemingly indefensible, particularly if a favorite vision of these characters has been steamrolled into a different form by the creative team.

Some may wonder about Zod and his quest for vengeance. Is that all it is? Some may wonder about the secrecy and fear of the Kents. Is that really who they are? As when gaming, I think we should not forget to ask, ‘If this were real, how would I feel were I in their shoes? What would I do?”

We are given a god’s eye view of proceedings, but each character is mired in their own limited perspective, clouded by their own thoughts and biases, and held on a course by the momentum of their past behavior. It is the heroes which can overcome that momentum, it is the heroes who grow into something more than they were and come to help us do battle with the things which bind us.

Often in gaming, the search for motivation is tied too closely to what ‘is really going on’ and perhaps not often enough for what is going on for the character. This does not mean that all games must devolve into soap operas or teen relationship dramas, or we must give voice to the inner lives of our characters, but it does suggest that time spent on the real meaning of, ‘my character would not do that,’ can have merit.


How do you challenge Superman? We all know at least some of the answers to this question, but it is oft-asked for a reason. For this film, the creators have chosen a fairly obvious route, but for me at least, a refreshing way to travel it. Interestingly, the biggest threat faced by anyone in the film is fear. From small town priests, to leaders of war on a global stage, fear comes to each character and asks them a question: “Who are you, really?”

Returning to gaming, how often do we take the opportunity to really explore simple, pervasive, and powerful themes and give each character in the setting a chance to pass through the lens of that theme and be examined? How often do we let events drive story and give shape to plot instead of decisions, and more importantly the reasons for those decisions? How often do we do so while letting the reactions to what we see stay open to interpretation?

In this film I was engaged in watching Clark Kent undergo a tempering process into the Man of Steel. This journey is made explicit to us, but this focused examination also opens us up to interpreting the lives of the other characters in our own ways. Superman leads the way, and reveals something about ourselves – inspiring us, if we will be open to it.


2 Responses to “Tempering the Man of Steel”
  1. anarkeith says:

    Nice review. I’ve read some complaints about the film, but those are focused on other aspects. Your observations have me thinking about the intent of the filmmakers, and whether the points you’ve made here are more what they intended it to be about.

    That said, I also like the idea of looking for ways for our game stories to reveal things about our characters. I think one of the reasons I play RPGs is to share my character and learn about others.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I think there is a balance between appreciation of character, and of story. I wonder at the breakdown of preference among gamers for sticking with a bad story if they have a good character, and vice versa.

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