Alright. Alright. It’s been five years. Let’s revisit MAN OF STEEL, shall we? And let’s talk about adoption.

It’s been five years, and the newly christened Worlds of DC has seen the release of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, WONDER WOMAN, and JUSTICE LEAGUE. They’ve given us trailers for AQUAMAN and SHAZAM. We know FLASHPOINT is in the works. Let’s take a step back and re-examine Zack Snyder’s 2013 summer blockbuster that launched DC into a new era.

Adoption: MAN OF STEEL poster
The poster from DC’s MAN OF STEEL

Let’s examine MAN OF STEEL as an adoption story.  The Superman myth is an adoption story, isn’t it?  Jonathan and Martha Kent find an abandoned infant in their field and take him in as one of their own, that’s adoption any way you slice it. Excluding the alien bit, it’s a story that a lot of people can relate to. Adoption is, in fact, a real-world phenomenon.

MAN OF STEEL is an adoption story. Deborah Snyder, the film’s producer, and Zack Snyder’s wife agrees with me. In a 2013 interview with SFX magazine, she remarked that the Superman story really is the greatest adoption story of all time. And if the adoption narrative is going to be familiar to anyone, it’s going to be familiar to Zack and Deborah Snyder, who adopted two little girls from China in the nineties. It’s also, incidentally, going to be familiar to me. In 2009 my parents and I adopted a little girl named [REDACTED] from China.

[REDACTED] vs. Clark Kent: Almost the Same Adoption Story (With a Few Key Differences)

Adoption comes with its own tangle of issues. My family, and my kid sister, in particular, has to wade through this tangle just like Clark and the Kents do. Although the particulars of my sister and Clark’s situation are necessarily different, the unifying factor of adoption means they’re stories have several things in common.

The Similarities

Both my sister and Clark wrestle with abandonment. Their biological parents left them. The mechanics of the abandonment (shot into a spaceship, left on an orphanage’s doorstep) are different, but the principle is the same. And the abandonment issues that my sister and almost every other adopted child face will not be unfamiliar to Clark. The anxieties of being left by what is supposed to be a constant in a child’s life are essentially the same.

Additionally, Clark’s struggle with his identity parallels that of my sister. The question of where he comes from is huge throughout the film. We see his inner conflict over the Kryptonian vs, Human of Earth dilemma almost constantly. The dual heritage is something my sister will also face, with her warring selves being Chinese or American. The differences are racial, whereas in Clark’s case they’re biological, but they’re similar. Where do they belong, how can they reconcile these disparate parts of themselves?

This is not to say that they cannot be both. Characters are complex, and one of the great enduring things about Superman is we usually see him marry his Kryptonian heritage with his human upbringing. Still, both he and my sister must decide how much of their biological parents’ culture they want to integrate into their daily lives.

Krypton, You’re Dead. Get Yourself Buried.

Isolation From the New Family

The uncertainty, as well as a significant difference between my sister and Clark and their respective families, segues into isolation. The differences here are enormous and the barrier they create between the child and their families is nothing to sneeze at. Clark is a different species from his parents, my sister is a different race from her family. The Kents will never understand Clark’s experience as a literal alien, it is wholly unknown to them.

Similarly, my parents and I will never understand my sister’s experience as an Asian-American. The three of us are distinctly white, she is not. My sister will definitely experience racism and xenophobia that I will not understand. Just like Clark, her isolation from us is unwavering.

Significantly, this isolation is something all transracially adopted kids can relate to. Along with the abandonment and identity issues, MAN OF STEEL had the tools to tell a spectacular story about a Superhero who was adopted. To give other adopted children a chance to feel seen.

Unfortunately, the story it tells about adoption is not spectacular.

MAN OF STEEL: A Chronicle of Bad Adoptive Parenting

The main difference between my sister and Clark in MAN OF STEEL isn’t even the alien stuff, it’s the parents. Simply put, my parents know how to be good adoptive parents, and in Zack Snyder’s movie, the Kents don’t. 

Anxieties are running high for adopted children. The fear of abandonment, the acute sense of isolation, all contribute to a different, more fearful mental state on behalf of adopted children. This isn’t to say that non-adopted children don’t have their own issues, or that adopted children are confined to these problems and will deal with nothing else.

Every kid has his or her own challenges, and every adopted kid is different and thus will have or not have these problems differently. But the specific traumas of abandonment and identity confusion tend to pop up with adopted kids, and parents need to actively work to assuage these fears rather than outright stoke them. Adoptive parents need to make a conscious effort to make the child feel loved and included.

Neither of these two things happen in Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL. Nowhere in the film do we see Jonathan and Martha Kent tell their adopted son that they love him. They do, however, seem to go out of their way to make him feel isolated and unlike them.

Some Moments Throughout The Film During Which I Gritted My Teeth

The trauma of being abandoned looms large in adopted children’s psyches. It also creates conflict between the biological parents and the new, adoptive parents. The confusion makes sense, as most adoptive parents, especially those of transracial adoption, need to address the question of the child’s birth at some point. Here is where the questions about biological vs. adoptive parent come up.

When kids voice these anxieties it’s important to reassure them instantly that the adoptive parents are the ‘real’ parents. Jonathan does the literal opposite of this. Five minutes shy of an hour into the movie, Clark Kent circa seventeen years old screams “You’re not my real Dad!” into Jonathan’s face.

A Few Seconds of a Good Portrayal

Interestingly enough, the “you’re not my real Dad!” business isn’t what gets my hackles up. This actually might be the most realistic portrayal of adoption in the film. Kids are cruel when they want to be, and say hurtful things to their parents just to make them bleed. My sister hasn’t hit us with the “you’re not my real family” but yet, but to be honest I’m sort of waiting for it.

It’s said to hurt, but it’s also indicative of, surprise, abandonment issues. The fear that they’re not his real family is real. This is a prime opportunity on Jonathan’s part to reassure his son that this isn’t the case.

Adoption: MAN OF STEEL Small Clark
Small Clark was definitely my favorite part of the movie, which is why I’m so mad Jonathan hurts him

Unfortunately, he responds horrifically. “Clark has a point,” he says to Martha, who has started to admonish Clark (go Martha). “We’re not your parents.”

Adoptive parents should never tell their children that they are not their real parents. That’s a mistake. It’s taking the seeds of abandonment that every single adopted kid feels and throwing logs onto the fire. Jonathan has just confirmed the thing that lies quietly in adopted kid’s minds, that their parents aren’t really theirs.

There’s a ‘but’ in Jonathan’s sentence. It doesn’t do much, but it’s there. Jonathan’s full sentence is “Clark has a point. We’re not your parents. But we’ve been doing the best we can.” That isn’t enough. Full stop. The reassurance of “we’ve been doing the best we can” is not enough to undo a father saying to his child

“we are not your parents.”

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An Example of What Jonathan Should Have Said

Snyder’s Jonathan Kent is a terrible adoptive father, period. Luckily, my Dad is a great adoptive parent. After watching the aforementioned scene in the truck my father was just as horrified as I was. (I made him watch MAN OF STEEL for research purposes. I’m not sure he’ll ever forgive me, he’s never going to get that time back.)

Here is what my father would say if my sister were to scream “you’re not my real Dad!” in his face.

[REDACTED]: You’re not my real Dad!

My Father: We’re not your biological mother and father, but we’re your parents. We’re your parents and we love you and we’re going to do what’s best for you.

Reassurance oozing, my Dad knows how to be a good dad. A crucial difference between my father’s hypothetical response and Jonathan’s onscreen words is that my father makes it clear that he is always acting in my sister’s best interest, whereas Jonathan leaves that out. And is sure to add that it’s coming from a place of love, and yes, that he is my sister’s father.

Let’s take a moment to remember that a lot of adopted kids are going to identify with Clark. He struggles with what they struggle with. Furthermore, he’s one of the most popular characters of all time, period, and fairly early on in the film, they learn he’s adopted, just like they are. And they just watched Superman’s dad say he wasn’t his dad. Jonathan isn’t just heightening Clark’s fears, with this scene Snyder runs the risk of increasing those anxieties of every adopted kid who might watch this film. 

Another Moment in the Film During Which I Gritted My Teeth

The scene in the truck was the one that made me furious. The one that broke my heart, however, was the one in which we see Clark learn about his real past, that he came to Earth on a spaceship.

The Bare Bones of the Scene

Teenage Clark has just saved a school bus full of children from drowning in a lake. A reverently grateful parent of one of the would-be victims comes over to the farmhouse to discuss Clark’s apparent act of God with the Kent’s. Jonathan has to remind Clark that this kind of attention is dangerous and that he needs to keep this side of himself a secret or else the government will take note. Clark asks why he has these abilities, why he’s like this at all.

In response, Jonathan reveals for the first time that his son is from somewhere off world. When showing Clark the spaceship he landed in, Jonathan says “It’s not from this world, son. And neither are you. You’re the answer, son. You’re the answer to are we alone in the universe.”

To which Clark says “I don’t want to be.”

Jonathan agrees that Clark is in a difficult position but then tries to explain how he feels about it. “I have to believe that you were sent here for a reason,” and then starts theorizing why Clark’s biological father might have sent him to Earth. He ends this speech by saying “you’re going to have to make a choice, Clark, of whether to stand proudly in front of the human race or not.”

Clark, while mulling this over, asks “Can’t I just keep pretending to be your son?”

Jonathan: “You are my son.”

End scene.

“Can’t I Just Keep Pretending to Be Your Son?”

There’s a lot to break down in this scene. Like I said before, every adopted kid feels isolated from their new family and Jonathan just turned that fear up by about a thousand. Yes, this does come right after Clark almost blows his cover and brings the whole government swarming down on Smallville. Jonathan needs to ensure Clark understands the risks of using his powers publicly and tempering that warning with a sense of belonging in a family is difficult. Still, what breaks my heart about this scene is that Jonathan has made Clark feel so vulnerable and alone that he asks if he is allowed to be his father’s son.

Adoption: MAN OF STEEL Clark Kent, Martha Kent
This isn’t the scene in question I just love Diane Lane

There’s a very real possibility that this is the first time Clark learns he’s not his parents’ biological child. The dialogue leaves this unclear. If this is the first time he hears he’s adopted, a traumatic moment of heightened difference between himself and his peers (his powers) is infinitely worsened by the realization that he wasn’t born of his parents. “We found you in this,” Jonathan says. Clark wasn’t born, he was found. That’s another way he’s different from every other kid on the school bus, they’re all “really” their parents’ children, and he’s not.

Fears of Isolation Multiplied

The anxieties of difference increase when his father tells him he’s a literal, bona fide alien. He is telling his son that he is irrevocably other.  Finding out you’re an alien must be terrifying. Because it’s two punches. He learns he’s not human, and not only that, nobody knows what he is. There’s nothing quite so terrifying as the unknown.

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Clark doesn’t know anything about himself anymore, everything he thought was true is now something he can’t count on. And where he clearly needs reassurance Jonathan meets him with further uncertainty. By invoking another father Jonathan is reinforcing Clark’s fears. Clark is not a part of this family, he has another one somewhere. The only life he’s known is with the Kents, but his father is telling him otherwise. He’s not a part of this family, just like he’s not a part of this world.

That feeling of being isolated from your own family is something adopted kids can definitely identify with. Snyder’s movie could have redeemed itself if it featured the Kents reassuring Clark that this isolation was entirely false. It didn’t, and this absence as well has the prominence of the difference between Clark and his adoptive family likely makes adopted children watching feel small.

Final Thoughts on MAN OF STEEL

The newest Superman movie could have told an incredible story about adoption, a theme which doesn’t get a lot of airtime. Unfortunately, the adoptive parents in the film were so terrible that a good adoption narrative just wasn’t in the cards. This is, in my opinion, part of what made the movie so awful or at least was a huge contributing factor.

Representation Matters

The moral of the story is what’s becoming a familiar refrain: representation of adoption matters. It matters so kids can connect with characters onscreen and feel they’re not alone, and it matters so the idea of adoption becomes more and more popular. Content creators across the board are stepping up to the plate and putting out some incredible media that deals with one or more of these issues. But we need more.

MAN OF STEEL, Zack Snyder’s superhero movie with a $225 million budget, could have properly represented both parents who chose to adopt and a story about an adopted child. It didn’t do either, and probably did more harm than good.

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