Zach Snyder and David S Goyer’s 2011 film Man of Steel and Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origin both tell the origin story of the titular character, Superman. To make sure everyone is on the same page, let’s do a quick recap of the part of Superman’s origin that stays consistent through both of these stories, as well as most iterations of the character. On the far away planet of Krypton, Jor-El and his wife Lara-El send their son, Kal-El, away to planet Earth because of their planet’s imminent destruction. They choose Earth due to the species looking identical to the people of Krypton, as well as the fact that Earth’s yellow sun will make their son powerful. The boy arrives on Earth and is found/adopted by John and Marth Kent, named Clark, and raised in the town of Smallville, Kansas. Clark grows up and eventually moves to the fictional city of Metropolis where he becomes a reporter at the Daily Planet and the superhero… Superman.
Both Man of Steel and Secret Origin tell this story effectively, in fact, Goyer based a lot of his script on Secret Origin; however, these stories could not be more different. The execution of these stories systematically creates two different characters that both call themselves Superman, depicting one as a savior/prophet, and the other as an altruistic hero.
Man of Steel immediately starts with the destruction of Krypton. Goyer chose to show this immediately to cement three very important things within the narrative, General Zod as the villain, the importance of Jor-El as a character, and the fact that Superman is an alien. This is the most immediate difference between Man of Steel and Secret Origin. Throughout the film, Superman will be constantly reminded of the fact that he is not from Earth. In contrast, Secret Origin constantly has characters reminding Clark that it is his humanity that truly defines him. This results in the dramatic split between two characters: Man of Steel’s Superman who sees himself as the outcast, yet savior for humanity, hiding on Earth under the guise of Clark Kent, and Secret Origin’s Superman who is first and foremost Clark Kent, while using his Superman persona as a beacon of hope for humanity.
Both the film and comic choose to use the idea of a tornado coming through Smallville as a way to help Clark figure out the person he wants to be in the future. In Man of Steel, the tornado strikes the town and Clark notices that his dog is trapped in a car, requiring someone to run into the storm to free it. Clark knows that he is the only one who can save the dog and survive and attempts to go. He is stopped by his father, John, who reminds him that once he reveals his powers to the world, he can never turn back. John then runs to the car, freeing the dog, and is killed after being swept away by the tornado. While John is shown earlier telling Clark about his fears regarding the reveal of his powers, this is the point in the film that cements the idea in Clarks mind that the public will fear him for the alien he truly is.
The tornado scene in Secret Origin plays out much differently. The tornado comes while Clark is with his friend Lana. He wastes no time in grabbing Lana and protecting her from the storm, while also learning to fly in the process. Clark returns home after the incident and tells his parents that he can fly and that he wants to use his powers to save people. John and Martha embrace this idea, helping Clark create his Superman costume, cementing him as a hero. This is a clear difference from the film, as the incident with the tornado results in Clark learning the important lesson of the responsibility that comes with the immense powers he has. In addition, instead of frightening Clark from using his powers for good, his parents embrace them. Secret Origin does have John and Martha explain to Clark that the world seeing his powers will change everything; however, this idea is presented in a positive light, reminding Clark that once the world discovers him, he has to embrace his responsibility.
After John Kent’s death in Man of Steel, the story begins to take its biggest step away from Secret Origin. Both stories go in the direction of showing how Clark starts to learn how to use his powers for good. Man of Steel does an excellent job of keeping its Superman consistent throughout the film. This is a Superman who has just seen his father die to protect his secret. At this point in his life he decides that he is going to try and figure out more about what he is and where he comes from. He also is shown using his powers to save people with an excellent scene where he saves the crew of a collapsing oil drilling station. Secret Origin’s Superman continues to fight for justice in his home town but is shown to be ostercised by his classmates due to him dropping out of sports he was involved in so he could hide and not abuse his extraordinary abilities. He then meets the future team, The Legion of Superheroes, who take him to the future and allow him to use his powers freely, while also allowing him to be his full self around them.
In both of these instances we see Clark being heroic. While these may be two completely different characters, they are still Superman, the man who will always fight for truth and justice. We can also see how Man of Steel further shows Clark embracing his alien heritage by looking for more knowledge of his people. Both Man of Steel and Secret Origins have a character who feels alienated by the people around him and looks for people like him. Secret Origin’s introduction of the Legion further distances Clark from his feeling of alienation by showing him that there are others like him, giving him hope.
Following Clark’s heroics at the oil drilling station in Man of Steel, Goyer has him start working for a research team where he is introduced to Lois Lane, this is also where this version of Superman will receive that same “hope” that the Secret Origin version had received by the Legion. Clark ends up finding a crashed Kryptonian ship that, after interacting with it, reveals a hologram of Jor-El. This hologram is highly advanced and is able to interact with Clark, allowing him to not only have a new father figure, but also provides that “Hope” he needs. Jor-El even provides Clark with the traditional Superman suit, further cementing the concept of this version of the character finding more connection with his alien roots than his human roots. Jor-El also tells Clark that the “S” symbol on the suit stands for hope. It’s aso at this point of the film that Jor-El tells Clark that he sent him to Earth knowing that he would gain amazing powers, and that his purpose is to guide the people of Earth further as their savior. Now this paints the two depictions of Superman in very different lights. Man of Steel’s Superman is sent to Earth to be their savior, whereas Secret Origin’s Superman is sent to Earth embraces his abilities to become a hero.
Many people will argue that this doesn’t matter, pointing to the fact that he was already saving people before he found this out, it is apparent that this character would have been a hero regardless of if that was his purpose or not. The main difference that cannot be ignored though, is that the reason Man of Steel Superman decides to go public is because of his discovery of his new found purpose. When General Zod attacks earth later in the film, demanding that Clark reveal himself, Clark does so because of the words spoken to him by his Kryptonian father. His Earth parents were holding him back, whereas his Kryptonian parents provided the push he needed to reveal himself. Compare this to Secret Origin, where Clark has been warned by his parents that revealing himself to the world cannot be redone, but he does it with no hesitation when he sees Lois Lane falling from a building. This Superman received the same warning that his Man of Steel counterpart did, however he knew that saving Lois was more important than keeping a secret.
While both iterations of the character have different reasons for revealing themselves, they both aren’t entirely sure whether revealing themselves was a mistake or not. In Secret Origin, Superman has no doubt that rescuing Lois was the right thing to do, but he isn’t sure how the public feels about him. It’s actually Jimmy Olsen, the photographer for the Daily Planet, that shows Superman that he’ll be ok. He shows Clark that the public won’t automatically be on his side, but through friendship and showing the public that he is a hero, things will work out. This lesson is similarly taught to Clark in Man of Steel but through Lois Lane rather than Jimmy. Lois is also on the ship when Superman finds the hologram of his dad. She is attacked by the ship’s security and Superman saves her. She tracks him down to Smallville right before he reveals himself to the world when Zod attacks. He tells her his story and she decides that she won’t report on it because of how personal it is to him. Her friendship, a lot like Jimmy’s in Secret Origin, give Clark a reason to believe things will be ok.
Since Man of Steel ends after Superman’s fight with Zod and his subsequent hiring at the Daily Planet, we will have to look a bit into the sequel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, in order to further explore how these origins defined their characters. This is important because this is where we see Superman butting heads with Lex Luthor, a major plot point in Secret Origin. Both versions of Lex Luthor have it out for Superman and attempt to find ways to destroy him. In Batman V Superman, we can see that Luthor’s main frustration seems to be that the world sees Superman as a god. In Secret Origin, Luthor goes against Superman because he is jealous of his power, and wants it for himself. Both versions agree, if they cannot have Superman’s power, they will destroy him. While Lex’s plan is very different in both mediums, the core concepts stay practically the same. Lex wants to convince a powerful person that Superman is the enemy and cause them to fight one another. In both circumstances he has armed Superman’s adversary with his only weakness, Kryptonite, knowing that the ensuing fight will result in Superman’s death. Both of these conflicts end with Superman defeating the enemy and stopping Lex’s scheme, earning him the utmost admiration of the public and discrediting Luthor. The stark contrast comes when looking at why Superman’s win is so impactful.
In Secret Origin, Superman defeats Lex’s superpowered soldier, Metallo and then is confronted by the U.S Military who attempt to place him under arrest. The citizens of Metropolis throw bottles at the soldiers and yell at them for villainizing the man who just stopped this crazed lunatic. While they argue Superman puts his hands out and asks them both to stop. He tells them that he is not some amazing savior, but instead he is just a man who uses his gifts to make everyone else’s lives better. He then asks the people in the crowd to use their own unique gifts to do the same, and the world would be a better place for it. He then confronts Lex and tells him that he will no longer allow him to feed on the livelihoods of the people of Metropolis. Lex wakes up the next day expecting to see the people of the city waiting at the gates of his factory like usual, to see no one there. Superman effectively wins the trust of the people while also destroying Lex on a moral level.
In Batman V Superman this all goes down very differently. Superman is able to convince Batman that Lex has orchestrated their conflict which results in Lex letting loose his Frankenstein creation of Doomsday. Superman, Batman, and the newly arrived Wonder Woman attempt to defeat the creature but he appears to overpower all of them. Because Doomsday was made using the dead body of the Man of Steel villain, General Zod, Superman realizes that his weaknesses will be the same as the creatures. Superman flies at Doomsday with a Kryptonite spear and is able to impale the creature but only as he impales himself as well. The fight ends with Superman dead but he was able to defeat the creature. The citizens of the world who were unsure about the trustworthiness of Superman now accept him as their savior, erecting statues of him, and mourning him. Luthor is arrested by the police, losing all public respect he had, and is crowned a villain. This solidifies the Christ allegory for Superman, mirroring the story of Jesus’s death in the Bible. This allegory continues in Zack Snyder’s Justice League when Superman returns.
After diving deep into each of Superman’s origins, seeing how their pasts defined their futures, and watching these characters both defeat their most famous adversary, it is clear that these characters could not be more different. The Man of Steel Superman fully embraces the religious allegories while Secret Origin Superman is defined by his teacher to humanity. Instead of trying to be a God to the world, this Superman aims to inspire the people to do better themselves. He uses his special powers to fight for humanity when they aren’t able to do it themselves, and attempts to solve conflicts on moral grounds rather than physical grounds. Most of all, he strives to be a hero of the people rather than one that stands above them to guide them.
The concept of making Superman into a Christ allegory who is supposed to guide humanity takes away almost all of the relatability of the character, replacing it with divination. That is not to say that this version of Superman is any worse than his comic counterpart; however he is a vastly different character.
It would have been interesting to see how the Man of Steel Superman further developed if the Snyderverse had not been replaced. Superman as a religious allegory is an interesting concept, yet many fans will agree that the lack of humanity in the character really takes away from the core concepts of Superman. Either way, your mileage may vary. Superman has transcended beyond being just a character, and widely is considered to be a part of today’s cultural zeitgeist. Whether you look at him as an god, alien, or just a boy from Kansas, Superman is only as meaningful as the way a creator depicts him.