Comic book writer Mark Waid, author of the fantastic Superman origin story Birthright, penned his own fairly negative review of the film on his blog, after being left "heartbroken" by a midnight screening. But aside from his criticisms, he acknowledged with humility how Snyder's Christopher Nolan produced, David S Goyer scripted movie takes elements from his own telling of the origin story - from visual cues (like the transition from baby Kal-El's spaceship entering Earth's atmosphere to adult Clark Kent - not yet Superman - saving lives) to plot points (Lois Lane scouring the globe writing stories about Superman her editors don't want to publish) and whole chunks of dialogue. And this is true: the film does lift entire elements from Birthright to an almost distracting degree.
So it becomes very telling that when the film takes whole chunks of important dialogue and bonding moments between Clark and his mothers and gender swaps them in favour of male characters. For instance (and these are just a few examples gleaned from quickly flicking through the book again this morning)...
The history of the golden age of planet Krypton is depicted in the film - via a strange, metallic animated background - as quite a traditionally militaristic and very masculine affair. A page from birthright, below (shoddily photographed by me), shows the same historical events: but note ALL the warriors are female. It's a double-page spread and, as you might be able to make out, there's yet another female soldier in the bottom left-hand corner, on the fold. This isn't explicitly mentioned in the text - it's never commented on. It just seems to operate on the logic that Krypton is an alien planet, so who is to say they have adopted the same gender norms? Kudos to Waid and artist Leinil Yu.
Remember in the movie how Jonathan Kent tells Clark that he's the answer to the question of whether or not we're alone in the universe? In Birthright, guess who has that line:
That's right! It's mum. The same mum who, in the film, says and does practically nothing - aside from getting intimated by the bad guy (Michael Shannon's General Zod) and requiring rescue. After which she's completely forgotten about. In fact, Clark leaves her with a bunch of Zod's henchmen and doesn't ever go back to check on her. It's a miracle she survives, because movie Superman's priority in that scene seems to be "punch Zod" rather than "rescue mum".
In any case, Costner's Jonathan Kent gets all of Matha's key dialogue and character moments from Birthright - whilst retaining all his own - and the film is similarly skewed towards the male characters when it comes to the Krypton parents.
In the film, you may recall, it's Crowe's Jor-El who has the courage, scientific genius, emotional detachment and sense of perspective to send his baby son into space toward Earth, and off his doomed planet. Lara presses some buttons to initiate the launch, whilst Crowe has a pointless fist-fight with Zod (action! Please don't be bored kids!), but otherwise she's pretty passive and primarily ruled by emotion. And, when it comes to making the big decision, it's her who is portrayed as reluctant to send the baby into space - whilst Crowe is left to man-up and gets things done.
Here's how the exact same beat plays out in Waid's comic book (below):
That's right: the opposite way. Lara is the strong one, not ruled by emotion, with the courage and hope to send her son into the unknown, rather than leave him to certain doom with them on Krypton. It's Jor-El who wavers in a way that a male movie star apparently can't. Wouldn't that have been interesting in the film? But Russell Crowe had to be shown as the strong one who 1) got things done and 2) actually advanced the story. In the comic it's Lara who actually initiates the entire plot. In essence, she creates Superman as we know him, sending him to our world. And then, on Earth, it's Martha who helps create the man he becomes: the caring, selfless hero and saviour of mankind (incidentally the film makes it very clear - through the line "I'm as American as it gets" - that Superman belongs to the US and not to us). She encourages him and has unshakable faith in him, even whilst Jonathan gives air to doubt.
In fact, part of Martha's role in the comic book is in creating her son's costume and helping to fabricate his nebbish Clark Kent cover identity - both things rendered obsolete in this latest film adaptation, that presumably thought an outfit designed by the hero's mum wouldn't play as especially cool. Instead, in the film, the iconic outfit (or at least a muted and dour incarnation) is bestowed upon him by a holographic Jor-El. That's right: a long-dead father is more useful and relevant in this film than his living mother.
I bring the comic up for direct comparison because it seems clear it was a basis for much of what happens in 'Man of Steel' - and the gender swapping here seems consciously done in favour of the male characters. You can decide whether that's a symbol of patriarchy or the need to give Crowe/Costner more screentime, but either way, I hope you agree: it's pretty rubbish.
Oh and SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!: the film's version of Martha Kent sends her husband INTO THE TORNADO THAT KILLS HIM in order to rescue the family dog. And she's not even shown to feel bad about that. She's a truly wretched character.
Review to follow.