Spoiler Alert! The following article is rife with spoilers concerning the most recent Superman movie, Man of Steel. Please proceed with caution!
There have a been a ton of reviews of the latest Superman movie, Man of Steel, and as a life-long Superman fan, I guess it was inevitable that my voice would be heard, as well. To get a little historical context, I am not a huge comic book reader. (Well now, I am fairly huge, and sometimes I read comic books, so technically I could be a huge comic book reader. Technically.)
Growing up in a family on the lower side of the income spectrum. a regular diet of four-color action simply could not happen; there were too many other important things demanding fiscal attention, like food and electricity. As a result, my exposure to superheroes came in the form of free-to-watch network television shows like Batman, The Incredible Hulk, and Wonder Woman, supplemented by cartoons cartoons like Superfriends. Despite my comic disconnect, Superman became my favorite character very early on. Extremely early on. At two years old, I wore a Superman costume for Halloween. At five, I begged my mother to make me a cape (which she did – no towels and clothespins for me, she sewed up the real deal!). At six, Christopher Reeve starred in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which has become the standard by which all other Superman movies are judged, then followed it up with Superman II, which featured General Zod as its main villain.
So you see, even without comics, my childhood had plenty of superheroic action.
Fast forward to 2006 and the advent of Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s take on the Last Son of Krypton. Singer filed in line behind those of us who ignored Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, making his film a direct sequel to the two Donner films. I believed this to be a good choice… until I watched the movie. Singer’s Superman, played by Brandon Routh, channeled Reeve masterfully, as if possessed by the spirit of the last man to don the suit for the silver screen. (See the airplane scene; he delivers his lines at the end with the kind of good-natured punch viewers of the nearly thirty year old franchise had come to expect.) Sadly, Singer also opted for a campy take on the hero’s story, adding gravitas by proxy with the poorly tied-in tale of a son conceived with Lois Lane (who, by the way, came across as bland and whiny). Heck, even the villain turned out not to be Lex Luthor himself (believe me, Kevin Spacey’s talent was wasted on this real estate scam version of the megalomaniacal genius), but a small continent made out of kryptonite.
While some aspects of Returns spoke to exactly what the masses were looking for in a Superman film, most of it – from the writing to the acting to the sheer idiocy of Superman vs. Kryptonite Island – either fell flat or came across as heavy handed.
Another jump into the future, this time seven years from the previous film to the release of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, and I suddenly find myself given the Superman movie I have been longing for. Snyder, along with writer David Goyer, created a new spin on the classic mythos; Kal-El is not merely the Last Son of Krypton, but – and I would be remiss if I did not remind you again: spoilers lie ahead! – he contains the genetic code for all of Krypton burned into his cells; written by his father (played by Russel Crowe) into his infant genes are the blueprints to build a new Kryptonian society.
The hope – or fear – of an alien society is central to the theme of Man of Steel. Indeed, the flashbacks to Clark Kent’s childhood show a different Ma and Pa Kent than we have seen before. Rather than the father who encourages heroism, even secreted heroism, in his son, Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent fears for Clark’s future, should the world discover who he is. Ma Kent, played by Diane Lane, seems more appreciative of her adopted son’s abilities, but defers to her husband’s wishes in typical conservative Kansas fashion. Pa Kent even goes so far as to say that it might be better for Clark to let a busload of children drown rather than out himself as the most powerful single force on Earth.
I’d like to point out, Jonathan Kent is really my only sticking point, the singular problem I have with this film. His story, or his part of Superman’s story, was so radically changed in this telling as to make him a whole new character. Jenny Olson rather than Jimmy? I can handle that. No red shorts? Fine. Lois Lane knows the identity of Clark / Superman before he starts working at the Daily Planet? I can even put up with that. But shifting Jonathan Kent’s story changes the entire foundation for Superman’s true blue goodness. In the comics, Pa Kent taught Clark the morals behind being a hero – the value of other people, doing right for the sake of doing right – but not so in Man of Steel. Instead, he is timid and even lays down his life rather than have his son exposed.
Which brings me to the other problem with Kal-El’s human father. The whole point of Jonathan’s death is to show that Superman isn’t God, isn’t some omnipotent deity. The elder Kent dies of a heart attack, one of the few things from which his son could not rescue him. That said, I understand why they made the change. I just think they could have found another way to do it. Having Jonathan Kent die to a tornado while trying to save the family dog, all to protect his super-powered son – who stood only fifty feet away – is one of the heavier-handed story elements presented in the movie. Clark (Henry Cavill) says as much to Lois (Amy Adams); he let his father die because Jonathan didn’t want Clark’s powers to become public. For me, it changes the seal placed on Superman’s motivation to do good.
Doing so isn’t all bad. It gives the story some weight, and presents a challenge to a wandering Clark, who must learn who he can trust, and how to be trusted.
Now that I’ve detailed the only part of the movie that stuck in my craw, let me gush a bit. Ever since Batman Begins, or perhaps earlier, as far back as X-Men, the superhero genre has been moving away from its campy roots and into more stark realism, and Man of Steel is no exception. In fact, it may well be the ultimate realization of this progression. Just how would we react if we discovered an alien living on our world? People throw fits when they find out they have Muslim’s in the neighborhood or Mexicans crossing the border; how would we, as humans, react when we are faced with the idea of some godlike entity walking in our midst?
Snyder and Goyer nail it, and it is only because this aspect of the movie is so well thought out that I have little difficulty forgiving the issues I have with Pa Kent. But the story hits us with a one-two punch; the world has little time to digest the news of an alien among them before General Zod (rocked out by Michael Shannon) and his crew of Kryptonian revolutionaries make their entrance, demanding the people of Earth hand over Kal-El, offering threats if they do not comply. Zod’s appearance serves as a catalyst for humankind. Any curiosity, any hope the news of alien life might have carried with it, Zod shattered. Aliens became the enemy, even those who presented no clear and present threat.
As I mentioned earlier, hope and fear are central to the theme of Man of Steel. That theme is trust. Do we trust the lone alien who has been spending his adult years leaving a trail of Good Samaritan-style works in his wake? Do we trust General Zod to take Kal-El and leave? Does Superman trust humanity enough with his secret? Can we truly believe someone with this immense power can use it for all the right reasons?
The special effects are glorious. I kid you not, they made Krypton feel like a planet so utterly organic, yet so completely advanced, I found myself more interested in living there than Avatar‘s Pandora. (Well… at least for the last few days it had before imploding.) More than just the CGI, however, Snyder and company got the physics of super-powered fighting down to a science. This was one of this, “Oh, finally!” moments for me; I’ve been waiting for the kind of villain who could present a real physical challenge for Superman through far too many movies and television shows. Zod and Faora were great choices. The action is fast and wicked and over the top. It is deadly, much like the Darkseid fight after Superman’s “World of Cardboard” speech in Justice League: Unlimited. Punches knock Zod and Superman both through buildings. Downtown Metropolis is demolished. (To be fair, it was already being destroyed by Zod’s World Engine, a device designed to make Earth into a new Krypton-like world.) Neither the hero nor the villain pull punches, and neither does the action. The final sequence is forty minutes of intense action culminating in one final, difficult choice: New Krypton or Earth.
A good many reviewers have made plain their distaste for this film because it seems to wallow in some sort of dark muck. It has been called “joyless” and “grim”, lambasted for taking on too many of the more shadowy traits of the recent Batman trilogy. And while Man of Steel definitely plays as a gritty take on the most iconic superhero of all time, it is far from the dark experience of The Dark Knight Rises, there are plenty of areas written with whimsy in mind – Superman’s first few attempts at flight, for instance, or one of the final scenes, a humorous confrontation between Superman and General Swanwick of the United States Army that establishes a baseline of trust between the alien and his adopted homeworld – to keep a sense of joy hanging within reach.
All in all, Man of Steel does indeed present a grittier take on the Superman story, but between solid writing, good acting, and great special effects, there is very little that could make me happier about the film. Tying in with the core theme of the movie, the writer and director seem to be asking us what we think of them making a sequel.
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to trust you.”