For years, there has existed a sharp divide between hardcore and casual superhero fans. You’d often hear the latter group complaining that Superman, the first true superhero and arguably the best, was dull, dated, and too powerful to relate to. I can’t entirely fault those with that outlook – 2006’s Superman Returns, intended to re-establish the influence of the classic 1978 Richard Donner Superman, featured a Man of Steel that was indeed dull, dated, and too powerful to relate to. Fans of the comics and TV incarnations, however, knew that America’s greatest modern mythology had evolved well beyond the hackneyed convention of Returns. They knew there existed the potential for a great modern superhero adaptation, an entertaining and enlightening film exhibiting the leaps and bounds (or rather, aerial mileage) the character had covered since the late ‘70s. That film has finally arrived, and has since become perhaps the biggest, most talked-about release of the season. To those Superman fans pre-Man of Steel, give yourselves a hearty pat on the back for predicting right.
I’ll stay out of the group back-pat for now. Those of you who’ve been following my blog for any length of time knew well my severe anxiety towards this film before its release. I’ve said a lot of things to quell my excitement, maintaining reasonable doubt to shield from bitter disappointment. I’ve also said I would be the first to admit I was wrong if the film was actually any good. Today, I’m very happy to be able to do so.
Man of Steel opens with the screams of a woman in labor. This is Lara (Ayelet Zurer), at her side her husband Jor-El (Russell Crowe), newly christened parents of Kal-El, all citizens of Krypton, a planet facing impending destruction. But this is not the subtle, crystalized, Kubrickian Krypton of Donner’s film, but a world of bizarre, advanced alien culture and technology. We quickly cut to Jor-El chastising the planet’s council of elders for their lack of foresight in preventing the planet’s doom. Quicker still, the ruthless General Zod (Michael Shannon) bursts in and announces his plans to take over the government. Even quicker still, we watch Jor-El fly through Krypton on a pterodactyl-like creature, steal a small skull-shaped device called the Codex, which contains the entirety of the planet’s knowledge and culture, and imbue it into his infant son, before rocketing him to Earth to make his own destiny. Meanwhile, Zod’s coup is undone and he is banished to the Phantom Zone, after which the planet is destroyed in a fiery explosion. Enjoying the movie yet? If not, don’t worry. The sequence is ultimately the polar opposite of Donner’s Krypton – a trivial, non-stop CGI lightshow that’s neither emotionally charged nor particularly memorable, an all-too familiar flaw of director Zack Snyder’s past work.
Thankfully and refreshingly, Snyder’s excess takes a backseat as we settle in for the Earth scenes, where an adult Kal-El, raised Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), has been taking odd jobs around the world, each time helping people by using his powers, and every time having to move onto another job for fear of being discovered. It’s a dynamic that mirrors the opening sequences of 2005’s Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne was also bearded, travelling internationally, and finding himself via flashback. In several of these flashbacks, we see Clark growing up on his adopted family farm in Smallville, Kansas, where he struggles to control his new senses, among them super-hearing and X-Ray vision. The new powers frighten him while he’s in the middle of class, forcing Ma Kent (Diane Lane) to come in and help him learn to control them. It doesn’t help that Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) tells him he has to keep his powers a secret, be the better man, and turn the other cheek until he feels the world is ready for him. These scenes work well to demonstrate not only how Clark gained his moral structure, but the constant sacrifice in keeping such incredible powers at bay.
Indeed, people who aren’t Superman fans often argue that Supes isn’t nearly as compelling as characters like Batman or Wolverine, because the latter two are unpredictable and fallible, mere mortals who bend morality like rubber. With Superman, they argue, there’s no tension, because you always know in the end he’s going to do the right thing. In reality, that’s exactly what makes Superman so compelling – what does it take for someone to sacrifice their own life every day, just to keep the world safe for complete strangers? What burden does relative infallibility and an undying impulse to save lives carry? Happily, writer David S. Goyer poses these very questions of the character in his script.
Hot on adult Clark’s trail is Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who traces the hermit’s footsteps via his old jobs in the hopes of telling his story to the world. It’s a clever change-up to the characters’ expected romantic dynamic, and serves as a great example of how the film shatters many preconceived notions and age-old conventions of the mythology, while still remaining largely faithful to it. Meanwhile, Zod and his cohorts, having escaped from the Phantom Zone, discover Kal-El’s presence on Earth and threaten to destroy the entire planet, in its place building a new Krypton using the codex imbued in Clark. Clark now faces a decision – is it finally time to reveal himself to the rest of the world?
Man of Steel is the near-perfect Superman for the 21st Century, thanks to Goyer’s strong, action-packed script. It’s a rather brilliant amalgamation of elements from the best Superman stories post-1986, yet still a wholly modern, Goyer-esque take on the character that feels fresh and stands apart from all previous Superman material. As with his script for Batman Begins, Goyer takes the core of the title protagonist – played surprisingly well by Cavill, who not only physically matches Superman but also nails his heroic, down-to-earth persona – and boils him down to a more tangible, cynical universe. For better or worse, this is a more serious, less colorful, and even at times shocking portrayal of the Last Son of Krypton. Kudos also to producer Christopher Nolan, whose footprints all are over the film, for lending the film his stamp of approval. It’s the Batman filmmaker’s ability to keep so much behind the curtain up until a film’s release, and then make even the most predictable outcomes throughout the film feel fresh and exciting, that makes him such a pervasive influence on the industry.
About midway through the film, the US military enters to take control of the alien situation. I’ve criticized their presence in recent Superman comics, mainly because they only exist as antagonists for the hero, treating him as if he were a misunderstood monster like the Hulk, not the humanoid, English-speaking, perfectly normal-looking guy that he is. Man of Steel is the first time I’ve seen them used properly – here, they are not malicious, xenophobic morons who automatically distrust Superman, but are merely cautious of him, only distrusting him out of need to protect their country. The film ponders the idea of trust between both Superman and the military, neither side knowing whether or not the other will truly do what they say they will. In the end, the film shows that these men and women represent the best of us, the people who, if occasionally mistake-prone, are the core of the fighting spirit and undying desire for justice that America prides itself on. The patriotic philosophy wisely sidesteps cheesy, in-your-face flag-waving, showing rather than telling how Superman appeals to the best of humanity.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why so many different filmmakers – Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), Duncan Jones (Source Code), and Guillermo Del Toro (Blade II) among them – passed on directing Man of Steel; they would’ve been executing Goyer’s take, not their own. Any additions these auteurs might’ve wanted to make would’ve entailed a page one rewrite, something Warner was likely unwilling to do given the script’s narrative strengths. Thus, Zack Snyder, far from an auteur, was likely hired in part because his insubstantial style would bring the balls-to-the-wall action fans craved, in addition to adapting the prepackaged Goyer script without unraveling its unique approach. Still, I can’t help but feel a better director, one that perhaps hadn’t directed three flops in a row for the studio, could’ve made an even better film in his own vein and still retained Goyer’s vision.
As it stands, Snyder brings with him an equal share of pluses and minuses. For one, his design for the classic red-and-blue suit and Kryptonian technology work well. Snyder also ably brings the script’s epic, heavyweight conflict to life, with every punch, every insurmountable obstacle realized on a massive scale. Scenes of Clark learning to fly are perhaps the best, most spellbinding sequences of the film; I believed a man could fly more than I ever have before. And from a technical standpoint, there’s little if anything to complain about – we have an excellent score from Hans Zimmer that proves the composer isn’t limited to “dark” films, and easily the best 3D conversion work I’ve seen on a film yet.
But the director’s affinity for handheld shots and almost all medium close-up shots feels claustrophobic compared to the lingering, natural imagery of Donner’s film. And with the director’s over-the-top, CGI-fueled visuals comes an obnoxious sense of self-satisfaction; observe Supes and Zod’s lengthy battle through Metropolis, wherein countless buildings come toppling down in the Kryptonians’ wake, to the point where I’m wondering what exactly Snyder’s got against tall buildings. Luckily, the action occasionally, and only just overextends its boundaries; the director’s trademark indulgence isn’t quite enough to break the film.
Directorial faults aside, Man of Steel is still missing a crucial piece of the puzzle – charm. Fun. Child-like wonder. This Superman doesn’t so much save cats from trees as bellow at his foes and drag them against the dirt. Goyer’s humorlessness robs the Superman universe of its general light-heartedness, keeping the film from truly capturing the full essence of the mythology. And there’s certainly plenty of room for humor here, perhaps more banter between the abrasive Lois and the good-natured Clark. Even Goyer’s own Batman Begins script seemed to have more winking, wry humor than Man of Steel, and when Batman’s having more fun than Supes, it’s a problem.
The film’s darker philosophy follows right through to the film’s shocking conclusion, which for some will shake the very core of their Superman fandom. It’s a Catch-22 scenario, wherein Superman’s final decision is borrowed straight from (spoilers, fans) the classic Exile story arc. This is an ending that proves the stakes were personal, the threat was real, and the after-effects are clearly going to be felt for some time. In the end, it’s what Supes needed to be taken seriously by a modern audience, and to prove that he’ll do anything, anything, to save people, even if it means the scarring of his own soul. Not to mention, Man of Steel is an origin story, portraying a Superman still learning the ropes. With Zod, he received a big lesson that will no doubt shape his moral compass forever.
On a side note, Man of Steel poses some interesting questions about the future of Superman on film. Certainly the film’s final scene, which had me holding back a big, geeky grin, promises an interesting change-up, effectively eradicating the trademark love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman. I’ll miss that dynamic of the mythology, but I’m very interested to see where they take the new one. But does the decision to ground the character in pseudo-reality bode ill for bringing some of the character’s more cartoony antagonists, among them Bizarro, the Prankster, and Mr. Mxyzptlk, to this new screen universe? There’s also the much-discussed prospect of Goyer and Snyder being ported over to WB’s long-gestating, likely ill-fated Justice League adaptation. Personally, I’d rather the studio hire different talent to helm individual Flash and Wonder Woman adaptations first. Besides, I’m not exactly clamoring to see an entire DC Universe through Goyer’s super-serious eyes, especially when you consider how much color and fun are going into many of Marvel’s films. These are, after all, comic book movies.
Man of Steel is an epic, thrilling film that packs far more punch than any other comic book adaptation in half a decade. And with Man of Steel comes proof that studio Warner Brothers, opting for a balls-out approach in all aspects of production, is finally treating their comic book adaptations not like cartoony toy commercials, but actual films, legitimate epics that are just as viable enterprises as artsier fare. Even if Goyer’s isn’t the end-all-be-all interpretation of the character, the weight he and Snyder bring to the proceedings works as a much-needed update of a character that audiences will hopefully now be taking far more seriously. It’s proof to modern audiences that Superman isn’t just some dull, dated relic of yesteryear, and proof that the character can still be relate to people today. But you fans out there knew that, didn’t you?