Posted by: Trey | 06/14/2013

“It’s not an ‘S’. On my world it means hope.”

Man of Steel (2013)

Few fictional characters are as ingrained in American popular culture as Superman. Since his creation in 1938 he has been a mainstay in print, film, and television. With so many adaptations, in particular the behemoth that is Richard Donner’s 1978 film, I have heard arguments that Superman has become stale and that he does not have a place in a contemporary world. However, Man of Steel offers a fresh cinematic take on the hero and invites us to consider the optimistic and idealistic potential of him in a world where distinctions between right and wrong are not always clear. I admit I was concerned by the combination of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder working on Man of Steel, but my fears of a dark and brooding Superman were assuaged fairly quickly. While there is plenty of action, Snyder for the most part allows the characters to take center stage. The style of the film is totally different from something like 300, which appears to exist solely for Snyder’s trademark slow-fast-slow action and action movie one-liners. Yet it also, to my relief, does not feel like one of Nolan’s Dark Knight movies either. The world of Man of Steel is not afraid to smile, and in some ways this version of Clark Kent is a more human character than Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne. This is (another) retelling of Superman’s origin, although the depiction of Krypton and its people are an amalgamation of several comic book versions – most notably Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright and John Byrne’s The Man of Steel. Presumably to differentiate itself from the clear-cut 3-act “Krypton – Smallville – Metropolis” structure of the 1978 film, Man of Steel presents much of Clark Kent’s childhood in a nonlinear fashion. This keeps things from feeling too much like a retread, but I frequently found myself wanting more scenes with both sets of parents – Jor-El & Lara on Krypton and Jonathan & Martha Kent on Earth. I’ve said for a while now that I would prefer a Superman movie that did not dwell on the origin; after all, between the ’78 film, the cartoons, the comics, and the various TV series, who doesn’t know at least the basics of Superman’s origin? Yet in this case I think the new origin feeds the narrative and meaningfully informs the development of Clark/Kal-El into Superman. Granted, I look forward to a sequel that doesn’t need to spend so much time on a mostly familiar story, but if a Superman reboot must begin with the origin then Man of Steel handles the retelling far better than I expected.

Henry Cavill gives a fantastic performance as Clark/Kal-El/Superman without ever obviously imitating any prior versions of the character. His Clark is, uniquely for film versions of the character, doubly alienated. He is for various reasons an outcast from both Kryptonians and humans, and it is his existential dilemma – his quest for belonging – that drives the film. What we see for most of the film is not the confident, fully-formed Superman that Christopher Reeve so effortlessly embodied. Instead, Cavill’s Superman is raw power, and only through the course of the film does he learn to harness it properly. He is a man who, in spite of the personal hardship it brings, never gives up on helping those who need him. He is not perfect – I know one questionable (but, perhaps, defensible) decision he makes will draw ire from purists and comic book fans, but I don’t think perfection is a prerequisite for the character. Rather, the key is his optimism, his faith in the human spirit, and his desire to protect those in need.

Amy Adams is easily the best Lois Lane since Margot Kidder. She is a tough, assertive reporter who from her first scene is one step ahead of her would-be obstacles. Rather than a damsel in distress, providing constant excuses for Superman to leap into action, Lane acts more as a partner to Superman. Had the film not been built so heavily on a more traditional origin, it might have been fun to discover Superman through her eyes. Some of her early scenes play with this a bit, but due to the structure of the film by that time the audience is already in a position of knowing more than her. As with the characters directly connected to Superman, I would have loved to see more of the Metropolis-centered characters – Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White is fun, but doesn’t receive enough screen time to do much but react to off-screen special effects. However, based on the film’s delightful conclusion I suspect those characters will play a larger role in the sequel.

I have to admit I have only seen Michael Shannon in a couple of roles prior to Man of Steel. That said, his General Zod is an impressive villainous turn. While over-the-top to a point, Shannon’s Zod differentiates himself nicely from Terrence Stamp’s iconic performance in Superman II. Instead of deliberately (and deliciously) evil, the Zod in Man of Steel is a more dangerous kind of villain – the sort who utterly believes that what he does is right. By the film’s third act, he becomes an almost tragic character, albeit one who is partly responsible for his situation.

What really stands out to me about Man of Steel, however, is collateral damage. When the Kryptonians fight the results are violent and destructive. Buildings collapse, tankers explode, and debris falls from the sky, and there are always civilians just on the periphery of the action. The film doesn’t dwell on them, but it is nearly impossible to forget that the violence, however justified in terms of the bigger picture, has consequences beyond abstract notions of good and evil. There are always people in the crossfire. Clark’s realization of this, and the decision it leads him to, will likely be the most controversial moment of the film, but I think it is key to his becoming Superman.

Is Man of Steel the definitive Superman movie? Can there even be such a thing? I somehow doubt it. Far from stale, Superman’s longevity is due to his adaptability. Man of Steel is an entertaining retelling of the character’s origins, taking into account both key aspects of his publication history and the cultural sensibilities of 2013 America. It doesn’t replace the 1978 Superman, whose mythic style remains unrivaled in comic book adaptations, but then it doesn’t really have to. With a decades-long history of film, television, radio, comics, and prose, there is room for more than one interpretation of Superman. I think it’s enough that the film more than does justice to the character and his universe, and once again makes me believe a man can fly. 

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Responses

  1. Zod is the extremist tea-partier of Krypton, isn’t he? Not one to let due process or science get in his way.

    • Huh. Maybe? I hadn’t really thought about the possible political allegories. I thought of it more as a struggle between predestination & self-determination/free will. I shall have to ponder…

  2. I love you summation of the movie: this is a different Superman and people can’t seem to accept that. I totally believe that his realization of the amount of damage done in this film will resonate. It will create enemies (Luthor) and allies (Wayne), but not before he must answer for the destruction of Metropolis.


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