Superman first appeared in 1938. In the 78 years since, his origins have seen so many retellings that expecting any new interpretation to strictly adhere to either one of them becomes an exercise in futility. However the story plays, the same fundamentals continue to assert themselves:
Superman was sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El. He landed outside a farm in Kansas where he was raised by a kindly farmer and his wife and taught the values of Truth, Justice and the American Way (TM). As an adult, he becomes Superman, a hero for the ages. Disguised as Clark Kent, a mild-mannered newspaper reporter, he engages Lois Lane in battles of rapier wit, hard-hitting journalism, and eventual romance.
That’s the gist in a nutshell. MAN OF STEEL covers each of the highlights while dressing the proceedings in an odd combination of influences. Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder possess very different strengths. Nolan brings a level of sophistication and dark morose to his work. Threads of sadness weave throughout his stories, like he knows the world is broken and fixing it may never happen, but someone has to try. Snyder has a much more aggressive, much less nuanced approach. He can certainly choreograph action far better than Nolan, but he can’t lay subtext without showing the seams. Parts of Nolan want to break through, but what we have here seems to be two competing sensibilities. The result is a big bombastic romp that feels like it’s missing one thing while retaining too much of another.
It is not a perfect film. Despite the love many feel toward the many interpretations available, no one’s ever really … nailed it. The Richard Donner films (SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and, to a protracted extent, SUPERMAN II) set the gold standard as far as Superman’s character and manner; their more peripheral elements muddled the tenor of an otherwise strong pair of films. Donner loved the word “verisimilitude.” That word was the guiding hand behind every decision from casting to visual effects. It had to feel true.
MAN OF STEEL probably comes closer to nailing it than it would have in someone else’s hands. The film is a big ball of razzle dazzle, which is, let’s face it, what the masses crave. Superman at last exhibits the awesome power his legend always hinted at, and Snyder delivers it all with amazing sound and fury. And I think that’s part of the problem. CGI has brought us to a place where filmmakers can put anything they imagine on screen. The limits of technology no longer limit the breadth of the filmmaker’s vision. While this creates enormous opportunity to create all manner of imaginative expression, it also swings in the other direction toward the gratuitous. Our eyes may be easily fooled, but when the illusion spreads itself too thin, it triggers our sense that something is wrong—it doesn’t feel true.
We can handle it when the camera passes through a glass window or follows someone down a hall only to emerge on the other side of a mirror. But when a camera passes through the center of a golden ring or gives us a split second close-up of the hero’s eyeball, we know something’s amiss. The fakery becomes too apparent. It’s a fine line. We are willing to accept the magic, but only to a point. And the ample supply of bunnies in bottomless hats presses filmmakers way past the line of demarcation.
MAN OF STEEL suffers from the same excesses. It isn’t the loss of life or even the relentless devastation. Many have decried the enormous loss of life in the film as though Superman were too thoughtless to do anything about it. Granted, he lacks a certain sense of ingenuity in how he faces his problems, but there’s almost nothing he could have done to stop Zod’s initial rampage once he fires up the world engine. The problem is in the gluttonous story. It crams in so much that it just feels stuffed. There’s a lot to enjoy inside, and the parts it gets right it gets very right.
Henry Cavill injects enough warmth and likability into Kal-El to elevate him from caricature to an actual character. He embodies enough of Christopher Reeve’s quality without channeling him, making Cavill enough of his own thing to stand apart. This is a different superman than we think we know. He hasn’t quite become the Boy Scout; there’s still a bit of self-centeredness about him. Like when he emerges from the ocean needing clothes which he swipes from an unsuspecting family’s laundry basket. Steven Greydanus was right, Reeve’s Superman would have come back and paid for those clothes. The self-centered behavior of this iteration belies a kind of youthful indiscretion. It at least bears no resemblance to the emo-angst of Bryan Singer’s take on the character. This is a hero still growing into his morals. It would have been nice to see this aspect grow and develop. Instead it seems more innate and internal, almost as if the writers ignored certain aspects of heroic virtue either by accident or ignorance. Either way, it’s a missed opportunity, one Donner’s films used to great advantage.
The film shrugs off any past attempts to make Superman a pluralistic icon. By the time the curtain falls, Superman has become, once more, a distinctly American mythological hero. How you feel about that will depend on how you feel about America. The film isn’t interested in debating the political and moral ramifications of its policies, or even defining a so-called “American Way.” One more reach back to the Donner-verse and I’ll move on. When Reeve’s Superman said he stood for truth, justice and the American way, he told us what that meant by virtue of his actions. Donner’s Superman embodied heroic virtue—he led by example. MAN OF STEEL paints Superman as an outsider who embraces the worldview of his adopted homeland. What exactly that worldview is remains as vague as the so-called phantom drive that brings Kal-El to Earth. There’s a certain amount of presupposition at play. Superman’s a good guy, and he says he’s about as American as it gets. Ergo, America must be the land of the good guys. I’m okay with that, but it lacks the subtext I was talking about earlier.
Among the revisions this interpretation embraces is Superman’s relationship with Lois. I never bought the idea that a reporter as smart as Lois supposedly was would be would be fooled by his disguise. Donner’s sequel even attempted to address this. MAN OF STEEL approaches the problem in a different direction and settles on a better solution. Lois at last earns some of the exceptional quality which would make her an equal partner to Superman. Regrettably, along with all the other bright spots if the film, it’s overshadowed by spectacle and scraps of careless writing.
The film imagines Krypton as a society that has reached the end of itself. When Jor-El looks out over his homeland, he’s not just watching a war, he’s watching Armageddon unfold. More than the story is about Superman it is about the final notes of a grand civilization’s swan song. The true tragedy at the end of the film is that Superman really is the last of his kind. There just so much clutter and concussion on the way to that point that it muddles the journey getting there.
I don’t subscribe to the belief that a comic book film has to pander to the lowest common denominator. BATMAN BEGINS, and especially THE DARK KNIGHT, proved that notion false. But I wonder if the temptation to dazzle with lights and fury overwhelms the storyteller’s devotion to the story. How the film tells the story matters. We’ve seen this myth played out before in film, TV shows, comic strips and cartoons. Superman isn’t going anywhere. But his story deserves a good telling. This is a better telling than we’ve had in a long long while. It earns a solid B plus. But it begs the question: Why not an A?
Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
Screenplay by David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder