Once a depiction veers toward realism, each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre.
–David Mazzucchelli, commenting on his own work in Batman: Year One
Once again, Superman leaps onto the big screen. Several strong actors in key roles take us through the story, which departs in significant ways from previous adaptations. Fan reaction has been divided—- and, after the dust of the city-destroying battles settled, this fan found himself feeling ambivalent
Once again, Hollywood retells the most well-known origin in superhero history. The film brings its own touches. Krypton is a darker, less enlightened world than we've seen in the past. The Kryptonian era of space exploration ended generations earlier, and their brave new society has fallen victim to its own technology. Krypton stagnates. Jor-El and Lara, however, remain mavericks. They have conceived their child naturally, separate of their planet's genetically-engineered caste requirements. Jor rides about on a flying steed. And the House of El knows that Krypton is doomed.
They also find themselves up against General Zod, who will return to bedevil their son. In his previous cinematic outing, Superman fought a land mass; this film gives him adversaries he can engage in battle. Before he can start swinging fists and blazing heat vision, however, he has to become the Man of Steel. This process involves a good deal of angst.
Clark Kent has traditionally appealed to outsiders. In The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer writes:
...Superman had only to wake up in the morning to be Superman. In his case, Clark Kent was the put-on. The fellow with the eyeglasses and the acne and the walk girls laughed at wasn't real, didn't exist, was a sacrificial disguise, an act of discreet martyrdom. Had they but known!...
...His fake identity was our real one. That's why we loved him so. For if that wasn't really, us, if there were no Clark Kents, only lots of glasses and cheap suits which, when removed, revealed all of us in our true identities-- what a hell of an improved world it would have been! (18- 19)
The 1950s television show departed from the traditional depiction, giving period viewers a more manly Kent. John Byrnes used that version as the basis of his 1980s reboot, also called Man of Steel. Despite the influence of Byrnes' work, Kent usually veers back towards nerdy outsider, with the series Smallville depicting the struggles of an angsty small town teen with superpowers.
Still, this version, influenced by less sunny alter-egos like Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker, gives us a freakish young Kent, a complete class oddball. We move quickly from his early struggles with powers to his wanderings over the earth. Individually, these scenes work. Collectively, directed with a generally grittier tone than Superman has ever allowed, they create a problem that will be addressed later.
We learn of Clark's early life in a series of flashbacks from young adulthood, as he makes his hero's journey. I thought the filmmakers made the non-linear approach work, though at times they felt like "last season on Superman" highlights. A bit choppy. In places. You know? Meanwhile, as Clark/Kal quietly intervenes with crimes and disasters, a young reporter senses a story.
The relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane works quite well. The writers took their cue from the 1990s/early 2000s comic books, where Lois knows Clark's secret, and helps him protect it. Man of Steel adds its own touch. Lois figures out Superman's identity immediately. From the start, she's his associate. Amy Adams does a fine job in this role. Like the grittiness, however, her story arc will also contribute to the film's major flaw.
Other strong actors contribute to the film's successes. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner bring years of experience to the salt-of-the-earth couple who instill in Clark the values that Superman will embody. In particular, Lane's Ma Kent becomes more of a character than most other adaptations have allowed. She's as important to Clark's development as his sage adoptive father. Again, the actors shine throughout Man of Steel.
Superman must ready himself when Zod (Michael Shannon) and his fellow survivors declare war on earth. Their plan? To terraform our live planet into a version of their dead one, killing everyone in the process. It's a plan that allows for the film's spectacular conflicts, and Superman pretty much requires that most overused of superhero tropes, wherein the Fate of the World Hangs in the Balance! Zod's plan, alas, seems pretty stupid.
However personal Zod's feelings, why not just terraform some other nearby uninhabited planet? He can always get to earth once his group has built up a bit. Then again, why terraform at all? Understand this: he wants to change earth so Kryptonians won't have superpowers here. He claims he doesn't want to suffer as Clark has. Really? He doesn't want godlike powers? And, for a guy who doesn't want them, he certainly adjusts to them pretty dang quickly.
As a bonus, one of his associates-- in order to underscore that Kal-El really has grown into a boy scout-- decries Kal-El for having "morality." Zod's side, apparently, has greater strength, because they "don't have morality." Really? This may be an interesting shout-out to a certain mustachioed philosopher who wrote about a superman, but, in fact, our villains have a very developed sense of morality. Zod started the film on a moral crusade, for heaven's sake. That's what makes Zod interesting. His moral standards, like, say, Hitler's, just diametrically oppose those that Supes and his intended audience uphold. That's the main point of contrast between Zod and Kal-El (or, more famously, Lex Luthor and Superman). Superman's most notorious adversaries accept as their right the temptation that Kal must resist. They would be gods; he chooses to help his fellow creatures. It's a noble way to play the character. Instead, we get a continuation of the angst theme, as earth becomes host to a playground battle between superbeings.
My complaints aside, Man of Steel does a pretty good job of a more realistic take on the Man of Steel, but that very approach-- as I have hinted earlier-- creates its own problems. Clark's disguise, for example. It's especially thin here, and the more realistic approach calls attention to that fact. And, if Lois could determine Kent's secret before Superman even makes his public debut, how will he possibly cover his tracks now that we've had a major alien invasion centered on his home town? The film creates too realistic a tone for us to just wave these-- and many other, more serious-- questions away.
That brings us to the second major issue: do we really want a realistic, gritty Superman?
Well, maybe, to a point. But consider: Marvel Comics took on Superman and company and, more often than not, won. They succeeded by taking a more realistic approach to superheroes, but they never pretended to be really realistic. Their recent movies succeed, in part, because they understand the balancing act superheroic productions must accomplish in order to work. Even the DC Universe's greatest cinematic success, the Batman films, place their gritty hero in a mythically stylized modern world.
Man of Steel's self-serious realism not only exposes the absurdities at the heart of the genre, it cheats the film-- mostly-- of the expected sense of fun. Serious grit's some other hero's shtick. A godlike wish-fulfillment character in a red cape who flies, bench-presses mountains, and shoots heat beams from his eyes, but still, aw shucks, has time to rescue little old ladies and stray cats? You can only make that guy so gritty, or realistic. The hyperbolic hero can have darker moments, of course, but must have, at heart, a sense of fun. Buffy understood this. The Marvel films understand this. Zack Snyder apparently does not. Man of Steel delivers action and (for cinema) a fresh take on its hero, but it comes perilously close to Ang Lee's Hulk, treating its premise with a weight of seriousness that premise cannot bear.
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/ Kal-El
Amy Adams as Lois Lane
Michael Shannon as General Zod
Russell Crowe as Jor-El
Diane Lane as Martha Kent
Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent
Antje Traue as Faora-Ul
Harry Lennix as General Swanwick
Richard Schiff as Dr. Hamilton
Christopher Meloni as Colonel Nathan Hardy
Ayelet Zurer as Lara Lor-Van
Laurence Fishburne as Perry White
Dylan Sprayberry, Cooper Timberline as young Clark Kent
Richard Cetrone as Tor-An
Mackenzie Gray as Jax-Ur
Julian Richings as Lor-Em
Mary Black as Ro-Zar
Samantha Jo as Car-Vex
Michael Kelly as Steve Lombard
Christina Wren as Major (Captain?) Carrie Farris
Jack Foley, Joseph Cranford as Pete Ross
Jadin Gould as Lana Lang
Bonus: The film also does its part, Marvel-like to establish a shared universe in which a Justice League movie might eventually take place. We never see Lex Luthor or Batman, but the film features fairly blatant references to Lexcorp and Wayne Enterprises. Comic nerds will also notice a possible reference to Supergirl's origin, and other passing elements connect to Green Lantern and Booster Gold.