The character of Superman presents a challenge in the post-9/11 era of superheroes.
By Noah Gittell
The character of Superman presents a challenge in the post-9/11 era of superheroes. We like our superheroes tortured and conflicted now, as a reflection of our uncertain place on the world stage. But historically, Superman has never had any inner conflict. He is more of a hokey do-gooder than a tortured soul. This could be one reason why 2006’s “Superman Returns” – not a reboot but a continuation in spirit of the sunny Christopher Reeve movies of the late 1970s and 1980s – failed to resonate with the American public.
But the Hollywood hit machine offers endless chances for redemption. “Man in Steel” is Superman by way of “The Dark Knight,” and not coincidentally, produced by Christopher Nolan, who helmed all three recent Batman movies. Nolan, director Zack Snyder, and writer David Goyer have found a clever and organic way to make the iconic American superhero conflicted: by framing him as a man stuck between two worlds, his native Krypton and his adopted home, America.
The film functions as a clean reboot, retelling the original story with a few new twists. We start with a long sequence on Krypton, where Kal-El (as he is known on his native planet) is already an anomaly – a baby born of a natural childbirth, instead of the “Matrix”-like pods in which Kryptonians are typically spawned. Moments before the planet explodes, his father Jor-El fights off General Zod (Michael Shannon), a military man gone mad with power, and sends his son into the outer reaches of space.
For the sake of brevity, the filmmakers cut between the alien child’s life as a young adult, drifting from job to job and preventing tragedies, and his upbringing in the heartland. If the film’s sequences on Krypton are jarring to fans of the Superman mythology, the scenes in Smallville will be deeply comforting. Kevin Costner anchors these scenes with a powerful performance as Clark’s father, committed to protecting him from those who might fear him for being different. After saving a school bus full of children from drowning and exposing himself in the process, Clark tearfully asks his father, “What was I supposed to do, let them die?” “Maybe,” his father replies.
It’s a shocking bit of dialogue because Superman is famous for avoiding death at all costs – he won’t even kill his enemies — and it’s only one of many reversals of typical Superman mythology. There is no Lex Luthor, no glasses, no Jimmy Olsen, very little of The Daily Planet at all. Lois Lane does show up, but she’s a redhead (Amy Adams), and since this is a 21st- century superhero film, she is no longer just a helpless victim. She gets to do a little fighting of her own.
Instead of Luthor, the film gives us General Zod, a Kryptonian general-turned-rebel who escaped his home planet and now plans to rebuild Krypton on Earth. It is around this point that the film starts to feel a bit of an allegory for our ongoing debate over immigration, with Superman forced to destroy his old culture in order to be accepted by his adopted home. But for that discourse to truly have value, we need to understand Zod’s motivations and maybe even sympathize with them a little, and despite some good, hard acting by Michael Shannon, Zod never comes across as anything more substantive than a reckless, genocidal maniac. There are no stakes for Superman or for us: we know which side he’ll be on, and we know he’ll win.
Luckily, Snyder gets a lot of the rest right. Despite the awfully big shoes of the late Christopher Reeve, Henry Cavill acquits himself well as both Clark Kent and Superman. The changes in mythology prohibit him from having to play the bumbling reporter that Reeve mastered, but Clark’s goodness still comes off as nerdy in the dark, troubled world of the film. The supporting cast has little to work with in terms of characterization, but Adams, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El all leave lasting impressions.
It’s just enough to make you see what “Man of Steel” could have been, had Snyder cut a few of the endless action sequences and found a more interesting villain. The film’s final scene teases a far better sequel, and with this franchise’s record ticket sales, you can be sure that we’re going to see one. Looks like there will be yet another chance for redemption.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue