Spoiler Discussion: Man of Steel

For being such a boy scout, Superman can be quite a divisive character. He’s a contender for the most popular mainstream hero, but often not with fans of comic books and superhero-related material. He can seem seemingly all-powerful, which can make him a bit boring. In a time where we look for huge action and dark tones, the best-known vision of Big Blue is Christopher Reeve soaring to the tune of John William’s theme. That’s a good version of Superman, but it’s time for us to move on.

Bryan Singer chose to pay tribute to that series in Superman Returns (which I enjoyed and was looking forward to the X2 of that series), but modern audiences weren’t as interested and were ready for Superman to kick some ass.

Well folks, the team that brought you The Dark Knight Trilogy (Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer) have created a film with the direction from an expert in comic book adaptation, Zack Snyder (300Watchmen). We have a new vision of Superman, including a new origin, new costume, refreshed characters, and pounding score from Hans Zimmer.

How did they do?

Warning: This is a post-viewing discussion of Man of Steel. If you haven't seen it yet, turn back now.

 

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Well, it seems that Superman is still a divisive character. I for one, loved Man of Steel, but I can understand why some people did not. The plethora of sci-fi elements makes this film less approachable than some of the Marvel movies. Man of Steel didn’t hold back in its vision of Krypton, lots of alien technology, and a conclusion involving terraforming. This is a nerdier Superman, and I hope that mainstream audiences are not distracted by the details bounced around.  Richard Donner’s version was simpler, focusing on an idealistic and romantic vision. Those elements are still present, but audiences have to be willing to accept something different in order to enjoy Man of Steel.

So why did I enjoy, love Man of Steel? It gets a triple-nerd-score for me, as a movie, an adaptation of the comics, and Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score. I think the story took elements from a number of origin stories and more (including Birthright and Secret Origin) and remixed a fresh take on our hero. I think use of flashbacks helped to give Man of Steel a new feeling. Instead of having to patiently wait 15-30 minutes in Smallville before Clark starts flying around, we get to see Clark’s history in pieces that connect his past with the rest of the story. I’m not saying that the character’s time in Smallville has to be boring (there are 10 seasons of television that try to prove that point), but it comes back to the point that we as an audience were ready to see Superman move as fast and hit as hard as we know he can. This is why the creators get a gold star from me for doing their best to bring heart and humanity to a character that is primarily viewed as a Kryptonian.

Especially in a mainstream version of Superman, we often think of Superman as human first, Kryptonian second. We meet Clark, then Kal. The “man” is often more interesting than the “Super”. Kudos to the creators for having the courage to make this movie about Kal-El. Man of Steel tells the story of the fall of Krypton and its near-resurrection. It just so happens that humans interact with our main character. Of course, I’m over-simplifying the story, but who would have thought the big reveal at the end of the movie would be Clark Kent as a reporter for the Daily Planet? Instead of one final hint at a sequel or shot of Superman flying into the sunset, we see Clark embrace his human side and join the newspaper. This is the perfect way to update Superman. We no longer need to believe that a man can fly; we need to believe that a man that can fly would want to be one of us.

For all of its excitement, Man of Steel stood out to me as a story about fatherhood and choice. Both mothers provide their love and support, but the fathers get the spotlight.  Most of us already knew the story of Jor-El sending his son to Earth in Krypton’s last moments, but Jor-El’s efforts to have a child naturally and allow that child the choice to dream “of becoming something other than what society intended” help us to understand what kind of a father he was. In this case, Jor-El not only saves his son by sending him to Earth, but he also sends means to rebuild Krypton. When Kal-El meets the projection of his birth father, Jor-El gives his son the choice to rebuild Krypton. He presents his son with a vision of the two worlds living in harmony, but also helps Kal-El defeat General Zod. You could argue that I’m giving Jor-El too much credit here, but I believe that while Jor-El had aspirations to rebuild Krypton, he trusted his son to make the choice.

Jor-El had a much bigger role than I expected, but Jonathan Kent nearly stole the show. In this film, we see the formative moments of young Clark Kent, who luckily has his father to guide him. To be clear, Martha Kent also is very important (including helping Clark to focus), and I imagine she will continue to influence Clark, but this really is a story of two fathers. We see Jonathan Kent try to help Clark understand the dangers of being exposed, even if it means allowing someone else to die. Clark knows he wants to help others, wants to fight back when he gets picked on, but his father is there to guide him. Jonathan doesn’t have all the answers, but knows that Clark isn’t ready to be known in the world. He knows Clark will have to make that choice, just not yet. Jonathan believes this so strongly that he allows himself to be swept up in a tornado to keep that secret. He didn’t have to die. Clark could have easily saved him. Instead, Jonathan allowed it to happen out of love, ensuring that the choice remained Clark’s.

Neither of these two fathers is perfect, as none of ours are. Both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent have a vision of what might be best for their son, but let him make the choice. I tip my hat to Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, both of which I hope return to pass on their wisdom in future sequels.

Man of Steel benefits greatly from its stellar cast. I’ve already gushed over the parents, but I’m also impressed with the portrayal of the main characters. Henry Cavill wears the cape very well, Amy Adams portrays Lois as much more than a damsel in distress, and Michael Shannon plays a terrifying General Zod (“I will find him!”). While I originally interested in Zod as a villain, his inclusion connected us back to Krypton, and it was great to see Superman overmatched by a trained warrior.

There is a moment in the final battle in The Avengers where I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear as we were shown a continuous shot of all our heroes fighting one by one across the city. Man of Steel’s “Oh yeah!” moment was when General Zod threw Superman through a dozen buildings in one shot.  This is the kind of over-the-top action we hadn’t seen in a Superman film, and that’s one place where this version could leave its mark. Yes, it can feel like we are ignoring how many lives were lost as Metropolis was destroyed (as was Smallville), but this is not uncommon for Superman. If you are going to tell this kind of superhero story, there is going to be a lot of collateral damage (especially from a relatively untrained Superman).

While the fight was exciting, the shaky-cam and jumpy close ups bothered me a bit. I suspect these choices were used to mask the many visual effects. If you let the camera focus too long, the director would have risked making Superman look like Neo flying around in the Matrix series (which seemed to be quite an influence on Man of Steel). These choices did help my suspension of disbelief, and never descended to the level of Transformers where I could not discern what I was seeing. In my opinion, these distractions can be forgiven in light of the attempts to show us Superman and Zod using all of their power.

Perhaps the most interesting choice in the film was Zod’s death. At first I wanted to dislike Superman killing General Zod. Yes, my knee-jerk reaction is that he belongs in the Phantom Zone. Also, I think superhero films have long had a problem with resolving conflict without killing the villain (remember when Batman seemed to be running out of villains). To me, killing a villain that could be subdued sometimes feels like a lazy choice. That said, I was mostly concerned with the thought that Superman would kill an enemy. However, the death of Zod allowed us to see Kal-El’s anguish in being forced into the situation. The death also allowed us to understand that this Superman is not immortal. If General Zod can be killed, Superman can die too.  Considering that this film had a heavy focus on the Kryptonian side of our hero, he was still vulnerable in the end. There wasn’t a clean sense of victory at the end of that battle. That was a tough choice that added to the film significantly.

The one subject that left me a bit puzzled by the end of the film was Clark’s secret identity. I like that Lois was such a great reporter that she figured it out. The problem is that everybody else should have figured it out too. With General Zod attacking Smallville, Lois spending so much time on the Kent farm, and the scrutiny of the military, someone should have figured it out and talked. Heck, the government was already following Lois around. Wouldn’t a job at the Daily Planet be one of the worst covers possible? I’m not really bothered by this, as Superman’s secret identity usually requires a little suspension of disbelief, but these issues seem so obvious that I wouldn’t be surprised if they affected the plot of the sequel. Perhaps Superman’s identity in this universe can’t stay a secret.

In the end, we’ve been treated to a great superhero movie that has given us a new take on an icon. Man of Steel managed to deliver speed and destruction while presenting a hero struggling to find his place and make tough choices. The creators’ choice to give equal or greater weighting to Kal-El’s Kryptonian heritage tells a different tale and focuses on the tale of an outsider/immigrant that has resonated for 75 years. This version of Superman doesn’t hold back on its comic book heritage, giving us plenty of background and detail to take in. The creators took some chances and gave a new interpretation that seems to have stayed true to the character. I can only hope that the rest of the Justice League receives the same treatment.