Superman was the first superhero that excited me as a child. I remember watching the Richard Donner movies starring Christopher Reeve, and being hooked. But as I grew older, there simply wasn’t enough depth in the character and plot line. What fun is a superhero that is virtually invulnerable? What suspense is there in that?
And that pretty much defines the arc that Superman franchise has gone through over the years. In the more innocent era of the mid-portion of the last century, Superman fit the ideal we were striving for. Truth, justice, and the American way.
Today, in a darker, more dreary, a more realistic and fatalistic era, Superman seems as out of place as milkmen and paperboys. .
And the repercussions show. Superman is largely ignored by the young set. My son, who is seven, barely cares about Superman at all. Even when watching cartoons of the Justice League, he gravitates more to Batman and even the Flash before Superman.
It is into that environment that Director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) and screenwriters Christopher Nolan and David Goyer (the Dark Knight film trilogy) bring Man of Steel. They were, because of reality, forced to update the Superman/Clark Kent saga for a new era. First, the bring this new version of Superman, played wonderfully by Henry Cavill, into the modern era. Some of the changes are at first shocking. For example, Clark Kent is almost a depressing figure at the beginning of this movie. In the prior era, Clark was at times goofy, honest…a Boy Scout. Here, Clark is brooding, and not always on his best behavior. This actually fits with some of the comic book interpretations of the character, but we certainly haven’t for the most part seen that side of Clark on film. Second, even as an adult, he seems to have a general distrust of humanity…something former iterations of the genre of lacked.
But in many ways, Snyder/Nolan/Goyer make the changes that are necessary to bring this character back to life. Superman/Kent lives in a world where governments are not to be inherently trusted, and humanity can be its own worse any enemy. In other words…the real world.
The other fascinating tactic they take is to give much more depth and time to the Kryptonian back story. Some of my friends have mixed feelings on this, but I loved it. I loved seeing more texture given to the planet of Krypton, including its culture, government, history and people. And Russell Crowe (Jor-El) virtually steals every scene he is in.
On the other hand, the Smallville angle of Clark Kent’s history is basically told only in passing, mostly in flashbacks and other storytelling techniques. We get brief scenes with Pete and Lana Lang, but nothing substantial. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) is another depressing figure in this movie. In the past, he was at the heart of the good hearted nature that is at the center of his son’s character; in this film, he is dreary, and is much more concerned about his son’s safety than the future of the planet.
Michael Shannon as General Zod is fantastic. He gives the character depth, and is able to portray a rigidness and single mindedness that is essential to getting to the heart of the character. Not to get too political, but Zod is the classic statist; everything, including war, cruelty, and violence, are acceptable for the common good. And the common good in this case is the survival of the Kryptonian people…and if a few humans get in the way, what matter is it to him?
Without giving the plot away, the directors also flip many of the plot points of former Superman story lines on their head. I absolutely loved Amy Adams as Lois Lane; she isn’t some hot bimbo that the last film portrayed her as, but is a thoughtful, deep personality that is the definition of what a good journalist is supposed to be. And her relationship with Clark Kent/Superman is, in many ways, unique to the way it has been portrayed before. The ‘reveal’ at the end of the movie, in many ways, shows the heart of the way the writers took a new look and all new angle to the entire approach.
The final scenes, which of course result in a massive battle, are spectacular. You seen Superman and Zod basically destroy the city of Metropolis in, what is ultimately, a grudge match.
Now, is this movie perfect? Far from it. Some of the plot details were probably unnecessary. There are scenes in the movie that seem like they are a good idea, but in retrospect really add nothing (if you see the movie, pay attention to the church scene with the priest). And some of the dialogue, especially for Cavill, is clunky.
Additionally, one wonders in hindsight: what powers do the Kryptonians really have that make them ‘Supermen’? The plot goes back and forth on what really gives them their strength, speed, etc; and thus, in battles, you come to wonder: why are some battles even an equal match? Shouldn’t they obviously be weighted to one side or the other, based on the premise of the source of their powers?
But ultimately, fans can get past these small qualms. The movie delivers on all the levels that matter. They gives us a Superman with depth, a character dealing with the realities of the world as it exists in the 21st century. We have a Clark Kent that is not goofy but is thoughtful and emotional, and hides from humanity as much as he can. And you have Superman coming into his own with a threat from his past, where he must face his ultimate limitations.
I have already heard comparisons of this movie to the Dark Knight series, which is unavoidable with Nolan’s involvement in both films. Let me say this: this is a far superior film to Batman Begins, the first film of that trilogy. I would say it is at least as good as the first Iron Man as well. My point is: Snyder et. al. have done their job. They have established a platform for future Superman movies (and may I dare dream: Justice league movies?) and the real first entry into the wider DC comic universe.
So, an imperfect movie, to be sure, but still a movie that must be seen, and a movie that hits all the high marks. The future for the DC Universe is now bright.