There is nothing I love more at the movies than a pleasant surprise; especially when the surprise is wrapped in a “tentpole” studio picture that has every reason to play it safe. We longtime comics fans spent decades making do with shoddy, muddled, and sometimes downright stupid films based on the books we loved, and several of them starred Superman. Based on reviews I read and opinion pieces from comics people, I did not have high hopes for this one; but it won me over. Spoilers may follow, so be warned.
One of the reservations I had was that Man of Steel would, yet again, give us a look at Superman’s origin. But this time, there is no brief stoic scene of Jor-El watching his son leave orbit as the planet collapses around him. Instead we get some more insight into Krypton’s final days and are introduced to General Zod, who attempts a coup so that he can retrieve a codex of Kryptonian history – including genetic information – that would allow him to recreate the planet elsewhere. Krypton is clearly meant to represent our own future: its resources are exhausted and it has abandoned offworld colonies and attempts to terraform other worlds. Jor-El disagrees with Zod’s plan, choosing instead to embed the codex within the cells of his own son and send him in a rocket to another world.
The next time we see Kal he is grown up, quietly saving lives where he can, remembering his adopted father’s regular warnings to keep a low profile. Johnathan Kent feared, reasonably I think, that to do otherwise would lead to his son being dropped by a few mortar shells and dissected in Area 51. Again and again, Kal is tested by the central question of the film: when is it right for him to intervene? He saves his classmates when their school bus crashes into a river, and arguably this leads to his own exposure some years later; “what was I supposed to do, let everyone die?” pleads young Clark. “Maybe,” frowns Johnathan.
“Bullshit”, some fantard nearby heckled at that line. When you have an iconic character who has been around for 75 years, you are bound to have entitled fans trying to be the arbiter of what is and isn’t Superman. I rolled my eyes not long ago when I overheard a similar assertion that the new Star Trek films were all well and good, but they “weren’t Star Trek.” And in that fan’s world, I guess they aren’t. Science fiction fandom loves to know more than anyone else, and debate what is and isn’t “canonical”. This film has many canon-based complaints against it, and I won’t waste my breath debating them. I could give a shit, honestly, as long as a film does the best it can to tell its own story. Zack Snyder did a pretty good job of this with his adaptation of Watchmen, which, while not as engaging as Man of Steel, successfully addressed a clunky final act that some fans would hold sacrosanct. If you want to see what happens when slavish fanservice takes priority, look at the last Superman film.
Anyway, the point of Johnathan Kent’s “maybe” was not to be callous or tell Clark not to save people; it was partly concern for his son’s safety and partly a recognition that Clark simply cannot save everybody, even if he works tirelessly every minute of every day; and if he did, would that be a good thing for the human race? Johnathan Kent didn’t know; hence his answer. This is a question that has plagued Superman for decades in the comics, by the way; he has been depicted as compassionate, ridiculously powerful, sometimes remote, and so on depending on the fashion of the times and the requirements of the script. He has been a vessel for the hopes and dreams of dozens of writers; but in this case he is the unwitting target of a hostile invading alien force. Johnathan Kent was worried about what humanity would do to Clark if they caught him; he never anticipated that more Kryptonians could arrive, much less Zod.
But arrive they do, and they are not fucking around. Zod demands that Earth produce Kal-El, who has been hiding among them, within 24 hours or face destruction. On his way to Earth, he has picked up some of the Kryptonian outpost weapons, including a terraforming ship which he deploys over the Indian Ocean. Superman is tasked with disabling the machine while the American military attempt to disable (or at least distract) Zod. What follows is a battle that has been both widely criticized as “disaster porn” and admired for its audacity. I was definitely in the latter camp, because here’s the thing: as admirable as the human efforts were, there were largely in vain against Zod’s forces. As I saw Zod’s lieutenants fight Kal in Smallville, and Zod’s own weapon laying waste to Metropolis a block at a time, a realization that was completely unironic formed in my mind: “This is a job for Superman.”
Not Lex Luthor’s idiotic real estate schemes, not fighting the Japanese in the Second World War, not fucking around with Bizarro or The Toymaster, and perhaps, as Johnathan Kent mused, not saving every bus that goes over a bridge. This film is the only one so far that truly tests the measure of Superman’s power and his character; no other film has even come close to conveying what he is capable of. There are some who were upset by how Kal deals with Zod in the end; I had no problem with it whatsoever. He did what he did to save innocent lives, with a decision that was informed by the many ethical dilemmas presented earlier in the film and by Zod’s own warning that the only way he would be stopped is if Kal killed him. I’m sure the film’s detractors would argue that the situation could simply have been written differently, but that is not the point: Kal was presented with a situation that only he could deal with, and a decision that only he could make. He refused to endure the pain caused by inaction that Johnathan put him through again; he chose to do what Jor-El almost certainly would have done in his position. Who among us, in his position, would not?
I was very impressed with many elements of this film. The production design recalls the classic, Art Deco-influenced Fleischer Studios cartoons. The cast is filled with talented character actors in supporting roles, as in the Batman films. Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Laurence Fishburne are all the best incarnations of their roles on film so far; some by a wide margin. The cinematography, effects, and music are all quite fine. For a long film, the pace is compelling without being rushed, and unlike all of the Nolan Batman films, it never feels like it is overlong or stalling. There are a few clunky moments here and there, but my only real complaint is with the penultimate scene, which feels tacked-on and is a weird shift in tone considering what just happened; it might have made more sense to have the same conversation between Kal and the general at a memorial service for the military personnel and civilians who perished because of Zod.
Unlike some, I do not have a lifelong love for Superman as a character. I often found him dull or irrelevant, and can think of only a few incarnations that I really enjoyed: the Fleischer cartoons, Alan Moore’s story “Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?”, Grant Morrison’s “All Star Superman”, and Mark Waid’s “Kingdom Come” and “Birthright”. Waid has expressed his displeasure with Man of Steel, to say the least, but comics are not films and vice versa. As a film, Man of Steel examines the character we call Superman and reinvents him with a glorious (albeit menacing) energy. I found it fascinating and am looking forward to what comes next.