The problem with comic book movies is that it’s too easy to give people what they think they want, instead of what they need. Man of Steel is a case study in such a contradiction. For the great majority of its running time, it’s a dazzling and thought-provoking exploration of the Superman mythos, where tough questions were are raised about what it would mean to be Clark Kent in a world that would almost certainly mistrust and fear him. Then it turns into a PlayStation game, mostly as a way to shut up all the fans who wanted to see Superman punch things, and while the fun didn’t end there for me, it did get dialed down a whole lot.
Maybe it’s just the Superman fan in me talking when I say the movie still works despite all that. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time as both a fan and a critic, it’s that some of my favorite films are not the perfect ones, but the ones that struggle against their own very evident flaws and still somehow deliver. Man of Steel is flawed in ways that draw me back to it, because when seen in the right light those flaws are also revelatory. They say at least as much about our attitudes towards this sort of material as they speak of any shortcomings in the film itself.
Like the Dark Knight films before them, Man of Steel assumes a clean slate. It frankly discards the charismatic but campy Superman of the 1970s and 1980s (and the campy and wholly uncharismatic Superman Returns), and trades all that up for a far more ambitious approach. Not all of the ambitions hit their marks, but one that does come through well was part of the way director Zack Snyder and writer David Goyer pitched the film: Superman is an alien, so let’s treat this like a first contact story — with all of the attendant paranoia, doubt, unanswered questions, and (literally) planet-shattering implications.
Small wonder Steel spends a good chunk of its first act on Superman’s homeworld of Krypton, not just to immerse us in its techno-organic environment but also to set up the dilemmas that inspired his father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe, excellent), to send his newborn son away from a dying world. Little Kal-El is the first Kryptonian natural birth in centuries, unconstrained by the genetic templates that dictate Kryptonian society — and, it’s implied, contributed all the more to its stagnation and downfall. Jor-El’s act of personal rebellion contrasts all the more with the far more militant variety as enacted by General Zod (a frothing-bonkers Michael Shannon), who takes his business of doing right by Krypton very, very personally. For Zod, the mere fact of Kal-El’s existence implies the end of his way of life, one where each knows his place and his purpose is to watch over them all with an iron fist. His obsession registers for us, and makes him more than just a drop target to be knocked down.
The Last Son of Krypton tries to do the right thing on earth.
He finds it’s never easy, because it’s the right thing.
Then the film leaps ahead to Kal-El — or rather, Clark Kent — as an adult on Earth, at home nowhere, never staying long anywhere. He keeps his powers close to his chest, using them only when others’ lives are threatened, and then vanishing once again. Throughout his childhood with his surrogate family (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), there was a constant tension between his need to do the right thing and the conflicted feelings of his foster father. He is convinced his son will change the world — how couldn’t he? — but is also convinced the world he’s going to change is unprepared for him. It’s a variant of the emotional paradox felt by most any father: he knows his son has to become his own man, but he doesn’t know how to let him go his own way. Fear rules him, the way it ruled the Kryptonians before him.
How the film goes about handling Pa Kent’s fear is one of its larger gambles, and one that does not quite pay off as intended for many audiences. We are given a scene where Clark has the chance to save his father’s life, but Dad instead puts his son’s secret over his own life. I go back and forth about this scene myself: I know that it’s constructed to show how Clark is torn between doing the right thing by people generally and doing the right thing by his family, but it’s also too easily read as his father simply being foolish. But I cannot deny it works as an invocation of how only the outside of Superman is invulernable. It’s in his emotions, his attachments to other people, that he’s most vulnerable — but it’s also through them that he finds his greatest strengths and triumphs.
Clark’s wandering — and Good Samaritan meddling — eventually bring him to the attention to reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), as confident and hard-nosed as Clark is reticent and introspective. Both of them have been drawn to a military dig involving something buried under 14,000-year-old Arctic ice. For Lois, it’s a killer scoop. For Clark, it’s destiny, as the object turns out to be a lost Kryptonian ship through which he’s able to speak to a holographic reproduction of his real father. Jor-El, like Pa Kent after him, is convinced Kal can embody the best qualities of both his original and adopted worlds. Only then does “Superman” as we know him stride onto the screen, and even then he’s still struggling with both the full scope of his powers and their implications. Even his first flight is something of a botch: it consists of him literally leaping tall things in a single bound … and then accidentally taking out part of a mountain. Fortunately, he learns fast.
Then Zod returns, and decades in Phantom Zone exile have only hardened his obsession with fulfilling
the duty he was born for. He’s convinced Kal-El is hiding the last remnants of Krypton’s future, and is prepared to level the planet to get it. Clark, ever the do-gooder, lets himself be taken into custody, only to realize he has made a ghastly mistake: the fact that he strives to be a good man doesn’t mean everyone else will honor that. Especially not Zod, who has some variety of honor — if only a rather blackened one — but is more than willing to shelve all that when the resurrection of his way of life is within reach.
It is, ironically, in the action scenes that the movie weakens and ultimately sabotages itself. The entire second half of the film consists of three gargantuan action blow-outs: Superman versus Zod’s cronies in Smallville; Superman versus the World Engine while Zod “reformats” Metropolis (and Earth) with a gravity beam; and then Superman versus Zod — or, maybe better to say, Superman and Zod versus the scenery. As stupendous as these scenes are to watch — it’s a little shocking the film didn’t get a Best Visual Effects nomination — they become incrementally numbing, because it’s all too clear they’re thrown in to placate fans’ complaints about Superman being a wimp. Worse, those sequencs become a vehicle by which the film inadvertently makes Superman look like a thoughless clod. Viz., the scene where Zod shoves a tanker truck at him, and Superman sidesteps … only to have the tanker plow into a parking structure and, presumably, kill whoever was unlucky enough to be inside. Why didn’t he just grab it?
This is sloppy characterization, made all the more thoughtless by how it’s presumably supposed to be “compensated for” by the scenes of Clark saving people from oil rigs and from drowning in school buses earlier in the film. None of that means this stuff gets a pass; if anything, it only makes the contrast between that material and the frenetic slugfest of the second half all the more jarring. And even if some of the moral dissonance of the climax is addressed in future movies in the series (e.g. Lex Luthor stepping up and helping Metropolis rebuild, the better to spite Superman), that still means the first one suffers from being that much less conceptually complete. What I do not have a problem with, though, is the way Superman ultimately deals with Zod, since that part ties back all the more strongly into Clark’s struggles with himself. He isn’t comfortable with all that power, and he shouldn’t be; he cares too much about the people around him to let that happen. I just wish that insight — one of the most valuable in the film — was more evenly distributed though it. The same with the idea that this Superman is just getting his super-hero legs, as it were: it’s a good idea, but the way the movie supports it is shaky.
But, again, the number of things that do work in the film are heartening and laudable. Aside from Clark/Kal’s dilemmas being real and palpable, the movie also doesn’t skimp on its antagonist, and the supporting cast is also nicely fleshed out. It also uses a more you-are-there approach to its visuals than most other movies of this kind, and while I’m not normally fond of shaky-cam work, it makes the film stand out all the more from its predecessors. Ditto the Hans Zimmer score, one of the best in recent memory, which employs a few powerful motifs to create something that not only complements the action but is downright hummable.
Many of the criticisms of Man of Steel have a germ of truth to them, and are not just sour grapes. The one criticism I don’t abide by is that the film is unfaithful to the Superman mythos. That mythos is as much a continuity as anything else, where each previous iteration of the character builds in different ways and in different directions. Besides, those roots are best thought of as a starting point, not an endpoint, and sometimes there’s such a thing as being too faithful to the wrong spirit. Man of Steel understands Superman well enough to know he should be taken seriously, even if it doesn’t always quite know how to make that understanding real. Having that understanding is, by itself, a small miracle. Now let’s see if the rest of the films can make good on the promise.