I liked essentially everything about “Man of Steel” except its plot.
I know that’s weird to say, but it’s true. I had high hopes for the first Superman movie in seven years, and though I liked “Superman Returns” well enough to accept a sequel, I was also fine with a reboot if it meant I got to see Clark Kent and his alter ego on the big screen once again. But the end result of “Man of Steel” made me a little sad, because there’s a really good movie lurking around underneath the dourness and darkness.
First, what I liked. The visuals are good, the suit is surprisingly fine, and the casting is superb. Henry Cavill plays a great Superman (Clark is mostly absent from the movie), full of reassurance and a quiet drive to do the right thing, and his Krypton and Earth parents all do a fine job as well – in particular Russell Crowe as a dignified and resolute Jor-El. Best of all, however, is the absolutely excellent Amy Adams as Lois Lane, a plucky, determined journalist who doesn’t let getting the hot scoop take precedence over doing the right thing.
Along those lines, the characterizations and themes are very solid, at least at the beginning. I embrace Superman for the same reasons many reject him as a hero. He’s a role model, an ideal to which we should all aspire. He looks like us, but he is better than us. He could rule us and subjugate, but he values every life and freedom of decision. He does the right thing, not the easy thing, and we look up to him because he ultimately will choose the moral imperative. In short, he is good, full-stop.
In the first two-thirds or so of the movie, this comes across wonderfully. As pre-Superman, Clark can’t help but help people, even when it may not be in his best interests to do so. His parents are kind and loving and want him to do the right thing. The concepts of Superman and his supporting cast are simple, but elegant. He needs to be the last son of Krypton, and he is; he and his family and friends need to be good people, and they are. That might not sound like much, but it means the world to a person like me who holds Superman as one of his favorite fictional heroes.
Now, let’s rewind a little and talk about the plot and premise. “Man of Steel” spends its opening minutes on Krypton, retelling the story of young Kal-El’s birth and exile to Earth as his home planet crumbles. In so doing, it weaves in the backstory of the film’s villain, General Zod, Krypton’s preservation-of-the-species-obsessed military leader who is saved from the planet’s destruction due to being incarcerated off-planet. Once freed from the Phantom Zone (a common Superman plot device familiar to comics readers), Zod and some amoral henchmen make their way to Earth, convinced that Clark’s spaceship holds the key to restarting the Kryptonian race and not really caring about what happens to us Earthlings in the process.
It’s at this point that I should bring up the creatives in this little venture: Zack Snyder in the director’s chair, with a story by “Dark Knight” veterans David Goyer and Christopher Nolan (who also produces “Man of Steel”). This is the first time at the comic book rodeo for none of these men, but they’re veterans of darker fare than the stuff that makes up the best Superman stories, and it shows. “Man of Steel” has three grim, destructive fights in populated areas, with two in particular implying scads upon scads of dead bystanders. This is no movie for youngsters, perhaps the ultimate crime in a movie about Superman (on a related note, I don’t want to watch a Superman movie in which one character calls another “dicksplash”).
The final (and really unnecessary) fight leads to the film’s unforgivable sin, which not only sees Superman violate his moral imperative, but leaves him and viewers with a Pyrrhic victory. Superman may save the day, but he does so at the cost of his conscience and millions of lives.
I’m not one to shy away from dark or depressing endings (I generally love Nolan’s work), but Superman is not the hero for these kinds of stories. He’s unambiguous; he wears his heart on his sleeve; he is a signal, a bright beacon of hope that shows us that we can overcome our misdeeds. He is at his best not when exchanging fisticuffs, but when protecting people, something he often eschews in this film in favor of getting in another punch.
After 75 years of the Big Blue Boy Scout, perhaps this is the Superman that people want, but I think the box office could be served better with a little hope. At least I still have my comics shop’s back issue bins.
Have you liked Matinee Culture on Facebook yet?