Back in college, I had a chat with one of my professors about the portrayal of heroes in pop culture. His contention was that we’d lost something in these characters by making them silly, and less larger than life, in contemporary versions of their adventures. He felt that the protagonists of older stories were more unique & had dramatically interesting flaws. In his opinion, true heroes were in short supply. This was the mid 80s, mind you, so considering some of the movie & TV heroes of the time, he may have had a point. But my opinion was that heroes & their adventures were able to be re-interpreted in many different ways. Each generation has re-fashioned these stories in their own style, and enjoyed them in a new light. If I remember correctly, I think we ended up agreeing to disagree on the subject. I was thinking of that conversation when I watched Man of Steel (2013), director Zack Snyder’s darker, interesting re-imagining of the Superman saga.
The last attempt at reviving Superman on the big screen, 2006’s Superman Returns, while successful at the box office, was not a critical or audience favorite. It had some interesting ideas, but it was very much a valentine to the Richard Donner directed Superman (1978), which featured Christopher Reeve’s iconic version of the character. Director Bryan Singer was clearly in love with the Donner film, and in some ways, Superman Returns felt like a re-make rather than a new movie. It didn’t tread any new ground, and ended up disappointing audiences as a result. In fact, our hero had greater success on TV in recent years in the long-running series, Smallville (2001-11). Man of Steel is a more dramatic, somber interpretation of the character than we’re used to seeing on the big screen.
The film opens on Krypton, where Jor-El (Russell Crowe, imbuing the role with quiet authority & strength) tries to warn the ruling council that over-use of their natural resources has made the planet’s core unstable. His warnings fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, General Zod, a rebel military leader, attempts a coup, feeling that Krpyton has become stagnant, and needs new leadership. Jor-El & his wife Lara, knowing their world is doomed, send their infant son Kal into space, having selected Earth as his new home. Zod kills Jor-El, but is captured. He and his soldiers are banished to an area called The Phantom Zone. Shortly afterward, Krypton explodes, and Kal’s ship continues its journey toward Earth.
After the Krypton sequence, we flash forward to an older Kal, who’s traveling the world, and doing good deeds behind the scenes, while keeping his alien origins from the world. There are flashbacks to his younger years with the Kents (Kevin Costner & Diane Lane), who discovered the ship, adopted him, and named him Clark. We see some interesting sequences with Clark's powers starting to emerge, and his feelings that something may be wrong with him, as he tries to come to terms with his origins. Jonathan Kent councils him that he’ll need to hide his true nature, because our world might feel threatened by what they don’t understand. As the grown-up Clark tries to keep to the shadows and do more good, a reporter named Lois Lane is tracking down the stories of this “mysterious savior” in order to figure out his identity. Then Zod & his followers, who have been freed from the Phantom Zone, show up seeking Clark/Kal, and threatening Earth’s destruction. Our hero may finally have to reveal himself in order to defend his adopted homeworld.
If you’re more familiar with the Superman of the Donner/Reeve era, the serious tone of the film may surprise you. The script is by David S. Goyer, who co-wrote Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and Nolan is the film’s producer. Their influence is definitely felt here. In fact, there are some neat twists to the Superman myth. For example, Krypton has used genetic engineering to produce its children for ages, and pre-determine their role in life (soldier, scientist, etc.). Kal is the first natural birth on Krypton in generations, and Jor-El hopes he can make his own destiny. Zod (who was engineered to be a soldier and defender of Krypton) starts his rebellion because he believes the dependence on genetic engineering has ruined his society. There are also some interesting Jesus/Judeo-Christian parallels to Kal's story, which have always been an underlying theme for the character.
Of course, when Zod shows up, he’s not only looking for Kal, but a world where he can create a new Krypton. The usual super-battle between hero & villains ensues, but this isn’t your father’s Superman. The humorous moments of the fights from Superman II (1981) are nowhere to be found here. The battle sequences are impressive, though they do go on a bit too long. The climax of the conflict (warning: spoilers ahead) is one of the film’s major deviations from previous versions of the character. Superman kills Zod to end the threat to Earth. We’ve long been used to the fact Superman was the one hero who never resorted to killing his enemies to solve a problem, and it feels a little surprising here. In a way, it’s an effective moment, because you don’t see it coming. But it still felt a little off-putting, even though Kal shows some remorse for his actions. This scene has sparked some passionate reactions from fans, which you can investigate around the web if you'd like to further explore the debate.
Director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300) & his crew have done a great job with the look of the film; the Krypton sequence in particular is very impressive. The film is well cast; Henry Cavill is an effective Superman/Clark; he ably portray's the character's conflict as a man of two worlds; Amy Adams is a determined, less flighty Lois than we’ve seen in previously. Michael Shannon is very good as Zod, and manages to add shadings to the character that make him more than a one-note villain. Costner & Lane are wonderful as The Kents, giving excellent, understated performances, though Lane's role feels a little underwritten. The supporting cast is filled with familiar character actors who add gravity to the film, including Laurence Fishbourne (as Perry White), Christopher Meloni and Richard Schiff. As often occurs with films like this, there are a few Easter eggs and hidden in-jokes for longtime fans of the Superman saga.
Man of Steel effectively re-launches & re-interprets this beloved character, now in his 75th anniversary year. While there are some minor issues with the story, overall this is a well-done superhero film (with a heavy emphasis on the science-fiction aspects of the story) that respects its source, and takes an often told story in some intriguing new directions. It will be fun to see where Warner Brothers goes with Superman & the rest of the DC Universe characters. A sequel to this film is reportedly already in the planning stages, but what's next? Could it be that long-gestating Justice League movie? Or perhaps a World’s Finest style Superman/Batman team-up? Only time will tell. Man of Steel is now in theaters. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwYatpwrs8s