…written by David Goyer, directed by Zach Snyder, starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Russell Crowe, based on the comic book by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster.
Superman is serious business. He’s the first and arguably the greatest comic book super hero. Clark Kent has inspired countless spin-offs and clones, including the super hero action blockbuster sub-genre that currently rules in Hollywood. That doesn’t mean he’s always fared well on the big screen.
Witness the latter Chris Reeves Superman movies (but please, don’t). Even Superman and Superman II, which we love around here, don’t hold up all that well over time. 2006’s Superman Returns embraced Richard Donner’s same big-screen mythology and floundered. Now the team of David Goyer and Zach Snyder, with input from Christopher Nolan, have rebooted with Man of Steel. They are hoping for that same mature and riveting re-imagining of the the Kryptonian Mythos as Nolan provided with his Dark Knight trilogy. Warner Brothers needs a foil to the Marvel juggernaut, and it’s Big Blue to the rescue.
But, like an ill-fated Lex Luthor plot, they come up a little short.
The plot is familiar with a few new flourishes. On the planet Krypton, Jor-El and Lara have their son, Kal-El (who turns out to be the first natural birth in centuries), as civil war and strife accompany the imminent destruction of the planet. In this version, Krypton’s doom is a direct result of over-harvesting planetary resources, which has led to irreversible damage to the planet’s core.
Enter General Zod and his troops, attempting a military coup to wrest control from ineffectual bureaucrats in denial about Krypton’s fate. This setup provides us with some really cool futuristic action sequences and gives Russell Crowe’s Jor-El some face-time. Jor-El and Lara are set to send baby Kal-El away to Earth, and in a new twist, they steal the Codex (the planet’s complete genetic records, used to clone-birth all Kryptionians other than Kal-El) and implant this information in their son.
So in this version baby Superman heads for Earth with his peoples’ entire biological legacy encoded within him. This gives Zod good reason for pursuit later on. Zod’s coup is, of course, thwarted, and he ends up in imprisoned in the Negative Zone. Krypton explodes. Fast Forward.
We meet Clark Kent rescuing workers on an oil rig, demonstrating some of his powers. He’s living like a vagabond, helping where he can but always trying to cover his tracks and avoid detection. In a series of flashbacks, we learn why. His Earth dad, Jonathan Kent (Costner) not only preached the familiar Midwestern values of right over might and responsibility to fellow people, he also included a healthy dose of paranoia and worry about Clark revealing himself too soon. It’s a switch in emphasis of Superman’s early years – a nod to the self-absorption of our current age. I mean, if your kid could do what Clark can do, you put him on Youtube, sign a TV contract, and retire, right? You get the sense that Goyer and Snyder can’t process the simplicity of one of the lines from the comics and earlier movies: “When the time is right to reveal yourself, you’ll know.”
The childhood flashback scenes are well-executed and very effective. The scene in which young Clark has a breakdown trying to deal with his super-hearing and X-ray vision is great. And yet this origin occurs against a backdrop of fear of discovery and alienation. Maybe it’s the score, maybe it’s the sequencing, but you don’t get that scene where Clark revels in running faster than a speeding bullet and leaping tall buildings. The sense of wonder and excitement aren’t there.
The plot moves forward to Arctic Canada and an ancient Kryptonian scout ship discovered beneath the ice. Here we meet Lois Lane, ace journalist, as Clark sneaks onto the excavation site to check out the site. He uses an uber-thumbdrive from his own ship, which activates a virtual Jor-El in the ship’s systems, who begins to teach Clark of his heritage. As a result, the scout ship and Clark head north (mini-Fortress of Solitude) and Lois goes on the hunt to discover the identity of this mysterious being.
Lois, being a prize winning reporter and smart person, indeed tracks Clark back to his origins in Smallville, where she meets with him and learns more of his story. She decides she agrees with Clark, that it’s better not to reveal him to the world. It’s a fantastic twist on the classic story – one that updates Lois and immediately transforms her from romantic foil to real character.
To this point in the film, it’s all about the set up. Will Clark reveal himself and his origins? How about this different take on the Lois-Clark relationship… When will General Zod appear? When will we see Superman?
Well Zod does show up, in a slickly choreographed and familiar first alien contact sequence. Zod, sounding like a 50’s-era invader, assures the humans no harm will come to them so long as Kal-El, who has hidden among them on Earth, surrenders himself.
OK. A logical plot point. But it serves to rob Clark of his own choice of whether and how to become Superman. Now there’s an existential threat to the planet – of course he will reveal himself to Zod. But the problem here is this move goes against the mythos of Superman. He is Superman because he was brought up to help people and use his immense power for good, his legacy confirmed by his Earth father and his Krypton father. He is a hero by choice more than by obligation. We don’t need all this doubt and navel gazing. We don’t need a scene of Clark in the church, talking to a priest, with a stained glass Jesus looking on (even if it is a nice scene).
So Clark can’t reveal himself as Superman until forced to by a dire threat. Bad move by the creative team. It immediately made me uncomfortable in the theater, and later as I thought more about it, I formulated a theory: Goyer, Snyder, and Producer Chris Nolan didn’t trust the source material. (Rule #1 of successful Comic Book movies is Thou Shalt Trust the Source Material). They just couldn’t fathom that an alien raised on a farm in Kansas with good, old, Midwestern values would choose to become Earth’s greatest hero. Too simple for them, I guess.
From this point the plot advances to various additional revelations about Krypton and showdowns with Zod and his soldiers. Zod decides Earth would make a fine new home for the Kryptonians, and with the genetic data stored within Clark, he can begin cloning again. Of course he will need to drastically change Earth’s atmosphere to match Krypton’s (bad news for us humans).
The fights and destruction that ensue are impressive to behold, but ultimately wrong. Superman would never fight a group of Kryptonians in the middle of Smallville, he always moves the fight away to spare the innocent by-standers. Similarly, the final showdown with Zod wrecks Metropolis in grand disaster-porn style. This too is wrong. And amidst all this destruction, we lose some of the fun and sense of wonder that should accompany a movie about Superman. There’s no soaring fanfare, no moment for truth, justice, and yes, the American way.
Henry Cavill has emotional range and looks the part. He does a fine job in the blue suit. They do insert some of those fun, lighter moments towards the end, a couple additional clever modifications of the original story. But it’s not enough to save the movie for me. I wanted a great new Superman movie and this ain’t it. Whether this is because the creative team didn’t trust in the source material or chose to emphasize the wrong aspects of Clark’s origins, I’m still undecided.
But, hey, it’s breaking box office records and has received some good reviews. Maybe my inner Comic Book Guy is just too demanding. Warner Brothers was looking for a reason to keep DC Comics on the big screen, and this certainly helps. We’re just helping they do a little better with the next movie.