Superman has meant a lot of things to a lot of different people throughout his 75 years, since his creation back in 1938 in Action Comics issue #1. Next to the cross of Jesus in Christianity, the Superman “S” is the second most recognized symbol across the globe—and the Christ-like qualities given the character certainly don’t end there, yet at times, more has been bestowed upon him than really is there, in this respect, but more on that later.
In the latest (and perhaps the finest, yet most rivetingly convoluted) iteration of the classic character, Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder (of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen fame, among others), has taken the approach of depicting a conflicted, gritty, and somber version of the Krytonian we all know and love. [YOU’VE BEEN WARNED, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM YET, DON’T READ YET: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS]. The Krypton, Smallville, Metropolis of Snyder’s world all have an over-arching sense of heft that could be seen as a somewhat doom and gloom approach to the heretofore often light and airy character. Richard Donner’s highly revered early Superman films cemented into the public consciousness a man that was funny, powerful, and yet sort of goofy. And to many, that’s how they like it, and to say anything more on the subject of Christopher Reeve’s interpretation would be to blaspheme the only “one true way” that he “ought” to be! (Perish the thought of anyone who actually liked the 2006 comeback film Superman Returns, which really was much more of a success than people give it credit for, but unfortunately, it’s fallen prey to the “angry fanboy effect” of a few people/reviewers disliking it, and everyone else kind of following suit in disdain).
But the moment anyone says that Superman “must” or “ought” or “should” be or do or act in any certain, defined way, that leads to a stripping of the reality that someone and something of this magnitude and this public as Superman is. Yes, there are certain attributes that should remain on the table when dealing with Superman: he fights for the good of humanity; he stands for truth, justice, and the American Way (a complicated phrase that seems to fall hard on 2013 ears, yet, still can be seen as non-imperialist and striving for good, when viewed in a broader context); he tows the line of knowing when to take action and when to hold off, and does do based on a larger context of right and wrong that he has rooted profoundly deep within his being.
Kal-El of Man of Steel is a dark incarnation of the character. But that dark vision does not need to be viewed as untrue to who Superman is. The origin story remains the same: Jor-El and Lara-El have the first naturally conceived and born child (not genetically manufactured as Kryptonians had been for many recent years), Kal-El, on the planet Krypton, just as it’s about to explode and cease to exist. Only Kal-El can be saved because his wise father created a ship that will take him to earth, that only he can board to safety and life away from the destruction. In the film, Jor-El infuses into his son what they describe as the “codex,” which is all the knowledge and history of all things Kryptonian, literally as becoming a part of the boy himself, before he takes off in his ship for Earth. Jump to Kal-El, aka Clark Kent, in his early thirties, as a downtrodden, somewhat angst-ridden man, searching for life’s meaning with his alien, superhuman abilities. He has flashbacks to being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, the down home, peak of humble virtuous parents who taught him the values and morals of their simple way of dwelling in the world.
The Kents of this film have firmly raised Clark to hide who he really is, to hide his abilities from the world, because as Clark says, Jonathan was convinced the world would reject him. This post-modern world in which (within this rendition of this story) these characters live is a frightening place. Uncertainty seems to reign supreme in Jonathan Kent’s understanding of his place in it and Clark’s coming to him and Martha. “Should I just have let them die,” a young Clark Kent asks his father in one scene, after having saved his classmates from a bus sinking in the river. “Maybe,” Pa Kent responds. This is not the unabashed do-gooder environs from which the man who’s faster than a speeding bullet would grow. This is a complex, morally uncertain ethos, which renders the adult Clark unsure of his path to take.
And yet, this is not to say that his understanding does away with the basic understanding of Superman as the virtuous hero. It simply adds the reality that there are shades of gray when dealing with the matters of life and death, right and wrong, good and evil—perhaps not in each of their most basic forms. Most everyone would be quick to point to extremes such as the Holocaust or something of the like. Certainly, some things can be seen in black and white, but much of life is hazy, and to have the character embrace this modern understanding of reality is if nothing else, more interesting to ponder for audiences and thinkers of all kind, religious, secular, or otherwise.
Superman is without a doubt the biggest, most god-like of all superheroes because he powers are so huge, his abilities so vastly beyond us, his moral compass so steered true north. He’s the ideal to live up to, the one who should be held to the highest standards because to whom much has been given, much is to be expected. But this singular vision of him has one flaw—it essentially equates Superman, as vast and great and powerful as he is, with God, but Superman is not God (but nor is he a/the secular equivalent). He is a flawed being.
In the many parallels drawn between the Man of Steel and the Savior from Jerusalem, he does not have the singular ability to always be perfectly right and just and good. Absolutely nowhere in this new film is this more apparent than the climactic ending and the decision that he makes regarding the destruction of his opponent. Superman killing is antithetical to turning the other cheek, and yet, it is (arguably, to be sure, but nevertheless) justifiably allowed in the circumstance portrayed in the film, not merely because of the set up of Zod’s impending murder of an innocent family unit, but the very, very clearly established motive of his entire life force: Zod will destroy the entirety of humanity in order to create a new Krypton out of what will remain of earth. It is Superman’s answer to the theological “problem of evil.” Zod will stop at nothing to accomplish this singular vision. In this, Superman’s actions are what could be described as justified. But it is a hard pill to swallow, watching him commit that direct of a killing (despite his outcry immediately after having committed it, which does, it must be said, alleviate some, (but not all), of the troubling nature of the action)—and certainly an action Christ would never have undertaken.
This is why the parallels drawn between Jesus and Superman are so troubling. Yes Kal-El has his earthly adoptive father as well as other worldly father. Yes, he vanquishes the evil doer—but does so often in the way we may desire such action to be taken, rather than the way it maybe should (or shouldn’t) be. Yes, he has devoted his life to the service of humanity, despite not being one of us (but even that does not jive with the Christian understanding of Jesus as both fully human and fully divine).
This is a topic that could of course be discussed much more exhaustively, (as some have decidedly done so), but notwithstanding, Zack Snyder didn’t set out merely to explore the moral spectrum of the Superman tale… he wanted to make a movie! Plain and simple!
As a film, Man of Steel is a unique blockbuster in many respects. It has all this other stuff going on in your mind’s eye while you’re watching it, and yet it also just has a lot of action-y action action action going on. You could say “action” a few more times, and you may not fully describe (particularly) the last 45 minutes of the movie.
The battle sequences of the movie have come under some derision for the relentless (and after a certain point near the end, agreeably it does get to be a bit much) fight scenes that leave Superman almost seeming to not care or not notice the amount of destruction going on around him. As previously stated, this action he has taken, in making the downfall of Zod his sole mission, is morally sound. By all accounts, he could and should be seen as needing to take down his opponent, or else the reality is: we all die. But it is simply, quite frankly, an apparent oversight on the behalf of the filmmakers to not include at least a short scene where he could at least recognize and lament the amount of devastation going on around him, or acknowledge the need to evacuate the city, or something. It really would’ve required little more than that, being as the stakes were so high. It’s not as though he could simply not fight his opponent. Zod would stop at nothing.
One thing very, very present in Man of Steel that it is impossible to not see Christopher Nolan’s hand at work here. Though he didn’t direct, as producer, The Dark Knight trilogy creator’s inspiration is all over the place. This is not a bad thing by any means; quite the contrary, Nolan brings a heft to the character that really roots Kal-El in something of a grounded reality. But Superman isn’t Batman. That’s not to say that Nolan or Snyder for that matter, or screenwriter David S. Goyer anyone else on the filmmaking team was simply trying to “Dark Knight-ify” Superman. They were not. And to say that they were would not give them enough credit as the creators of the interesting and fascinating film that Man of Steel is. But the interesting influences of weighty moral quandaries and philosophical musing at play certainly makes for a more fascinating viewing experience.
Perhaps the most effective measure of the film is the simply perfect casting. Henry Cavill is the embodiment of Superman. (Sorry Christopher Reeve fanboys…it’s true). And Amy Adams brings a new take to Lois Lane. She’s not your spunky reporter who just floats atop Kal-El’s heels. Jonathan and Martha Kent, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane respectively have an air to them that cannot help but be heavily influenced by the John Schneider and Annette O’Toole embodiments of the characters in the television series, Smallville. Yet Costner and Lane being the complete pros that they are, bring a beloved nature to their roles, and it’s quite beautiful to watch. Ayelet Zurer plays Lara-El, and Russell Crowe brings his scruffy nature to the legendary Jor-El character. It’s a different take on Jor-El, one more subdued, yet very in tune with his son, Kal, through the ages and dimensions post-death. He (or his memory/consciousness) practically floats around the screen with airy intensity. It was an interesting casting choice, and not one unwisely made.
Michael Shannon’s Zod is something dominant and powerful to behold. He’s quite terrifying, in his way. And Shannon’s acting chops come very much into play as he screams threatening tones of: “I will find him!” to the recently widowed Lara, after she also lost her son and was soon to lose her planet and existence on it.
The plot holes (such as sending the prisoners—Zod and his followers—off into the phantom zone just in time before Krypton explodes, so that they are allowed to live on and hunt Kal-El down) are a little troubling. But over all, the movie delivers a crisp and new take on the character, his story, and the world of Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman. It’s a film full of twists and turns and overwhelming visual stimuli, so the viewer is at no time un-enthralled by the sheer magnitude of it. Henry Cavill does the Man of Steel proud, (and it would be unjust not to mention his utterly perfect jaw line and piercingly perfect blue eyes!). Overall—despite a few shortcomings, as outlined, mainly ideological in nature—the movie is essentially a smashing success. (Not to mention, a huge box office blockbuster victory). And the world eagerly awaits more from this visionary series of the superhero we all know and love.
So come on Warner Brothers, Snyder, Nolan, Goyer, Henry Cavill, et al., …Bring on the sequels!