When Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN arrived in 1978, audiences were ravenous for a new kind of big-screen spectacle. They craved larger-than-life vistas stuffed with then-believable special effects, and – after being inundated with ten years’ worth of entertainment reflecting the political upheaval of the times – a kind of outsized, childlike hope. They wanted to believe in the good guy again. So who better to divert moviegoers from war, corruption and cynicism than the flying fella with the spit curl? Truth, justice and the American way – all delivered via state-of-the-art visual wizardry, and pumped up with a grandly inspirational score from John Williams? It was time for uplift. It was time for Superman.
But is it that time thirty-five years later? And if so, what kind of Superman? Given Christopher Nolan’s grim, semi-realistic (and insanely lucrative) take on Batman, the argument could be made that it’s time to scuff Supes up a little, weigh him down with angst and suggest that the whole saving-the-world-all-the-time racket is a bit of a pain in the ass. What’s wonderful about Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s MAN OF STEEL (produced/”godfathered” by Nolan) is that it knows this “bold” demythologization is what audiences expect, and makes that inclination towards dourness the central thematic conflict of the story. MAN OF STEEL is about a good person, an outsider, a literal alien who refuses to give into despair when all he really has is himself. It is a search for home, and a battle for the possibility of hope.
Goyer’s screenplay is a battleground both in terms of the story’s relentless action and its determination to not fall victim to the dreaded superhero origin structure. But as a clean reboot, backstory is a necessary indulgence; it’s also important to invent top-down a world that in no way resembles the Donner film. So Goyer presents a Krypton in which Kal-El’s natural birth is a crime due to the planet’s 1,000-year-old practice of engineering embryos to fulfill specific societal needs. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) believes in free will, and wants his only son to discover his purpose rather than be tethered to it from the womb. General Zod (Michael Shannon), meanwhile, is a patriot whose commitment to the survival of a dying Krypton leads him to behave traitorously. The crucial tweak in Goyer’s setup is that Kal possesses the key to a rebirth of Krypton elsewhere in the galaxy. So when Zod and his confederates escape from confinement, they set a course for Kal’s new home, Earth, from which they intend to extract Kal under threat of global annihilation.
The other important alteration in Goyer’s screenplay is the use of a flashback structure to depict only the essential moments of Kal/Clark’s childhood, many of which come with Jonathan Kent sermonettes (Kevin Costner at his folksy best) stressing the importance of humility and concealment. Like Jor-El, Jonathan believes his son is destined to change the world – if only because, in the case of Earth, Clark’s presence mucks up the picture for people of all faiths. What kind of man Clark chooses to be – good, bad, indifferent - will likely determine the fate of humanity.
Whereas Donner presented an alternately dashing/clutzy Superman/Clark Kent (thanks to a miraculous performance by Christopher Reeve), Snyder and Goyer focus solely on Kal/Clark (Henry Cavill), who was treated as a freak for most of his childhood (that’ll happen when you have monstrous panic attacks because you can’t shut out the cacophony of the world or stop seeing people as a hideous collection of bones and organs), and has therefore become something of an introvert as a young adult. His anguished search for the Fortress of Solitude coincides with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) investigating a long-buried-in-the-ice alien artifact. This winds up flipping the whole Clark/Lois relationship on its head, as Lois meets Clark just as he’s learning the specifics of his otherworldly origin. How then to protect his identity, which is critical for the safety of his mother, Clark’s only surviving parent? Snyder and Goyer’s decision on how far to let Lois dig into Clark’s story sets up what should be a fascinating, rarely explored dynamic between the two characters as the franchise progresses.
This doesn’t sound like lighthearted fun, does it? Not compared to Donner’s SUPERMAN perhaps, but once Clark reveals his true, super-powered self (just in time to get handed over to Zod), Goyer ramps up the stakes; the not-yet-christened-Superman must battle Zod and his army while still discovering the supreme extent of his abilities. Snyder, shifting from the glossy artifice of his earlier films to a handheld immediacy - which, thankfully, never looks like a shoot-for-edit jumble – unleashes a near-non-stop torrent of mayhem that makes the Times Square brawl in SUPERMAN II look like the climax of GERRY. Geographically and compositionally, everything is sharp; if the scale of the destruction is sometimes difficult to comprehend, that’s only because no one’s staged superhero throwdowns of this gargantuan magnitude. Though Snyder does a fairly good job of keeping the viewer aware of the human element in all of this chaos (most notably in a collapsing building set piece that runs parallel to Zod and the gang… well, collapsing lots of buildings, really), it’s hard not to wonder how many innocent civilians Superman and the bad guys are killing as they send each other crashing through the middle of several blocks’ worth of skyscrapers. By “realistically” depicting the city-leveling damage that would be inflicted by a superperson set-to, Snyder inadvertently broaches the question of Superman’s comfort level with collateral damage.
In a film this thoughtful, such gleeful havoc is somewhat jarring the more one thinks about it, but the filmmakers ultimately address the limits of Superman’s fury in a scene that is both shocking and heartbreaking – and it works because Cavill has quietly, gradually earned the audience’s sympathy with an emotionally true exploration of a reluctant savior’s struggle. There are times when Snyder can’t help playing with the notion of Kal as the savior, but this film can at least bear the weight (unlike Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS, which dragged excess, often conflicting metaphorical baggage into the Donner universe). Goyer has left an avenue open for the series to explore the impact of Superman’s existence on world religion, but it seems just as likely that the next movie will dial back the seriousness. Clark/Kal/Superman – a trinity of outcasts – will forever struggle with their purpose, but this is the gift of free will, and this is a good thing. What matters most in MAN OF STEEL is finding a home, people who love you, people for whom you’d give your life. The film puts its protagonist through hell getting there, but pays off the journey beautifully in the final moment. After all that, there’s hope. That’s uplift. That’s Superman.