The Last Son of Krypton is a difficult hero to bring into the 21st Century. As the first true “superhero,” and the prototype for all who followed, he is a bit of a relic from a bygone era with simpler ideas about right and wrong, good and evil. He is a pure and idealistic figure that seems out of place in the cynical world we live in today. There appears to be a growing opinion that Superman is not as interesting as other superheroes because he is so powerful. Most fans of Supes know there is more to him than his incredible abilities, and the new film Man of Steel tries in earnest to demonstrate it. For the most part, it succeeds.
Still, by bringing Superman into the era of The Dark Knight and Skyfall, one gets the sense that something was lost in translation. Superman seems as out-of-place in 2013 as he does on the planet Earth. But as a person who keeps a figurine of the Man of Steel on my desk to remind myself to always strive to be the best person I can be, I know that we need a hero as simple and pure as Superman in this time of moral ambiguity. Man of Steel, while not a great film by any stretch, will hopefully remind moviegoers of this.
As the latest of numerous television, cinematic, animated and live-action portrayals of Superman, Man of Steel represents not only a reboot of the character, but a significant shift in tone. Superman has traditionally been portrayed as a sincere Boy Scout with a winning grin, and his adversaries were light-hearted scamps with decidedly G-rated schemes involving real estate or accounting scams. This Superman is brooding and troubled, and his adversary is nothing short of a genocidal maniac.
DC and Warner Brothers seem hell-bent on making sure that Superman could potentially exist in the terrifying world of the Dark Knight. While this darker take on the Man of Steel mythos never completely betrays the character, there are a few moments that come close. These beats are not at all shocking for your typical modern movie, but they are fairly disturbing in the context of a Superman adventure. After all, he’s a guy in tights who can fly. You shouldn’t take him too seriously.
It’s clear that this film is building the foundation for an inevitable Justice League film featuring Bats and Supes. And while Man of Steel is by no means a misstep, Warner Brothers may need to be reminded that Superman doesn’t need to be as dark as Batman. The two characters are supposed to be the foil to one another. They challenge each other and keep the other one honest. If you make them too much alike, they won’t be interesting together.
As an origin story, Man of Steel is serviceable. Comic fans are generally extremely concerned that origin stories are true to the source material, but Superman has been rebooted so many times in the comics that there isn’t a lot of grounds for nerd rage here. The Krypton scenes represent something of a science fiction pastiche. The planet itself looks like a cut scene out of a Halo game, with weird space armor, laser guns and alien hover ships The Genesis chamber looks like a leftover set piece from the “real world” of Matrix. The Kryptonian leaders are wearing what looks like costumes from the David Lynch Dune movie. And why is it that everytime Russell Crowe dies to a Hans Zimmer score, they have some vaguely ethnic lady singing a sad song? What is this, Gladiator is space? Still, the proceedings move more briskly than the 1977 rendition of Krypton’s last days, even though Crowe pales in comparison to Marlon Brando as Jor-El.
The Smallville scenes are mostly told in flashback, interspersed throughout the plot of the movie. Kevin Costner once again proves his ability to be “America’s Dad,” and as Clark Kent’s adopted dad, he brings the kind of warmth that the rest of the movie lacks. Diane Lane similarly brings a lot of heart to the role of Martha Kent. These sequences concentrate heavily on how Superman learns to control his powers and more importantly, understand the responsibility that comes along with them. These scenes establish the essence of Superman’s struggle quite well. Amy Adams does fine as plucky reporter Lois Lane. The budding romance between Supes and Lane is acceptable, but earlier cinematic portrayals of this relationship easily surpass what is established here.
Henry Cavill is a great choice for Supes. The suit looks a little too dark and textured (and where’s the underwear on the top of the tights!) but he wears it well. Maybe it’s too cheeky in modern times, but I would have liked to see the Superman “curl” in his hair. He doesn’t need to wear it the whole time, but can’t we have a moment where it falls into his forehead as a wink to the audience? And it’s fun winks like that this film sorely needs
It is notable that this is the first portrayal of Superman to “realistically” portray his powers. We truly see a believable demonstration of what it would look like if someone could fly through the air and smash through buildings. But unlike the previous films, we don’t get to have any fun with these powers. There are no moments of true wonder like when Superman first saves Lois from a crashing helicopter in the original film, or when he lands a plane in the middle of a baseball game in Superman Returns.
The best part of this origin story is the last 5 minutes of the film. It is here where Cavill is allowed to really slip into the role of Superman as we know him. His interaction with the crusty military commander does a great job establishing Superman’s personality. He is firm but not aggressive. Charming but not smarmy. When he finally puts on his glasses as Clark Kent, there is a feeling of satisfaction akin to seeing Chris Pine settle into his chair at the end of 2009’s Star Trek or Daniel Craig finally utter “Bond, James Bond” at the end of Casino Royale. Everything is in its place again, and we’re ready to begin the adventure.
Watching a reboot of Superman is a bit like watching a production of Hamlet. It deserves to be examined on its own terms, but demands to be compared to what has come before. What is always understood is that it will not be the final time the story is told. In the final analysis, Man of Steel is not the definitive rendition of the Superman mythos some may have hoped it to be. It is, however, a worthy chapter in the Last Son of Krypton’s long and enduring history. Welcome back, Kal-El.