Spoilers of MAN OF STEEL below.
Confession – I love Superman. I think the character’s unique perch in the global pop culture pantheon is endlessly fascinating, his legends and lore quietly epic, his supporting cast of Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Ma and Pa Kent, and Lex Luthor second to none.
But that’s a lie. I don’t love Superman. The character I really love is Clark Kent.
Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter. Some might see his bespectacled, awkward, nerdy demeanor as the ultimate disguise, a completely fabricated bit of schizophrenic playacting to conceal Superman’s true alien identity. I’m not in that camp. I’m of the opinion that Clark Kent isn’t Superman so much as Superman is actually Clark Kent. Without Clark Kent, Superman doesn’t live up to his title– super in terms of power, yes, but an alien mutated by Earth’s atmosphere and yellow sun alone is no “man.” What’s always made the character compelling to me is that such a supremely powerful being isn’t a cold, despondent alien but rather someone who genuinely posses the soul and temperament of a guy from Smallville done good.
In Zach Snyder’s much anticipated reboot MAN OF STEEL, that notion of Clark Kent is a scant afterthought. In his place, there’s a whole lot of Superman’s brute strength and myriad powers on display, a whole lot of alien (and oddly enough, ALIEN, as in Ripley in space ALIEN) iconography, a whole lot of General Zod and Jor-El, and mostly a whole lot of things going boom really fast, which when strung together with a few labored scenes of pathos mining 20-year-old movies and a couple of jokes seems to constitute the blueprint for so-called blockbuster filmmaking this summer.
There’s little in the way of majesty in this Steely take on Superman, little in the way of fun or mirth. There’s no Clark Kent to be found, really– no workplace banter at the Daily Planet, no romantic tension with Lois Lane, no palling with Jimmy or Jenny or any Olsen whatsoever. In fact, this Superman seems to have no friends at all aside from the US military, which deserves an above-the-title credit for the amount of time featured on screen. There is a throwaway childhood friend of Clark’s who blossoms into an IHOP manager. Yawn.
We’re shown a lengthy prologue centered on Kal-El’s birth and many flashbacks to his youth in Kansas with the Kents, but inexplicably the core of who this Clark Kent is as a man is omitted. The film jumps from Kryptonian birth to Alaskan fishing boat. Somewhere in between, we’re led to believe, the character we’re supposed to identify with was forged, but we’re not privy to the process. We’re not privy to a lot about this Superman at all. I imagine the series of flashbacks were designed to fill the film’s doughnut-sized character hole, but they don’t quite do the trick. Kevin Costner initially brings some weight to the role of Pa Kent, alien Kal’s adoptive father, but there’s a scene of such jarring ridiculousness in which his character meets his demise that the power of Costner’s performance is ultimately rendered moot. The scene is so ridiculous and baffling that I won’t recap it here, save to say that it was one of several moments that left me wondering who the heck this alien Clark Kent was at all. At one point we do see Clark sipping a Budweiser and watching football, so I guess that’s supposed to inform us as to what a solid, standup guy he is. Henry Cavill does a serviceable job with the part, with his P90X abs and longing stares at the horizon, but considering that there are video game characters with more lines of dialogue than his Superman, it’s tough to call this a performance for the history books.
The movie goes to great lengths to plumb the depths of Superman’s alien heritage and spends a lot of time focused on Krypton’s civil strife, so much so that the camera seems pained to pry away from Russell Crowe’s Jor-El. It’s almost as if Hollywood can’t shake the fact that Marlon Brando once graced the screen playing the role of Superman’s biological father, as every iteration since has been haunted by his ghost. If you love those Brando scenes in the old Superman movies, MAN OF STEEL is the flick for you. A disproportionate amount of story and dialogue real estate is deeded to Jor-El in this movie, at the direct detriment of Kal-El himself. More than once I wondered if I had bought a ticket for a Superman movie or SUPERMAN’S DAD: THE MOTION PICTURE.
And that’s kind of the problem with MAN OF STEEL overall. It’s a Superman movie that feels very afraid of being too much about Superman. The character’s name is mentioned only once in the film that I can remember, and not in a particularly uplifting or inspiring way. “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” may be cheese, but at least it’s cheese that makes you feel something. In Superman’s place, MAN OF STEEL focuses on the above mentioned alien warfare, endless shots of terrestrial military vehicles in action, lots of metropolitan buildings being destroyed, and an odd assemblage of secondary characters that play like pale copies of the cast of INDEPENDENCE DAY.
In many ways, MAN OF STEEL reminds me of this summer’s earlier “blockbuster” STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Both feature outstanding, albeit frenetic and drably-hued special effects, and both feature a lead villain whose acting is bars above the surrounding story and performances. Here it’s Michael Shannon’s wonderfully stern and ruthless General Zod, in STID it was Cumberbatch’s Shakespearean He Who Shall Not Be Named. As good as these villains are, they die in the vacuum of their respective films, with no true counterbalance to play off. MAN OF STEEL and INTO DARKNESS try really, really hard to mean something , but in their labored attempts to remold the gravitas of early 1980s sci-fi films for a new generation, both end up missing the fundamentals and throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What bothered me most about MAN OF STEEL was the outcome of Superman’s final confrontation with Zod. The moment is a huge one for the character, and one that I found jarring and remarkably off note. Said moment is then passed over in such a way that it all seems rather meaningless. This more than anything else in MAN OF STEEL’s messy two hours sank the character and the movie for me. It wasn’t so much what he did, it’s that Snyder and the screenwriters give their Superman no time to reflect on or explain the weighty decision. It happens, there’s a shout, and then it’s cut scene to riding off into the sequel sunset. The sequence far surpasses the level of violence employed by Batman in any of the Dark Knight movies, and just feels completely irreverent and mishandled when applied to Superman. In a world of drone strikes and unilateral assassinations, I guess this is what Truth, Justice, and the American Way now looks like.
It’s only in the last few seconds of MAN OF STEEL that the characters of Clark, Lois, Perry, and Superman actually come alive. For far too much of the film their plight feels as cold, alien, and dead as Krypton.