Movie Remixes Superman Legend with Engaging Results
Man of Steel is the latest feature film to focus on the comic-book character Superman, who celebrates his 75th “birthday” in 2013. The film is directed by Zach Snyder (“300”, “Sunday Punch”) and produced by Christopher Nolan of the recent “Dark Knight” Batman film series. The film follows some 7 years after the most recent cinema interpretation, 2006’s Superman Returns. In Man of Steel, the filmmakers intend to revision the mythology of Superman—and in large part, they succeed.
Some of the basics of the legend of Superman (portrayed by native Briton Henry Cavill) are intact—sent to Earth in a spaceship from the dying planet Krypton as a baby, adopted in anonymity by a Kansas couple who raised him with Heartland values—but from there, the hero’s journey to become Superman is a far more ponderous—and tumultuous—than past screen depictions.
The audience is selectively exposed to segments of young Clark Kent’s life (frequently in flashback): performing heroic rescues in secret, being admonished by his adoptive dad Jonathan (Kevin Costner, who along with Diane Lane as wife Martha portray the senior Kents as protective moral beacons.) By the time biological dad Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is resurrected as a hologram, 33 years have passed in Clark’s life (a nod to Biblical subtext) and a crisis occurs that forces the last son of Krypton to reveal himself to the world. It’s at this point that the film’s heretofore moderate pace becomes fairly relentless.
The film’s antagonist is General Zod (Michael Shannon, who wisely demurs any temptation to go camp). Seething with conquer-lust, Zod and his crew of outcast Kryptonians (they managed to escape Krypton’s implosion) have chosen Earth as the place to restart Kryptonian society. That most of Earth’s existing population would be wiped out by atmosphere-machines is treated with matter-of-fact disinterest. Obviously, the newly christened (and costumed) Superman cannot allow this, and the ensuing fight has literally global consequences.
Superman’s traditional supporting cast is pared down slightly: intrepid reporter and super-love interest Lois Lane is here (Amy Adams), still with a knack for covering dangerous stories, but thankfully with none of the goofy cluelessness that defined the character for much of her history. She also serves as her own photographer, obliquely commenting on the current state of the newspaper business (poor Jimmy Olsen; maybe he runs a blog now). Daily Planet chief editor Perry White sports a stud earring for the first time (the always reliable Laurence Fishburne), and is understandably hesitant at first to publish Lane’s story about an alien visitor. Cavill’s Superman and Adams’ Lois do have palpable screen chemistry, though that romance blossoms between them in the midst of an alien invasion.
Ironically, DC Comics’ corporate rival Marvel seems to have influenced this latest Superman venture. Marvel is long-known for featuring superheroes that spend more time being misunderstood than being lauded, and this Superman is treated by the American military as just as much a threat as Zod. The death of a key character by mid-film is also given a Marvel-esque touch, putting Superman at the center of a fateful choice that informs his later life. Cavill plays the near-invulnerable Superman as near-crippled by a lifetime of existential angst: he’s determined to help humanity but loathe to get close to anyone.
Where Superman Returns stressed romance, Man of Steel stresses (plenty of CGI-abetted) action. Superman and his foes leap for miles, fly into orbit, and throw punches that send each other through mountaintops, skyscrapers, and in one of several product placement asides, an IHOP restaurant. In this regard, the scale of combat taken for granted in the comics is finally rendered on film, quite convincingly.
Regarding the behind-the-scenes role players, the filmmakers’ intent was clearly to break ties with past screen depictions. Where Superman Returns openly paid tribute to the Alexander Salkind-produced/Richard Donner-directed films, the set design for the Kryptonian society and ships seems to owe a debt to Ridley Scott’s Alien and David Lynch’s Dune. Screenplay credit goes to David S. Goyer (who shares co-story credit with producer Nolan), who imbues the narrative with touches of post-9/11 anxieties, and even manages to get away with completely ignoring kryptonite as a plot device. Even the traditional “love triangle” between Superman/Clark and Lois is upended early on in the proceedings.
Overall, Man of Steel manages to succeed as the first post-millennial Superman film to capture the zeitgeist of today. This Superman makes no bones about his American upbringing but blanches at being perceived as an arm of American policy (“I’m here to help, but it has to be on my own terms,” says Superman to a U.S. military general.) Commercially, the presumed success of this film is reputed to pave the way for not just its own sequel but the introduction of Superman’s super-contemporaries in the Justice League. Whether the latter happens is up to Warner Bros. Studio executives—whose whims can kill a film faster than a speeding bullet—but with the same creative team in place, Superman’s new adventures should continue to soar.