My favorite version of Superman’s origin story comes from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. It’s four sentences, eight words, with accompanying visuals: Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. That’s it. And we’re off.
I’ve gone on record as saying that I don’t see the point in origin stories, at least not where the legends of our time are concerned. We don’t start every new series of Sherlock Holmes movies by recounting how Holmes and Watson came to live and work together at 221B Baker Street. We don’t completely reboot James Bond with each new actor who steps into that venerable role. As much as I love Batman Begins, we know the story by cultural osmosis. It, too, can be distilled into a few words: Happy family. Unspeakable loss. Years wandering. New purpose. Or Spider-Man: Spider bite. Wasted power. Fallen mentor. Great responsibility.
So we know Superman’s story. The last survivor of an alien race, he was sent to Earth as an infant, where he was adopted by kindly farmers, protected and raised with their values. Imbued with great powers through his exposure to our yellow sun, he now fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.
Man of Steel is an origin story. There’s no getting around that. It’s a reboot for the Superman film franchise, taking up the torch from the classic movies starring Christopher Reeve and the cinematic saga that came to a close with the rather tepid spiritual sequel Superman Returns. I’m not sure we needed that reboot. I’m not sure we needed to be told this story again. As a rule, I would rather see the origins of these characters taken as read, so we can just get on with new tales. But it was an enjoyable, faithful, and thought-provoking ride nonetheless.
As sentient beings, painfully aware of our mortality and our ultimate insignificance in the face of eternity, we have been haunted throughout our existence with the same questions: are we alone? Is there something out there greater than ourselves? Do we need to be saved – from ourselves, from forces we cannot control, from forces we cannot yet comprehend or perceive – and, if so, will we be saved? And, above all, are we worthy of salvation? Superman represents a potential answer. Above all else, Superman represents hope that, yes, there is something more out there, a great and benevolent force that sees the good in humanity and will act to protect it. The parallels to religious doctrine, and particular to Christianity, are obvious. It is not surprising that Man of Steel grapples with those questions and draws those parallels, showing human beings at their best and their worst, and depicting Clark Kent’s struggle to find his role relative to our planet and our people in the face of all our complexity and contradiction. The movie’s failures are similarly complex and contradictory: it either goes too far in pursuit of these themes, or not far enough. The Christ imagery is heavy-handed and scarcely worthy of the name ‘metaphor’: Clark is 33 years old when he’s thrust before humanity and compelled to sacrifice himself for all mankind. He has a conversation about whether or not he should sacrifice himself, whether or not it’s the right thing to do, in a church, with a priest, while sitting in front of a giant stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ. At one point he drops through the sky while extending his arms in a Christlike pose. Yes. We get it. (In fact, it appears that Warner Bros. is aggressively marketing the film to Christian churches. I’m not sure what to think about that.)
At the same time, the movie fails to really hammer its points about humanity home. At one point, we see Clark confront a trucker harassing a waitress, backing down when it’s clear that the confrontation will only end in violence – Clark isn’t prepared to use force in this situation, even if the guy is an asshole. Later the trucker walks out of the restaurant to find his rig completely totaled, impaled on multiple telephone poles in an act of destruction and petty revenge that hardly seems in keeping with Superman’s sense of morality and self-control. Maybe the point is that Clark hasn’t quite become Superman yet – and it’s true, he hasn’t – but while the visual was good for a quick laugh, it didn’t feel quite right, somehow. Later, during a vicious attack on Metropolis, we see a Daily Planet intern trapped under some debris, and Perry White, as well as another Planet employee, stay with her even in the face of certain destruction. It’s a sweet moment, but lacks the punch of, say, multiple citizens working together to free her, racing against time, saving the day even without powers.
As for the Kryptonian side of the equation, the situation is similarly muddled. Jor-El’s plans for his son, the last survivor of Krypton, are unclear. In the movie’s story, Clark’s cells have been imbued with the information contained within the Codex, a Kryptonian artifact holding the genetic code for all of Krypton’s future citizens – Krypton now relies on artificial reproduction, you see, and each citizen is born to fulfill a specific role. Clark, as Kal-El, is the first natural-born child of Krypton in centuries, and though Jor-El and Lara clearly care for him, he seems to be an experiment as much as a child to Jor-El, a test of the value of free will. The movie’s antagonist, General Zod, wants to use the Codex in conjunction with recovered Kryptonian technology to turn Earth into a new Krypton, exterminating the human race and breeding new generations of Kryptonians. Jor-El, brought to Earth in Clark’s capsule in the form of an AI, finally confesses his own plan when pressed, claiming that he hoped Clark would eventually use the information contained within the Codex to recreate the Kryptonian race as equals to mankind, and Clark himself, familiar with both Earth and Krypton, would act as a bridge between the two peoples. An ambitious and worthy goal, to be sure, but considering that the Codex is designed to produce Kryptonians only for specific roles, it’s not entirely clear to me how ‘New Krypton’ would be any better than the old one. It’s also not clear to me how the Kryptonians lack free will to begin with. Certainly Jor-El was able to break whatever genetic programming he had to deal with and act in open defiance of the laws and traditions of his people.
Still, despite the muddled plot, heavy-handed imagery and occasional lack of conviction, the movie is a lot of fun to watch, and it does shine in several respects. The cast as a whole is solid. Henry Cavill is an excellent Superman, and Amy Adams is fantastic as a 21st-century Lois Lane. She may not be the fast-talking, nickname-tossing, old-school reporter we all know and love, but she’s a bright, clever, determined woman, a skilled investigator, and a dedicated journalist who only stops chasing the man who will become Superman when the potential consequences of her actions become clear. Despite her decision to abandon the story, she’s pulled into Superman’s life again and becomes integral to the fight against Zod. Though she does indeed form a romantic connection with Superman by the end of the story, it feels fairly natural after everything they’ve been through. The movie adds a new wrinkle to the classic story of Clark/Lois/Superman by introducing Clark Kent as we know him (reporter for the Daily Planet and mild-mannered secret identity for the all-powerful Superman) only at the end of the film, after Lois has already tracked down the mysterious ‘guardian angel’ who keeps appearing out of nowhere and saving lives all over the world and stood alongside Superman in both Smallville and Metropolis. In the Man of Steel universe, the Clark/Superman/Lois love triangle simply does not exist. Lois knows his identity from the start. And frankly, as much fun as that triangle can be, it’s been overused and I’m quite glad to see it dismissed completely in this iteration of the Superman mythology. Basically, I love this version of Lois almost as much as I love Dana Delany‘s version from the old animated series, and the movie is practically worth seeing for her alone.
Similarly, Laurence Fishburne is a Perry White for our time. He may not chomp cigars and shout “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” at the drop of a hat, but he’s a perfect foil for Lois, a caring and dedicated boss who isn’t fooled by her shenanigans but quietly supports her in her crusade for the truth nonetheless. Richard Schiff has a small but memorable role as long-time Superman ally Dr. Emil Hamilton. (Amusingly, Alessandro Juliani, who played Dr. Emil Hamilton in the ninth and tenth seasons of Smallville, also has a small role in the film.) Christopher Meloni doesn’t get a lot of screen time, either, but he makes what little he does get count, particularly as the film reaches its climax. And Michael Shannon chews the scenery a bit as Zod, but, well, it’s General Zod, so I can forgive that.
Last, but far from least, the movie does not skimp on the eye candy. The Krypton of Man of Steel puts one in mind of Time Lords and New Gods and the Asgard of the Thor movie, with ships and robots and suits of armor that reshape themselves at a thought, impossible architecture, gorgeous vistas, and ridiculous hats to spare. The ideas of John Byrne’s seminal post-Crisis reboot (also titled, in fact, The Man of Steel), are combined with modern cinematic sensibilities into something genuinely beautiful. The powers of the Kryptonians on Earth – their strength, speed, enhanced perception, heat vision and flight – are depicted in ways that, if not precisely revolutionary, are nevertheless decently realistic and fun to watch. The set designers and effects artist have even thrown in a few ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cameos to reward sharp-eyed fans – notably Lexcorp and WayneTech logos on key props and set pieces.
All things considered, Man of Steel is not a perfect film, nor is it my favorite version of the Superman myth. But it’s a solid film, well-made and a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s saved by stunning visual effects and a charming and talented cast. I can’t wait for the sequel.
Superman Rating: 4 out of 5 capes. Super.
General Film Rating: 7 out of 10. Well worth seeing in theaters, but not the best movie you’ll see all year.