Being Superman was so cool; that’s what decades of comics-reading boys thought. Outracing a locomotive, bending steel like licorice, leaping tall buildings, flying around saving people and sneaking into phone booths to slip out of your civvies and into your form-fitting red-and-blue outfit, with a cape as a manly fashion flourish. Sure, Lois Lane, the cutie-pie on the school newspaper, pretends to ignore the Clark Kent whom you appear to be in class, but she adores the inner you, your secret Superman: strong, noble, virile and darned near indestructible, except for your Achilles’ heel, Kryptonite. And your X-ray vision comes in handy when you stroll past the girls’ locker room.
That notion of manliness is now as antique as locomotives, phone booths and great metropolitan newspapers. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the first four-color superhero in the pages of Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938 — 75 years ago this month. Dated is the word to be applied to Superman’s accoutrements today. As the prime mode of long-distance business travel, trains gave way to planes and then to Skype. The daily newspaper is threatened by the Internet more than Metropolis ever was by Lex Luthor. And you can’t change clothes in an iPhone; there’s no app for that. If anything has survived and thrived in the three-quarters of a century since the Man of Steel was born into the American consciousness, it’s superhero comic books and their billion-dollar descendants, superhero movies.
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Now about those kids, all those generations of Superman fanciers. It’s fine that they had a figure to mirror the deathless hero they imagined as their alter ego — but they didn’t think things through. The X-ray vision, for example: it doesn’t penetrate walls, to detect lurking villains; it wouldn’t undress Lois down to her undies, as Christopher Reeve did to Margot Kidder in the 1978 Superman movie. Real radiology, focused on a human form, would reveal the bones and organs, and perhaps the diseases, within. It’s not a gift but a curse, unless Superman were to give up his day job and become the infallible detector of cancer in its early, curable stages. Later in Man of Steel, as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), he will use this gift to perform instant laser surgery on Lois (Amy Adams). But if you were a 12-year-old who suddenly learned he had X-ray vision, it would freak you out.
Man of Steel, the new reboot of the Superman franchise, has just such a scene. After his X-ray death vision, young Clark (Dylan Sprayberry) locks himself in a Smallville school closet. His mother Martha (Diane Lane) arrives, but the boy is still empowered by panic: he turns the outside doorknob glowing hot, until Martha’s soothing words about his special nature calm him. To Clark, this episode provides the first lightning flash of his Otherness; it might be the gay gene (in the closet) or Asperger’s syndrome or the simple, volcanic onset of nocturnal emissions. It’s not. As his father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) tells him, “You’re the answer to, Are we alone in the universe?” He’s Kal-El, a superior, indeed supreme being sent from another planet. That’s quite a puberty present, and the astonished Clark recoils as if, all things considered, he’d rather be gay. For with great power comes a great challenge: reconciling the Krypton divinity of his nature with the Kansas humanity of his nurture.
Directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), produced by Christopher Nolan (who directed the Dark Knight trilogy) and scripted by Dark Knight story man David S. Goyer, Man of Steel is a half-great movie — meaning the first half. Then it collapses into a familiar fight-and-destruction scenario, as Kryptonian bad guy Zod (Michael Shannon) journeys to Earth and confronts Kal-El/Clark for the same sort of small-town showdown that Thor and Loki engaged in two summers ago in a Marvel epic. Belatedly arriving in Metropolis, the movie stages the umpteenth replay of 9/11 with a happy-ending chaser and never adequately addresses the superhero dilemma of saving a few people while the evil enemy kills millions. The climactic face-off isn’t helped by Shannon, a fine actor who grimaces here as if afflicted by mad scowl disease.
But for the first hour or so, when it lays out Superman’s origins on Krypton and his rite of passage toward realizing and growing into his identity, Man of Steel is sober and superb — the rare action movie where each spectacular event helps define the character. Whereas films like Clash of the Titans and Immortals (in which Cavill played Theseus) turned classic myths into comic books, Man of Steel, like Nolan’s Batman films, strives to elevate comic-book heroes into the figures with the heft, depth and burdens of Greek gods. It jettisons the gentle comedy of the Reeve series that began in 1978, doesn’t bother much with romance — Clark’s relationship with Lois is less boy-meets-girl than reporter-tracks-source — and dispenses with the red underpants that the classic Superman wore over his tights. Like its hero, Man of Steel at its best is serious, stripped down and pumped.
True to the first pages of the Superman story in Action Comics No. 1 and the opening of the 1978 Superman, with Marlon Brando and Susannah York as the hero’s birth parents, Man of Steel opens on “a distant planet” about to be “destroyed by old age.” The wise scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) cannot persuade the Krypton synod to find a home for its citizens in other galaxies. He and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have secretly conceived Krypton’s first natural child in ages; they call him Kal-El and launch him in a spaceship to Earth, an atmospherically congenial planet with “a seemingly intelligent population.” Nitpickers will note that the newborn has no diaper; the spaceship must have been a mess when he landed.
Before the planet dies, the renegade warrior-prince Zod and his hottie second-in-command Faoro-Ul (Antje Traue) are sentenced to ”300 cycles of somatic reconditioning” — which sounds like an eternity of watching Oprah reruns — and packed off to some far-flung Alcatraz. That exile will save Zod and his rebel crew when Krypton explodes. Many years later, they will chase Kal-El to Earth, with plans to annihilate the indigenous population and colonize it with their own nefarious kind. (Like the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, Zod commandeers the airwaves and social media to diss the hero and warn of worldwide doom.) Only the Superboy, now grown into Clark Kent, mild-mannered wanderer, can save Earth. But his interplanetary combat readiness may have been diluted by life on Earth, where he was raised by a loving, human family.
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Man of Steel takes its cue from Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns, which posited our hero as the Christian God come to Earth to save humankind: Jesus Christ Superman. Goyer goes further, giving the character a backstory reminiscent of the Gospels: the all-seeing father from afar (plus a mother); the Earth parents; an important portent at age 12 (Jesus talks with the temple elders; Kal-El saves children in a bus crash); the ascetic wandering in his early maturity (40 days in the desert for Jesus; a dozen years in odd jobs for Kal-El); his public life, in which he performs a series of miracles; and then, at age 33, the ultimate test of his divinity and humanity. “The fate of your planet rests in your hands,” says the holy-ghostly Jor-El to his only begotten son, who goes off to face down Zod the anti-God in a Calvary stampede. You could call Man of Steel the psychoanalytical case study of god-man with a two-father complex.
All these New Testament allusions — plus the image of Superman sitting in a church pew framed by a stained-glass panel of Jesus in his final days — don’t necessarily make Man of Steel any richer, except for students of comparative religion. And as Goyer has noted, “We didn’t come up with these allusions of Superman being Christ-like. That’s something that’s been embedded in the character from the beginning.” No, the dramatically piquant aspect is the movie’s journey beyond Superman Returns‘ hagiography to portray the struggle of this outsider deity to adjust to his new planet and his role in it.
Bursting with preternatural abilities but deprived of teachers, Superman must learn to fly like any orphan duckling — and, more important, to harness his powers. He learns the hard way that he can’t save everyone, even when he’s able to. Being Superman is a burden, not a lark, for someone whose human qualities put him at a disadvantage against Zod. As this stud-messiah tells Lois, he’s not giving in to Zod: “I’m surrendering to mankind.” He may be the first comic-book superhero in film who suffers the same doubts about his divine humanity as Jesus does in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ and the controversial 1988 movie made from it.
This Goyer-Snyder version of the Siegel-Shuster gospel retains old touchstones like Daily Planet boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and even, briefly, Clark’s boyhood girlfriend Lana Lang (Jadin Gould), familiar from Reeve’s third Superman film and the Smallville TV series. But it smartly concentrates on the more primal tale of a space-traveling immigrant, as regal as he is illegal, with an adopted planet and adoptive parents. Who could ask for better ones? Lane plays Martha as grave, generous and ferociously protective of her boy, this otherworldly treasure and responsibility. And Costner — back in the fantasy Midwest heartland of Field of Dreams, but this time as the father playing catch-up with his son — bestows a solid emotional gravity on Jonathan, a man who would give his life to teach Clark a lesson about the limits of superpowers. Jor-El, of course, has already made that sacrifice; postmortem, he shows up more often than Hamlet’s ghost-father and counsels his son in Crowe’s urgent, spectral, kingly presence.
Cavill was a finalist to play James Bond (before Daniel Craig was cast), Batman (Christian Bale), Twilight‘s Edward (Robert Pattinson) and the 2006 Superman (Brandon Routh). He finally got a franchise, and it was worth the wait. Conforming to the superhero template of the preposterously muscled hunk, the Englishman also brings to the role exactly the right haunted, stricken but resolute air of someone searching for a grand mystery inside him. And Adams: she’s nice too.
In his earlier movies, Snyder shot mostly on bare stages, with the actors speaking their lines in front of a green screen that visual effects turned into Thermopylae, alternate America and a steampunk madhouse. This time, perhaps encouraged by the film-loving, digital-despising Nolan, Snyder has shot in different locations, on film. He renounces the deadpan silliness of 300, the teeming scheming of Watchmen and the Powerpuff Girls delirium of Sucker Punch for a desaturated color scheme and judicious use of shaky-cam cinematography to underline the reality of Superman’s new environment and the fate in store for him.
I don’t mean to make this sound like an Ingmar Bergman film of a soul in torment over God’s silence. The action is plentiful and thumping; Marvel-size thrills await you and the generations of kids who still believe in Superman. I just mean that the movie finds its true, lofty footing not when it displays Kal-El’s extraordinary powers but when it dramatizes Clark Kent’s roiling humanity. The super part of Man of Steel is just O.K.; but the man part is super.