Man of Steel: Super Man … or Human God?

Zack Snyder's dark and moody retelling of the Superman myth combines big action with grand themes

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Clay Enos / Warner Bros.

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.

(MORE: The Birth of Superman, 1938)

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.

(MORE: Lev Grossman’s On-Location Preview of Man of Steel)

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.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’s Review of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises)

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.

(PHOTOS: The Six Men Who Have Played Superman)

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.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’s Theological Exegesis of Superman Returns)

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.

(MORE: A ‘Contrarian’ Take on Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ)

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.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’s View of Henry Cavill in Immortals)

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.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’s Reviews of Zack Snyder’s 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch)

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.

32 comments
lovism
lovism

'And your X-ray vision comes in handy when you stroll past the girls’ locker room.'

haha..nice, but in actuality if you somehow gained X-ray vision you would be pretty disappointed with the actual images you see. Those X-ray films and those images from full-body scanners...not exactly a turn-on are they?

JMSaenz
JMSaenz

Mr Corliss, I am a huge Superman fan and, naturally, I was surprised by the amount of negative reviews. But I was most impressed with the fact that these reviews are very, very poorly written. Your sir, have written a perfect review. It is well-informed and not biased at all. I just can't believe how many "critics" are out there.

People, listen to this man. Point them to this article.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

You know, I've seen too many Superman reboots to get excited about another one.  It may be that this iteration of the MoS mythology is the defining one for today's generations.  It won't be for my generation.  So the young can get excited.  Us older folks don't want our superheroes to be "human" or have overt flaws or pathos or doubts or existential crises.  We just want to see impossible odds overcome by confident heroes who know that they have to act fast, well and right to win.

Maybe that doesn't play in Smallville these days.  But that's what we grew up with.  And from the sound of it, this Superman isn't exactly going to be a trip down memory lane or conjure up the implications of near invincibility in a world in desperate need of someone invincible, good, true and courageous.

OMG_Ponies
OMG_Ponies

I just got back from the theater. Yes. There are major changes to the mythos (Lois knows that Clark Kent is Superman). But the changes are long overdue. And the Jesus in the background shot aside, the movie stays true to a theme - is Superman a child of Krypton or a child of Earth. 

On top of it all, while of course a sequel is inevitable, the theme of this one sets up a Lex Luthor sequel perfectly. Michael Shannon's Zod rails against Superman for rejecting his Kryptonian roots. And Lex Luthor has often led a literally xenophobic campaign against "the alien."

It's not bombastic and it's not dreary. But it often is somber, centered around the theme of an orphaned wanderer struggling with his own otherness and bolstered by the love from his adoptive parents. It's worth the price of admission just to see a mature treatment of Superman as a boy.

LuisJavierValle
LuisJavierValle

I saw yesterday, twice... I swear this is the best superheroes movie of all time!!!! It is perfect!!!!! It worth every second!!!!! Don´t miss it!!!!! You will believe!!!!!! 

Cobra6
Cobra6

Yes... those blasted nitpickers, noticing that baby Kal-el has no daiper.  They really take all the fun out of frivolous movie entertainment, don't they Richard Corliss?  I'm glad to hear you didn't notice and comment on the daiper debacle yourself.  You must have been too busy wondering how generations of 11 year-olds were too foolish to wonder why Superman's X-ray vision didn't work like the one in the hospital.  Those idiots!  Anyway, keep up the good work, pushing summer superhero flicks to be timeless Oscar-winning works of art.  I'm sure they'll start listening someday!

rmcmillen01
rmcmillen01 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I seriously can not wait for this film or the ride that is sure to come after! Will Snyder and friends start with http://rmcmillen.hubpages.com/hub/Bringing-Cinematic-Justice-To-The-Justice-LeagueAnd-The-DC-Universe-As-a-Whole-Part-1 ? Will they continue on with http://rmcmillen.hubpages.com/hub/Bringing-Cinematic-Justice-To-The-Justice-LeagueAnd-The-DC-Universe-As-a-Whole-Part-2 & http://rmcmillen.hubpages.com/hub/Bringing-Cinematic-Justice-To-The-Justice-LeagueAnd-The-DC-Universe-As-a-Whole-Part-3 ? Will they end with http://rmcmillen.hubpages.com/hub/Bringing-Cinematic-Justice-To-The-Justice-LeagueAnd-The-DC-Universe-As-a-Whole-Part-4 ??? Well......................... if they do it right? They will do ALL OF THE ABOVE............ and the impending Justice League saga that will come into fruition.... will be absolutely amazing!

andrewbromleyfairnington
andrewbromleyfairnington

By the sounds of this review it seems almost as if this movie is trying to say this one is the last Superman movie and it's going to be made with that theme in mind. With so much detail the challenge is on for the next instalment.

ToniKurniawan
ToniKurniawan

Just watched the movie and I think this review is spot-on! The action part wasn't all that bad, just bit too repetitive but still much enjoyable. And the flying scene... f-ing awesome! Also glad they cast real man Hanry Cavill this time

ittakesageek
ittakesageek

I would like to thank you for a great article!  

I think you captured what brought so many of us to Superman in the first place, god knows we were masses of K - High School kids gorging on the movies of the late 70s - 80s.  I think most of us now want and expect more from the characters, having gone through some of the big events in life ourselves.  We recognize that it isn't always easy, you have to learn to live with not being just like everyone else and not every day ends with a "happily ever after" - they do, however, all end with hope that tomorrow will be better.

Aksa8
Aksa8

Not fair! Reeve's Superman was not the voyeur made out to be in this review. His use of  X-Ray vision was in direct response to a question from Ms Lane during an interview and ended in the super-truthful confession that he did like 'pink'.

_I_AM_THOR_
_I_AM_THOR_

Olivia Wilde,Mila Kunis & Kristen Stewart were some of The Actresses That Auditioned for The Lois Lane Part in MAN OF STEEL, i am GLAD Amy Adams got The Role, Amy Adams is 38 years old but she looks 27 or 28...Also i DON'T know in what World Brandon Routh looks more like SuperMan than Henry Cavill, Henry is PERFECT for That Role, Brandon DOESN'T look like SuperMan and Does NOT have Blue Eyes neither.......

MAN OF STEEL will make Over 1 BiLLiON Dollars Worldwide,Henry Cavill is a Good Actor & Multi-Oscar-Nominated: Amy Adams is Beautiful Plus

Multi-Oscar-Nominated: C-NOLAN is The Writer & Producer, The

New Suit Looks Great & Better than The Old Light Blue Suit

that Looked Like a SMURF & with The OutSide UnderWear that was NOT Good, MAN OF STEEL will be in Theaters in 2D, 3D, IMAX & IMAX 3D,i'm Going To See it in 3D

insanityman84
insanityman84

I also have a feeling that fans, the public at large is going to really embrace this film because unlike most critics, they've actually been waiting for this movie specifically for a long time and this kind of Superman film for even longer. It's gonna be a great movie. I already know it.

insanityman84
insanityman84 like.author.displayName 1 Like

It's good to see that this critic doesn't let the action part, which is what people have been waiting to see with Superman for decades now, blind him from seeing the good parts of the film and possibly, the most important parts. The origin and the story leading up to the events that take place (the battles) is crucial to get right and it seems, according to this writer, that they nailed it. A real story is what's been missing with Superman (along with action obviously), but it sounds like we get both in this one. I'm not usually a big action guy, but when it fits into the story, I can go with it and as Superman fan, it's about damn time we see him fight. It's been a long time in the making and perhaps the "overkill" some have been mentioning, is simply making up for lost time. Knowing that this is probably the first of 3 MOS films and the way that Goyer seems to right these kind of screenplays, we're likely to get different themes, so as this one is an origin, testing his will and physical ability, I look for the next two to test him in other ways - ways not yet seen on film for this one of a kind Super-Hero.

StevenAndrewHasse
StevenAndrewHasse

This is by far the vest written review on this movie I've seen. Thank you for this! You also seem to pick out symbolisms and analyze it like a true critics. It was a great read and it made me more excited for the movie. Mainly to see how great the origin story is. Anyways, Richard, cheers! This was an excellent review!

bluegraph
bluegraph like.author.displayName 1 Like

@StevenAndrewHasse Agreed. A very thoughtful review with an excellent overview of the Christian allegory present in the Superman myth. Richard Corliss has been around for a long time, and his experience and insight shows in this review. Now, if only we could get the same in-depth, thoughtful analysis from TIME's television critics....

StevenAndrewHasse
StevenAndrewHasse

@bluegraph @StevenAndrewHasse I agree. I read Rex Reed's review and rolled my eyes and read this. It was sooo much better and this guy seems like he's really smart, also cool. Not a pretentious snob.

riccismiles
riccismiles

Do we really have to sit through yet another story about the origins of Superman? Is it 2013? Are there really enough people out there who either DONT KNOW about Superman's origins or sit around wondering "where did Superman come from?". There HAS to be better stories to tell. I'll be MISSING THIS movie unless I can yank a view off the NET. IT doesnt deserve a dime from anyone, unless you enjoy watching the same story told over again with more "fireworks".

FrankieAddiego
FrankieAddiego like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@riccismiles woooah, duuuuuude, this guy's so hip and with-it!  Decrying "reboots" and "remakes."  I mean, seriously, there's more to this film than just, "he comes from another planet."  Not everyone has seen Superman: the Movie and even fewer people have seen the dreadfully overrated Superman II.  This is a much better film than II, and if you can't handle a brand new version of Krypton, or Superman actually having moments of insight rather than making a joke and carrying some burglar off to jail, then maybe it's not for you; but don't pretend you speak for all of us.

riccismiles
riccismiles

@FrankieAddiego @riccismiles If in the year 2013 you need to see the Superman origins story AGAIN, then I'm happy you are one of those people who enjoy watching stories told over and over again. (I guess all of the original movies, cartoons etc., are off limits for the average keyboard/mouse clicking person?) Considering Superman 1, the first "big movie" did a fine job establishing who Superman is, why go back over and over and over again. I agree with you that the original "ZOD" movie wasnt that great and I guess in today's Hollywood, if it wasnt "that great" the matra is repeat it, get the money, and laugh. I can tell this Superman will actually be a GOOD "superman" movie and I look forward to what they will attempt in the next one. I'm happy a few hundred people got paid to make the movie as well. But I wont be one of the people helping to support investment, because the amount of actual creativity involved is low -other than the CGI guys and they have already cashed their checks. So, ok, I wont speak for "WE", and leave it with no one I know will be going to yet another re-hash origin story of another superhero who has had his origin told so many times you have to live in a cave to not know about it..and I'm a sucker for comic book/super hero flicks!

southmost
southmost

@riccismiles @FrankieAddiego There's room in the entertainment universe for both wholly-original works and adaptations, and I don't begrudge a movie that takes a new slant on the source material.  I mean, how many different productions of Hamlet are out there?  We all know the story (spoiler): he dithers for a couple of hours, kills his uncle, and dies.  But each production brings its own cast and aesthetic to the story.

ittakesageek
ittakesageek like.author.displayName 1 Like

@JesúsTadeoGomez @riccismiles @FrankieAddiego Exactly!  I was just this side of 4 when my mom and dad took me to Superman, my first movie ever in a theater, and while I still hold a place for that movie in my heart - the Superman that has changed and grown in modern comics deserved to be brought to the screen.  It's time for another generation to get the chance to love Superman, our parents had to step aside a bit for us to get Reeve - it's our turn now.

JesúsTadeoGomez
JesúsTadeoGomez

@riccismiles @FrankieAddiegothe Superman movie you're talking about is from 35 years ago...don't you think new generations need to know about it, and even so old generations like us, want to see this new version, I feel as excited as when my Dad took me to see Superman (I was 7) for this one

dhaoracle
dhaoracle

@riccismiles @FrankieAddiego Dude that is the point of a REBOOT. It is like no other movie has been made before. I am not saying you shouldn't go into it thinking about other movies but I suggest you go into thinking about standing on its own two feet instead of the feet of the original movies/original portrayers.

Motherlode
Motherlode like.author.displayName 1 Like

Lana Lang, not Lois Lane, was Clark Kent's high school crush. Clark didn't meet Lois until he was grown.

ittakesageek
ittakesageek

@MotherlodeSubtlety is lost on some people.  The critic meant that symbolically, for a generation of boys who considered themselves to be mild mannered Clark Kent in class but the boy of her dreams - the hero - in your off hours.  Think of it like running around the back yard with the towel cape, or little girls pretending to be Lois Lane and getting that first spark that the heroine can matter.  I'll admit that Lois Lane was my own inspiration for going into writing and, honestly, I never would have considered the "this could be cool" factor without the comics/films.

Go back and read the article again with an open mind, you'll get what the critic is talking about.


ittakesageek
ittakesageek

@Motherlode I didn't mean to make it sound like you missed the subtlety.  I was implying that the other person had.