The New Superman: An Iconic Hero’s Reinvention in Man of Steel

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June 19, 2013 by Jason Seligson

British actor Henry Cavill turns out to be the perfect choice for Superman.

By Jason Seligson

There’s a lot to love and even more to ponder about Man of Steel—a film that has been several years in the making—the second attempt in a reboot of the Superman film franchise, after the lukewarm reception of Bryan Singer’s 2006 outing, Superman Returns. With a script penned by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan (who also served as producer) and directed by Zach Snyder, anticipation for the film was rabid to say the least—everyone was eager to see what the new incarnation would bring. Warner Bros and fans alike hoped that this would be the modern Superman film that worked.

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Steel is its outstanding cast. There’s no better way to say it: Henry Cavill is Superman. He delivers a phenomenal performance that is both evocative of Christopher Reeve as well as something brand new and incredibly compelling. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane brilliantly embody the warmth and concern of Clark Kent’s parents Jonathan and Martha Kent; Russell Crowe the stoic optimism of Clark’s biological father, Jor-el.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to be spoiled, read no further!

After the opening sequence in Krypton, the story jumps several decades forward—when we’re reintroduced to Clark Kent, the now thirty-three year old alien traveler has journeyed north in the hope of uncovering the truth behind his origins. Though the large time skip is initially jarring (you’re completely expecting to see Clark’s ship be discovered), it does wonders for the story. Thankfully, we still get to experience Clark’s trials and tribulations growing up without feeling weighed down with it all as exposition early on; instead, we see a Young Clark grow up and learn to hone his developing abilities through several flashbacks cleverly dispersed throughout the film. Each of these flashbacks is its own gem—together they make some of the film’s best and most emotional storytelling.

One of my favorite scenes—as gut-wrenching as it is—comes right before a twister hits Smallville. An older, but still appropriately rebellious Clark argues with Jonathan about making his own choices. “You’re not even my real father,” Clark tells him. Jonathan’s reaction that follows is so honest—that he and Martha have been making it up as they went along; that there isn’t a rulebook to raising an alien son with amazing powers. The struggle of Ma and Pa Kent is rendered so beautifully here that it makes what comes later on in this scene all the more tragic. There wasn’t a moment where either Costner or Lane was on screen where they didn’t steal the movie. Whether it was Jonathan fixing a tractor right before showing Clark his ship, or Martha running to school to find a terrified Clark trapped in a closet (who is starting to develop super-hearing and see his classmates up-close and personal through his X-Ray vision), they nailed every touching moment. So much of Clark’s struggle in the film is coping with feelings of loneliness and alienation—but the quiet moments where he receives instruction and empathy from his parents is the film’s emotional center.

As good as parts of Man of Steel are, there are a few things I would have liked to see have seen more of. Cavill is unbelievably good—shining in every aspect of the role—but due to the direction of the story he doesn’t get the screen time to show us much of Clark Kent: the mild-mannered reporter. I would have also loved more interactions between Cavill and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane (who is very good, but didn’t have nearly enough to do as the plot progressed); however I understand that with the film’s running time already over two hours—and with this new take on the Superman origin—this iconic relationship could only be serviced in so many scenes. The film ends on a wonderful note between Clark and Lois that already has me itching for their story to continue. It really is a testament to how great the two actors were that I left the theater wanting to see more. The next chapter for these characters—life at the Daily Planet—is rife with material for another installment and I can’t wait to see how they pull it off.

While Snyder directed some spectacular sequences, the film does descend into a CGI extravaganza during its last third. The destruction of Metropolis (essentially a stand-in for New York City) is excessive and relentless. No doubt Man of Steel filmmakers were attempting to outdo the climactic Manhattan battle sequence in last year’s Avengers—but the non-stop action has no substance; no emotional resonance, and is to the detriment of the narrative.

Regarding some of the violence and the film’s darker tone, I loved that Nolan and Goyer had a unique vision for selling Superman to a new generation from the very beginning—and overall I agreed with and enjoyed that vision. But there’s still one aspect of the film that left me extremely conflicted. In the climax, Superman makes a decision to kill Zod. And I’ve been struggling to understand and appreciate this choice more than anything else.

At first, I was vehemently against the way the death was handled. After some careful thought (and a second viewing of the film), I felt somewhat less extreme, because I felt it made sense for the story—did he really have another choice if he wanted to put a stop this psychopathic killer and save the world? So yes, on some level, I can appreciate the decision Clark makes in the pivotal moment where Zod is threatening to burn innocent civilians. Clark is not Zod–he’s not a sociopath; not a ruthless killer; nor is he a superhero with little regard for life—quite the opposite actually. He kills to preserve humanity, and we see how excruciatingly difficult this decision is for him. I don’t doubt Clark’s feelings of contrition. It made sense for this version of the character. But did it make sense for the filmmakers?

Was there really no other way Nolan/Goyer could think of to resolve the conflict with Zod? Surely there was a satisfying story solution that didn’t require Superman—who in the film is gritty, grounded, and relatable enough—to literally dirty his hands. The whole thing felt hastily done—like they wrote around the choice to have him kill Zod in the end. It’s a powerful and shocking moment, but it doesn’t feel necessary. And because of the lengthy fight sequences, the film doesn’t give the audience—or the characters—enough time to process the full weight of Superman’s decision (save for one emotional shot of Superman screaming before Lois runs to him).

What unsettles me most about the situation is that Superman has long been associated (with few exceptions) with not killing. Conversely, the Superman in Man of Steel never establishes this moral code. And maybe by that logic, Superman—having never formulated any such moral philosophy—would kill Zod to save the world. Perhaps the death of Zod will have a dramatic impact on Clark’s hero code going forward. I sincerely this is the case, and that this killing, along with all of Clark’s other experiences, will help shape the person he becomes.

I had many hopes for Man of Steel—that it would be entertaining, inspiring, and a big enough hit at the box office to warrant a sequel. But by far my biggest hope was that it would do for Superman what Batman Begins did for the Caped Crusader himself—that is reignite a passion for a timeless character, and an icon of American culture. With a sequel already being fast-tracked, it seems that this iteration will be sticking around for a while. Despite my issues with the film, I think this is a good thing. There is so much untapped potential in this story if only Synder, Nolan, and Goyer are willing to explore it. Now that the origin story has been set, I hope to see even more of the things I love about the character and the mythos in the films to come.

Ultimately, Man of Steel is an excellent comic book film and a solid Superman story—albeit not a perfect one. Through all its divisive reviews, the film is doing one thing that should please both the masses and diehard fans alike: exposing a new generation to a classic hero that, however much he may be reinvented, will never go out of style.

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