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Man of Steel

June 14, 2013
Man of Steel

Between Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel one thing seems abundantly clear: we are much, much better at writing movie supervillains than we were thirty years ago. Like Ricardo Montalbán, there will always be a place in my heart for Terence Stamp, but Dark Knight creator Christopher Nolan and Dark City co-writer David S. Goyer have written a far superior General Zod than the original from Superman II. But where Into Darkness took the relatively subtle and complex Wrath of Khan and turned it into a flimsy — though fun — romp, Man of Steel is a far harder, darker, and deeper story than the Reeve-era films. As great some of them were, they were as light as they were bright.

That’s to be expected. Without resorting to cheap tricks it’s hard to imagine what a “dark” Superman story would be. There is none of Marvel’s adolescent angst to work with, nor Batman’s tormented antiheroism, and to inject either one into Superman would just feel wrong. Superman simply is good; he does not struggle to become good. So if the arcs must be, as usual, about how other characters relate to Superman, Nolan and Goyer’s solution is to step back and take a long, hard, pessimistic look at how people really would react to him. The story is not how a flawed or bad man becomes good; it’s how a good man learns to be good in a flawed world.

But first, we start with the downfall of a flawed world that lost sight of its own good. As advanced as Kryptonian civilization was, it went too far when it destabilized the core of its own planet. Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the pre-eminent scientist, sent his infant son, Kal-El off into the void as his last hope for the preservation of the Kryptonian people. General Zod (Michael Shannon), born and bred to be a warrior-protector, attempts to stage a military coup and is sentenced to exile in stasis just before the planet breathes its last.

Thirty years later we find Kal-El on Earth as a grown man by the name of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), wandering from town to town, working odd jobs. Sooner or later, something happens — a waitress needs defending from a rowdy customer, or six men are trapped inside a burning oil rig — that risks exposing his mysterious abilities, and he must move on, drifting aimlessly. He is the savior in the wilderness, homeless and friendless, and yet unable to turn away when he is needed, even though it always means another departure.

As we see in numerous flashbacks, he learned this lesson as a boy, growing up in Kansas where he was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane): people fear what they do not understand. Even if you save someone’s life, those around you will start eyeing their pitchforks. And yet, even when hard-nosed reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) catches the scent he cannot help but save her life.

This could go on forever, but eventually comes a danger too great to fix and move on. Zod and his fellow rebels have escaped and found Earth, demanding that Kal-El surrender himself. This time he must sacrifice himself for the sake of all of humanity. And Zod, in Shannon’s hands, is far more interesting than a mere power-mad despot.

Superman has always been resonant in the American psyche in part because of a certain Christianity, albeit a relatively progressive one. But never has the symbolism been so overt as it is here. Superman is goodness incarnate, and serves to point the way for humanity towards their own better natures, even at the cost of risking his own life. He is literally sent, by his father, to “save them all”. If you’re allergic to heavy religious allegories, this is not the summer blockbuster for you. But, in a way, this just points to honestly and seriously Man of Steel takes its source material, especially as compared to earlier adaptations. These themes are written into the character’s DNA, and to ignore or skim over them lessens him.

So, all that said about the storytelling, how does it fare as a movie? Director Zack Snyder chooses to double down on the dark tone with gritty style. I can’t say I’m a fan of shakycam, but it does lend a rougher, dirtier feel to the more personal scenes. In wider, effects-driven shots we get an analogous technique borrowed from Battlestar Galactica, with jerky zooms and saccadic pans intended to pretend there’s a real, live cameraman trying to follow the distant, flying thing. Even then the actual object sometimes gets lost, and we can only figure out where it is by following the explosions.

Hans Zimmer echoes the tonal shift by completely abandoning John Williams’ soaring anthems, replacing them with his own, more ominously blasting horns. Production designer Alex McDowell gives us Kryptonian artifacts not of light and crystal, but formed along the same unsettlingly biological contours we remember from The Matrix and Alien, and with a few touches from Starcraft and Warhammer 40K. Pretty much everything that’s made geeks say “that looks awesome” over the last twenty years has its influence.

Through and through, this is a darker, bleaker film than any other adaptation, and it manages a richer, more complex darkness than those superhero movies that don’t have to work so hard at it. Nolan and Goyer eschew cheap pathos and narrow in on a point that’s surprisingly powerful for how well-worn it is: if a savior came to us today, we’d probably try to arrest him.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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