Jun 14, 2013

On Superman and MAN OF STEEL

*Warning: Analysis and Mild, Non-Specific Spoilers for Man of Steel ahead.*

I’m not sure when I fell in love with Superman. I’ve been reading Superman comics for as long as I’ve been reading comics, but I wouldn’t say that I loved the character until recently, and I’m not sure that I can pinpoint just when it happened. It was before Superman Returns came out, for sure – the tears of joy that I cried while watching that movie for the first time were copious, and while I later came to recognize that it’s a flawed film, it's still one that I really enjoy.

I think, actually, that it was Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s incredible All-Star Superman that made me really get what Superman is all about. Superman is about the best of us. He exemplifies that ideal, and makes those around him strive to be better than they are. He inspires hope and peace. Batman is about the darkness in us; Superman is about the light, the inherent good in people. Superman is for everyone.

I went into Man of Steel hoping that the film would capture those feelings. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are dark, painfully serious affairs. That may work for Batman, but with Nolan producing Man of Steel my fear had been that it would feel the same way. The last couple of trailers gave me hope, though. The voiceover from Russell Crowe’s Jor-El made it sound like Nolan and director Zach Snyder got it, that Superman would be that inspiration, that beacon for the world that he’s supposed to be.
There’s a lot to like about Man of Steel. I thought the cast was superb. Henry Cavill is a likable Clark Kent, Amy Adams is stellar as Lois Lane, and Michael Shannon is wonderfully maniacal as General Zod. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane’s turns as Jonathan and Martha Kent give the film nearly all of its emotional depth. Antje Traue is great as Faora, Zod's number one lieutenant and a major adversary of Superman's during one of the larger fight sequences.  The bit players that surround the headliners are a who’s who of favorites – Laurence Fishburne, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, and Harry Lennix all get a good amount of screen-time, and it’s great to see Battlestar Galactica alums Tahmoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani in anything. Schiff in particular is masterful casting as the Superman universe’s resident scientist, Emil Hamilton (a role that, coincidentally, Juliani played on Smallville). The effects are beautiful, particularly during the Krypton sequences. The action sequences are intense and the stakes are high. Anyone who complained that Superman never hits things in the other movies should have no complaints here. And yet…

They missed him. They missed Superman. They missed the thing that makes me love him – his complete and utter selflessness.

Sure, at one point Superman hands himself over to the Kryptonian army in an attempt to spare the Earth. That’s great. But after that? Superman spends so much time hitting things that he doesn’t have time for anything else. He doesn’t have time to make sure no one’s in his way. He doesn’t have time to direct the action away from populated or developed areas. He doesn’t have time to save people who might have been caught in the crossfire of the one-man war that he’s fighting against an army of human-hating Kryptonian killers.

And that’s not Superman.

Superman always has time for those things. He always makes sure no one’s injured, or if they are that they’re taken care of. He always tries to move the fight to a location where minimal damage will be done. His first thought is always about how to keep people safe. How to beat the bad guys is part of that, but it’s not all there is.

There is one moment in Man of Steel of pure joy – Clark’s first flight, of course – and a few brief bits of humor, but overall it’s exactly what I feared it would be: a relentlessly dour, almost completely joyless movie. Superman in this film feels like a weapon. When he flies, he thunders away, and when he lands, he tends to tumble and crash. He is the most powerful man on the planet, and he’s worried about how people are going to react to that, and given the way he acts he’s right to be worried. There’s a grace to Superman that is absent from him in this movie. Maybe it’s because it’s an origin story and he’s still learning. I tend to think it’s just something the filmmakers didn’t think about while they were making the movie.

One thing you can tell Snyder definitely thought about was wholesale destruction of cities large and small. There are action sequences in both Smallville and Metropolis that basically leave both cities demolished. It’s as if Snyder watched the Destroyer sequence from Thor and the climactic battle of The Avengers and thought, ‘This shit is amateur hour.’ If the quality of a movie is directly proportional to the cost of repairing the city destroyed in it, then Man of Steel must be the best movie of all time.

All in all, Man of Steel is a fine movie. The story is decent and the action is exciting. As a Superman movie, though, the film fundamentally lacks an understanding of what makes Superman Superman . It takes more than a set of powers to be Superman. Hopefully Clark will have developed those qualities by the time Man of Steel 2 rolls around.