Man of Steel was the most highly anticipated superhero movie of 2013 after the immense success of The Avengers and the Batman-trilogy-concluding The Dark Knight Rises last year. Directed by 300’s Zack Snyder, produced by none other than Christopher Nolan and written by David Goyer and Nolan (the team that worked on the Batman films), expectations were bound to be unfairly high. And though the film itself doesn’t reach those expected heights, there is much to enjoy in this reboot of DC Comics’ (and the world’s) original superhero.
At this point, I’d like to clarify that Superman has never been a superhero I cared much about. I didn’t hate or dislike him, I just didn’t find myself drawn towards him or any of the previous cinematic versions. Maybe the Man of Steel experience and my subsequent enjoyment is related to my previous detachment and hence a lack of specific expectations about how the film should be.
True to Nolan’s style, much of the first half of the film doesn’t follow a linear narrative pattern and that is refreshing. Though there are all the elements of a superhero story – birth, childhood, discovery/acquirement of powers, a superhero identity, the tipping point putting them on the path towards their destiny etc – Man of Steel doesn’t use them in the traditional way. The first half of the film in particular makes wonderful, non-expositional use of flashbacks merged with present-day happenings to create the 33 year old Clark Kent who is still searching for the truth about his past. As a child trying to come to terms with his powers and dealing with being different from everyone else, an outcast, Clark is advised by his father Jonathan (a well-cast Kevin Costner) that one day he will learn about his past and shouldn’t shy away from it, that he is meant for something special but equally that humans may not accept him as he is. Therein lies a vital part of Clark’s internal conflict. If he is to follow the path set out for him by his parents, he will have to embrace everything about him. But what if the very people he wants to save and protect think of him as a freak? (What was I supposed to do? Let them die? A tearful Clark asks his father after he pushes his school bus out of the river raising questions about his abilities.)
His relationship with his father may be complicated, compounded by the guilt that he couldn’t save him when the time finally came, but a lot of Clark’s identity is stabilised by a loving, understanding set of parents. Under their care he grows up learning to control his heightened senses, learns to focus them so that he can survive on Earth. He also learns restraint, the ability to not to use his powers even at the worst provocation. It is this that singles him out to be a force of good with the unfair advantage he holds over the rest of the humans. He isn’t uncomfortable with the pressure or expectations of being special, he is simply conflicted with his motivations for pursuing his destiny.
Clark doesn’t become a reporter at the Daily Planet until the end of the film, until he’s already shouldered the burden of being Superman, of being different. This makes it not his alter-ego (like the simplistic ‘glasses on, glasses off’ of his predecessors) but simply a way to blend in with life on Earth where he won’t be questioned if he decides to poke his nose into something dangerous. Lois Lane and her editor know of his dual identity ruling out any cliché story possibility where his secret is in danger of being discovered. Similarly, though the film has upheld Superman as an ideal to strive for, a paradigm of good that the people of Earth can get behind (a wish cherished by his real parents, Jor-El and Lara), it is equally unafraid to show us the fragile, fallible and human side of the superhero before he dons the costume and cape.
As much as I loved Christopher Reeves (never the film or the superhero but as an actor), Henry Cavill is (in my opinion) a far more relatable and engaging fit for the part. Cavill’s Clark Kent/Superman isn’t the goody two-shoes, paragon of virtues I remember from the previous films. I loved the focus on him being the connection between the two different cultures of his past, trying to bridge them together just as he’s trying to reconcile the two divisive parts within him. He is the good of both, and yet isn’t perfect. A superhero who is also a regular guy with the weight of the world on his shoulders – a conflicted, confused man searching for himself, his heritage and his identity in a world far away from his own.
The film does have two parallel aspects (the human storyline and the special effects one) and the first half of the film does a marvelous job of keeping the balance. But the second gets a bit lost with all the CGI action, some of which is undeniably stunning. Cavill’s journey of discovery was the most emotive and engaging narrative of the film, one that made us look at Superman in a much different (and in my opinion, better) light. But much of it gets sidetracked once General Zod and his minions start attacking Earth. I’d have preferred a little less generic building demolition and a little more interaction between Cavill and Amy Adams (a wonderfully spunky Lois Lane who I’d have loved more character development for) which showed a more solid foundation for their undeniable connection (especially since they are the core relationship of the narrative).
Another Nolan trademark is the darkness, one which works well for the most part in transforming the comic-candy coloured superhero into a more human and conflicted persona. However I would have loved a bit more humour (there were some wisecracks, but few and far) and this is where the DC world can pick a leaf out of Marvel’s universe. Similarly, the symbolism does weigh down the narrative, with the increasingly stilted and expositional dialogue in the second half dragging on with the narrative that could have been better edited. But I really liked the symbolism behind the ‘S’ which means hope in Krypton, and is fittingly the family sign of the El family. The superhero name ‘Superman’ (used only once throughout the film) derives from it rather than the other way around.
I am aware of the issues being raised by disappointed and disgruntled fans and while I can completely understand them, for me, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Though Man of Steel does have its flaws, it did more right than wrong (a personal opinion) and has given me hope for a Superman series reboot that I can get on board with, one that gets me more interested in the character and his mythology.
PS: Random observations – I expect we shall see Lana popping up at some point in this series. (I doubt her name was singled out with Pete’s without any further reference). The sly Lexicorp references (hint hint, the tanks) are also a very good foreshadowing of what is to come.