For those of us who spend most of our free time with our noses far too deep in a comic book, there seem to be two camps when it comes to the newest attempt to bring Superman to the big screen. One is the Mark Waid/Chris Sims nostalgia camp, a passionate desire to see a world of endless imagination and optimism, of signal watches and super-pets, of Lori Lemaris, Luma Lynai and maybe even a wink to the camera for good measure. I find this a completely unrealistic and ridiculous stance to take.
I’m completely in love with the Silver Age Superman, and one peek at my favourite of the last son of Krypton’s stories will tell you that, without a doubt, it’s the definitive era for me as a reader. That being said, surely we all understand that there’s no going home again. Those stories took place half of a century ago, and the world was a very different place. Not only were comics primary audience children, but superheroes were quickly losing popularity, which is what accounts for the rather eccentric storylines (and famously, thanks to the internet, covers), an almost desperate pleading to spend a dime to figure out why Jimmy Olsen is marrying a gorilla rather than on baseball cards or cowboy comics.
On a more historical level, mid-century America was a time for peace and a time to prosper, a time to escape into fantasy and enjoy the good times. Superman’s 1950’s and early ’60s adventures reflect that, just as the hip, sophisticated world of Marvel spoke to a generation of youth ready to change the world, or how Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s disillusioned and broken heroes couldn’t be more of their time. Just take a look at Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN & ROBIN – there is little more I love in this world than 1966’s BATMAN television series, but a camp Batman just didn’t work in 1997. The 60’s Batman series was about how sophisticated we all were, how delighted we were to be in on the joke – by the ’90’s, the joke sickened us.
The world is very different now, shocking news to no one, and shouldn’t Superman reflect that? That’s the point of view that the other side of superhero comics fandom is taking in regards to MAN OF STEEL, which, yes and but, doesn’t quite work for me, either. There have been plenty of times I’ve welcomed a superheroes’ reinvention, even times I’ve wished for nothing more. Because Wolverine’s brutal savagery was getting embarrassing, Valkyrie’s history was getting unnecessarily convoluted, etc. etc. etc. Yet the thought rarely occurs to me with Superman, despite the fact that he’s the one DC seems most intent to tinker with. Do we have to tone down his powers? Do we have to solve this kryptonite ‘problem’? Do we have to erase his time in Smallville as Superboy? I think the general public accepts these elements of his mythology more readily than DC imagines, considering they’ve played a large part in practically every form of media Superman’s appeared in. Clark in Smallville certainly didn’t hurt the CW series of the same name, and Superman’s extraordinary powers provided the unforgettable tag-line of the 1978 film – You’ll believe a man can fly.
So, what, then? I don’t want to see nostalgic absurdity, nor do I want a complete reconstruction. To be honest, I wanted what I thought the initial teaser trailers promised – a sensitive, compassionate and intelligent story of an alien from another world, who learns the tragic beauty of humanistic belief and struggles to understand love. Many fans balked at what looked to be superheroes a la Terrence Mallick’s TREE OF LIFE, but I welcomed it. If Nolan and Goyer were allowed to turn Batman into a brilliant and passionately contemporary morality struggle, why couldn’t they and Zack Snyder turn Superman into the tender coming-of-age story it’s always been?
I don’t have the answer to that as, unfortunately, MAN OF STEEL is the farthest thing from sensitive. An artless, cacophonous din of super powered bodies hurtling into each other, the newest Superman movie seems to revel in the worst traits of the superhero genre, and fails at any attempt to be an emotionally engaging cinematic experience.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
Henry Cavill, perfectly cast, a Curt Swan drawing come to life, is a super powered being from the doomed planet Krypton. In a bit of rather unnecessary complexity, Krypton is under political turmoil more than they are unwilling to listen to Jor-El’s apocalyptic prophecies. General Zod picked the wrong time to stage a revolution, is what I’m getting at – there won’t be much planet left for him to rule in a couple minutes. The film is filled with this sort of cumbersome dovetailing of disparate story points of Superman’s mythos, and I’m not saying this in any sort of purist sense. It’s just that it becomes comical when the Kryptonians punish Zod and his followers for their crimes, only to see flames erupt beneath their feet, as if to say “oh, yeah, the doomed planet thing.”
While he’s not quite the last son of a doomed planet, (Kal-El is rocketed out of there long before Krypton’s crust begin to crumble) he is adopted by the Kents, and is soon learning what it’s like to be a young boy growing up in Kansas. It’s here that the film offers it’s few moments of quality, far from redeeming, far from perfectly executed, but intriguing nonetheless. In MAN OF STEEL, Pa Kent is the very embodiment of contemporary paranoia, preaching the ways of hiding who you are, if who you are might get you into trouble. He pleads with a young Clark to stop using his powers to help people, that being proof that the universe doesn’t stop with humans is as much a curse as it is a blessing, that Clark’s reveal to the world must come with deliberate and careful planning.
In fact, he’d like nothing more than for his adopted son to find his own parents, to find some sort of answer to just who he is and where he comes from. I actually find this characterization of Jonathan Kent interesting. The Kent’s are supposed to teach Superman humanity, but they don’t have to do so in a literal way – maybe Clark learns about people from his parent’s fears and failures as much as he does from their strengths. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of stripping the Kent’s of their wholesome and immaculate status. Maybe Clark does need Jor-El to teach him what humans really are, and maybe he needs the Kent’s to teach him what about Krypton.
This may seem like juvenile wordplay more than an actual point, but it’s the part of MAN OF STEEL that held my attention. Following Bryne’s representation of Krypton as a world that had to fail, a cold and impersonal planet, a race that lacked love and compassion, MAN OF STEEL sees Clark only ready to become Superman when he meets a digital facsimile of his father’s consciousness, courtesy of Kryptonian technology discovered in the Arctic. It’s through Jor-El that Clark discovers just how wonderful humanity is, and why it’s worth protecting.
Unfortunately, we don’t get too see much of him protecting it. In fact, due to the film’s fragmented style of narrative, I never had the feeling I saw much of anything. I had a similar confused feeling in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, a weird meta-awareness that the director seemed wise to the fact that we were so familiar with the lead character’s origin story that there wasn’t much point in focusing too much time on it. Clark and Lois meet in the most unspectacular of terms, and soon, we’re to believe theirs is a love greater than any other.
Amy Adams does a lovely job as the intrepid reporter, and stands next to Dana Delany as my favourite performance of the character. She perfectly understands the disaffection, the cynical and abrasive coldness that Lois so readily deploys, her words the only defense she has from the heartbreaking and intensely difficult world of journalism. Again, I have no problem with her meeting Superman before he’s decided on his identity as reporter Clark Kent – though we lose the Clark/Lois/Kal love triangle that moves me so deeply, her struggle as to rather or not she, an independent modern woman, is really going to fall in love with a literal ubermensch is portrayed believably by Adams.
Much ballyhoo was made of Superman being handcuffed by the American government, but the idea of superhero as political threat is explored in exactly zero detail. When an alien spacecraft appears in the sky, a frightening message appears on TV screens, iPads and laptops across the world, informing the people of Earth that they are not alone, and they haven’t been for 33 years – an alien stands among them. Zod’s blurry, terrorist message was so lazy as to be appalling – Nolan and Goyer were able to turn a luchador mask wearing drug-addicted comic book supervillian into a compelling effigy of modern terrorism in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, but here? Zod is only terrorist by default, a terrorist trained by blockbuster movies, repeating tired and vaguely threatening messages to a terrified global audience.
So, sure, Superman is revealed and arrested, but things are forgiven pretty quickly, after the guy shows just how much he believes in America by destroying most of it in an endless and exhausting fight scene with Zod and his army. Climax upon climax, a blur of noise and light, the majority of MAN OF STEEL is CGI destruction porn, enough collapsing buildings and thundering explosions to make Roland Emmerich blush with pride. This Superman, never quite mentioned by name, cares little for the people of Metropolis, instead more intent to see it destroyed. We get endless shots of onlookers in muddied shirts gazing upwards, eyes white, at the destructive battle raging above them. The majority of film critics seem bent on declaring the superhero blockbuster the death of cinema, and this one has me agreeing with them – emptier and lazier than the vague robot space whales of THE AVENGERS, Superman and Zod are action figures, two pieces of expensive junk destined for the landfill, rushing into each other at full force.
After endless scenes of such inanity, we’re given our Controversial Moment, as Zod promises to kill two innocent bystanders and Superman is forced to snap his neck, ending his life. The scene left me feeling as empty and enervated as the insipid fight scenes. A film this bad can’t make me feel betrayal, because to feel that, I’d have to care – I’d have to feel love to resent it being taken away. MAN OF STEEL wants to be dumb and loud, and then wants me to care when you have Superman kill? I can’t. Superman didn’t seem to care about the two thirds of Metropolis he and Zod destroyed. I didn’t even get the sense he even came to terms with letting his father die so many years ago in Smallville. MAN OF STEEL earns nothing, and it’s ‘controversial’ moment is anything but, just another note of frivolity in a lavish symphony of emptiness.
I left MAN OF STEEL feeling exhausted, depressed that the world’s first and arguably greatest superhero had to be the source of the worst superhero movie I’d ever seen. Many critics and fans mock the film for it’s religious imagery or political subtext, but honestly, I want to see that film. A Superman that represents our contemporary fear of the unknown, our lack of security and inability to trust in our government? A Superman that, as Morrison asserts, is a Christ-like figure promising redemption? I’m not against that. I would gladly see that film. Unfortunately, I don’t see it in MAN OF STEEL, and I don’t know what they’re seeing that I’m missing.
I’m not protesting MAN OF STEEL’s lack of gorillas or time-travel or Red/Blue Supermen. I’m mourning it’s utter lack of heart, it’s insatiable conviction to be the loudest and dumbest movie since TRANSFORMERS. My senses pummeled into oblivion, I can’t do much more than hope that the inevitable sequel aims to make us feel, to make us dream, to make us believe. After all, hope? It’s what Superman’s all about.