Besides being a philosopher, I’m a huge nerd. I have spent years favoring DC more than Marvel (often inciting nerdish debates between friends as to whom would beat whom in a fight: Superman or Thor).
Nerds and geeks alike desire a Justice League movie, but Man of Steel must be successful for the payoff. DC decided years ago to entrust its intellectual property to Warner Bros rather than develop its own movie studios like Marvel. Therefore, there is a lot riding on this movie. Both for our hopes and the profitability of more comic book movies.
Indeed, it is strange to think that comic book movies have been made for so long now that they are their own genre–perhaps with their own standards of excellence. As with everything else, these films succeed or fall by those geeks that desired their making. In no small order, Man of Steel has to accomplish a lot. Let’s start at the beginning.
Superman embodied many things in his hey day. First, he was an immigrant. He assimilated into our culture; became one of us, and fought Nazis. In this way, Superman is the perfect immigrant. He would sacrifice for the good to that which he joined (being a US citizen often equated with his humanity) and his story resonated in a time where integration and the melting pot metaphor were highly accepted.
Man of Steel is not so perfect. In an age of wiretapping NSA surveillance paranoia, Superman is lumped into the very same aliens that come to attack earth. In that time, Superman wonders about his past, where he comes from, and why he is different. He must find himself, and so rather than offer us a cheesy origin story, the origin is bypassed to tell the story of Clark’s alienation. Clark is alienated not only against himself, but from the very same fear of the other that characterizes our fearful reaction to him. In the coming conflict, Superman must prove himself our equal.
Like many rural poor, Superman flocked to the big city, and his modest innocence is a secondary critique of the cosmopolitan values of city life meshing with his modest upbringing. But modest Kansas upbringing is code for Judeo-Christian values, I feel, that constitute Superman’s character.
Superman’s character is a central plot line for Man of Steel, and a welcome sophistication to comic book movies, generally speaking. In fact, Snyder places Plato’s Republic in the young Clark’s hand when several human boys attempt to bully him. While I do not know if Snyder intending the connection between character and virtue ethics, an interpretation can be made. Usually, Superman comics are written from the viewpoint that Clark defends his staunchly held moral principles. He never uses violence first, though he is extremely capable, and once his convictions are tested he will always be written like a deontologist. He will never use instrumental calculations, but hold fast to principle exactly like someone defending the staunchly held literalism of Christian belief. In this movie, he comes to terms with the price of his own uniqueness and the central master virtue of justice. As far as adaptations go, this is a great retelling of Superman as a character from the viewpoint of those that appreciate Superman already.
In the comics, Superman pulls his punches. He does not use lethal force, except against one foe in his entire history. Zach Snyder stays true to form here as well.
Sadly, the sole focus on Superman leaves the other characters out of the picture. Lois Lane’s ability to track down Clark Kent as a man is believable only to the extent that we believe her to be the most excellent reporter on earth or Clark’s run of the mill average-Joe wandering just wasn’t that careful, which betrays the thought that he might not want to be found. Moreover, being the most respected reporter on the planet, I do not think she would leak a story to a news hack website. Either way, the encounter of her discovering Clark to be Superman is rather forced and not as natural as Superman II. Be that as it may, the chemistry between them is already there and is believable only due to Amy Adam’s ability to act her way out of a mediocrely written character.
General Zod is bit more straightforward, and written as a superficially directed antagonist. Being born to be a military leader from Kryptonian genetics, we have purpose already to hate him as well as the forced eugenics of an entire society that determines the role of the child before it is born. This eugenic determination delimits the possibility and tragedy of the uncompromising villain. We expect him to fail because of his inability to compromise. He is excessively instrumental and vengeful. He appears on stage, obsessed and adorn with a Caesar-like haircut. In many ways, I think Michael Shannon was casted as the part because he reminds us of Joaquin Phoenix’s embroiled Commodus from Gladiator.
Russell Crowe is as brilliant a decision for a father figure as much as Marlon Brando was for the 1978 movie. Crowe is not Maximus from Gladiator, but he is as decisive. He is an innovator and determined to be the best scientific mind on the planet. In his way, he is a great conscience and guide weighing down the silence of Cavill’s Superman with an anchored presence that could bind the moon.
Still, I don’t know if it is a harsh judgment to think that Superman should dwarf all the other characters. The movie is not about their reaction to the caped hero as much as it is the uncertainty of Superman himself. Henry Cavill is a brilliant Superman. He is silent and brooding in that silence the audience can pick up on the weight of responsibility Superman is taking on himself. In many ways, we can feel how much he needs to be our Superman just as much as the Earth of the DCU needs him as well.
The action sequences are terrific and great for the eye candy of Comic book films. Glass shatters, buildings crumble, and Superman’s power is shown through the destructive force of its manifestation. The other zealous Kryptonians falter before Clark. However, it is strange that Clark has the ability to fight Zod and his seasoned minions with ease. When the conscience of Jor El tells Superman he has grown more powerful than he could have possibly imagined, I take this as an excuse to justify Superman’s combative skill and power.
All in all, the movie is not a let-down. It succeeds at a wonderful retelling of Superman that puts Superman front and center. By doing so, it pays the price of relying on softer cliches and tropes to carry some of the other characters. Moreover, the narrative is carefully crafted to be light on comic book nerd content while being filled with suggestive imagery of the DC world. Lexcorp buildings and trucks lie in the street alongside a Wayne Enterprises satellite. The Captain at the end of the movie is Hal Jordan’s love interest that eventually becomes Star Sapphire in the DCU. The ambivalence of the light on content but suggestive conveys a confusing tone as if we all knew this was an experiment in a project greater than the movie could achieve on its own.