Henry Cavill, the latest actor to bring Superman to cinematic life.
I'm a lifelong lover of superheroes and their adventures and I enjoy the many flavors to be found within the genre, but sometimes I like to keep things as basic as possible and once more return to the grand-daddy of them all. Superman owns a very large and warm piece of real estate in my heart and mind, a residence he took up about the time I first saw George Reeves in the classic THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series, and from there my enjoyment of the character grew exponentially with the discovery of his far-reaching world in the comics. At that point in my childhood — I was seven — DC Comics was issuing 100-page "Super-Spectaculars," which was a glorified way of saying "reprints with one new story thrown in for good measure," for all of their regular series and I devoured them like a starving man attacks a fresh plate of sirloin with all the trimmings. Cheap to produce from their existing back catalog, the 100-pagers probably seemed like a money-saving after-thought to the publisher, but to us kids who were hungry for material we had not been exposed to, those collections were a goldmine of old school lore and wonder. Yes, much of it was crazy and silly, but they were among the purest examples of the one element that made for perfect kid's comics entertainment, namely FUN, an element that is sorely lacking in most of the comics that are created today. (To be fair, today's comics are mostly being produced for now-grown kids who grew up on comics, and few publishers gave a damn about making comics for children anymore. More's the pity...) Of the DC stable of heroes, Superman's mythology was arguably the richest, flavored as it was with the sheer Americana of his immigrant origin (yeah, he's a space alien, but he still came to America from elsewhere), his always-do-the-right-thing attitude, the eternal two-person love triangle of Superman/Lois/Clark, all manner of fanciful and over-the-top antagonists — Lex Luthor, Mr. Myxyzptlk, Brainiac, Titano, the list goes on — and allies — Lori Lemaris, Batman (before he got "dark and gritty"), the Legion of Super-Heroes — which all added up to pure and colorful storybook fantasy updated for a 20th century audience.
Then came the Superman feature films, which are an admittedly mixed bag. There had been other adaptations of our hero to the silver screen before 1978's big-budget blockbuster, SUPERMAN, but those had been serials and animated shorts (plus "features" cobbled together from episodes of the old George Reeves show). The first true feature film was a spectacle that is now considered a classic, despite its uneven aspects, but the one thing that everybody, and I do mean everybody, agrees about when it comes to that film (and its spotty sequels) is that the then-unknown Christopher Reeve was simply born to play Superman, and his indelible interpretation shone brightly throughout his four movie adventures, even managing to come out of the toxic wreckage of both SUPERMAN III and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE with the character's dignity intact. (No mean feat, that!) Then came SUPERMAN RETURNS (2005), a widely-reviled attempt at a series relaunch that was a creative and critical failure despite star Brandon Routh's game efforts in the title role. (He totally channeled Christopher Reeve for both Superman and Clark Kent, which in retrospect was a very good idea.) Special effects may have finally caught up to Superman's fantastic abilities, but even the mighty Kryptonian hero was felled by script that, well, sucked. And now comes the latest shot at kicking Superman into the 2000's, an effort no doubt spurred by the staggering box office success of Marvel Comics movies like the Iron Man films and last summer's mega-hit THE AVENGERS.
MAN OF STEEL is one of the rare movies where there's no real need to concern oneself with spoiler warnings when talking about it because, let's face it, it's a story whose basic elements we all have known since we were little. The particulars of Superman are so ingrained in us on a universally-shared cultural level that even immigrants whose command of the English language is far from stellar can communicate. In fact, I proved that very point last year to a friend as we drunkenly ordered a meal at a Brooklyn diner at Jesus o'clock in the morning. My friend argued that any reboot of the Superman franchise simply had to begin with the umpteenth telling of his origin story for those unfamiliar with the character, to which I countered that Superman is known everywhere by everyone, a state of affairs that goes back by generations, with parents explaining it all to their little ones even before those wee ones can read or see his adventures for themselves. To prove this, I told my friend to pick any person in the diner and I would bet that they knew Superman's origin. He scanned the eatery and settled on our waitress, a nice middle-aged woman of foreign Hispanic origin whose English was a tad problematic. When we called her over, I asked her, "You know Superman, right? Can you tell me where he comes from?" She processed my question and one could clearly see the translation circuits in her brain wrestling with the query, but then her eyes lit up with full comprehension and she responded with, "Oh, yes! Soopairmon! He come from..." She cut off her English description and mimed a rocketship falling to Earth. That was enough for me to win the bet and to prove the universality of the knowledge of Superman's origin. So, with a new movie we know the basic template, which can be boiled down thusly:
Superman is sent as an infant from a dying alien world, grows up in the American heartland with staunch "American" values, decides to use his incredible abilities to serve and protect mankind, and proves himself to be the world's champion during a time of dire need while also being one hell of a nice guy.
That's really all there is to it, and that's what MAN OF STEEL is all about, so the devil is in the details of this iteration's retelling. I won't bother with a detailed plot recap since what you just read above really is the movie in a nutshell, but I will state some pertinent points:
- Though essentially a remake/fusion of elements from SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1981), this latest reboot of the Superman mythos is very much a Superman for the early-2000's and I'm shocked to find that I'm cool with that. In fact, I'm not just cool with it. I liked it A LOT.
- The cast is quite good across the board, with top honors going to Henry Cavill as Superman/Clark/Kal-El, who manages to make the character his own without aping Christopher Reeve's version.
He's still the all-American farm boy we all know and love, but he's less fairy tale squeaky-clean/borderline sickeningly-sweet than he is a decent person who just happens to have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He's the demi-god in spandex made relatable in a way that is, to me anyway, more intriguing than the Reeve benchmark. (Which is in now way a slight on Reeve; his Superman was about as perfect as you could ask for, but Cavill's take is just as valid.)
- The movie gets the Krypton stuff out of the way with expedience and briskness, though the "action hero Jor-El" reinterpretation struck me as rather silly. That said, this is a summer superhero movie for the 2013 audience, so I can't say I was surprised by that tweak.
- I was initially concerned about the casting of Amy Adams as Lois Lane but I should not have worried.
This is a different, and in my humble opinion, better Lois than we've seen previously, and long before the end of the film I came to like her a great deal. Gone is the catty/bitchy/sneaky/suspicious Lois who, for a supposed great journalist, often struck me as shrewish and largely unprofessional. (Plus to say nothing of obsessed, stalker-ish, and occasionally more than a little bit mentally deranged.)Thankfully, the script ditches the sexist stereotypes that made Lois one of my least-favorite characters since childhood, and replaces those hoary tropes with a capable, tough, and smart reporter who is in her own way just as brave and heroic as Superman. I look forward to seeing more of her.
- Michael Shannon delivers a General Zod who actually possesses a motivation with considerably more gravitas than Terrence Stamp's undefined, take-it-for-what-it-is megalomania.
Considering what we are told about how Kryptonians are bred and programmed at a genetic level for their society's tasks/classes, Zod's motivation makes a degree of admittedly twisted and fascistic sense, and if anything, I felt a certain amount of pity for him and his blind, genocidal single-mindedness.
- Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are the perfect Pa and Ma Kent for the 2000's, and the segments featuring them add greatly to the narrative's sense of heart.
- Christopher Meloni — one of my favorite actors, by the way — is on hand as U.S. military Col. Hardy, and he's pretty damned cool.
During a lull in the first wave of violent carnage and destruction wrought by Superman's conflict with the bad Kryptonians, the at first understandably suspicious colonel witnesses Superman's efforts on behalf of his adoptive planet and his concern for the human soldiers and civilians and realizes that the guy in blue can be trusted. As his men lower their weapons while Superman frees himself from a burial mound of rubble, Col. Hardy takes a good, long, silent, appraising look at the earnest extra-terrestrial and utters the line that made me, as a lifelong fan of Superman and all that he stands for, tear up: "This man is NOT our enemy." The whole audience felt that one and a woman to my left let out a triumphant yelp (which she, embarrassed, immediately stifled).
- With so much of the story being devoted to Superman figuring himself out and earning the trust of humanity, the fake Clark Kent persona is not seen at all until literally the last two minutes before the end credits roll, and I'm fine with that. I'm hoping the new take on the bumbling reporter aspect of the character will be less exaggerated and more in keeping with the new status quo set up in this origin movie. With Lois's curiosity about Superman's secret identity being rendered totally and thankfully irrelevant, there's no need for Clark to dork himself up any further than by donning a pair of spectacles. (That's not a spoiler; a number of people discover Clark's secret throughout the narrative, and it makes sense in every case.)
- Regarding Superman's costume: I initially disliked the textured "alien" look of the outfit and was turned off by how dark and un-colorful it was, once again citing how it needs the red trunks as a design element to offset all of that blue, but I got used to the new look fairly quickly. It looks especially good when Superman is in flight.
- There is no Kryptonite to be found, which is only a good thing. Its presence would offer nothing to this particular story and it has been overused in many tired and sometimes outright idiotic ways over the years. (SUPERMAN RETURNS takes the prize for the radioactive material's worst narrative use. If you've seen that film, you know exactly what I'm referring to.)
- Lex Luthor is also refreshingly absent, though there are Lexcorp signs that pop up briefly. There are plenty of other adversaries of interest in Superman's lore, so it will be nice to see some of them pop up. Give me Brainiac and Maxima!
- The special effects are excellent and they actually serve the narrative, rather than overwhelming it or being the film's raison d'etre. The designs for the technology on/from Krypton are a lot of fun and owe a debt to what John Byrne came up with when he rebooted Superman in the comics during the mid-1980's, and there are several visual/design nods to THE MATRIX that work because we are now far enough away from that uber-cribbed-from film to no longer see stuff that was influenced by it as a bold-faced ripoff. And Superman in flight has never looked better!
- One of the problems I had with SUPERMAN II pops up again in this film, namely that a bunch of bad guy Kryptonians show up on Earth and instantly find themselves blessed with the superpowers that their species are granted by our solar system's yellow sun and our planet's lesser gravity. The script flat-out states that the Kryptonian body acts as a solar battery and converts that energy into kickass powers, but it would make sense for that battery to take some time to charge, after which training in the use of the powers in question would be a prerequisite to actually using them. Zod and his people very swiftly twig to their newfound super-ness and put it to immediate and devastating use, and though they have not mastered straight-up flying, they instead make prodigious leaps and deploy bursts of super-speed. I call "bullshit" on that, Superman has been honing his powers at least since adolescence, so I say he should be able to wipe the floor with a group that would amount to toddlers taking their first wobbly steps. Deadly, military-trained toddlers, but toddlers nonetheless.
- One genuinely disturbing aspect of the film that greatly affected me (and one of the dear friends who saw MAN OF STEEL with me) is how during the apocalyptic set-to in Metropolis, the wholesale destruction of skyscrapers and throngs of terrified civilians fleeing through the streets as buildings collapsed around and on top of them took me out of the film and dropped me right back into the elevated B train as it crawled past the burning stumps of the Twin Towers on 9/11. That was a sight and smell that brought real-life horror and devastation up close and personal, and for a long time I could not look at movies with tableaus of city-destruction as being entertaining in any way (which is a huge problem for a hardcore fan of giant monster movies, especially those of the Japanese variety). Now, our big-budget special effects spectacles are technologically equipped to depict cityscape devastation to an alarmingly-detailed degree, and as a New York City resident I have a hard time sitting through such stuff. In the case of what we get in MAN OF STEEL, the city-destroying battles are loud, percussively edited, and excessive to a numbing level, with the resulting effect coming off like being on the receiving end of a heavy-duty bludgeoning. If you or your kids might find such material distressing on the big screen and augmented with Dolby sound, I suggest waiting for cable of home video.
- My biggest gripe with the entire film is Hans Zimmer's utterly generic score. The music is about as rote as one can get from a big-budget superhero flick, and there's not even any signature motif that one can point to as a "Superman theme," per se. I'm glad they didn't use John William's absolutely perfect and unforgettable theme from the 1978 film. That piece will forever be synonymous with Christopher Reeve and applying it to any other iteration of Superman would be sacrilege, but it does suck that the Superman of the 2000's doesn't have a stirring theme tune of his own.
When all is said and done, I greatly enjoyed MAN OF STEEL — a film I completely expected to be the latest soulless and bloated blockbuster crapped from the puckered anus of the Hollywood factory, even going so far as to preemptively refer to it as "MAN OF STOOL" for the past few months — and I very much look forward to seeing what this creative team comes up with for our hero's further adventures. Some Superman purists may grouse, but they can suck it. The sequel has already been green-lit, so I hope the next installment is as much fun as this winning first salvo.
My favorite of the film's several theatrical release posters.