Man of Steel

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Writes Todd McAdams:

Just saw it at a Walmart sneak peak earlier this evening. In these troubled times filled with perennial concerns of genocide, societal decay, and fascism, it’s good to be reminded of ideals and hope, which is what Man of Steel is all about. (I saw some of mild-mannered Edward Snowden in Clark Kent, and in the journalistic crusading of Lois Lane.)

I’m aware of Superman’s history as an American propaganda tool. I can understand someone making the case that all cultures have myths for the sake of propaganda, and that American superheroes are no less propaganda simply because they’re commercialized.

But that’s not the Superman I grew up with. I’m a child of the 80′s, Lew. My mom introduced me to the endearingly wholesome Superman of Richard Donner’s classic 1978 film, which featured a story modeled on the gospels (we see his birth, adolescence, and adulthood in his early 30′s). While I’ve heard the “truth, justice, and American way” slogan all my life, I’ve never thought of Superman as anything but the embodiment of good. That idea is “propagated” in Man of Steel, and interestingly it depicts Kal-El as anything but a government stooge.

This movie was directed by Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen) and produced by Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight Trilogy). Nolan began producing it around the same time he was directing The Dark Knight Rises. Man of Steel has a lot in common with that movie in both its faults and virtues.

The pace is too quick (an inverse of one of the biggest problems with 2006′s Superman Returns). This causes character development to be shortchanged, which is frustrating given the caliber of the ensemble cast. I understand that Snyder and Nolan have a lot of ground to cover in their story (which has made plenty of room for some originality in the well-worn origin story of Kal-El), and a franchise to build (not just for Supes but for all of the DC characters), but the film would’ve benefited from a more relaxed pace in some areas. It definitely requires more than one viewing (I’m sure the studio would agree!).

Henry Cavill makes for a great Clark Kent, but I’m afraid audiences may not think of him that way. Unlike Christopher Reeve, Cavill does not have an external duality to perform. His dual nature is internal, and manifested in the conflicting mentorships of his fathers, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Johnathan Kent (Kevin Costner, who brought tears to my eyes). Unfortunately, the script also called for him to yell one too many times. There were different reasons for this rage each time, but there was little differentiation in the performance of them.

Jenny Olson (an aesthetic improvement over Jimmy Olson) is never properly introduced, though she did play a key part in causing me to tear up at one point. The ever arresting Laurence Fishburne and his dulcet baritone are a welcome presence as Perry White, and he gets a chance to show to the audience why Superman would defend the people of Earth. But his role is largely a thankless one (though at least we’ve been spared from the woefully miscast Frank Langella).

The script has a few mechanical problems. While there are a few memorable lines of dialogue (the final exchange is a kicker), there’s nothing as iconic as “Kneel before Zod!”, which is a shame. Moreover, the narrative structure is simultaneously one of the film’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. Flashbacks are an economic means of developing characters and creating juxtaposition, and they are employed in Man of Steel. But, it is a bit jarring not to have a more linear narrative since we are tracking the life and development of Clark Kent. I suspect that the filmmakers felt that that would’ve been too much of a retread of the Donner film and opted for something different. I think the results are a mixed bag.

Apart from that, there’s not much else negative I can say about the film, besides some gratuitous, unnecessary profanity. I take that back – there is one moment at the climax of the film where I’m not sure that fans of Superman (or of DC comics characters in general) will be completely pleased. Much of the thematic overtures have to do with Clark gaining the trust of his adopted home. I’m not convinced that what some witnessed him do at the end (however necessary it may be) will help him gain their trust, given the fear and intimidation the Kryptonian characters inspire by virtue of their “phenomenal cosmic powers”. If not for the unmitigated agony Clark experienced over the decision, and the fact that we’d been sold an internally divided Clark for two hours already, I may not have gone along with it. This flick is about Clark making the decision to become Superman, which means we get to see him make some mistakes along the way. Still, I paid to see Superman – not Wolverine, not Iron Man.

For all that, there is much to be enjoyed. The humor is subtle and deadpan. The action is epic and intense, and only occasionally overwrought. The music is evocative and ethereal. Amy Adams is compelling as Lois, Diane Lane is comforting as Martha Kent, and who else but Russell Crowe could play Jor-El?

But the single greatest scene-stealer in the movie is the understated Michael Shannon as General Zod. Everyone knows that Krypton blows up, but in this take on the tragedy Krypton contributed to its demise. It was a hubristic society in decline, and Zod was the epitome of that. His fanatical devotion to his people is a perfect allegory for the dangers of hyperthyroid nationalism. Eugenics, genocide, fascism – its all here in Zod. Surprisingly, Shannon manages to make Zod human in spite of all of this. I think he’ll go down as one of the best comic book film villains, and that’s saying something considering he had to fill the shoes of the inestimable Terence Stamp.

Zod cannot accept or tolerate his present humiliation. He cannot accept that Krypton’s death was of its own making, and that it should not be resurrected. Clark on the other hand is capable of leaving the corpse of Krypton buried in the past. He can tell the difference between things worth being saved and things that can’t.

Zod’s philosophy is amoral, darwinistic, and collectivist in nature. Clark’s is ethical, humble, and individualistic. Zod was a blunt instrument for his people, wielded militarily. Clark makes it clear that he’s no errand boy for the American government (even going so far as to casually destroy a drone that invades his property).

There’s Christian symbolism present as well, which is appreciated. The only time I was turned off by this was when a preacher made some asinine remark about taking a leap of [blind] faith and that trust comes later. Not exactly a stellar articulation of an objective rationale for trusting Christ, which is what the New Testament advances, and is who the filmmakers wanted us to think about (Clark is sitting in front of a large stained-glass window with a portrayal of Jesus on it).

All in all, it was worth the investment. I’m glad Superman is back, and I hope his success paves the way for Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, John Jones, Billy Batson, and many, many others to join him “in the sun”.

6:58 am on June 14, 2013