Man of Steel vs. 75 Years of Superman
Critics have nit-picked it to death, as if the movie was no better than Michael Bay’s Transformers. Why so harsh? Especially when Superman III, Quest for Peace, and Superman Returns were all way worse.
Man, have we come a long way…
Much ado has been made about the newest Superman movie to hit the big screen. David Goyer and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is the latest retelling of Krypton’s last son, and this time, the filmmakers are taking their cue from producer Christopher Nolan’s more grounded Batman movies, to present a plausible Superman in a real world.
I won’t bother with yet another review in an endless sea of “Love it/Hate it!” opines. With America’s original superhero celebrating 75 years of longevity, I’d like to look at the ways Man of Steel holds up to the Man of Steel, through his most popular tv, movie, and comic iterations over the years.
I’ll start of course with Superman/Clark Kent himself, and the drastic improvement Henry Cavill is over the most recent lead, Brandon Routh.
While most people had no problem with Routh in Superman Returns, everyone knows I thought he was pretty terrible. He tried to imitate what the late Christopher Reeve (arguably the best actor to wear the cape) brought to the role, but without any of the personality. Brandon was supposedly cast because he looks like Reeve (he doesn’t), but Cavill here works a lot better because he FEELS like him. Whether Supes is calmly explaining the symbol on his chest, or crying out in pain at the end of the picture, Henry Cavill is naturally commanding, and evocative of Christopher Reeve, while still making the character his own.
Suggested reading: Secret Origin
If I circle back to the beginning of the picture, one of the most impressive aspects of Man of Steel was their depiction of Krypton.
Looking back at one of the most intriguing and imaginative versions of Krypton, Richard Donner created a world neo-glow, futuristic-feeling planet where Kryptonians feel like some sort of master race of perfect human beings. Casting Marlon Brando certainly helps elevate that world. Snyder opted for something much more sci-fi, taking the ‘alien’ aspect to heart. We see flora, fauna, the practicality of their wardrobe, their weapons, and some really cool Kryptonian science. The world-building here was just as aces , and the relationship between Jor-El and Zod almost made me wish we could get an entire movie or tv show just based on this Krypton, and the clash between these frienemies.
Suggested reading: Superman#53
Man of Steel’s most emotional and poignant scenes take place in the Smallville flashbacks.
Carried greatly by the performances of Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent, they are comparable to another strong couple representing Clark’s down-to-earth upbringing- the Kents of Smallville. That show had great parental figures, and while Costner’s Jonathan certainly wants the best for his son, his world view, and demise is terribly cynical, to the point of even psychologically damaging young Clark. I personally think, while not as dramatic, a heart attack works better to emphasize Superman’s limitations on saving lives. That said, the scene with the bullies at the fence, an overwhelmed boy at school being soothed by his mother, and yes, the pep talk after the bus rescue, are all fantastic.
Suggested reading: Superman For All Seasons
A little more problematic for me is Amy Adam’s Lois Lane, who seemed awkwardly written into the plot.
Never mind her look (which yes, bugged me) but Lois in Man of Steel never quite seemed to be as smart or strong as she insisted she was. You can talk about measuring dicks, or being a ‘Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’, but there are scenes where she just didn’t need to be there (like on Zod’s ship), and I don’t know that the romance between her and Clark was developed or earned. Compare that to Erica Durance (Smallville) or Teri Hatcher (Lois and Clark) who nailed the biting personality. Over 75 years, Superman’s #1 gal, has varied from no-nonsense tough girl, to forward-thinking trailblazer, and while she was often a damsel in distress, she will always be an empowering icon for women in the workplace.
Now we can get to the primary antagonist, General Zod, a character that can only be compared to one man, because he’s only been portrayed once before.
Terrance Stamp is so connected to this villain role, fanboys were insisting that we hear the iconic line: “Kneel before Zod!” somewhere in this movie. (In that case, why not “Up, up and away!”) Michael Shannon, a fine actor, doesn’t quite have the chops for Zod that I think many had in mind. He speaks with an awkward snarl, and there’s the feeling like he’s an immature dork who takes himself too seriously. It’s not for a lack of trying, though. The menace plays well enough, if a little one-note, and there’s an interesting twist with his motivation that helps layer the character a little more at the end. Still, the majesty of Zod is lost, and Stamp is still the top dog in this category.
Suggested reading: Last Son
On a side note I have to mention that Faora, Zod’s right hand woman (Essentially Ursa from Superman II), was totally kick-ass.
Another defining aspect of a Superman story is Metropolis and The Daily Planet. Of course it wouldn’t be fair to look at how the city was (or wasn’t) used in Man of Steel since it has no story significance until the very end. Metropolis is simply the background stage in the film’s final act fighting game, but I won’t get into the problems with that. I can still look at the depiction of The Daily Planet, its Editor in Chief, Perry White, and Superman’s pal, Jimmy Olsen- for my money best portrayed in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Not to say that Laurence Fishburn doesn’t make a great Perry White (he does), but I have a legitimate gripe about ‘Jenny’, who’s inclusion in this film is pointless. She literally exists only to get caught under some rubble!
Finally, I wanna talk action! One of the biggest complaints about Superman Returns, well, a lot of Superman iterations, is the lack of truly powerful action. Well, Snyder delivers this in spades.
The entire second half of Man of Steel is nothing but a slug-fest, and while the brawl at Smallville was impressive, the fist-fighting did grow tiresome by the time we reached the city. It could have used some more variety, or even tactics, as seen in Superman II, which covered the same material, but better. Zod is a military man, and Superman should use his mind as well as his fists. You’ll get your best examples of this from the comics, of course, but there’s certainly no matching the sheer epic scale of the battles in Man of Steel (Collateral damage aside). Look to the cartoons, especially the DC Animated Universe, as the only things that comes close.
Suggested viewing: Superman/Doomsday
Man of Steel may not be perfect, but it has a lot going for it. I loved the serious tone, the introspective look at Kal-El and his destiny, and the science fiction world they established. It’s a great jumping off point for an expanded DC universe, as well as a great stage for future Superman tales. I can easily see Doomsday crashing down here in a similar fashion. Brianiac, Lex Luthor, Supergirl, Martian Manhunter- the storytelling potential is endless. For me, that is the best way to honor 75 years of Superman- but showing that nothing is impossible anymore.
“’Are we alone in the universe?’ is a question man has asked since time began… and you’re the answer.”
Suggested Reading for Man of Steel: Birthright
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