I mean, in the long run, why should I care that a cinematic Superman spends more time punching people through buildings than helping bystanders? After all, violence has been written into his superhero text from the beginning, and I can't excuse my taste for rousing violence in action films, even if it appears less often in the comics I profess to love. More to the point, there are real-life injustices happening everyday; why bother about a fictional one?
Still, there are some things the movie does right. The exploration of Krypton's weirdo eugenics-based culture is an interesting new twist to an old yarn, especially given that it allows the filmmakers to claim Superman isn't an Ubermensch, but a mongrel within that society (everybody loves an underdog, right?). Likewise, exploring Clark Kent's road to helping people while wearing synthetic long-johns would be good fodder for a movie aimed at people skeptical of the whole Superman thing. Luckily, Henry Cavill has a good handle on Superman's wry sense of humor, though he's given maybe one moment to laugh and one stirring solo flight. And Amy Adams gives Lois Lane a grounded intelligence, along with a warmth that is rarely spotlighted in the character, at least not in the movies; I also like that she learns Clark's identity pretty much right away, as it puts them on equal footing from the start of their romance. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane wring a lot of heart out of their scenes with an adolescent Clark, and though what happens to Pa Kent beggars belief to me, I think that the movie's various mission statements (pulled from sources as varied as Morrison's All-Star, Mark Waid's Birthright, and Byrne's Man of Steel) are all solid Superman themes, taken one at a time.
See, much like the recent Batman trilogy, producer Chris Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer mine through every great modern Superman story (Birthright being the main inspiration), to distill the pure essence of Superman from a varied and spicy stew. However, a couple major story choices make me feel less confident that anyone involved even likes Superman, or had much to say about him that hasn't already been made clear elsewhere. I don't want to get all nerd-tastic here, citing continuity or story principle. Others have already done that more clearly, more thoughtfully, and more passionately than I could. I don't want to open my argument to "But that only matters in the comics!" reasoning, so let me break my disappointment down structurally.
This movie is named "Man of Steel" for a reason. The reason caught me by surprise as the final scene appeared. Because in it, we see Superman dress up as nebbish Clark Kent. The placement of the tie and glasses is literally given a montage, as "suiting up in costume for the first time" scenes often are. Watching Clark introduce himself as a stranger to Lois Lane, even though she already knows his truth, I realized what the movie was really about. It wasn't about justifying Superman and his motivations, his ability to fly and protect humanity endlessly (though a LOT of time is spent in slugfests building up to an unbelievable, lazily "justified" moment of Superman-fueled murder). This movie was about justifying the lie of his humanity. More optimistically, it was about Superman choosing his human side over his Kryptonian one. To which I still say, "Big deal." Krypton doesn't actually exist, and Superman is a character made for humans, so I know from the get-go he's gonna choose his humanity over his alien heritage; it's why I didn't actually think that's what the movie could be about. Like, Warner Brother's wants to capture me for all the sequels; they're not gonna introduce a cryptic, unrelatable Man of Steel, duh.
But here's the problem. I don't think this Superman likes people very much. And that is key -- KEY -- to his power as a character. His belief in other people allows him to be vulnerable with them, allows him to have the emotional limits that all of us share, allows him time to use his heart and brain to solve problems where ACTUAL LIVES HE CARES ABOUT ARE AT STAKE. There' is a sequence in "Man Of Steel" where he saves Perry White, Lois, and female Jimmy Olsen, sure, but it's after hundreds of structures in Metropolis have been decimated and thousands of lives lost. The human stakes are off-set by this, to say the least. Not to mention the fact that Superman seems to think only of humanity in the abstract during his struggles, when Lois should exist as a constant reminder that EVERY person is important.
Let's be honest. I have a lot of disgust with director Zack Snyder in general, but my gorge rose upon watching the destruction he caused during Superman's fights with fellow Kryptonian Zod. Snyder seems completely unaware of the implications falling buildings have nowadays, and I think that causes serious problems for a movie about a man embracing his destiny to help people to the best of his ability. Here, when people wonder over the fact that Superman saved them, the rest of the carnage is ignored, and human life is devalued, whether that was the director's intention or not. Thus, a basic part of Superman's optimism is broken. It's completely shattered when he murders every Kryptonian on Earth, then is given a pass because he cries about it once. (Talk about post-911 portrayals -- I shudder to think what this movie says about America.)
Here's another thing. When Superman does struggle with whether or not to keep his powers a secret, when he allows his adopted father to be swallowed up by a tornado, when he believes he will be experimented on like a lab rat if his space-alien nature is discovered, we're supposed to accept that worry at face value, and wait for American exceptionalism to take root. We as an audience are waiting for the moment he cuts lose and "saves everyone," as his alien dad Jor-El tells him he will. But how he saves everyone is just as important as why, a story-telling tenet I don't think the MOS filmmakers cotton to very much. Because Clark isn't given much choice between helping people and not helping people, ever. In fact, as the movie moves to Earth from Krypton, we see numerous flashbacks of Clark helping people in secret. So if great ability is already encoded in his DNA -- literally, as he holds all of Krypton's bloodlines in his body somehow (thus getting us back to that ol' exceptionalism problem comics tend to ignore) -- and this ability is actually being used to help people as the plot gets going, then where's the drama come in? We're being asked to wait and watch him fly around in public, sure, but HE'S ALREADY DOING HIS JOB IN THE FIRST THIRTY MINUTES OF THE MOVIE. So what are we waiting for, really? Turns out we're waiting for a guy we already know will become Superman, to become Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter.
This could be a fascinating switch, and on the surface, I admire it. I've always loved Clark Kent, less for how he fools everybody, and more for how essential he is for Superman to touch the everyday. So putting focus on how Superman becomes Clark Kent provides all sorts of awesome sequel possibilities (none of which may be taken up). But here's my issue with how Clark is built in this movie: again and again, his mistrust of humans is given weight -- not through anyone's actions other than his own, making it weak sauce, to my mind -- when it's founded on nothing but conjecture, instead of onscreen problems with the feds or the military. At the end of the film, when Supes destroys a drone that the military has deployed to track him, he demands trust, while having offered little in return, except for murder and mayhem. If Goyer intended this movie to be about Clark's hope for humanity and the future, there is little in his Man of Steel to inspire the audience. And anyway, has hope been restored in Clark's life at the end? It didn't feel like it to me. It felt like his journey was complicated without being complex, allowing him to choose humanity through a violent and morally lazy sacrifice that had little light to shed on one of America's greatest icons. It felt like Clark got a pass.
This all brings me to wonder ... is there something wrong with wanting a story about good people struggling? Is it really so terrifying to write one? Obviously, we need our conflicted anti-heroes, who take violent actions. But even in "Breaking Bad," we start from a place where what Walter White has solid, selfless reasons for cooking meth. It's easy to say Superman is boring because we always expect him to do the right thing, but I think this assumption is one of the few laudable things about Silver Age comics, where Superman found surprising and ridiculous ways to solve his problems, even if he didn't struggle with his limits in the same way. He was fun then, as well as poignant.
In one of my favorite off-canon Supes/Bats/Wondie stories, Matt Wagner has Superman proclaim he will never let another planet suffer, as his home planet did; there is more motivation, emotion, and humanity in that single statement than in the entire two hour-plus running time in "Man Of Steel." One can argue Superman is unsurprising; in turn, I will argue that he is a deep well of all our hopes and fears, and that you just have to look for his limitations, his concerns, and his joys, in order to make him exciting and relatable to a modern audience.
So, while "Man Of Steel" has its moments, I certainly don't think we should look to it as one of Jesus' extra parables, or as a wise recruitment tool for the National Guard. And in any case, Superman may be aspirational in most contexts, but let's not push it so far that corporations are writing sermons for the local church, all right? Limits are what make his success stirring, and until those are realized in honest, no cheap ways, onscreen, I'll keep mulling them over here on the blog-space.