In the beginning, there was Superman.
So one might begin the story of the superhero genre. Superman isn’t just an example of a superhero, he is the exemplar. The archetype. There isn’t an unusually-empowered individual fighting crime in fiction that can’t be traced to him in some way. He’s the straight-up icon of a good-guy hero protecting the people of Earth. A Boy Scout, as he’s sometimes called.
That fact itself means that Superman is often regarded as being a very shallow character compared to the more ambiguous or unorthodox heroes like Batman or Wolverine.
So I regarded it as rather startling that in this cynical age anybody thought they could manage to make the Man of Steel into a successful movie. Then again, you couldn’t have had more of a flying start than the team put together to try it.
It’s produced by Chris Nolan, who knocked Batman out of the park with the Dark Knight trilogy, and Deborah Snyder, of the visually stunning graphic novel film 300, the superhero deconstruction Watchmenand the offbeat yet profound (to me anyway) Sucker Punch. The score is by Hans Zimmer, whose track record with the Dark Knight and Pirates of the Caribbean films speak for themselves. And, last but not least it’s directed by Ms. Snyder’s husband Zack Snyder, director and screenwriter of Watchmen, 300 and Sucker Punch all.
The planet Krypton, exhausted by overexploitation of its resources, is entering its final days. As the fanatical solider General Zod resorts to civil war, Jor-El, its reigning scientist and his beloved Lara, defy the strict predestined breeding programs by having Krypton’s first natural-born child in centuries.
In a last-ditch attempt to preserve the spirit of their race, Jor-El and Lara make the decision to send their infant son, Kal-El, on a small spacecraft to a primitive but civilized planet (you can guess which one), whose young sun and lower gravity will empower their boy to be an example to others.
The alien foundling grows up as Clark Kent, a Kansas farm boy with a great secret: myserious powers, not least of which, prodigious strength and super-keen senses. Fearing the bigotry of humanity, he lives as an outcast, wandering from job to job in remote places, helping people when he can and searching for where he comes from.
When journalist Lois Lane travels to the Arctic to report on a strange anomaly deep inside ancient ice, Clark, working as a helicopter crewman, is there too and makes his way into what turns out to be an ancient Kryptonian ship, where he is able to access the electronic ‘ghost’ of his father.
Just as he’s starting to come to terms with his destiny, General Zod, wandering in exile these many years, comes to claim Kal-El and the secrets that Jor-El embedded in him, with which he can rebuild Krypton on Earth’s ashes. Clark must try to understand and thwart Zod, plead his case to Lois Lane and prove himself to humanity.
Clark’s desire to help, hide and to find himself is quite logical and realistic for someone in his position. He’s a hero of the DC Universe but isn’t sure he doesn’t live in the Marvel Universe, if you’ll forgive the unrelenting nerdiness of that analogy. I also like that part of his childhood is simply learning how to cope with his powers, so he isn’t looking through people’s flesh all the time or accidentally melting things with his laser eyes.
The action scenes against his fellow Kryptonians are exciting, and it consistently hits the right emotional notes. I choked up in many moments and my heart glowed at the cheesily classic finale. Nolan’s tendency to cast non-American actors more steeped in the European/Commonwealth tradition continues to pay off as it did in his Batman films.
Having said all this, it was by no means perfect.
It seems to me there are two questions a storyteller has to ask at the outset of the telling: what is going to happen, and what is the audience going to take away from it? And while the first question is at least adequately answered, I feel the second one has no clear answer.
While the basic scenario is laid out, the character at the heart of it remains difficult for me to understand. Lots of things happen to Clark, and he does lots of things, but the pacing is rushed, eager to get to the point where he gets to be Superman, and the result is that we don’t really get to know him. In fact, it must be half an hour into the movie before Clark, when he’s the sum of all the experience and learning that is about to become Superman, even talks!
The interwoven flashbacks to his childhood mostly show him being bullied and having to hold in his abilities to protect himself, but they’re just little snippets that don’t really show us his growth. His human father sacrifices himself to protect his son’s secret. The odd thing is, this comes right on the heels of them having the ‘I want to do something with my life,’ ‘what’s wrong with the life we gave you’ argument that’s been used a trillion times in fiction, and is not only at variance with the rest of the scene, but with every other conversation they have in the rest of the film.
The Christ metaphor is obvious, but Christ, whether you venerate him or not, wasn’t just a leader with amazing powers. He was also a genuinely nice guy full of kindness and compassion. Clark rescues people, sure, but we don’t see him being friendly, or gentle, or caring.
Actually, we do, but those moments of tenderness, mostly shared with his mother, only start once all the backstory’s been told and after discovering Jor-El’s message. They’re beautiful scenes, but we needed them an hour earlier!
As it is, they start the same time as the final battle begins. While it was epic and made creative use of all the powers Superman has, Superman, the man who is humanity’s guardian angel, causes a massive amount of collateral damage which is frankly cheap. Superman strikes me as the kind of guy who would be trying to hold off the enemy with one hand while shielding the Earth and its people with the other. But watching the battle rage through Metropolis you can infer the deaths of thousands caused by Superman and Zod together, and the final victory causes a massive explosion that ought to kill at least as many people as anything the bad guys had done up to that point. The good guys winning should halt the destruction, not put a cherry on top of it.
Talking of explosions, I have a personal gripe with this movie. Superman has to prove himself to humanity, but I’d have liked it if that actually meant humanity, not just the United States Air Force. Planetwide stakes probably have to involve that kind of thing, but I am sick to death of the USA coming to the rescue, guns blazing. Superman’s story, as a colleague once said to me, is of a lone everyman with the world on his shoulders, not a lone everyman with the firepower of a major nation. Plus, we lose a lot of time better spent on Superman’s character keeping track of the fighter pilots.
Other points include a minor plot hole here and there and a general, if mild case of things happening because they need to. Lois Lane is attracting a lot of chatter given how sexist her character’s portrayal can be. She’s established with an attitude and a Pulitzer, but like Clark it doesn’t follow through clearly to her as a person. Her getting saved by Superman is perhaps inevitable and she delivers him the key to victory. Maybe she’d be more engaging if she just didn’t scream so much.
Hans Zimmer did something I didn’t think possible when he came up with music for Batman the equal of Danny Elfman’s classic score for the character, but in this film the music is weirdly understated. A character like Superman is crying out for a grand, uplifting score, the likes that John Williams, or, in my childhood, Shirley Walker gave him.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun movie, in the sense I usually use that term, and a great one, but I was expecting something more profound. All the right ingredients are there, but there’s not enough of any of them: the struggle to find oneself, the goodness of humanity, the everyman. The acting is great, the design charming, but this isn’t Nolan, Zimmer or the Snyders’ A-Game. Perhaps the whole world is too high a stake, and there was room to go further with the idealism of Superman, which would actually be quite special in this day and age.
Nolan peaked with his second Batman film, so there’s cause for optimism here, and this is already a really cool movie, even if it suffers from the same contriavance and lack of focus as the Dark Knight Rises. Given its performance at the box office, you might even say it’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive…