ETA: I still like this movie better than most but I’m retro-actively down-grading it. At first pass it works but upon revisiting it, it just doesn’t hold up. Henry Cavill as Clark/Superman is still spot-on casting and I still like the decisions made re: Jonathan Kent and Slightly Ambivalent Superman, but I think Zack Snyder & Co. compromised Superman’s innate hopefulness too much. Also, the length of the movie and the incoherent disaster porn of the third act render it virtually un-re-watchable. But mostly what killed this one for me is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie which managed to make an innately moral and good superhero interesting and complex without compromising his inherent charcteristics.
There will be SPOILERS.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Superman, thinking him boring (for many of the same reasons I find Captain America boring), but Man of Steel changed my mind. But it was a calculated risk as the things I enjoyed about a twenty-first century Superman are the things that have the Superman fanboys (and girls) unhappy with producer Christopher Nolan’s take on Clark Kent. We’ll get to that in a minute. First let’s talk about Zack Snyder’s partial redemption as a director.
Clearly, someone rode herd on Snyder, who has never been one for restraint, and limited both his tendency toward machismo and rape fantasies. Man of Steel was refreshingly rape-free. (Yes, I’m still mad
about Sucker Punch. That shit was inexcusable.) It was not, however, totally free of Snyder’s heavy-handed imagery, as the number of Christ references reached double digits and even included a really fucking silly shot of Clark sitting in a church with a stained glass depiction of Jesus behind him. The church scene was otherwise pitch perfect and that single shot of Clark/Jesus and Jesus/Jesus kept it from being truly spectacular.
There’s also an overindulgence in disaster porn in the third act that’s a little incoherent at points, which is surprising because Snyder is usually better at framing but he loses the thread a bit in the aerial fights. But he makes up for it with some great hand-to-hand fights and for managing to marry the wide scope of Superman with the narrower world of Clark Kent and yet use the exact same palette and lighting scheme for both. Those are the subtle cues that often accompany a superhero’s transformation but Snyder never alters his view on this world and so we get a character who slides in and out of focus as his own personality develops to encompass everything he’s learning about himself. Which brings us to how Nolan, Snyder & Co. saved Superman.
Clark Kent is perhaps one of the best conceived prototype heroes we’ve seen yet. He’s not as fun or as funny as Tony Stark, but in terms of realization, I’d put Cavill’s turn as Superman right next to Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man. This Clark has conflict and ambiguity inside him, he isn’t the pristine do-gooder of the comics, and he has a destructive bent—a carelessness—that made him more compelling. A lot of people object to Superman carrying out a brutal fight in an occupied zone that had to result in hundreds, if not thousands, of human deaths, but that’s what makes him interesting. He isn’t perfect. He makes some bad choices, the repercussions of which aren’t fully realized yet, but which should end up having real cost for Superman.
Take, for instance, his relationship with Lois Lane. It’s wonderful, and I like that they’re nixing that dumbass “triangle of two” from the get, but has Clark considered what Lois knowing his double-identity is going to mean down the line? For all that his Earth-dad (Kevin Costner in a strong supporting role) drilled the need for secrecy into him, Clark doesn’t do that great a job of protecting himself. Sure, he uses fake names, but as Lois following his trail proves, he hasn’t been subtle. Eventually someone besides Lois will connect those dots and it won’t even be that hard. The Marvel movies haven’t even tried to do secret identities, tossing the very concept out the window with Tony Stark’s last line in Iron Man, because it’s impossible in this day and age, if you think about it. Any dedicated Googler would be able to piece it together in an afternoon. The burden of protecting Clark’s secret is something that could end up having repercussions on their relationship down the line.
There were a lot of decisions like that that made this iteration of Clark much more compelling than any before. He wants to do good, but he doesn’t have a deep affection for humanity as previous Supermans did. That church scene was so stellar because of the touch of real regret in Clark’s voice when he expresses doubt in humanity’s trustworthiness (Cavill knocked that scene out of the park). He wants to believe better, but he’s a little cynical. But that’s what makes him great. He’s Superman not because he’s some perfect other-worldly being but because despite his misgivings he chooses to hope for better than he’s seen so far. It’s much more compelling to watch him arrive at that choice than just know all along he’ll always do the right and perfect thing.
Also making Clark more compelling is the suggestion of a limit on his powers. There’s no Kryptonite here but they tie his strength to his access to Earth’s sun, making him a kind of solar-powered superhero. And we see him struggle with physical feats, and though yes, bullets do bounce off him, he winces when he’ struck—he at least feels the impact. So the threshold is high, but it’s there. It’s conceivable that there is a limit to push him to. It’ll be interesting to see if they can continue to create vulnerabilities in Clark organically, without relying on the fix-all of Kryptonite.
Finally, let’s talk about that time Superman murdered someone. I’m not even a Superman fan and I felt the impact of that moment. There was an audible gasp in the theater, partly because it’s a visceral moment shot in full-frame so there is no mistaking that yeah, Superman just totally broke that guy’s neck, but it’s also the gut punch of seeing Superman kill, period. He doesn’t do that! But, yeah, this Superman does. This is not the saintly do-gooder of yore, this is a guy who watched his father die—who let his father die—and who might be able to keep from pummeling bullies into the ground but who isn’t above engaging in property damage to get even. By the time Superman kills Zod, it feels earned, like it’s the only possible conclusion. And it clearly affects Clark; he doesn’t just get up and walk away from it. And maybe it means that I’m fucked up, but I’m much more interested in a character that isn’t always able to save everyone, all of the time.