“You’re the answer, son. You’re the answer to ‘are we alone in the universe’.”
“What if I don’t want to be?”
This exchange between Clark Kent and his adopted father sums up quite a bit about the latest Superman film Man of Steel, another attempt to reboot the franchise. Superman has always been the “strange visitor from another world,” but rarely has that thought been placed front and center. What does the existence of an alien mean for the world view of the common people? How would that change the way we view ourselves and the universe around us? What would be the social impact? The scientific ramifications? The religious consequences? Most people would say, if pressed, that we’re not alone in the universe, but if you actually met someone from another world, how would the reality of that change your world?
Telling the origin story of Superman is a thankless task; he’s one of the few comic characters that is so universal that pretty much anyone could tell you what “Krypton” is, Superman’s secret identity, and what most of his powers are. If you’re director Zach Snyder, however, and you’re building a franchise, you have to start from the beginning, because you’ve got to start from your beginning, and build from there. Although it drags a bit in spots, Snyder has built a good foundation to relaunch the series.
The planet Krypton figures into Man of Steel more than it has in any other film. The events taking place there, and not just the launch of baby Kal-El from the doomed planet, shape the entire film. Krypton is an old world, and its people have mined all the energy out of the planet, to the point of fatally damaging its core. While one of the planet’s leading scientists, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) tries to persuade the ruling council to act, its military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon) tries a more direct approach, attempting a coup with the plan of saving some of the planet’s leading bloodlines. The fact that he’s being elitist doesn’t speak well of the man, but at least he’s trying something. The Council is about as effective as our Congress would be under similar circumstances.
Amidst all this turmoil, Jor-El and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer) send their infant son away to Earth, a planet where he could blend in, and possibly lead it’s people “into the light” (although Krypton seems enough of a mess that maybe they should try to do us any favors). Zod’s rebellion is put down, and he and his followers are conveniently exiled off planet, which makes them and Kal-El Krypton’s only survivors (that we know of, anyway).
Kal’s rocket is found by a kindly Kansas couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who teach their new son, Clark, how to use his powers. This is where the film takes a bit of a detour from the familiar story, though. Jonathan is adamant that he not display his powers in public, to the point of possibly letting people die to protect his secret. A conflicted Clark (played as an adult by Henry Cavill) walks the Earth, trying to find a place, blending in where he can, and helping people from the background.
His path crosses with intrepid journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) at a polar excavation that turns up a Kryptionan artifact. After some misadventures, where Lois sees him in action, it takes her about 15 minutes to figure out who he is and show up at Martha Kent’s doorstep.
(This is probably the biggest departure from “canon” — depending on which canon you’re citing. Clark really never has a secret from Lois here; she knows who he is before he ever puts on the blue suit. The idea that an award-winning investigative journalist couldn’t put two and two together for 40 years never sat right with me, and I’m glad she’s much more of a partner to Clark here than any Lois who has been on film. It’s much more true to the character, and makes her a contributor instead of a plot point.)
Just after Kal-El learns about his heritage from the artifact, a freed General Zod and company find Earth and learn of the one remaining Kryptonian. They issue a challenge to Kal — and a warning to Earth — that he must join them. The remainder of the story focuses on clashes of culture, issues of survival and finding a place in the world.
Some might quibble with how certain liberties might have been taken with the age-old character (and, let’s face it, there’s always someone in this genre who will quibble with anything and everything). “That’s not canon,” someone might say. The character has been rebooted so many times in the comics, however (I can think of four reboots off the top of my head, the latest one from “The New 52” being the least of them, in my opinion), that one could argue that there just isn’t any one canon right now. So, from that perspective, Man of Steel has a surprising amount of latitude in how it tells its story.
At first glance, this appears to be a darker film than the ones that came before it, but on further review, it’s not as dark as it is introspective (for my money, Superman Returns had a dark streak that didn’t fit the character well at all, and him being a deadbeat dad is just wrong). Clark Kent is in a very singular place, being the son of two very different cultures. Prior films haven’t really dealt with that question the way Man of Steel does. Snyder, who directed the based-on-comic films 300 and Watchmen, has been criticized in the past for simply “filming the comic,” bringing nothing new to the experience. Like it or not, the same can’t be said for this film. The Superman portrayed here is different from previous films, or from the comics. In much the same way that Batman was treated more realistically in the Dark Knight trilogy (Christopher Nolan, that trilogy’s director, is a writer and producer of this film), the questions not usually asked about the existence of an alien among us is brought front and center here. I’m interested in seeing where we go from here.
Thoughts on Man of Steel (from a very geeky perspective):
• The Kryptonian imaging technology is charmingly reminiscent of 1930’s gilded artwork, and since that’s when Superman was created, that’s quite appropriate.
• There was no use or even mention of Kryptonite in this film. Given the way Kal-El comes to Earth (via wormhole, well before the planet explodes), there might not be any in future films. In the comics, it’s explained that there are so many radioactive fragments of Superman’s home world because they were caught in the wake of his rocket.
• Those with sharp eyes will catch three members of Battlestar Galatica in this film. Alessandro Juliani (Gaeta) and Mary McDonnell (President Roslin) are easy to spot, but Tahmoh Penikett (Helo) has a “blink and you’ll miss it” scene.
• This isn’t a spoiler, in that you can get this from the trailer, but in the film’s climatic battle in the skies over Metropolis (and on the streets of Metropolis, and in the buildings of Metropolis, etc.), the loss of life would have been staggering — a New York-sized city couldn’t be evacuated in the time frame here. It’s probably the realistic way this sort of thing would go, but it’s still not fun to watch high-rise buildings come down in smokey plumes.
• Thankfully, this film doesn’t have a Lex Luthor land-grab plot as did Superman (West Cost property), Superman II (Australia) and Superman Returns (an ugly, spiky Kryptonite island). In fact, it didn’t have Luthor in it at all. However, there was a Lexcorp tanker truck in one scene, so we can expect to see him in future movies. Just as long as he’s not wanting to take over New Jersey or something.