It is, I think, an axiom that every hero is a reflection of their generation. Back when Superman was first created, he was pretty much a tougher-than-average strongman who had no reservations about bullying people into submission. As time wore on, the character grew to become the archetypical boy scout that dominated his persona for most of his existence. In the Superman films of the 70’s and 80’s, this persona was used to provide humor. The naive hero who said he fought for truth, justice and the American Way was rebuffed with a caustic “You’re going to be fighting every politician in the country!”. Such was the cynical post-Vietnam climate the these films were created in. Over time, the comedy overran the series, to the point where the idea of Superman and his enemies was hardly something to be taken seriously, but rather an opportunity to be cornball and show dumb sight gags involving super-breath. As beloved at it rightfully is, the Christopher Reeve Superman was still a trifle campy, so much so that the original director Richard Donner was fired over trying to keep things serious.
Given that, how will Superman fare in a gritty, terror-ridden world where everything alien is viewed with suspicion? That is the question that Man of Steel tries to ask, and I think this is why so many of the negative reviews of the film seem to pine for the whimsical style of the Reeve era. This is Superman taken as realistically as possible. It is very much a darker film; even the brilliant whites of Krypton have been replaced by a moody Matrix-style planet. But within this dark environment there is still at the core the same message of hope that has always been there. Superman’s purpose is to inspire us to be better people, to reach for an ideal even if we constantly falter in the process. Such an inspiration is sorely needed in the post-911 world, and it is no mistake that Clark’s efforts to defeat the Kryptonian General Zod are inter-cut with individual heroics by humans both civilian and military. It’s as if our real-life heroes are suddenly granted an superpowered ally, or as if Superman himself has become a metaphor for the heroics that we witness in every catastrophe. Those who were wishing for the kind of flights of fancy that the original films did so effectively will be disappointed. There are no romantic moonlit flights with Lois Lane, nor any pathetic criminals getting their just desserts in comedic fashion. What we get is as close to a real-life Superman as you can get; one who is surrounded by tragedy but who still strives to do the right thing, and in the process he inspires others to do the same.
That said, the movie is far from technically perfect. The third act suffers from the kind of over-extended action sequences that plagued Star Trek: Into Darkness, leaving the viewer longing for a breather. The muted color pallet also makes it difficult to follow the faster-than-a-bullet action sequences, with Superman’s darkened uniform sometimes blending into the background. On the plus side, the film is stacked from top to bottom with Oscar caliber actors, all of whom invest completely into their roles. Henry Cavill, while admittedly limited in his dialogue, is able to convey the mystery and loneliness of the alien searching for his place in this world. His one performance flaw is a tendency to yell a lot, much like a Spartan out of director Zack Snyder’s previous film, 300.
Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline are both wonderful as the much-bullied younger versions of Clark Kent. Amy Adams turns in her usual charming performance as a somewhat muted Lois Lane. She is less grating and irascible than Margot Kidder’s take on the character, but she occasionally lacks the same fiery spirit, and her chemistry with Cavill is not nearly as electric as that between their 70’s counterparts. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe are both impressive as Jonathan Kent and Jor-El, two very different men who nonetheless share the same core values and share the responsibility for fathering the fledgeling hero.
Critics of this film should not be surprised that we got a darker, grittier take on Superman. It is, after all, the reason why Christopher Nolan was involved in the first place, and it continues the realistic take on the characters that Nolan began with his Batman trilogy. It is somewhat ironic that DC Comics, once considered the more traditional, brighter and lighter of the two major comic firms, has begun a series of films that will undoubtedly be much more grounded than their original source material, while Marvel has for the most part gone for the flashy, humorous and more whimsical approach that DC was once known for. Superman was the first of comic superheroes, and hopefully the proposed films of the long-floundering DC universe will follow his lead, giving us grounded, realistic stories that still carry a message of hope.
Man of Steel gets Four Acorns out of Five!