Superman is an alien from beyond our solar system, but also a part of humanity. He’s a boy from Kansas, but also a demigod. He is, at once, both the other and the familiar. It’s a duality that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer explore in Man of Steel, and they demonstrated the similar duality that’s inherent in attempting to adapt Superman for the screen.
In the film, Superman struggles with the tension between his knowledge that he is a living monument to a world and a people who have long since been destroyed and the feeling that he is a part of our world with friends and loved ones who are just as meaningful. By the same token, the film’s creative brain trust (which includes the director of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan) struggles to both honor Superman the icon, the character who has come to represent so much over the course of decades of stories in every medium imaginable, and make him a relatable character who movie audiences can connect with.
It was a noble effort, and a difficult one at that, but ultimately, an unsuccessful one as well. At the end of the film, Superman is still more icon than man and more symbol than individual.
The film’s greatest failure on that front comes through the movie’s dialogue. It’s hard to know whether the blame lies with the writing or the acting, but rather than feeling warmth or depth from nearly any of these characters, the audience witnesses a series of exchanges that feel cold and almost robotic from individuals who seem strangely removed.1
Russell Crowe in particular, whom the film leaned on far too much for a character who nominally dies during the movie’s introduction, gave repeated bits of stale pontification and stilted speeches that greatly hindered the proceedings. By the same token, Henry Cavill’s Superman did not have the blithely optimistic bent established by Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner.2 But his few, intermittent conversations felt less like moments of real emotion and more like someone explaining the benefits of a particularly good toothpaste. Michael Shannon seemed to be doing the best he could with limited material as General Zod, but even he was still unable to overcome the halting dialogue.
Sadly, he was not alone. Nearly every character seemed oddly detached. They were portrayed more as automated exposition delivery systems than human beings. That detachment made the sporadic moments of heightened emotions – the big “NO’s,” the despair at total destruction, and the bystanders in peril – not only ring false, but come off as devoid of real stakes.
The only characters to escape this curse were Superman’s parents, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.3 The flashbacks with Ma and Pa Kent counseling a young Clark through his early difficulties with his identity and his powers provided the few scenes in this movie that not only made the characters feel real, but which convincingly conveyed the struggle between the Superman’s dual identities as both an alien and a human being.
The film was also replete with serviceable but uninspiring action scenes. I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt with respect to the ridiculous amount of collateral damage it depicted.4 But the fights themselves were overstuffed, generic, and littered with painfully contrived product placement. Jor-El’s adventures on Krypton had the distracting green screen quality of the Star Wars prequels, and Superman’s own battles had so much on-screen whiplash that it made them into little more than moderately-interesting blurs of fists and spandex.
The only major set piece that truly captured the awe and raw power that Superman ought to engender is one of his first outings of the film. Early in the movie, a still green Clark Kent strained to hold up a massive support on a collapsing oil rig, giving the workers the precious few seconds they needed to escape. The scene showed both the lives in the balance of Superman’s struggle and the sheer force the hero can represent.
The scene concludes, incidentally, with an unconscious Superman drifting in the water with his arms out in a not-so-subtle crucifix pose. Add in the fact that Superman is supposed to be 33 in the film and that he is a man sent from the heavens to save the people of Earth, and it’s easy to see the movie’s biblical allusions.5 The film’s villain is also a clear historical reference. General Zod delivers polemics about only saving Kryptonians of a certain “purity” and harbors ruthless plans to ensure that his once mighty empire will rise again.
Accordingly, I have to ask – how many science fiction, fantasy, and superhero stories have to give us Jesus vs. Hitler? From Neo and Agent Smith to Harry Potter and Voldemort, it’s become cliche to have a messianic chosen one fighting against eugenics-espousing villain. There’s a universe of motivations to give an antagonist and an even greater number of motifs to support a hero. Why must so many of these works fall back on the same hoary archetypes?
And that’s what Man of Steel gives its audience – a collection of archetypes. The attempt to humanize them is there, it just falls woefully short. Instead, there’s the usual intrepid reporter, the snarling villain, and the consecrated hero, lightly dusted with the grit of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, yet lacking the underlying substance and humanity that raised it above its cape-clad predecessors. Man of Steel, like its titular hero, tries to rise up through the morass of baggage and expectations placed upon it, but unlike Superman himself, it never really gets off the ground.
- I’m inclined to attribute the problems to the script, if only because many members of the cast have acquitted themselves well elsewhere.↵
- While much of the criticism of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006 stemmed from accusations that it hewed too closely to Donner’s blueprint, Man of Steel has faced the reverse criticisms – that it departed too far from both Donner’s vision and from the source material, particularly when it came to the character of Superman himself. With respect to the latter criticism, nerdier comic book fans than I have pointed out the numerous precedents in the comics for Superman’s actions in the film. With respect to the former, while my loyalties lie with the Superman as envision by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini in Superman: The Animated Series, rather than with Donner’s, I still think that Snyder and Goyer’s interpretation of Superman is an equally valid one in principle, though one that falters somewhat in execution.↵
- Richard Schiff’s portrayal of Emil Hamilton also managed to breathe some life into the dialogue, but he was not given much to do and essentially reprised his role as Toby Zeigler from The West Wing.↵
- A good reason for Lex Luthor to rail against Superman in the sequel, perhaps?↵
- The Bible indicates that Jesus Christ was 33 at the time of his crucifixion.↵