It feels appropriate to be writing about Superman on Father’s Day. Unlike most superheroes on the page and screen, Clark Kent was fortunate to have two very decent fathers who cared deeply for their son.
I remember seeing Superman in the theater during Christmas of 1978, and although I was only five years old – it filled me with a sense of wonder and joy that remains to this day. It didn’t occur to me exactly why Superman resonated so strongly until high school, when I realized that I wanted to be like Clark Kent: write by day and help people in my spare time. I did not aspire to become a superhero of course, but I always felt like it was my destiny to make a small difference in this world; someway, someday, somehow. [Side note: both dreams are still a work in progress!]
Superman was always my favorite superhero because he was earnest, sweet and a bit awkward (both as Clark Kent and Superman). Because despite losing his planet and birth parents as a newborn, he was never driven by darkness. Unlike Batman and Spider-Man (among countless others), he did not witness the murder of family members. The Superman that I grew up with on screen was all heart and family. He was motivated by saving lives and by peace. He wasn’t perfect, but his flaws always seemed more human, more relatable.
Clearly, my expectations for Man of Steel were exceedingly high.
Before diving in to the issues I had with Man of Steel, I would like to highlight the short list of what I loved about the film: All scenes on the Kent farm. The flashbacks. Cavill, Costner and Crowe. The Krypton tech. The updated Superman, Jor-El and Zod suits/costumes.
My first red flag about the new incarnation of Superman was the title. I had a sinking feeling that the Steel would represent his heart and disposition far more than previous versions; that this would indeed be a darker, more contemporary world. I didn’t mind delving deeper into the Superman origin story and mythology, as Man of Steel does. I just found myself quite disturbed by the unrelenting darkness. To me, Clark Kent is not and will never be Bruce Wayne - nor should he follow in that path.
There will be some who blame the look and feel of Man of Steel on producer Christopher Nolan or director Zack Snyder. Frankly, I love and admire many of their films, including the Dark Knight trilogy. But I just didn’t expect or want the new Superman to have the same gloom and doom soul and style. I know that it was wishful thinking on my part to believe that any ounce of essence from the first Superman films would be alive in the new franchise.
As is the case with Gotham, Metropolis is obviously New York City. No matter how far removed in time we are from September 11, 2001 – the traumatizing imagery and lost lives remain firmly in our minds and hearts forever. Man of Steel is not the first movie since that date to feature the massive destruction of NYC, but the fight scenes in this particular film were unnecessarily long and borderline gratuitous. Honestly, I found them to be so distracting that I actually started wishing for Superman to fail. When the final Good vs. Evil scene started to unfold, I was reminded of my least favorite contemporary action franchise: Transformers. My heart sunk and broke with that realization.
Earlier in the film, Clark rescues different groups of people from various disasters; reminiscent of the Superman that I grew up idolizing. It gave me hope for the direction and outcome of Man of Steel. The general goal in every superhero movie is to capture or kill the Bad Guy (in this case, Zod) in order to prevent world destruction. But the Superman of old cared about the consequences, about the collateral damage. In pursuit of Zod, this Clark Kent was careless; responsible for the loss of more lives on screen than I can recall in any superhero movie in recent memory. Distracting, depressing, distressing.
In addition, the first three Superman films contained what I believe to be an essential element in superhero and action films: humor. While Man of Steel is not entirely humorless, there is a noticeable void in that department. Films like Iron Man, The Avengers and the rebooted Star Trek franchise are far more enjoyable because they balance the action and destruction with comedic moments that are necessary to break up the bleak.
Although it was more fitting of the era at the time, I loved and preferred Terence Stamp’s arguably campy portrayal of General Zod in Superman II to Michael Shannon’s menacing Zod in Man of Steel. Perhaps if Shannon, who is terrific on Boardwalk Empire and in films like Take Shelter (2011), was given a dash of humor and less one-note, angry avenging villain material to work with – I would have appreciated the modern take more.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there is one line of dialogue in Man of Steel that was eye-roll inducing; that reminded me of a Michael Bay film. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but it was delivered at the end of the film by a female military captain. It was a ridiculous, throwaway line - completely unnecessary and yet another distraction from the story.
If Man of Steel was created in part as a set up for a Justice League movie, a la The Avengers, it felt more cold than organic (compared to the Iron Man, Captain America franchises, etc.).
Man of Steel presents a Superman for a new generation, but not for mine. I just need to accept that warmth, humor and heart have been replaced by darkness and destruction, and move on. I shall continue to love the Clark Kent from my childhood, no matter how they present him in the sequel(s).