El on Earth
How did I like Man of Steel?
That’s... a good question. I’ll be taking part in a roundtable discussion at Forces
of Geek soon, helping me further hone my thoughts for a proper review. What follows below is bereft of spoilers.
Man of Steel image © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment. Superman ® DC Comics.
I went into the 12:01 a.m. screening last Thursday night with hope and tempered excitement. So many films are getting made from comics these days that I’m often asked how this or that compares to the source material — and even more often asked plainly whether I enjoyed it, with my perspective of having liked and/or simply knowing about the comics implied. The whole nature of adaptations, especially those involving long-running characters that have been mined for television and cinema repeatedly, is the subject of another post. But what’s particularly relevant now is the fact that my opinions on such adaptations, when conflicted if not outright cranky, often get waved away with dismissals that, well, this is a movie and, y’know, it’s made for everybody rather than just fans with a prior relationship to the material and, look, blockbusters with serious actors aren’t comics or cartoons.
All that in mind, I was determined to take in Man of Steel as best I could from
the perspective of a public that largely knows Superman from the Christopher Reeve movie(s), perhaps some of Lois and Clark or Smallville, and simple cultural osmosis — those comics and cartoons from their own childhood or their kids’. I also suspected that based on advance word from, and the reputations of, the core creative team — director Zack Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan (who devised the story with Goyer) — there would be much in the overall tone as well as specific plot beats that would turn me off. Snyder’s heart was in the right place bringing Watchmen to the screen in 2009, yet it was as I wrote then a big disappointment to me; I appreciated Nolan’s Batman Begins in general but am far less charitable towards its sequels.
Yet I felt prepared to take a catholic view of the movie, no pun on any Jesus allegory intended, due to having immersed myself deeply in Superman lore this past year for the character’s 75th anniversary and being reminded that alterations to his story, while often ignored by history, are in fact among the lore’s constants. Smallville was a giant, ten-season-long fustercluck of radical revisionism, despite its frequent and nonsensical allusions to the Reeve/Donner/Salkind films. Most of the changes to the core origin, admittedly, came early on in Superman’s existence. A case in point is the popular radio program, which began less than two years removed from Superman’s April 1938 debut in Action Comics #1. Its opening episodes find Kal-L — the original spelling, first seen in the daily newspaper strip, before “Kal-El” became the standard — growing to adulthood as his rocket traveled to Earth. He is never adopted by an Earth family in the serial, but instead is given the name Clark Kent by a father and son whose lives he saves shortly after landing, in marked contrast to the comics.
Digression: Superman Returns — Bryan Singer’s attempt to carry on the continuity
and characterizations of 1978’s Superman and its 1980/1981 sequel — hit theaters in the summer of 2006. I was staying with my grandparents to provide what assistance I could in the wake of my grandfather’s stroke. At the kitchen table late one night during a visit from my mother, I was telling her that although skeptical of this Brandon Routh guy stepping almost literally into Christopher Reeve’s boots I couldn’t deny that promo clips from the movie of Superman in flight just thrilled me in ways impossible to put into words. Grandpop, who’d dozed off the last time I looked over at him, let out a little chuckle. I suddenly felt self-conscious of how loud and animated I’d become, but Mom said, “I think he’s getting a kick out of you being so excited”; Grandpop nodded yes. The flight scenes ended up being nearly all that was enjoyable in Superman Returns, and they’re something that for all its faults Man of Steel gets right too, making it an even greater shame that the film is not for children.
Man of Steel was, until a critical point, much better and more surprising in a positive sense than the movie I’d been afraid I would see. Henry Cavill is hunky and fairly charismatic. Amy Adams invariably brings Lana Lang to mind rather than Lois Lane for comics fans at first glance, Smallville’s raven-tressed Kristen Kreuk notwithstanding; this Lois, especially if you’re familiar with the Lana of John Byrne’s Man of Steel and Superman comics thereafter, feels like a melding of the two characters. We get more of Krypton, and certainly of Russell Crowe’s Jor-El, than I’d anticipated — but little of The Daily Planet. And while it’s not the sort of Krypton I would have written, I actually thought early on that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, young devotees of science fiction as they were when they brought Superman into being, would have loved seeing such an extrapolation of their humble creation on screen.
I can’t know how many die-hard fans with a real connection to the character or knowledge of his development through various eras in the comics were in the theater beyond my own viewing party. Vocal approval during the film was abundant and there was applause at the end. Pockets of conversation naturally broke out almost immediately upon the movie’s conclusion, revolving particularly around the way the Clark Kent identity was treated, the Krypton sequences, and Superman’s climactic battle with Zod. I heard some of the very protestations within my own group of the kind mentioned earlier along the lines of comics fans being better off sticking with those stories and the animated adventures spearheaded by Bruce Timm if they wanted a familiar Superman, that Man of Steel was a movie rightly designed to appeal to the modern masses.
So I considered how friends of mine who knew little or nothing about Superman beyond what’s percolated into popular consciousness might like it, concluding that while to me Man of Steel failed as a Superman movie it largely worked as a tale of an alien in our midst, heavy on the science-fiction aspect of the superhero model, and that the general public wouldn’t care to make the distinction. I logged onto Facebook after getting home at 3:30 a.m. and gave the movie my thumbs-up. “I have a few quibbles,” I wrote, “mostly small, and there was one bit I absolutely loathed, but overall I think it’s
a worthy, at times absolutely thrilling, Superman movie for today.”
I quickly regretted the use of “worthy”. To my surprise, after reading various critics’ reviews online the next day, not many people who cover the movies professionally found it “thrilling”; I expected a number to find it too dark or brooding, or to object to it on similar grounds that I as a lifelong admirer of the concept of Superman did, but I really thought that critics would be on board — especially because Nolan’s Dark Knights were so highly praised.
Even before I surveyed those reviews, I awoke from a fitful few hours of sleep to
amend my earlier Facebook recommendation. I’d kept stirring groggily with John Williams’ Superman fanfare in my head, Man of Steel on my mind, and a knot of nausea in my stomach. “I haven’t read any reviews nor discussed the movie further outside whatever’s happening in my subconscious,” I wrote. “I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a visceral tidal change, what seems like a revelation almost, in my assessment of something. I feel sick with myself for rationalizing contradictions to the very core of what Superman is and means.” The days since have given me more time to sort out the whys and wherefores of my mixed emotions, allowing me to grapple with both the revulsion and my original embrace of the film but ultimately reinforcing that when the movie tweaked the Superman legend in ways it had room to bend, the results were fascinating, yet what it got wrong it got terribly, twistedly wrong.
I added one more post on Facebook later on Friday as a caution to parents looking
to take their children to Man of Steel. “I wouldn’t bring kids under about 12,” I wrote, “depending on the kid; it’s rated PG-13 for a reason. There’s entirely unnecessary crude language early on that will only make most kids giggle and there’s another moment that I’d want kids to be able to process with a certain amount maturity, ideally after other exposure to Superman.”
Forces of Geek’s Stefan Blitz linked to Mark Waid’s review of Man of Steel in reply to my first Facebook post. Mark is quite possibly the biggest Superman fan I know, author of different takes on the character himself in 1996’s Kingdom Come and 2003-2004’s Superman: Birthright. He’s written movingly in the past about his reaction to the 1978 Superman, and his response to Man of Steel closely echoes my own. Whoever has seen the movie or doesn’t care about spoilers and want more plot-specific insight into the aspects of the film that I just can’t abide, you can check out Waid’s thoughts as rough surrogates of mine.
[Update: The roundtable discussion is now online.]
Related: Ante Heroes • Supermannus Horribilis • Failure to Launch