Adventure, 143 Minutes, 2013
This is the first truly new take on Superman in film since Richard Donner’s [IMDB] 1978 classic “Superman” [IMDB]. Bryan Singer’s [IMDB] 2006 “Superman Returns” [IMDB] essentially completed Donner’s Superman films (rightly ignoring the execrable, non-Donner, third and fourth films). While this excellent film is often misunderstood it must be considered an extension of Donner’s vision rather than a true reboot of DC’s flagship character.
I knew that “Man of Steel” was a modern take on the character. This terrified me. Batman, for example, reflects who we are and who we are changes over time. The character handily survives, even thrives, on timely reinventions. Superman, on the other hand, reflects who we want be. The character is an ideal. One that, like truth, justice and the American way, needs to remain untarnished and uncorrupted by the fads and distractions of the moment.
At the risk of alienating the casual fan, I have been reading Superman comics for over 25 years. I have seen the character taken in ridiculous directions (please don’t mention “Superman Red/Superman Blue”) and repeatedly treated as nothing more than a flying battering ram. I’ve also seen sublime stories that have remained with me for decades. In almost every case these focus on Superman’s humanity, on Clark Kent, and his relationships. This is something that many don’t understand. Would director Zack Snyder [IMDB] and writers David S. Goyer [IMDB] and Christopher Nolan [IMDB] get this or would they modernize the character into something fashionable but empty?
Would they grok Superman? Yes. Oh yes, they would.
The story is stripped down to the bare essentials. Gone is the fumbling Clark persona and the complexities of the secret identity. This works so well, in fact, that when they are finally introduced in the epilogue you may be surprised, as I was, that you never noticed they were missing.
The movie does have a notable split-personality issue – not unlike the one epitomized by Clark Kent and Superman – but as this also serves to enhance its overall appeal it’s hard to fault it. Part of the movie is a tender, heartfelt examination of Clark Kent’s life. His troubled childhood trying to hide his differences while struggling with their development. His anguished struggle to honor his human father’s wishes even when faced with terrible personal loss. Layered over this aspect of the story is the troubling question of whether he would ever be accepted by humanity. This is where the soul of the movie lives.
The other side of the movie, the “Superman side” if you like, is a non-stop waterfall of special effects. As Superman fights for the very existence of humanity we are treated to (quite literally) over an hour of buildings crashing, skylines falling and combatants being flung with force through entire towns. The battles are long and, in a first for the character on the big screen, epically brutal. The level of sheer destruction on hand dwarfs anything but the most pessimistic of disaster movies and all of it is lovingly and realistically rendered using the very latest computer effects.
But, as it is with all great Superman stories, Clark Kent is the one that you’ll remember. One scene, early on, shows young Clark becoming overwhelmed at school by the vast flood of information fed to him by his enhanced senses. His mother, finding him hiding in a closet trying in vain to block it all out, begs to know what’s wrong. His anguished reply, “The world’s too big, Mom!,” brought me literally to tears.
That clear, deep understanding of the duality in the character; the overwhelming strength and power of Superman and the innate morality and vulnerability of Clark elevates this movie. It does have flaws (the self-indulgent effects sequences being one of the biggest but far from the only one) but that undeniable understanding makes this movie worthy of the Superman legacy. I can think of no higher praise.