I have a strange relationship with the Man of Tomorrow. I love the idea of Superman; the symbol that he can sometimes be. I have Superman floor mats in my car, and regularly wear a Superman shirt once a week or so. The idea of the orphaned hero who rises up to embody the highest ideals of his adoptive culture resonates with me. In some ways it is the perennial reversal of the theme we see in movies like Dances with Wolves, Avatar, and The Last Samurai. Instead of being the people who can be the very best of the alien culture, Americans are the alien culture whose very best is embodied in the stranger.
But there is something about the myth of Superman that makes instantiation very difficult to get right. Rarely have I encountered the Superman story that is itself transparent to the mythical light that the idea of Superman puts forth. Few are stories like “What’s so Funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” and the great “Kingdom Come” that really capture the spirit of the man who can do anything, and therefore must put himself in the greatest peril because he is obligated to by his sense of morality.
Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, written by David S. Goyer, and staring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon, is unfortunately not one of those stories. While the attempt to delve into the early years of Clark Kent is appreciated, it is the main story of the movie that fails to express the Superman mythos in an effective way. As the titular character, Kal El fails to give us any real pathos as the man who ostensibly is willing to lay down his life for his adoptive home. The threat posed by General Zod is one which he resolutely throws himself and his fists up against time and time again, but there is never the question of what the supposedly Last Son of Krypton might lose in the process. Some small effort is made to endanger what little family Clark has left when Zod arrives, but if you’ve spent your movie making him out to be a loner, what is our hero fighting for?
The movie is also incredibly confusing about its rules. Kal El is supposedly sent to earth where he will drink in the young yellow sun’s radiation to make him strong. But then it seems that it’s really just the atmosphere, or the gravity of earth that is responsible for this. Zod and his crew seem to be immediately as strong as Supes the moment they step foot on earth. This begs the question about the sun’s radiation. To add greater confusion, a statement by Jor El later in the movie claims that his son has become stronger than he had anticipated. If all of the Kryptonians are just as strong as Clark the moment they show up, why is his father surprised?
The second half of the movie is essentially a big slugfest. It seems that the filmmakers took seriously the criticisms levied against Superman Returns. Big Blue in that movie didn’t punch a single thing. Not so here. He goes around punching everything and talking very little. Indeed, he causes so much destruction that one expects the potential sequel to have a very justifiably angry Lex Luthor decrying the Man of Steel for wanton murder and the destruction of half of metropolis. I have to say, I wouldn’t blame him.
Many of these problems could have been solved by allowing Superman to have real human connections that mattered, and by giving Zod’s forces the upper hand, not by strength, but by numbers. As well, a bit more philosophy in the second half of the movie might have been very welcome instead of simply destroying half a city in a brawl between demigods.
Theologically, the movie attempts identify Superman with Jesus, which I don’t object to. The identification of Superman with Christ can be effective. But a scene where he is placed in front of a stained glass window with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is a bit heavy handed, as well as a line that indicates that Superman has been on earth for a very Jesus-like period of thirty three years. The problem with this identification is, of course, that as mentioned above, there is little to no real threat to the Man of Steel. Sure, he fights enemies that don’t go down in a single hit, but there is never any question of them being able to hurt him in any significant way (intellectually, emotionally or physically). There are no really compelling similarities between the son of Jor El and the Son of God in this movie.
We hope for good Superman movies whenever a new one comes out. We hope that a myth and icon of our modern age will be given its proper due the way that Spider-Man and Batman have in recent times. There were moments of Smallville that accomplished this, but we really have to look back to the early 80’s and before to find the significant larger than life images of Superman that have appealed to the culture at large. Zack Snyder, despite a real effort, did not deliver that image of The Man of Tomorrow for us today. Maybe next time.