I was worried about Man of Steel. The most obscenely over-powered superhero of all time as presented by Zack Snyder, maker of the offensively awful Sucker Punch? I didn’t feel much better when the movie started on the MMO-inspired planet of Krypton, complete with flying dragons (or something). But I got a lot more comfortable back on Earth, where we meet a bearded Superman working on a fishing boat, and Snyder’s talent for creating beautiful, memorable images kicks in. Snyder has cited video games as an artistic influence, and that’s obvious on Krypton. Back in the more real world Snyder finds more restrained, but still striking moments that are sprinkled throughout the whole film.
There’s more sci-fi and more action than in a film like Iron Man 3, but the film doesn’t rush much. That’s partly to be expected: most of the Superman origin story is talking in the arctic and talking in cornfields. The film uses flashbacks to break up these long, potentially boring pieces of exposition though and also manages to keep Kansas and the Kent family present for most of the time. It’s not a revolutionary concept by any means, but it meant, for me, that something surprising kept reemerging: sincerity.
I kept thinking about Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster during the film. They’re the Cleveland, Ohio boys who began creating Superman while they were in high school in the 1930s. What they made is a superhero that should be pretty boring today: he can do everything. The movie reflects this: the fights are obscene and stretch from the Indian Ocean to Metropolis and into orbit. It’s pure excess like you’d expect. And when you look at Superman as an aspirational, Christlike figure it doesn’t help matters. It’s been done. The epic sacrifices in the film are practically endless and rather than building on one another they just start to feel old. Yes, Siegel and Schuster created something larger than life, but the aspirational character is Clark Kent, not Superman.
Every kid wishes he or she could fly, bend steel and shoot lasers out of his or her eyes. But what makes Superman special is not that he has those powers, it’s that he chooses the empathy and humility that the Kents teach him, and that he does the right thing even though it’s frequently the hardest thing. It’s his sincere affection for humanity that makes Lois Lane trust him. And it’s that personal sentiment that runs through the small sacrifices and changes of heart in the film that are affecting.
Toward the end of the movie there are big battles and explosions—but there’s also a flashback to Clark as a very young boy, playing with his dog in his parents’ Kansas yard. He wears a red cape, blue and white jeans and socks wave on a clothesline in the warm afternoon sun. It’s another of Snyder’s striking if heavy-handed images that glorifies Truth, Justice, and the American Way. But it’s not the American Way of globalism and capitalism—it’s the youth, innocence, and optimism of two high school boys who made an idol that does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do and elevates people around him because of that.
Frankly I didn’t think Snyder had it in him. I expected the movie to be more of the same old glossy, isolated, infallible alien who loves humans like pets. And while the movie is certainly not going to win any Oscars there’s a quiet earnestness under all of those spaceships and sonic booms. It doesn’t reinvent anything about the universe—he fights Zod, like we all knew he was going to fight Zod—but it rediscovers the smallness and the personal part of Superman that it’s easy to overlook 75 years later.
Yes there were nerds yelling across the theater at each other after the movie ended because they were dissatisfied with things. But most of the bland, generic action stuff fell away for me and what I left with was a new affection for Clark Kent that I’ve never felt before. I swear it only had a little bit to do with how much I like a beard on Henry Cavill.