The movies are getting darker this days. From bleak revenge plots in Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, to the onslaught of post-apocalyptic Earth-is-a-wasteland films coming out this summer--Oblivion, After Earth, Elysium, and World War Z, to name a few. Even the comedies are getting darker; This Is the End and The World's End are both raunchy summer comedies about...well...the end of the world. Hilarious premise, I know. So I was hoping for a glimmer of hope dressed up in the red-and-blue of the most pure and upright of the comic book superheroes--Superman. While Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is entertaining, well-acted, and features plenty of visual wonder, this origin story of Superman is far less pure than the source material.
Man of Steel is darker and less campy than previous Superman films. Gritty and grim in much of its tone, with a washed-out greyish tint over much of the film, the film has a ridiculous amount of intense action sequences involving the destruction of entire cities. Perhaps this is because the reality of multiple beings with the incredible powers of the Kryptonians all fighting each other would cause immense collateral damage. Perhaps movies audiences just want to see more epic explosions. Perhaps both. This is an action spectacle as big as last summer's The Avengers; bigger, in some ways, as the destruction feels far more real here.
In spite of the more obvious changes from the comic books--Jenny Olson instead of Jimmy, no crimson undies, etc.--does Man of Steel contain the heart of the character of Superman? I wrestle with a clear answer. There are poignant scenes where hope and transcendence shine through. Yet these are far outweighed by intensity and explosives, showing much more of Superman the warrior than Superman the savior. Henry Cavill is a capable lead actor as Kal-El, and certainly has the physical build for the role, yet I wish he had more room to just...be. Be Clark Kent. Be Kal-El. Be Superman. Wrestle with the identity questions and moral responsibility of being Kryptonian in a human world. While these issues are certainly raised, they're far outweighed by the multiple action sequences. This is a film of doing, not being. My favourite moments in the film are the flashbacks, the moments where Clark is a boy living in Kansas with the Kents, struggling to make friends and learning how to navigate this world with responsibility and character. The secondary characters aren't especially developed, but Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburn, and Kevin Costner give their characters (Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jonathan Kent, respectively) a heart and courage that go beyond the basic elements of the script. Michael Shannon as General Zod is a great villain, and Shannon is quickly becoming one of my favourite American actors for his quiet intensity in the roles he chooses. Most impressive is Russell Crowe as Jor-El, the father of Superman. Where Marlon Brando's Jor-El was essentially a floating head in Richard Donner's Superman, this Jor-El is a warrior and a mentor, a guide for Kal-El even beyond the grave.
Spoiler Alert: Speaking of graves, Superman does something out of character in the climax of Man of Steel, an act that hasn't really been done before on the big screen and in such a bold manner--Superman kills. In the epic fight between Superman and Zod, blows are given back and forth, with Superman the victor. However, Zod makes it clear that he will not stop his pursuit of the destruction of humanity, no matter the cost. With the future of Krypton completely destroyed, Zod has nothing else to live for apart from vengeance. He is practically inviting Superman to destroy him. And he does, with a quick neck-snap. Superman is clearly morally distraught by the act, crying out in anguish after the dust has settled. Is the death justifiable? Arguments could be made either way, but one thing is certain: this isn't your Saturday morning cartoon Superman. This isn't a Superman I'd want to show to my toddler son.
The gap at Metacritic between critics' and audience perceptions of the film is quite split: 55/100 from critics and 8.4/10 from audiences. This gap perfectly expresses the internal debate I'm having after viewing the film: the "audience" in me--the one that, for better or worse, likes watching things blow up real good and superheroes fully utilize their superpowers by punching baddies through buildings--would give Man of Steel an 8/10. The "critic" in me--the one that ruminates and ponders and compares and...well...thinks about these stories, their artistic merit and embedded truths and respect to the source material--would give it a 5/10.
The parallels between Kal-El and Christ are strong. Both are sent to earth by their fathers as a person embodying hope for the human race. Both are misunderstood by humanity and made to be an outcast. Both have incredible power, yet choose the way of a servant for others. Superman is all about "truth, justice, and the American way." Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. A wonderful, all-too-short scene in Man of Steel occurs in a church. General Zod has asked that Kal-El turn himself over for the ransom of humanity. Clark sits down with a pastor in the church and verbalizes what he already knows he must do--he has to give himself up for the sake of humankind. The conversation is quite short, because Clark isn't seeking the pastor for advice as much as for a sounding board to confirm his moral ruminations. He walks out mid-conversation, knowing the path he must take, and willing to burden the cost on his own shoulders. If nothing else, Man of Steel reminds us of humanity's need for a savior, one who is capable of taking on our darkest foes and reminding us of the goodness and hope we were always meant to experience.