Every generation gets the Superman it deserves. In the 1950s, it was the square-jawed George Reeves, maneuvering slipshod sets to save a Metropolis as black-and-white as the TVs it was broadcast on. When Superman: The Movie was released in 1978, it followed, and played as an antidote to, a troublesome period in which people no longer trusted or even felt they could rely on their government; Superman was a clear-cut force for good in an era where those seemed in short supply. His subsequent television incarnations were less about the character than the entertainment of the era, be it the faux-screwball romantic comedy (Lois & Clark) or the soapy, coming-of-age melodrama (Smallville). Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns clung to nostalgia, while the character’s new reboot, Man of Steel, finds him the denizen of a cheerless world defined by its own fear.
Since the character’s inception in the 1930s, he’s existed at a crossroads of pop culture, patriotism, and religion (the films make much of Jor-El’s gift of his only begotten son as a savior to the human race; the new one includes a weird side-swipe at evolution). His white skin clad in red and blue, he was “captain America” before Captain America. The character’s longevity is no doubt tied to his representation of uncomplicated good, a trait that goes in and out of style, but never disappears entirely. The ’78 incarnation, brought to life by director Richard Donner and star Christopher Reeve, didn’t deal with the exhaust fumes of Watergate or the fiscal and crime crises of ‘70s-era New York City (aka Metropolis); he didn’t comment on those issues, but he didn’t have to. Yet the ’06 Superman Returns, for all of its adherence to the ’78 Superman and its 1981 sequel, made muted mention of what had befallen that city (and the country) five years previous — with Lois Lane’s simple question, “Where were you?”
There is enough easily decoded subtext in Man of Steel (most notably the revelation that Superman’s symbol stands not for “S,” but the Kryptonian symbol for the Obama campaign buzzword “hope”) to make the scribblers at Breitbart and Newsmax see red, but let’s leave that work to them. What is more bothersome about the film is what a grim, joyless affair it is. Some of that is no doubt an attempt to replicate the dour approach of Nolan’s Batman trilogy (he’s credited here as co-producer and co-story writer). But the “dark knight” is an easier fit for that style — it’s a square peg for the round hole of Superman, a fundamentally sunny and idealistic character.
Screenwriter David Goyer nearly makes it work, though, by embedding the story with an element that not only enables that tone, but makes something resembling contemporary sense: the idea that the public at large would not necessarily rally around an alien of superhuman strength, and might instead fear him. We are, after all, a country that is currently consumed by fear of the unknown, of the different, of the Other, and the scenes where Clark’s Kansas father figure, Jonathan Kent (a restrained and astonishingly effective Kevin Costner, in one of the film’s countless fine performances), articulates those concerns are among the best in the film.
In fact, Man of Steel is a bit of an anomaly among summer blockbusters in that its most successful passages are the quiet ones, its dialogue scenes and Malick-ian montages (The Fortress of Solitude of Life?) far more memorable than the actions beats — which amount to an ugly blur of sped-up punches, shaky cam, and blown-out lighting. There’s no sense of situating the viewer in those scenes, or of any consequence to the heroics; a key rescue of Lois Lane is such hazy fog of white light and indiscriminate framing that the moment is bereft of majesty or stakes. After the protracted (and frankly endless) Krypton prologue, the narrative alternates between young Clark in Kansas and his current, full-grown iteration, and what first seems like a bold structural move quickly reveals itself to be a method of mainlining set pieces without all the troublesome build-up. The Richard Donner and Richard Lester Superman movies were admirably patient; so was Singer’s, much to its critics’ (and modern audiences’) chagrin. Director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch, 300), on the other hand, is an adrenaline junkie forever jonesing for a fix; he does less building to the action beats than backing each one into the next.
That all culminates in a giant, climactic attack on Metropolis that’s filled with uncomfortable 9/11 imagery: falling buildings, fleeing business types, stunned expressions on soot-covered faces, victims trapped under fallen concrete, even a falling victim. The echoes don’t seem purposeful; Snyder hardly seems aware of them. It’s all grist for the action mill — and that sensibility, less than any overt symbolism or implicit commentary, may be what makes this particular Superman so uniquely (and unfortunately) of this moviemaking moment.
Man of Steel is out today in wide release.