Man of Steel is the newest entry in our ongoing obsession with superhero epics. It follows the coming-of-age of Superman, as he resolves the conflict of identity between being Earthling and being Kryptonian. True to its genre, it is an operatic illustration of destruction and mayhem as entire worlds are torn apart.
The opening scenes on Krypton are magnificent. A spectacular extra-terrestrial geography of volcanic surface and bizarre dragon-like creatures becomes a vision of apocalyptic prophecy, consumed by fiery explosions. It is here that an overarching question arises as to the significance of autonomy. Jor-El asked, “What if a child dreams of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?”. As per David S. Goyer’s screenplay, no Kryptonian is permitted to choose their own destiny. Their vocations are assigned at birth within their individual test tube pods. This means that Clark, as Krypton’s first natural birth, is already special. He is a symbol of hope, intrinsic to human survival.
What really sets Man of Steel apart from the previous Superman stories is the humanity of Clark Kent. Historically, the steadfast righteousness and extraordinary powers of Superman made him boring, unrealistic and inaccessible. Man of Steel subverts the traditional archetype of the messianic figure to allow for fallibility and, thus, a more powerful representation of the human condition. Before the monolith of red-blue spandex and perfect hair, this is a glimpse into the confusion and internal struggle of an adopted child. In adolescence, he reads Plato, gets angry with his father and is clearly uncomfortable with swallowing his pride when bullied. As a man, he is nomadic, changing jobs as he explores Earth, stepping out of the Christ-like shoes fashioned in 1930 by the character’s creators – two Jewish teenagers in Ohio. His classic hero’s journey is a universal and very human quest of self-discovery.
Spoiler alert – interestingly, it is the subversion of the old central thesis, that Superman cannot take a life, which gives this film a foothold in controversy. When he snaps Zod’s neck, the purists gasped, exclaiming at the vulgar rebuff of the moral compass that is fundamental to his character. However, Hancock and Watchmen have already demonstrated a shift from kitsch to urban realism, emphasising a new distaste with godly integrity. Contemporary recognition of subjective morality suggests that the obligation ascribed to Supermen to protect the weak has to be more nuanced.
Critics have largely disparaged the film while the public have generally enjoyed it. This discrepancy could be due to the deviation from the 1978 adaption of Superman by Richard Donner, as well as a critical bias against Zack Snyder’s hyperbolic cinematography in Suckerpunch and 300. The former premise attitude, however, would be unjust, since the Christopher Reeve Superman is an interpretation of the comics as per his zeitgeist, while the Henry Cavill Superman reflects a different responder. As to the latter complaint, in a culture of instant gratification, high intensity mega-action scenes are almost an essential narcotic. On a practical note, the man from Krypton is not your average vigilante. To visualise an alien that is faster than a speeding bullet and can leap buildings requires hyper-real CGI that would be redundant for another superhero.
To be sure, Superman and the Kryptonians do drag each other through one skyscraper too many, the transformation of determined Lois Lane to damsel in distress is a problematic and gendered treatment of women, and the movie is a tad too long. Nevertheless, from my vantage point in front of the big screen, I was moved, not just by Cavill’s bulging pectorals, but also by a poignant and refreshing revision of the Superman story.