The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Man of Steel

Written by Matthew Freeman.

Photo from the article In my earlier review of Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s reboot of DC Comics’ oldest, arguably most iconic comic book hero, I emphasised the problematic cultural neglect surrounding the character of Superman in the 21st century. As comic book sales have continued to dwindle, superhero films have increased rapidly over the past decade, both in terms of sheer production quantity and mass audience appetite. The X-Men formed an economic blueprint for how to franchise the concept in the early 2000s, before Spider-Man enjoyed a successful series in its wake. Batman, perhaps most emphatically of all, became the superhero of the modern age with a trilogy of operatic, allegorical crime epics directed by Christopher Nolan. Soon there was Marvel Studios - once a company that had struggled in its licensed attempts to transfer their costumed crime-fighters to the silver screen, with many of their most iconic characters tied up in copyright tangles with other studios - taking power of the superhero box office with a series of fun, feverish incarnations of comics-inflected crossover characterisations. Yet in the midst of the biggest superhero revival since the era of World War II, the figurative grandfather of the form, Superman himself, mostly struggled to find a new reason to exist. Once a symbol of hope and optimism, Superman had been relegated by many younger moviegoing audiences - dismissed as outdated, branded as un-engaging and shunted towards the lower end of the great superhero cultural pantheon.

What is the place, then, of Superman in 2013? How does Man of Steel reconcile its studio’s need to reboot an old character's over-familiar but easily marketable brand identity with audiences' potential dismissal of the product as old and over-familiar? As Joseph Oldham asks of the recent Star Trek Into Darkness, “some of the most important questions to accompany [a] reboot of any stalled franchise are surely: What is essential? What qualities made the series important at one point, are they still important now, and how do they survive underneath the innovations that have made the new incarnation fresh?” How has Superman, in this case, been reimagined for the world of today - and is this successful?

Perhaps the most immediately apparent tonal shift of the fictional world in which this version of Superman has been imagined is the notable loss of romance. That is to say that the Earth of Man of Steel is un-romanticised, both in terms of its politics and its protagonists' relationship to each other. The film is evidently not a story about the romance between Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), but rather one about the dynamics between fathers and sons, and one that examines the nature/nurture influence as two paternal men from altogether different worlds impact upon another’s destiny. The film’s narrative is structured so as to accentuate this particular dynamic, flashing back and forth, Batman Begins-style, to the moments that defined the course of a life. Yet such structural tricks present the film with a striking weakness.

The non-linear organisation of narrative events in Batman Begins (2005) served to recount the early life of the inherently distant and internal Batman in ways that grounded the character’s fractured psyche and distorted memories as a reflection of the very events that haunt his dreams, thus providing the viewer with added depth into the mind of the hero. In Snyder's film, however, the same ploy has the opposite effect. This Clark Kent - or Kal-El, as he is known more prominently - remains distant, internalised, and, well, alien. Such narrative gimmicks that worked particularly well to flesh out the heart and soul of Nolan’s Batman - such as the voiceover narration and frequent character-building moments with Alfred (Michael Caine), the one character to truly see Batman without his mask - are conspicuously absent throughout Man of Steel. Just who is this Superman exactly - and why is he really here? There is a notably distinct passivity to the way in which the character has been reinterpreted here, almost to sidestep answering this particular question. Kal-El walks the Earth, alone, lost, just hoping to be saved. The film’s initial framing through a prism of science fiction, drawing on general nihilistic worldviews that come with the genre’s more dystopic interpretations, hints at a way to solve the question of how Superman functions in the more cynical world we have grown into today. In a notably standout sequence, the character, finally inheriting the iconic blue suit and flowing red cape, turns himself over to America’s authorities upon the threat of villain General Zod (Michael Shannon), here something of an intergalactic terrorist. These authorities, unsure of what to make of the flying hero, contain him, handcuffs and all, inside an interrogation room until further notice.

Such scenes hint at cynical themes of societal fearfulness over hopeful themes of glee, suggesting that Man of Steel once may have been founded upon potentially fascinating questions specific to the cultural zeitgeist of a modern, post-9/11 American society: What if a “superman” really walked beside us? How would the people of Earth actually respond to the arrival of a god-like saviour? What if his power was to be harnessed as a weapon? At a time when a country has been shaken by its own powerlessness against the powers of terrorism, could a modern America ever truly trust the power of this saviour? More importantly, would this America even want to trust him? When exploring such questions - most prominently during the middle act of the film, where different characters serve as alternate voices to express different sides of the argument - Man of Steel begins to fly. The film’s presumed pitch (what if the story of Superman were to be re-told through the prism of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial?) makes for a dramatically bold and thematically unique narrative trajectory.

Moreover, it even anchors the character in a fearful, cynical world that has been used as a particularly elegantly backdrop in reboots of other iconic fictional characters in recent years, such as the earlier mentioned Batman of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012) and Sam Mendes’ latest Bond adventure, Skyfall (2012). Both found especially compelling ways of carving new purposes for old characters inside new worlds that seem to no longer need old-fashioned heroism. The economic need to counterbalance the old with the new - the cultural dilemma of how 20th century pop folklore heroes such as the likes of Bond, Batman, and Superman can begin to operate in the world of the 21st century, speaking directly to more pressing themes, issues, and debates - runs through all of these particular cases. The Dark Knight (2008) pitched its Batman as a vessel through which ethical questions about the limits of heroism in a post-9/11 world where enemies no longer abide by rules of personal gain could be posed; Skyfall pitched its Bond as an old bulldog who may or may not be necessary in a world where enemies are no longer countries but individuals, a world both without shadows and yet somehow more opaque, depending on one’s perspective.

For all its post-9/11 inclinations, however, Man of Steel, unlike recent reimaginings of both Bond and Batman, struggles to find a convincing home for Superman in the 21st century. Earlier themes about fear and cynicism are undeveloped and feel decidedly half-baked, more like whispers of ideas rather than fully rounded philosophical framings for the character. Man of Steel switches almost aimlessly between the more “realistic” philosophies of what might be understood as a modern science fiction interpretation of Superman and the fist-pumping glee of a nostalgic, fantasised Superman. The film’s final act shows entire towns and cities falling to ash in near-endless action set pieces of Transformers-style destruction, without any thought to saving the hundreds of thousands of civilian lives that are lost - what becomes most apparent is that this man of steel is certainly not a man of active humanity, but instead of reactive alienism. Earth is a battlefield, not a home, for this Superman, and in that the film largely fails in its attempts to find a new, convincing purpose for the extrapolation of this decidedly old hero in a new world. Does the world - or, rather, the world of today, then, really need Superman? As Joseph Oldham similarly questions of the revitalised Star Trek series, has “a long-term renaissance” of Superman on screen “truly arrived”? On this evidence, at least, perhaps not.

Perhaps some fictional icons of the past, no matter how strong a brand name they remain, are simply less adaptable to the changes of time. Perhaps Superman is indeed such a case, so much so that despite the apparent box-office success of Man of Steel, its studio has recently announced that its proposed sequel will be transformed into a headline-sparking, Avengers-form extravaganza featuring both Superman and Batman, which may see them facing off rather than teaming up. The crossover-style narration certainly has its roots in historical comic book traditions of yesteryear, and DC Entertainment understandably has to keep up with the innovative, universe-building storytelling approach of its Marvel competitors. Yet in this instance, such a strategy cannot help but feel like something of an insurance policy rather than a valid creative impulse. Inserting the established relevance of a 21st century Dark Knight into the future adventures of Superman gives the sense that this decision is based more so on the fact that Batman is the bigger commercial brand at the moment. But aside from Warner's lack of faith in Superman's commercial ability, this decision will also deprive audiences of a proper sequel to Man of Steel. By shunting Batman into the story so prominently, it suggests that the filmmakers have been unable to figure out how to extend this version of Superman beyond the origin tale and, in spite of all the lavish, modern trimmings of Man of Steel, its protagonist still cannot find his place in the world.

This Alternate Take was published on July 21, 2013.

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