On: Man of Steel

This post is going to touch some different things, but I think it’s all related. If you just want what I think about the movie itself, skip the first couple paragraphs and start reading at the bottom. I’ll also preface what follows by admitting I’m not a heavy comic book reader, but that I think I have a decent grasp on the characters/culture.

Again, this is opinion. I do not claim to be an expert, nor do I want to position myself as one on this topic. This is just what I think.

With the recent slew of super-powered silver screeners, it is fairly easy to overlook and forget about Clark Kent, the man who originated many of the abilities standard to other heroes now. Let’s put it this way – if the DC and Marvel universes were crammed into an ice cream shop, Superman would probably be vanilla; iconic, but safe and familiar.

Now, to restate that more clearly – and without the aid of a convoluted analogy – Superman has, I think, an image problem. Despite a character ripe with storytelling potential, the mental impression I have of him is anything but – throughout my childhood, Superman has traditionally been depicted as overpowered and untouchable, to the point of near-blandness. Though I have personal reasons for Kal-El being my favorite superhero, I can imagine that many people prefer, say, Batman, or Spidey, precisely because of what I just pointed out. It’s hard to identify to and relate with a nigh-invulnerable alien immigrant, whose main weakness is a glowing green rock. [And magic, too, but less people know about that one.]

Invulnerability in itself is not a uninteresting character trait, but the way they’ve bundled it in the past – in a red-caped, spandex wearing package – have made it so. These previous depictions have more or less placed Superman into the realm of godhood, too perfect an ideal to ever be attained by mankind, and in turn, they have stripped him of the nuance that other top-tier heroes possess. The best written ones tend to be idealized versions of ourselves, facing legitimate challenges that threaten their very being.

What a shame, because when I look at Superman, I see the struggles and subtleties that most people miss – the ones that screens and pages so rarely show. I see someone who battles the burden of constant expectation, someone who cannot ever truly be at rest, someone who is always needed somewhere, someone who, despite all his tremendous powers, has ultimate limitations; all aspects that aren’t played up enough. [That is not a definitive list, either; just my personal interpretation of his character. There are other edges, to be sure, and Man of Steel takes its own.]

Having said all that, in my mind, any successful version of Superman has to accomplish two things specifically – one, bring him closer to human level, and two, simultaneously play up the human aspects that exist in his inherent character. He may be an unimaginably strong god-equivalent, but being that shouldn’t negate the humanity that he has been raised with. He is, after all, SuperMAN.

So, that’s the challenge – to emphasize his mortal core, since his impervious exterior can, you know, reflect bullets and such. And considering how many have tried and failed, the whole thing really seems to be a task of Kal-Ellian proportions. Needless to say, Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, David Goyer and company had their work cut out for them on this project.

You’ll be happy to know that they did a pretty good job of that. Helped by strong performances by Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline (who play different versions of child Clark), Snyder does manage to ground and humanize the Last Son of Krypton considerably. Henry Cavill does fine himself, but it’s those moments with Sprayberry and Timberline that are crucial in establishing Superman’s humanity, as they represent Clark Kent at an age particularly full of confusion and angst. If either is lacking, it then becomes hard to buy into whoever – and whatever – Clark eventually becomes. As a result, though, the combined efforts of Cavill, Sprayberry and Timberline create a Superman who feels, struggles, hurts, and more or less looks like someone who’s grown up in Smallville, Kansas.

If the Man of Steel himself is “pretty good”, though, then the music and visuals are nothing short of super[b].

Zack Snyder’s directing in this two and a half hour film is incredible, easily blowing away past efforts. Sucker Punch’s one redeeming quality was its visual presentation, and 300’s stylized violence was memorable itself, so saying that Man of Steel topped them is high praise, although quite appropriate. Eye-explodingly gorgeous, Snyder’s film imaginatively  captures all the destruction and wonder would surround a man like Kal-El. Shots of vast space and majestic natural scenery are juxtaposed against crumbling planets and exploding buildings – and while those images might not seem to go together, he pulls it all to work within the Superman character. In action sequences, Snyder’s camerawork is no less impressive, shot in a way that makes our hero feel powerful, and accentuates that already innate strength of his.

Accompanying all this is an absolutely phenomenal soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer, full of all the gravitas you would expect from a move about Superman. There is already an iconic Superman theme by John Williams, but Zimmer’s version may one day become that for a new generation, emotional and epic at all the right places.

As a whole, however, “Man of Steel” is a bit like the hero it should portray; neither faultless, nor flawless. There are rough edges in its pacing, plot, and scope – the ending wraps up way too quickly, for one – but it’s a fine superhero flick all the same, worthy of wearing the considerable mantle placed on its shoulders, even if it doesn’t do so perfectly.

But seriously, that theme song tho.

_____________________________________________________________

In case you’re wondering, among recent superhero movies I’ve seen, the order would probably go:

The Avengers

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight Rises

Iron Man 3

Man of Steel

The Amazing Spiderman

Iron Man 2

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