Man of Steel is an epic movie. There is no denying it. It feels huge. It looks huge. It is a definite blockbuster. It is also a movie worthy of Superman. But there is something missing, for me anyway. Yes, Warners finally got it right in scale and scope, in casting and costumes. And I won’t say I outright hate the movie. I love it, will buy it when it is released, and wait for the inevitable sequel. Still, it is missing that important “something” and, after watching the Reeve films (You can’t call it Donner’s because Chris is the true heart of those movies) I came to see what it was I felt Man of Steel was missing. What it is missing is the mystical.
Man of Steel is, at its heart, a sci-fi film. It deals with advanced tech, cloning, issues of individuality and culture, even the worth of life. Superman is bluntly portrayed as an alien with Jonathan even stating that Clark is proof that there is life out there. The Kent patriarch also posits the possible repercussions of Clark revealing himself to the world. The crisis of faith it would engender, the re-evaluation of humanity and their place in the universe. And that is what I take issue with. This is treated far too much like a sci-fi movie. Many agree it was the right way to go, but I disagree.
Comic books are modern day myth. Superheroes are the gods and demi-gods of our current age. They do the impossible, fight to protect us, live lives far greater than any mortals. And that is what Superman is. He is as alien as Hercules or Zeus. He is a literal god from a realm long lost. I feel that magic is cast aside. By making him too real, by making him simply an alien, we lose what he is. He is a savior sent to save humanity. He is a modern day Jesus. That is the most apt description of who Superman is. Someone who realizes how different he is, but who does not judge, does not attempt to enforce his will, is willing to be there as a guide, a symbol to show humanity what they are capable of.
The Donner film got it right. Krypton should not be a thriving world of jungles and rare creatures, rife with breathtaking vistas. Krypton is a world gone sterile. Dying. It is a place where science appears magical, where its citizens think solely of ethereal things whose hubris at their conquest of the material world has lent them this belief that they are immortal. That is the tragedy Donner grants us: A people so sure of their control over their own destiny that they face annihilation and not even their most noble servant, Jor-El, can convince them of the yawning abyss that will swallow them. In Donner’s film, Krypton is sparse, a stark white realm of crystal and emptiness where the only life that remains are the Kryptonians themselves. They have made their world barren. Man of Steel shows a Krypton that is thriving which fails to portray the rot at the core of Krypton. Its people are in decline, its control of everything, even the genetic, stifling growth and discovery. It is a dying world. To see the richness of Krypton in Man of Steel makes little sense. There is nothing dynamic left in Krypton. That is why Jor-El sends his son across the abyss to Earth, a world that is young and thriving. A world that not only needs Kal-El, but which Kal-El himself needs: a place that can teach him the importance of life and choice, of possibility. He can guide them as they can reveal that truth of the importance of irrationality, of emotion and adventure.
My main issue with Man of Steel is the drive of General Zod. He is seeking to recreate Krypton, but his motivations are shallow. He doesn’t want future Kryptonians to suffer the assimilation issues that Kal-El and he did upon the planet. What about his personal philosophies? Does he not think free procreation versus the structured cloning of Krypton is dangerous? Does he not see humanity as savage versus the cultured and advanced world he comes from? And why doesn’t Clark feel a bit torn when choosing between worlds? Humanity has shown it is a brutish, cruel people. This is hammered into our heads with the many indignities Clark must suffer through on his journey. Why does he feel this connection to humanity when he is constantly reminded by his father, Jonathan, that he is different, the chastising of bullies, hell, the state of Earth itself? Why does he hide if he believes he can change things? Jonathan’s message alone comes across as short-sighted and ignorant. Don’t enter the world and attempt to make a mark because the world will be terrified of you. Terrified? Of a man willing to stand up for what he believes, to try and change the world? Are we truly such an ignorant people that we would reject a man who commits miracles and struggles to protect us simply because he can fly?
Cavill does an excellent job in the film as Superman, but we see so little of Clark Kent. In fact, the classic, bespectacled alter ego doesn’t appear until the final minutes of the film. What the filmmakers fail to see is that, though Clark is the mask, he is also a necessary part of the Superman mythos. It is the humbling role Superman plays, the guise he wears to walk among us, to see what it is to be human. It isn’t that he is bumbling or weak, it is that he is innocuous. Clark is Superman’s chance to be one of us, to keep his connection to his fellow man. Like Zeus in his many disguises, or even something more recent, Clark is Superman’s connection to humanity and to strip that out is the worst part of all. Man of Steel focuses on Kal-El’s attempt to find his place. The problem is his father encouraged him to run rather than face his fellow man head on and proudly stand and proclaim what he believes in.
I love the Superman character. It led me to dreams and challenged me to wonder on so many possibilities. Reeve and Donner showed what Superman was. Man of Steel is a step in the right direction, but focusing too much on the real and forgetting what Superman is, more god than alien, they stripped the magic from this present-day Messiah who came to save us from ourselves and was himself saved in doing so.