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One big potential problem with any Superman incarnation is his relationship with the audience. Even if the story centers around a credible moral dilemma, it risks having him make a choice with which the audience disagrees. Put another way, you can start with a Superman with a definite code of ethics, who always tries to do the right thing, and who puts others’ welfare above his own, and you might still end up with the Injustice comic, the pure-Straczynski issues of “Grounded,” or Superman Returns. For a significant group of fans, these are cautionary examples of How Not To Do Superman (although apparently those Injustice comics sell reasonably well…).
Accordingly, it helps if the audience trusts the particular Superman writer, which is where Scott Snyder, David Goyer, and Christopher Nolan come in. Snyder is already a big deal at DC thanks to his Batman work. Likewise, last year Goyer (screenwriter) and Nolan (producer/director) wrapped up a wildly successful Batman film trilogy.
Still, it’s easy to do Batman. For one thing, Batman doesn’t need to be a nice guy. Like James Bond or Don Draper, his main focus is the work, and the style with which he gets the particular job done. If Bats gets to make a hard moral choice, as he did at the conclusion of The Dark Knight, that’s just gravy.
With that in mind, we turn to the week’s two newest Superman vehicles, one an ongoing comic book, and the other a new film incarnation, to see what choices they present to our hero.
The first issue of Superman Unchained (written by Scott Snyder, penciled by Jim Lee and Dustin Nguyen, inked by Scott Williams) doesn’t force any big decisions, but it does open with a reference to one of the 20th Century’s biggest uses of absolute power. Unchained isn’t a relaunch, just another vehicle for Superman stories, so it only has to check in with Superman and his world.
This it does well enough. Lois gets a page and a half worth of attitude and exposition, Jimmy gets a little more but wears a dorky hipster hat, and Perry White gets his own backup story (with Nguyen pencils) to shed some light (as it were) on a couple of characters from the prologue. Luthor appears briefly, so that Superman can interrogate him about some mysterious satellite crashes, but Luthor’s more interested in the new public-power generator he’ll be developing while in prison. Most of the book either involves Superman saving a crashing space station, or Superman investigating another downed satellite and running afoul of a submarine.
By invoking Hiroshima, though, Snyder and company have established how they intend to use Superman. This will be another “anti-Superman” story, in the sense that its main villain will be an ultra-powerful superhuman (also with a 75-year-history) who is used by the state to protect its own interests. The indication is that the new guy will be Superman without the familiar moral code, in order to contrast him with the choices the actual Superman will no doubt have to face. On those terms it’s intriguing, and Snyder and Lee are good enough at storytelling to make me want to come back for the rest of the arc.
However, Unchained is still a series in search of an identity. Previous ancillary Super-titles, like DC Comics Presents, the old Adventures of Superman, and Superman: The Man of Steel each had a particular thematic focus, be it team-ups, the people of Metropolis, or a certain style of high-tech supervillainy. So far there’s nothing in Unchained which couldn’t otherwise be in Action Comics or Superman, so the new title seems more opportunistic than anything else. “Extra features” like the four-page foldout — which sacrifices the story’s pacing for a dubious amount of spectacle — and the text pages (which the first issues of yore did, when a new series didn’t have any letters of comment to print) tell us that Unchained is special, but right now it’s special solely because of Snyder and Lee. What happens when they leave? (And has DC learned anything about that from the current Action Comics creative turnover?) I’m all for more Superman, but I’d prefer a little distinction. Maybe this will turn out to be Philosophical Supes, while Action focuses on you-know-what and Superman does, I don’t know, different kinds of character studies.
Accordingly, as much as I hate to put this off, I’ll have to wait until this initial arc ends before seeing how good Superman Unchained could really be.
* * *
Meanwhile, the Superman of Man of Steel (played capably and affably by Henry Cavill) does a lot of screaming and bellowing. Some of it is anguished, some enraged, and some borne out of grit and determination. Goyer’s script asks a lot of its hero, and the weapons-grade emoting is part of his response. The question is whether those screams are earned — whether they’re believable — and I think they are.
On a technical level, Man of Steel is engrossing from start to finish. Granted, the only other Zack Snyder-directed movie I’ve seen is Watchmen, which sported a totally different cinematic style; so MOS’ naturalistic approach (achieved by cinematographer Amir Mokri) was a pleasant change of pace. It helped sell both the action and the emotional moments. Even the shaky-cam work, which by now is almost a cliché of filmed sci-fi, was used to good effect. For example, Superman’s midair sonic booms are to Man of Steel what the “superzips” were to “Smallville,” and by the end of the movie they are almost an afterthought.
I was worried that Cavill would turn out to be just another pretty face in a blue jumpsuit, with nothing to do but stare meaningfully (and scream a lot, of course). While he doesn’t get to do much in the way of dual-identity work, and certainly nothing approaching Christopher Reeve’s Clark-to-Superman masterclass, he is still convincing as both the son of a kindly Kansas couple and the most powerful being on Earth. The kids who play young Clark, Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline, are also quite good at conveying Clark’s outsider angst. The first scene with Timberline (which gives the trailers the “world’s too big” bit) affected me more than I was expecting, and went a long way towards selling me on the film.
The main cast is full of such committed performances, and perhaps none moreso than Amy Adams’ Lois Lane and Michael Shannon’s Zod. Both give the movie its dueling emotional centers, with Adams projecting a determined I-want-to-believe earnestness and Zod practically oozing a fanatical hope that Krypton can be restored. It’s in their eyes: Adams’ open wide, eager to see what Superman has to offer; while Shannon’s stare, almost roiling, as if he could will his plans into existence. Christopher Meloni and Harry Lennix’s military men are fun to watch, Richard Schiff is an appropriately-bemused Emil Hamilton, and Antje Traue makes a scary, intense Faora. Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent and Diane Lane’s Martha are both solid in their roles, which are given a little extra heft by the notion that maybe Clark might not need them anymore; and Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer are both fine as Jor-El and Lara. Neither of the latter phone in a performance, but beyond a few action sequences for Jor-El, there’s not much new for them to do. I did like Zurer’s performance as Lara says goodbye to Kal-El, but at the same time I thought that scene was a little stereotypical. To be fair, though, Martha gets more to do once Kal-El gets to Earth. (Crowe also has a bit of deadpan fun as a Jor-El hologram which pops up at various helpful moments.)
I also enjoyed the film’s production design, although it was a little hard to concentrate because — thanks to Dolby Atmos, I suspect — the loud parts of the movie were L O U D. (I did enjoy Hans Zimmer’s score. The ascending two-note motif of the Superman theme seemed like a lighter, more hopeful echo of his and James Newton Howard’s two-note Batman sting; and the synth-infused Krypton music really fit the planet’s prog-rock aesthetic.) The Krypton scenes, with their dragonfly-lizard steeds and insectoid fightercraft, seemed very toyetic, but part of me thought it was a nice reminder that the Silver Age Krypton was just as pulp-influenced. Likewise, exposition scenes in the “Fortress of Solitude” (note: may not be actual Fortress) were a nifty blend of H.R. Giger, movie-serial Flash Gordon, and ‘50s space-race propaganda. Product placement in the battle scenes seemed more realistic than opportunistic, like when characters started throwing around Kenmore appliances and “Rent Me!” vans. I wasn’t thinking “now I want to buy at Sears,” but “wow, they trashed the Sears.”
On a more serious note, the Kryptonians’ battles literally leave their mark on the Earth, and specifically in the center of Metropolis. There is a lot of what we’ve learned to call “collateral damage” in this movie, and it warrants some sort of memorial in the sequel. The people of Earth learn to trust Superman — spoiler alert! — but not without cost.
When I saw Zodiac, David Fincher’s account of the infamous Bay Area serial killer, I thought it was a good movie, but I wondered what it would be like as a Batman movie. Man of Steel is like the movie you’d get if you wondered what Independence Day would be like with Superman.
And with that…
So Man Of Steel does present Superman with a couple of hard moral choices, both of which belie Jor-El’s claim (again, heard in the trailers) that “you can save all of them.” On both occasions, Superman must choose between Kryptonian lives and the people of Earth, and both times he chooses Earth. I will have to watch the movie again to see if it gives Superman a fair chance to save both “sides” — i.e., not to choose, but to say credibly that “no one dies today” — but a) as presented in the movie, I’m not sure there’s time to plan to save both, and b) the decision which seals Zod’s fate seemed to me to be a callback to Jonathan Kent’s final lesson. In fact, it may even hinge on Zod’s big soliloquy at the movie’s climax, where he explains that (since most Kryptonians are born and bred for certain jobs) because all he knows how to do is fight for Krypton, a truly-dead Krypton means he has no more purpose. This proves to be the final straw for Zod, who goes on a deadly rampage; but it also sets up a pretty obvious contrast to Superman, who has actively chosen to protect Earth no matter what. In a sense Superman acts towards Zod as Zod has acted towards Earth, but for me the movie was convincing — at least in the first-viewing moment — that Superman did the best he could with what he had. My inner fan says Supes had at least three other options, but the movie did a good job putting me in Superman’s boots.
Accordingly, Man of Steel isn’t perfect, but it is an energetic revitalization of Superman for the big screen. It’s a science-fiction movie that turns into a superhero movie, and it breathes new life into the classic elements. It’s also loaded with cameos, from Lana Lang and Pete Ross (who plays a familiar role) to Dev-Em, Steve Lombard, and Kenny Braverman. I was hoping for a Green Lantern or two to protect baby Kal-El’s rocket, but no dice. And I still think “Jenny” started out as Jimmy Olsen.
Man of Steel has some thrilling moments, some satisfying humor, and some surprisingly-effective emotional scenes. It may not be the ideal Superman movie, but the world may never see one of those.
At least not for a few years….