Man of Steel: What Makes A Superhero?

So, the latest Superman flick Man of Steel has been out for a while, and it has been causing a few waves here and there. One of the most highly anticipated films of the year, right alongside G.I.Joe: Retaliation (god-awful terrible), Iron Man 3 (big, big disappointment), and Star Trek: Into Darkness (not too bad a sequel). Of all the films to come out this year from Hollywood, I was looking forward to the latest adventures of Superman the most, because he’s one of my favourite DC characters and because I’ve been a fan of the Christopher Reeves films (yes, even the terrible ones) and I loved the Tom Welling-starrer Smallville live-action series which did much to update the character for a more modern audience.

Like I said, Man of Steel has been causing a few waves. It has the highest June opening of any Hollywood film ever and it grossed over $200 million in its opening weekend alone. It has also set a few records in overseas territories and as of yesterday, the film has officially crossed the $500 million mark in global box office revenues, standing firmly at just a little over $520 million.

And in recent memory, no superhero movie has proven to be as divisive among critics and fans as Man of Steel has. From everything on my social media feeds, I’d say that the split between the yays and the nays is at 40/60 respectively, which means that most of the people on my social feeds didn’t like the movie.

So, as an amateur critic, what do I say to all this? As a fan of Superman fiction in all its forms, what do I say to all this?

Be warned however, there very well might be spoilers here.

Going into the movie, I had concerns whether or not it would live up to the expectations I had of it. When Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns hit the screens, I was unable to watch it in theaters, but I managed to see it on a trip from LA to Dubai eventually, and then later on I saw it on DVD as well. I liked the movie as a standalone, but not one that was part of what had already come before. It was too much a Richard Donner movie, and for me, it lacked anything special that set it apart from what Donner had done. In a way, it failed to be unique. An almost slavish copy of the original, both in terms of the mood, and the way Brandon Routh performed.

And then of course, the movie didn’t perform all that well. In terms of the pure numbers, it hit a little shy of $400 million, on a budget of roughly half that. Not the kind of profits that the studio was looking for, I’m sure, certainly not enough to warrant a sequel either. General reaction among my friends was mixed as well, reflective to a degree of the more global reaction to the film. People liked it “well enough, but weren’t wowed by it”.

CavillThat’s what it comes down to isn’t it? The WOW factor? While Superman III and Superman IV lacked the WOW factor as well, and were incredibly cheesy and cringe-inducing, they were also part of a completely different era. Superman Returns had the misfortune of coming out at a time when Hollywood increasingly began to be dominated by big-budget action-packed movies. And when you have your star character as Superman, the audience well and truly deserve and expect action. Lots and lots of action. Its one of the most fun hings about the character: the action. He is “SUPERMAN”. DC’s premier superhero. The world’s first superhero. The most iconic fictional character ever.

Sure, audiences want some character study as well and want the films to have emotional depth, but the movies need to maintain a certain balance between the two, or at least dance around it. Superman Returns unfortunately went too far in the wrong direction. There certainly were quite a few set-piece action sequences in the film, such as Superman averting an airplane crash, and throwing Kryptonite-Island into space and what not, but the movie represented an emotional, psychological look into his character.

It might have worked too, but as far as I’m concerned, it was the right movie in the wrong time. Just generally, I was too disappointed with it either way. It wasn’t the kind of movie I wanted, or expected to see. It brought the character forward into a modern world-view, but it didn’t hit all the right notes.

And that’s where Man of Steel steps in.

What Zach Snyder and Christopher Nolan have done with the film is simply astounding. They successfully stepped out of the shadow of the Richard Donner films and Superman Returns to create something unique that stands well and truly on its own. They made the character relevant to a modern audience even more than the previous film did and they managed to maintain a tonal consistency with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

The big part of this is that they explore the consequences and state of a world where Superman is real, where he exists. And they do it through both the “present” timeline in the movie, as well as flashbacks to when Clark was a kid. He is shown as someone who wants to help people, to save them, no matter the consequences. He might wonder afterwards why people don’t like him, why they think him a freak, and all, but in the bottomline, he cares about doing what he can to save people.

There is an oft-discussed dialogue from Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent in which he tells Clark that perhaps it might have been better if he hadn’t saved a bunch of kids in a school bus from drowning because then his secret would not have been outed. I personally detest that piece of dialogue because it misrepresents everything that Jonathan Kent has been in all his various iterations, the ones that I am familiar. Smallville showed that perfectly in all the seasons that Jonathan Kent was around. He would sacrifice himself to keep his son’s secret, but he would never ask Clark to sacrifice others. It has been ages since I watched the show and I may be misremembering to a degree, but this is a concept that has stayed with me through all the show’s ten seasons. In the episode where Jonathan Kent makes his exit as a regular feature on the show, the writers absolutely nailed this portrayal of Pa Kent.

And the Jonathan Kent that we see in Man of Steel is a pale shadow of that man. Yes, this is just one bit of dialogue, but it jars, because that is not what Superman is or should be about. He is someone who cares about saving people, about doing the right thing, his secret be damned. That’s what I loved about the first half of the movie, all through to the point where he has to make that one big decision with regards to his adoptive father: save him or not save him.

And that’s when the movie really hooked me. It portrayed Pa Kent as a man who stands by what he says. Whether or not his decisions are right or wrong doesn’t matter. What matters is that he is a man of his principles, and that he will do what he can to make sure that Clark can live a normal life for as long as possible. Self-sacrifice has always been one of the things that has defined the Kent family and it is certainly true here.

If I remember correctly, this was also the second instance in the movie where I got teared up. It is an absolutely gut-wrenching scene that gets me really worked up. I wanted to say “Jonathan, stop being such a damn stickler for your principles, just let Clark do what he does best, everything else be damned”. It was certainly an emotional high point in the movie.

I really, really wish that Kevin Costner and Diane Lane had been able to do more in the movie. Their portrayals of their respective characters were fairly spot-on, both in terms of performance and looks. Don’t get me wrong, I still completely love John Schneider and Annette O’Toole as the Kents, and they are my favourites in those roles, but the Costner/Lane dynamic was also quite powerful. And there are so many heart-to-heart moments with them and Clark throughout the movie, little instances of where they help Clark deal with his powers, get him to adapt to them to the point where they don’t control him. It reminded me a lot of how Tom Welling’s Clark had to learn to deal with his abilities on Smallville and how both Schneider and O’Toole helped him along.

Which brings me to the point about the “inspirations” and “influences” that can be seen in Man of Steel. Even though the movie is fairly unique as a complete package, there are instances of where you can see how it also pays respect to what has come before. I saw a ton of flashes in it of Smallville, of Richard Donner’s movies, of the Lois and Clark live-action series and so on. The scenes with Jor-El and Lara reminded me a lot of Kevin J. Anderson’s amazing novel The Last Days of Krypton. I can’t remember exactly at the moment if Mark Waid’s Birthright also has a few cameos in the movie, but the thing about Man of Steel is that it appears to have drawn its material from all over the place. It tells an inclusive origin story about Superman that has its roots everywhere. And I love that.

And if there is one absolute thing that the movie gets right, it is the scenes on Krypton with Kal-El’s parents and the other Kryptonians. The visuals of Krypton are breathtaking and they all capture both the alienness and the beauty of the world really well, whether that be through the local flora and fauna, or through its peoples and technologies. Jor-El particularly is handsomely played by Russell Crowe, who seemed to have taken to the role like a well-tailored suit. He was Jor-El all through the movie. We get to see Jor-El the scientist and Jor-El the warrior both. My one wish however is that there had been more between him and Zod, especially in the second half. The characters had a great chemistry between the two of them that was very strongly reminiscent of Kevin J. Anderson’s The Last Days of Krypton. Often in Superman’s lore, it comes up that if there was one person that Zod had any real respect for, it was Jor-El, and Man of Steel plays that up beautifully. Right to the point where Zod does his thing and Jor-El is all that stands between him and his victory.

When it comes to the ladies in Man of Steel, the movie does not skimp out on anything. Writer David Goyer, producer Christopher Nolan and director Zach Snyder have made this a film that is not just about Superman, but the people around him, the people who were, are and will be a part of his life. And the ladies in the film all deserve a special mention for that.

Amy Adams as LoisAs someone who has been frustrated with DC’s approach to Lois Lane in recent comics, Amy Adams’ Lois knocked the ball out of the park. Just as Margot Kidder fit a Lois who balanced between her affections for Superman and being a hard-nosed reporter, just as Teri Hatcher portrayed Lois the cynical reporter, and just as Erica Durance (less successfully I might add) portrayed Lois the army brat turned reporter, so does Amy Adams portray a Lois who doesn’t take any kind of crap from anyone. She stands tall next to Superman as one of the most central and effectual character in the movie. Sure, she doesn’t get that many scenes in the movie, but all her scenes are still good. Better than good in fact. For any and all sequels of the movie and all through the new movie continuity that DC and WB want to establish in the wake of the movie’s success, Amy Adams is who should be in the role. She has a strong resume of portraying great characters and Lois Lane is another notch in her belt. She is impressive and entertaining, whether she is shooting up Kryptonians on board Zod’s ship, or chasing after the mystery man all over the world, or someone who realises that some truths are not meant to be splashed all over the front page of a newspaper. This might be a bit of a hyperbole, but I think Amy Adams’ Lois, as both the character and the performer, was a reporter who had ethics and a conscience. Sensationalism just isn’t her thing.

Then there is Lara Lor-Van herself, Kal-El/Clark’s mother. She is portrayed by Ayelet Zurer, who was previously in Angels & Demons and also provided the voice acting for Halo 4. She has a small role in the film, but one of the most vital ones, that of sending Kal away to Earth even as Jor-El and Zod fight it out amongst themselves, one to safeguard the future of his doomed race, the other a tyrant who wants all the power for himself and none other. There was a certain passion in Zurer’s acting that really shone through on the screen. Without her, the effect of that entire sequence would not have been the same.

Antje Traue as FaoraFinally, remember Ursula from Superman II, portrayed rather well by Sarah Douglas? Man of Steel has a character quite similar to hers, Sub-Commander Faora, portrayed by Antje Traue in what is perhaps the best female villain in action movies in recent times. We don’t get to see much of her backstory and so the character is primarily defined by her relationship with Zod and her antagonism towards Superman, but damn, she is a character who kicks ass from noon to midnight. Superman’s first big fight is against Zod, but Faora quickly steps in and she proves that she is a superior fighter to him in all respects. Blow for blow, skill for skill, she is more than a match for him because she is someone who is well and truly a warrior. Combat is a way of life for her. The movie gives her ample opportunity to prove herself. And in the final tally of things, I think that both the character and the actress outperformed Michael Shannon’s Zod, in every single way that counts.

Given the ending of the movie, I don’t know if any of Zod’s Kryptonians will come back, but if they do, then I definitely want to see Faora once more. Even if its just flashbacks.

So far, I’ve said little about how Shannon and Henry Cavill have performed in their respective roles. Fact is, they could not have been more different. I didn’t like Michael Shannon as Zod from the very first trailer and the movie failed to get me to even appreciate his performance on a basic level. Shannon was an ill-fit, nothing more than a supervillain who shouts all the time and spouts random epithets about how he is the best thing ever and how he is going to kill everyone Superman cares about. I just could not get into the actor, and the character suffered immeasurably. Terence Stamp remains as the perfect Zod for me. In fact, if they had brought back Terence Stamp for this, he would have been a far better fit than Shannon.

General ZodOn the other hand is Cavill, who completely fit the role, the suit, the tone. Just as Christopher Reeves, Dean Cain and Tom Welling became icons while in the suit, so does Cavill. The actor, previously seen in the completely terrible Immortals and the unfortunate Cold Light of Day finally hits on a role and a performance where he can truly excel. Whether as Clark Kent or as Superman, he was the fresh-faced and inexperienced character that the origins required him to be. He did a far better job than Brandon Routh as well because neither Cavill nor Man of Steel were looking to ape the Richard Donner movies. They were creating something different, something much more relevant to a modern audience, and they succeeded at it. I saw an interview with Cavill a while back and when he went into describing his process of trying to get into the mindset for the role and for the suit, it was like he totally got what the character was about. He understood what was required of him as per the movie’s script and the entire milieu that Nolan, Snyder and Goyer were creating.

He was the perfect Superman for today.

The ending of the movie is much maligned in all circles. People argue that the entire climax is something that goes against the grain of what it means to be Superman, against what the core of his character is. My response is, we are seeing a completely new origin story about a character who has been around in fiction for 75 years. There have been hundreds of comics written about him, several movies, television series, radio plays, cartoons, and so on and on. He is the most iconic character in fiction and the one who has been the most explored. And there have been ample times when he has “gone against the core of his characters”. The climax highlights the fact that even the Man of Steel, the most powerful man on Earth, perhaps even the galaxy, sometimes even he doesn’t have a choice. The finale between Zod and Superman is one that goes to the basics of each character and puts them both in a really simple situation where there are only two options. It is a turning point in Superman’s character and this is what will inform his future decisions. That final moment is what will begin to turn him into the character that we all know so well from years upon years of consumption of fiction about him.

My advice to people is to not look at the movie as something where Superman and Clark Kent are established personas. This is an origin story, and the hero has to learn the consequences of his actions. He has to learn self-awareness about the limits of his powers and how these powers and his decisions on how to use them can affect the people around him.

The fact of the matter is that he has had a rough time growing up, adjusting to his powers and he hasn’t, until now, met someone or something that he could not defeat, one way or another. For the lore nerds out there, think of this movie as a reflection of the battle between Doomsday and Superman. The similarities are remarkable, except for the fact that Zod is always up in Superman’s face and doesn’t give him a moment to think about what’s happening around them.

In the title, I ask “What Makes A Superhero”? I don’t really know yet. But I think at the core, the answer to that is: the decisions that the character makes. Superman makes some tough choices in Man of Steel and the way that everything is shown towards the ending, he is someone who is going to live with those consequences and they will inform his decisions. He is a character who is going to grow and become the icon that we recognise.

What it all boils down to is the fact that Man of Steel is one of the best movies I’ve seen since the superhero craze kicked off in high gear following Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and Christian Bale’s Batman.  It is a far better film than I expected, and it has turned me into a fan of almost all the actors involved. And it has given me hope that even though the current crop of Superman comics might be rather poor in quality, the movies are definitely going to be great. And that Lois Lane is going to be treated as she deserves to be, rather than misinterpreted, misrepresented or just plain ignored.

So, the final-final comment of this post: Go watch the movie. It is awesome. Far fewer flaws than I thought there’d be and far too many good things in it. Consider it to be my recommendation of the year. I predicted on the movie’s release date that I expected it to make $800 million gross. It has a long way to go, but I’m sure that it will be able to hit that target, especially once it is finally released in yet more territories. So fingers crossed!

Posted on July 2, 2013, in General, Movie Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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