After two decent movies in the late 70s/early 80s, the Cinematic history of Superman has been a bit of a letdown, to say the least. It’s been 35 years since Christopher Reeve first donned the iconic cape and blue tights for Richard Donner’s take on the granddaddy of all comic book superheroes. Though his Superman (1978) and Superman 2 (1980) still remain classics the memory of these films is sullied by the camp and cheese of the next two offerings in the series. After the dismal reception for 1987’s Superman 4, a film so terrible it’s almost transcendent, the heroic exploits of Kal-El were kept away from the movie going public for nearly 20 years. Then came Bryan Singer, whom with his Superman Returns attempted to retcon the existence of the previous two films with a direct sequel to the 1980 classic, this time with newcomer Brandon Routh as the fabled Kryptonian. Light years better than Superman 3 and 4, Returns still felt somewhat ill-conceived. Its attempts to pigeonhole itself in continuity with the first two Donner films were too limiting and the result proved ultimately a little boring.
All of these successive failures left many fans of the comic books wondering if Hollywood was ever going to get it right. At a time when Marvel was making money hand over fist with their Avengers movies, DC was at a loss on how to handle their stalwart. Obviously emboldened by their wildly successful reboot of the Batman series thanks to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, DC and Warner Brothers came up with the idea of just starting the whole damn thing over again. The parallels here are obvious; after two successful and classic Batman movies, the franchise fell into a state of self-parody and shame. The world thought Batman a lost cause, and they proved them wrong. Could they recapture the same magic with Superman and reinvigorate a long dying franchise?
Fan expectations are high with the release of the reboot, Man of Steel. The world has been waiting with baited breath to find out if there was any life left in the series. Has Hollywood learned the lessons of their past mistakes? Can Superman be redeemed as a cinematic hero?
Fanboys rejoice; Superman is back.
The film takes a similar approach to the origin story of its hero as Nolan’s Batman Begins; while telling the backstory of a character as well-known as Superman runs the risk of boring the audience, in the hands of director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) and screenwriter David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy) it becomes a story worth hearing again.
Gone are the days of the Reeve era Clark Kent, with his comically nerdy demeanor and bumbling ways. Henry Cavill’s Kent is introduced as a sort of wayward spirit, bouncing around the country from one job to the next and trying to stay under the radar. Like all great heroes, he is on the quest to actualize his potential. Like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, Clark Kent is on a journey to learn how to be who he is. He is aimless, he is lost.
Through flashbacks we learn of his troubled childhood; we see the perils of a small child, frightened out of his wits by sounds no one else can hear, he closes in eyes in terror while his as yet unfettered x-ray vision allows him to see the skeletons of his peers and teachers. Young Clark knows he’s different, and his differences cause him to be a pariah among his peers. Knowing full well he can take down any bully, Clark learns to control his abilities at the behest of his adopted parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).
Here, for the first time, the audience gets to delve into the heart of Kal-El’s humanity. Though he is an alien being with the power to conquer us all, the value of human life is ingrained in him having lived amongst us since he was a baby. By taking this direction, and by placing him in a world we can understand and recognize, Man of Steel is able to fully explore the development of Clark Kent into Superman. For all his power, Superman is the hero he is not because he has to be but because he chooses to be.
Of course, all heroes need their test of worth to prove their ability to take on their tasks; for Kal-El, this test comes in the form of General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his crew. Having survived the destruction of Krypton due to imprisonment in the Phantom Zone, the General has been searching for a planet on which to rebuild for decades. Alerted to the presence of Kal-El, Zod makes his way to earth and decides that our planet will suit his purposes nicely.
The stage is set for the confrontation and the result is magnificent. For as good as the Donner movies were, special effects have come a long, long way in the last 35 years and, finally, Superman looks pretty incredible in action. Never before has Superman looked so cool and been so hardcore.
By and large, Man of Steel seems destined to go down as the definitive cinematic portrayal of Superman. Marvel may have made an industry out of pumping out fantastic eye candy every six months, but between the Dark Knight Trilogy and Man of Steel, DC might just be on their way to producing quality films that stand the test of time. While I might be a fan of most of the Marvel output, it’s nice to have a counter balance to their glossy cash cows. Man of Steel, like its spiritual forebear Batman Begins, brings new light to an old character and reminds us just how amazing these stories can still be. For those of us suffering from an over-saturation of the Avengers, Man of Steel might just be both the superhero movie we need and the superhero movie we deserve right now.