One of the most endearing qualities of Superman was his innocence, or naivete, if you must. Indeed, innocence was a quality that extended to his entire world or worlds—to Krypton, the doomed planet from which he is exiled by his father to serve as a kind of living ambassador, and to Earth, landing in the corn fields of Kansas where he apprentices as a human aw-shucks farm boy until his time (like Jesus Christ, at age 33) to reveal his superhuman qualities comes.
It is this innocence that the viewer—well, viewer of a certain age, old enough to have read the earlier versions of the comic book and watch the first Superman movies—will miss in “Man of Steel,” the latest cinematic incarnation of the original superhero.
True, there are fight scenes and feats of superhuman derring-do aplenty. And given advances in movie technology, especially on a giant 3-D Imax screen, the fight scenes are truly, to use that overused word, awesome.
But where the original “Superman” was painted in bright, primary colors, the conflict clear in its good-vs-evil demarcation, “Man of Steel” is darker, more brooding, less edifying. Why, even Superman’s suit is painted a darker blue, almost black, the bright red cape muted into maroon, as if a cheery scarlet ran counter to the overall somber color palette.
Why this darker turn for a superhero? Well, for one thing, it is produced by Christopher Nolan, whose latest turns directing the “Batman” franchise brought it out of the gee-whiz realm of the campy TV series and elevated it to the adult viewing, angst-filled level. Nolan’s movies were also largely filmed against a dark background. Then there’s director Zack Snyder, best remembered for “300,” the savage, violence-ridden filmic reworking of Spartan legend that relied heavily on CGI effects, without bothering to create memorable characters.
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THE two bring these qualities to “Man of Steel,” and in the hands of writer David Goyer, create a heavy, burdensome back story to the otherwise cheery tale of a farm-boy-turned reporter-turned-superhero.
Film critic Justin Craig observed that the movie’s creative team “rounded up a fantastic cast…but unfortunately left them all out to dry with simplistic one-dimensional characters.” Indeed, there are enough acting heavyweights in the film to lend it more than the necessary gravitas.
Russell Crowe is Jor-El, the scientist who fathers Superman and decides to rescue him from certain death as their home planet implodes. He appears and reappears at crucial points of the story, but he serves as more of a narrator than a player in the plot. Michael Shannon lends the character of Zod, Superman’s nemesis, the necessary menace, but beyond grimacing, is left with little to do.
Amy Adams plays Lois Lane, but the tension inherent in her relationship with Superman/Clark Kent is dissipated by introducing them to each other much too early in the story arc. Also, she looks a lot older than Henry Cavill, the British actor who plays our hero. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play Clark’s human parents, and do a creditable job that lifts the couple from the cardboard kindly characters of the past. But too little time—in episodic flashbacks—is given them to explore their characters further.
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CAVILL has the requisite good looks and ripped bod to portray a superhero. But it is difficult to relate to his character, more so when he morphs, in his Kevlar-like costume, into Superman.
Actually, the word “Superman” isn’t even uttered in the film, at least as I remember it. The “S” emblazoned on his chest, the superhero tells Lois, stands for the Krypton symbol of “hope.” But there is little that is optimistic or sunny or even humorous in “Man of Steel.” And by the way, neither did I hear anybody use the term “man of steel” in the movie.
So why make a movie about Superman when your intention seems to be to pull him down from his heroic stature to something more human, more vulnerable, eternally hurting and rejected, forever in search for his identity?
Batman, with his tragic back story of losing his parents to a sinister gunman in a dark alley, seemed suited for an exploration of the darker side of human nature, particularly the motivations of a reclusive billionaire in search of vengeance. But Superman, at least as far as his loyal audience knew him, symbolized the fight between good and evil. He was always the noble hero battling villains far too powerful or strong for humans to wage a fight on equal footing. And as the bumbling reporter Clark Kent, he embodied the weakling with qualities little recognized or respected.
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MAYBE times have indeed changed, and the innocents who read the Superman comics (my children tell me that his story arc, ever since he “died,” has grown more complex) in their day have been outnumbered by fans who expect a more human Superman.
But that to me is a contradiction. Why demand that even the sunny hero of our youth be yanked back to our common stature? Why call him “Super” then?
One would think, given all the problems that bedevil our everyday reality, that people would yearn even more for truly innocent, noble, big-hearted and superhuman heroes. One would think young people around the world would call out for escapism, instead of soaking ourselves in our dark, adult, cynical reality. Sometimes, all we seek in the movies is to be transported into another world. The brighter, the better.