Man of Steel will inevitably be compared to the first two movies in the Salkind franchise starring Christopher Reeve. Fans of the comics will tally up the stories it references, and where it diverges from them. Its visuals, at times lyrical, at times more frantic than a fork in a garbage disposal, are a tour de force. It’s well acted. The dialogue is never strained. And yet, I wonder who it’s for, and perhaps what it’s for.
The earlier Superman franchise followed the example of the character’s history in establishing the Kryptonian lad’s birth and journey to Earth, then an early period in which he faces ordinary menaces like aviation disasters and bank robberies, before things get wickedly sci fi. This time around, not so. This Superman debuts, at least in the suit, precisely to face a Kryptonian invasion of Earth, with nary a cat saved from a tree, nor a Daily Planet article, before he has to face Zod’s army.
Along the way, we are given scenes from Clark Kent’s boyhood and adulthood, with jumps forward and backward in time. His adult phase may remind one of Birthright, although he’s at sea rather than in Africa. His boyhood is close to the one portrayed in Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin, a sort of sorrowful time when young Clark wonders “Why me?” Johns’ take on Krypton and its pre-cataclysmic politics are also used in Man of Steel, with Jor-El and Zod contemplating an alliance before they split. Krypton’s destruction is blamed on a form of fracking, one of two ways the movie takes a jab at the safety of petroleum production. The movie’s main plot most closely resembles the Eradicator plot from the Nineties’ comics, but it is Zod and his fellow criminals who wish to terraform Earth into a new Krypton.
In terms of plot, the biggest surprises take the form of three deaths. Jor-El does not live to see Krypton explode, dying at Zod’s hand shortly before the planet dies with him. However, Russell Crowe gets more than a little screen time, speaking as an avatar so often it’s almost as though he never died. A more surprising twist on comic book convention is that Jonathan Kent dies in full view of Clark in a way that is easily preventable, but it would blow Clark’s secret identity. Father has convinced son that the identity is more important than human life, so Clark, hemmed in by the unfortunate presence of witnesses, stands by as Jonathan goes smiling to his doom. Finally, Superman kills Zod by snapping his neck. The rationale is very compelling, but here any acknowledgement of the gravity of that act passes within seconds. When Superman killed Zod in the comics of 1988, the event haunted him for over a year.
Death is simply quite common in this movie. It’s hard to imagine that the destruction wrought by the Kryptonian villains could have killed any fewer than 100,000 victims, and we see many of those onscreen. These Phantom Zone ex-cons make Superman II’s villains look like peaceniks.
Scenes in this movie are exceptionally well photographed and rendered. You see set pieces right out of Avatar, Sweet Hereafter, even Poltergeist. The battle scenes don’t sacrifice the overwhelming and savage speed that Kryptonians possess to make it easier to follow. They move like gunshots, seemingly materializing and dematerializing because they move so fast, either under their own power, or after being punched, which tends to send them on a 14-mile path of destruction through at least a few buildings.
Ultimately, everything in the movie is well done, but I’m not sure who will rave that they loved it. The luscious, ponderous beauty of some scenes look like Terrence Malick directed them. But does anyone who appreciates that also appreciate CGI battles with skyscrapers exploding into flames? I think a lot of people will appreciate at least one aspect of Man of Steel or another. But there’s a rift between its careful, thoughtful camerawork and the kinetic action. If this reboot earns a second entry in the series, it will be interesting to see if they try to keep the tone or discard it for something more lively.