The new movie version of the Superman “origin myth,” “Man of Steel,” was directed by Zack Snyder. Snyder has given us the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead,” the kid’s flic “Legend of the Guardians,” and comic book pictures “300,” “Watchmen,” and “Sucker Punch.” Managing actors and subtle story-telling are not his specialties.
Instead he has emphasized story. Perhaps that was what kept his version of the “Watchmen” graphic novel from capturing the enthusiasm of its audience. But in his other films this preference for event has worked fine.
And it does again in “Man of Steel,” though older audiences may have already enough times gotten the story of the infant Superman, sent to Earth as his home planet explodes, raised by farmers near Smallville, Kansas, learning to use his superpowers—X-ray vision, super strength, flight, super speed, and invulnerability—for the betterment of mankind.
The differences in this re-telling are, in detail, numerous. In effect the only dif is that Superman sometimes gets tired or loses confidence for a short spell. The character’s ability to absorb punishment has long been the key weakness of Superman stories. It is Batman’s humanity that has made him the more popular superhero.
This is what front-runners of all sorts never completely got: if someone always wins, what’s the fun in the competition? It may be that we can thank the director of the recent Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan, for the evidence in “Man of Steel” that Superman isn’t always sure and undeterred. Nolan co-wrote the story and is one of the film’s producers.
The producers and Snyder have hired a good cast for the film. Henry Cavill, who plays the title role, is a relatively experienced young British actor. He is supported by some well-knowns, including Kevin Costner (Mr. Kent), Diane Lane (Mrs. Kent), Amy Adams (who might be a tad old for Lois Lane), Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, and “character actors” Michael Shannon, Richard Schiff, and Christopher Meloni.
Once Superman has found his vocation, his Krytonic dad Jor El (Crowe) appears as a holograph to guide him and Lois as they fight back against space-touring eugenicists led by General Zod (Shannon). But the script really seems to favor Farmer Kent’s influence on the boy, and we see lots of flashbacks to his interaction with his adopted son.
Zod comes to Earth in a spaceship shaped something like a dung beetle. He and his squad of failed Krytonian rebels aren’t so much interested in offing Superman as they are in getting the genetic codes for all the family lines from back home. The film doesn’t explain why Jor El has sent that information with his son in an escape pod. No matter what his reason, the space scientist has in this way put his son in danger.
This danger Superman shares with Earth. The traveling rebels decide to take over our planet, as long as they are here to pick up the info to clone new generations of Krytonites. The explanations here are silly enough that Snyder avoids getting involved in any arguments over them. He buries the issues in action—Superman taking on this or that rebel, saving this or that endangered human, and flying through the core of the planet in the middle of some sort of gravity-increasing ray.
And Snyder is good with action. So the movie is diverting while it is running. But once it is over, I don’t suppose viewers will be thinking long and hard about what it has to say about eugenics, the artificial selection of gene lines for continuation. This may be an issue our society needs to consider long and hard. But movies aren’t going to provide us with the right occasions.