This post contains spoilers. Lots of spoilers, particularly about the ending of the film. You might not want to read on until you’ve seen the movie.
I’m sitting in the Odeon cinema in Derby, about five minutes before Man of Steel is due to start. I’ve seen the trailers, I’ve read the tweets, I’ve seen geek culture offer up almost every imaginable opinion about the film. And you know what? At this point, all I really want is for Superman to hit a bad guy with a bus.
I mean, what do I want – what do I expect from a Superman movie? He’s a pop culture icon, and because of that we develop our own conception of the character. It’s not DC Comics or Warner Brothers that define Superman, not really, it’s each of us, every die-hard fan having their own image in our heads made up of bits and pieces from comics and movies and TV and all the cool ideas we have that no-one else has thought of. Man of Steel isn’t going to live up to that – I guess the question is, as I watch a trailer for The Lone Ranger, what’s the film going to add to my Superman mythos?
The thing about Man of Steel, two-and-a-half-hours later, is that while it ‘s a Superman film, it’s not a film about Superman. It’s about the generation before him, their competing visions of the future and how those visions play out in the lives of Earth’s inhabitants. Is Zod right to want to preserve his world at all costs? Is Jor-el right to see his son as the embodiment of his own rebellion? Is Jonathan right to want Clark to keep his powers a secret? These questions drive the story more than Clark’s search for a place in the world, to the extent that at times the film feels like an extended prequel for a character study of Supes.
I hope we get to see that, because Henry Cavill is great – good enough not to be trapped in Chris Reeve’s shadow. His joy at finding he can fly is lovely – the sort of reaction Superman should have. We don’t get to see a Clark/Supes distinction – deliberately so – but I think Cavill could handle it, heading up an impeccable cast. That said, Michael Shannon’s mad-eyed intensity steals the show. Look, I thought Terence Stamp insisting everyone should kneel before him was legendary, but I’m sorry, there’s a new Zod in town and he punches his enemies through skyscrapers.
That spectacle is a real strength – this is the best superhero battle since Justice League Unlimited and that was animated. Sure the visuals are over the top, but this is a comic book movie, things should be turned up to 11. And frankly, Zack Snyder is the first director who seems to realise he should give us a reason to care that Krypton blows up, serving up some pulp sci-fi wonder and a badass Jor-el.
That’s one of the issues Snyder deals with – the other is making sure Lois doesn’t look like an idiot by letting her in on the Secret almost from the start. I could go another 75 years without seeing Lois fail to notice who Clark is again, and Man of Steel sidesteps that before you even realise they’ve done it. She’s also proactive and confident and she shoots bad guys with a death ray. Awesome.
But there’s always controversy. Normally I don’t mind that – I don’t care if Perry’s black or if Jimmy Olsen now seems to be Jenny; let there be change. But there is a moment that rips through my image of Superman and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Clark kills Zod, and while it’s to save innocents and he’s clearly devastated by it, it’s still a moment I’m uncomfortable with. Superman doesn’t kill, and while I’ve justified it to myself – it’s a set-up for a more character driven sequel, it’s the sort of thing that could fuel a future confrontation with Lex, but somehow that feels like fansplaining. I hope it’s not, especially if this is going to be the foundation for DC’s cinematic universe.
A while back, this would have been the main thing I took away from Man of Steel – I’d’ve debated it and got annoyed by it and insisted that Hollywood doesn’t get Superman. But now… Well, there’s a moment in which the young Clark has just discovered he’s adopted – that he’s not even from Earth. He turns to the man who raised him and asks “Can’t I just pretend I’m still your son?” “You are my son!” comes the reply, and that still gets me, even as I’m typing this.
Maybe it’s because I’m a new-ish stepdad, maybe it’s because I’m getting old and relating to fathers rather than sons, but… There’s just so much there, love and compassion and identity and fear, and so much of the film is tied up with the things parents want for their children, whether they’re from Kansas or Krypton. And it’s that moment that sticks with me, because ultimately I don’t want a film or even a favourite superhero that resonates with my comic collection, I want one that resonates with my life. That’s what Man of Steel adds to my Superman mythos – not just a new favourite Krypton, not just deranged superhero spectacle, not just a better role for Lois, but a moment that actually makes me relate to a story I’ve been following for years, a moment that gives voice to a bunch of feelings and hopes in my own life. That’s more than most movies offer, even ones I love.
Thank you Superman.