I recommend “Man of Steel,” which offers a darker take on the Superman story than audiences have seen in the past. Combining traditional elements of the mythology with the more serious tone of post-9/11 comic book films, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan have banished the memory of Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” (2006), reinvigorating the franchise.
Like the original “Superman” (1978), the film begins with the depiction of Kal-El’s leaving Krypton as an infant. With the planet crumbling, Jor-El, played well by Russell Crowe, puts his only son on a ship to Earth. After Kal’s departure, the evil General Zod (“Boardwalk Empire’s” Michael Shannon) kills Jor-El and declares that he will find his son.
Jor-El’s act of sending his son away to save him echoes the story of Moses from the Old Testament and Kal-El means “vessel of G-D” in Hebrew (Tye, 65-66). As I noted in my previous post on Superman, two Jewish American teenagers from Cleveland created the character during the 1930s and the influence of their religion and immigrant experience pervades the tale. The destruction of Krypton can be seen as a metaphor for the Russian pogroms that forced Jews to leave Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries or for Europe on the eve of the Second World War. Once on Earth, the Middle American Kent family adopts and raises Kal-El as Clark Kent and he tries to assimilate into humanity, but is not truly one of them, an experience shared by many immigrants who came to the United States. Indeed, Kal El’s biological mother fears humans will see him as an “outcast” and a “freak.” For more about Superman’s history, see http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/supermans-history.html
Like “Batman Begins” (2005) and “Amazing Spider Man” (2012), “Man of Steel" is a much more cynical examination of its protagonist than previous incarnations. Gone is the whimsy and humor of the Christopher Reeve films of the 1970s and 1980s, replaced by humanity’s fear of the alien other. In the beginning of the movie, Clark Kent is working a series of odd jobs, quietly helping people on the way and then quickly moving on, much like David Banner in the “Incredible Hulk” TV show. In a series of flashbacks, we see his adolescent struggles with his powers, which are far more traumatic than those experienced by Tom Welling’s Clark on TV’s “Smallville” (2001-2011).
As I’ve noted before, most film franchises have become more serious since 9/11 and one of the problems with “Superman Returns” was that is so consciously echoed the sensibility of the original films. Not so with “Man of Steel.” Indeed, the climactic action scenes eerily echo 9/11 as we see people fleeing dust and falling buildings. The contrast between Henry Cavill’s Superman and Christopher Reeve’s from the late 70s/early 80s is almost as stark as the difference between Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Roger Moore’s from the late 70s/early 80s. For more, see http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2011/09/post-911-popular-culture.html>
Overall, I very much enjoyed the film, though Snyder could have cut one major action sequence to make the story tighter. At the end, Clark begins his traditional job at the Daily Planet, providing a nice conclusion to the movie and giving us hope that newspapers will still exist when the sequel debuts.
Larry Tye, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, (New York, 2012)