Man of Steel isn’t your father’s Superman; that would be Christopher Reeve. Nor is it your grandfather’s, George Reeves of early TV. Or your great-grandfather’s, the one created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938. This Superman, or Kal-El—or as his doomed Kryptonian parents call him, Kal (short for Kalvin?)—is a whole new species of alien. And boy, is he alienated.
Man of Steel is labeled as “A film by Zack Snyder.” The erratic Snyder may have called “action” and “cut,” but the movie looks more like the work of Christopher Nolan, the hand behind transforming Batman into The Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan is credited as producer (one of eight) and for creating the story with writer David S. Goyer, also a veteran of The Dark Knight movies. Like the man with a hammer to whom every problem looks like a nail, to Nolan and Goyer, every superhero universe apparently looks like Gotham City.
The movie opens on Krypton, a dark and grimy place compared to other versions of the Superman origin story. The only color is in the fiery explosions during the fascist General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) futile revolt, then later as the planet explodes. Kal-El’s parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) both could use a shower, and Jor-El certainly needs a shave. This Krypton is no longer a golden-age civilization struck down by cosmic destruction. It’s a decrepit and exhausted dead end, doomed by the Kryptonians’ own hubris; the only energy here radiates from the vicious Zod, a would-be Hitler to Krypton’s Weimar Republic.
Though Jor-El and Lara dispatch their infant son to far distant Earth, Jor-El glumly predicts that the boy will be despised as a freak. In the glimpses we get of the baby’s upbringing as the adopted son of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane, borderline miscast), we see that Jor-El was right. In flashes that play like Scientology-auditing sessions, we see Clark Kent grow up bullied, friendless and miserable, cringing in a closet at school, while his teacher hectors him for his bad behavior, and classmates whisper “freak” and “weirdo.”
Even when he grows up, Superman (now played by Henry Cavill) spends more time dealing with Earthling fears than fighting Zod and his fellow villains. But he’s hardly a reassuring presence; Kal/Clark has brought the colorless gloom of Krypton with him; he’s sullen, scruffy and scraggy-bearded. Even when he cleans up and dons Superman’s iconic costume, the look is muted and drab: the red has become maroon, the blue the color of new denim, the yellow like sand.
This drab, colorless concept of Superman as tortured, unhappy outcast calls for an actor to match, and that’s what it gets. The bland Cavill can’t differentiate Superman from Clark Kent—only Christopher Reeve ever could; besides, the dimple in Cavill’s chin is a dead giveaway—so Man of Steel doesn’t even try. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) learns within days that Clark Kent of Smallville is an extraterrestrial with superpowers, and when Zod comes to Earth and demands the surrender of “one of us,” everyone in Smallville knows exactly who he wants. By the end, every citizen of Smallville and Metropolis—those who survive the battle between Zod and Superman—has seen Clark’s new suit. When he reports for work at the Daily Planet, he’s greeted with a wink and a nod. Superman’s “secret identity” is demoted to “alter ego”; like Iron Man’s Tony Stark, he’s not secret to anyone.
I can’t believe this dull, dingy, joyless take on Superman will stick, but who knows? The character was created in Depression America by the sons of Jewish immigrants as a fantasy of a better future and of acceptance of the other in American society. Now that the vision of hope has devolved onto Star Trek and assimilation has less cachet than multiculturalism, has Superman outlived his usefulness? If the only way to make palatable his “never ending battle for truth and justice” (“and the American Way” was added at the height of the 1950s Red Scare) is to turn him into a dreary rehash of Batman, and Clark Kent into a sulky Tony Stark, maybe his time is past at that. Maybe they should just slip him a Kryptonite injection, and put us all out of his misery.