Lately, it’s been hard not to feel ambivalent about Superman. I love the guy and what he stands for, but given how it at times feels like my ideas of what makes the character work are the complete opposite of DC’s, I haven’t been happy with the character for a while. And yet, I don’t feel sadness or even disappointment, because the Superman-sized void in my feels has been more than capably filled by other fiction. If I’m in the mood for larger than life, physics-bending superheroics, Gurren Laggan and its galaxy-sized robots has me covered. If I want stories about an alien whose the last of his kind, adopts Earth, and inspires regular people to themselves become heroes, I’ve got Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who to keep me satisfied. Superman, in comparison, often brings thoughts of “good idea, but…”
So in the end, I wasn’t all that excited during the run-up to Superman: The Man of Steel. If it worked, great. If it’s didn’t, eh. I’d been mostly unspoiled, so I’m not sure what to expect, except that it seemed very heavy on the Krypton—rarely a good sign, when I’m concerned, since I tend to feel that where he was born says very little about who he is, and therefore focusing on it is a good way to start off on the wrong foot.
In any case, let’s start with the good. Lois Lane is great, and Amy Adams is fantastic in the role (I’m so happy she got it). The character’s a bit drier than she tends to be portrayed as on the screen, but she works supremely well, particularly given the one big change in the film. And all the characters are well cast and give good performances, elevating the material. General Zod, is, I feel, as good a portrayal as the character is going to get on the screen.
As for the rest? Honestly, it was all a bit boring. The first few minutes are spent establishing Krypton’s backstory, and through it all I was “get ON with it”. It’s kinda necessary for the plot, but then, I don’t care for the film’s plot, which is all about how Clark became Superman–or rather, it would be if there were a difference between the two sides of the character.
One of the things the film does differently from past versions of the story is to essentially do away with Clark’s double life. Arguably, it also does away with Superman as we know it, leaving us with the story of Kal-El, who wears a costume and has Diane Lane as an adoptive mother, and is still unsure about what he wants to do. With the Daily Planet‘s staff serving as satellite characters to Lois (which isn’t at all a bad thing, except insofar as they were shunted aside for most of the movie), the film is centered in Kansas in a way that feels weird.
Like I said, I have Ideas about Superman, and in the end, what I got from the film is that their take on Clark wouldn’t have become Superman if he hadn’t found about his heritage, which feels wrong. I’ve always been partial to versions of the story where Clark becomes Superman before finding out about Krypton, because it makes clear that there’s no correlation between the two things. Clark being Kryptonian has no bearing on who he is, and if he had no super-powers, he’d be Lois Lane, except less impressive because of male privilege. Here, however, the heritage and the heroism are connected to an uncomfortable degree. Yes, he’s seen helping people as Clark, but throughout those scenes, it doesn’t convince me that he gets any emotional satisfaction from it, which I feel Superman should always feel. It doesn’t help that this version of Jonathan Kent—one half of the couple that made him what he is–is far too willing to make Clark feel guilty about helping people. The film seems to agree with him, which again, makes this feel like the story of someone who is not Superman. Yes, people shouldn’t be expected to harm themselves for the sake of others, but part of what makes Superman Superman is the fact that a) he totally would, without hesitation, and b) he’s clever enough not to need to, most of the time.
As for the action…meh. While there are a few nice bits—I like that his initial fight with the Kryptonians is mixed with the rescue of the soldiers also with him—it’s all very generic-looking. This has been done before, and frankly, I’m tired of it. Again, Lois comes off better, with the scene where she—helped by Jor-El’s post-mortem A.I.–escapes Zod’s ship being a highlight.
In the end, I don’t feel this was the Superman film to sell people on the character—at least, if I didn’t also think that what I like about Superman isn’t what other people like about him. In any case, if nothing else, I feel it placed the characters in a very good position for an excellent sequel, so here’s hoping. But until then, there’s always Doctor Who.