El on Earth

How did I like Man of Steel?

The answer is... complicated. I'll be taking part in a roundtable discussion for Forces
of Geek
this week, helping me further hone my thoughts for a proper review. What follows now is bereft of spoilers.

Superman flying above the Earth's atmosphere against the blackness of space
Image from Man of Steel © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment. Superman ® DC Comics.

I went into the 12:01 a.m. screening last Thursday night with hope and rather
tempered excitement. So many movies are getting made from comics these days that I'm often asked how this or that compares to the source material — and even more often asked plainly if I enjoyed it, with my perspective of having liked and/or simply knowing about the comics implied. The whole nature of adaptations, especially those involving long-running characters that have been mined for film and TV repeatedly, is the subject of another post. But what's particularly relevant here is the fact that my opinions on such adaptations, when conflicted if not outright cranky, often get waved away with dismissals that, well, this is a movie and, y'know, it's made for everybody rather than just fans with a prior relationship to the material and, look, blockbusters with serious actors aren't comics or cartoons.

With that in mind, I was determined to take in Man of Steel as best I could from
the perspective of a public that largely knows Superman from the Christopher Reeve movie(s), perhaps some of Lois and Clark or Smallville, and general cultural osmosis — those cartoons and comics from their own childhood or their kids'. I also suspected that based on advance word from, and the reputations of, the core creative team — director Zack Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan (who devised the story with Goyer) — there would be much in the overall tone as well as specific plot beats that would turn me off. Snyder's heart was in the right place bringing Watchmen to the screen in 2009, but it was as I wrote then a considerable disappointment to me; I appreciated most of Nolan's Batman Begins but am much less charitable towards the sequels in his Dark Knight trilogy (also co-written by Goyer).

Yet I felt extremely prepared to take a catholic view of the movie, no pun on its debatable Jesus allegory intended, due to having immersed myself deeply in Superman lore over the past year for the character's 75th anniversary and being reminded that alterations to his story, while often ignored by history, are in fact among the lore's constants. Smallville was one giant, ten-season-long fustercluck of radical revisionism, despite its frequent and nonsensical allusions to the Reeve/Donner/Salkind films, although most of the changes to the core origin story came early on in Superman's existence. A case in point is the popular radio series, which began less than two years after Superman's April 1938 debut in Action Comics #1. Its introductory episodes find Kal-L — the original spelling, first seen in the daily newspaper strip, before "Kal-El" became the standard — growing to adulthood as his rocket traveled to Earth. He is never adopted by an Earth family, but rather is given the name Clark Kent by a father and son whose lives he saves shortly after landing, in marked contrast to the comics.

Digression: In the summer of 2006, Superman Returns — Bryan Singer's attempt
to carry on the continuity and characterizations of 1978's Superman and its 1980/1981 sequel — hit theaters. I was staying with my grandparents to provide what assistance I could in the wake of my grandfather's stroke. At the kitchen table late one night during a visit from my mother, I was telling her that although skeptical of this unknown Brandon Routh kid stepping almost literally into Christopher Reeve's boots I couldn't deny that watching television clips from the movie of Superman in flight just thrilled me in ways impossible to put into words. Grandpop, who'd dozed off the last time I looked over at him, let out a little chuckle. I suddenly felt self-conscious of how loud and animated I'd become, but Mom said, "I think he's getting a kick out of you being so excited"; Grandpop nodded yes. The flight scenes ended up being almost all that was enjoyable in Superman Returns, and they're something that for all its faults Man of Steel gets right too, making it an even greater shame that the film is not for children.

Man of Steel was actually, until a certain critical point, much better and more surprising in a good way than the movie I'd been afraid I would see. Henry Cavill is hunky and charismatic. Amy Adams invariably brings Lana Lang to mind more than Lois Lane for comics fans at first glance, Smallville's raven-tressed Kristen Kreuk and The Adventures of Superman's redheaded Noel Neill notwithstanding; in a way, especially if you're familiar with John Byrne's own Man of Steel and Superman comics thereafter, this Lois is something of a melding of the two. We get much more of Krypton, and of Russell Crowe's Jor-El in particular, than I'd anticipated — but precious little of The Daily Planet. And while it's not the kind of Krypton I would have written, I actually thought early on that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, young devotees of science fiction as they were when they brought Superman into being, would have loved seeing such an extrapolation of their humble creation on screen.

I can't know how many die-hard Superman fans, those with a real connection to the character or knowledge of his development through various eras in the comics, were in the theater beyond my own viewing party; there were at least a dozen T-shirts, though, and that's just among the people I could see looking for seats or getting up at the end. Vocal approval during the film seemed fairly abundant and there was applause when it was over. Of course conversation began almost immediately upon the movie's conclusion, revolving particularly around how the Clark Kent identity was treated, the Krypton sequences, and Superman's climactic battle with Zod. I heard some of the very protestations within my own group of the sort I mentioned earlier along the lines of comics fans being better off sticking with those stories and the animated adventures spearheaded by Bruce Timm if they wanted a familiar Superman, that Man of Steel was a movie rightly designed to appeal to the modern masses.

So I considered how friends of mine who knew little or nothing about Superman beyond what's percolated into popular consciousness might like it, concluding that while to me Man of Steel failed as a Superman movie it mostly worked as a tale of an alien in our midst, heavy on the science-fiction aspect of the superhero model, and that the general public wouldn't really care to make the distinction. I logged onto Facebook after getting home at 3:30 a.m. and gave the movie my thumbs-up. "I have a few quibbles," I wrote, "mostly small, and there was one bit I absolutely loathed, but overall I think it's a worthy, at times absolutely thrilling, Superman movie for today."

Almost immediately I regretted the use of "worthy". To my surprise, after reading various critics' reviews online the next day, very few people who cover the movies professionally found it "thrilling"; I expected some to find it too dark or brooding, or even to object to it on similar grounds that I as a lifelong admirer of the concept of Superman did, but I really thought that most would be on board — especially since Nolan's Dark Knights were highly praised.

Even before I surveyed those reviews, however, I awoke from a fitful few hours of
sleep to amend my earlier Facebook recommendation. I'd kept stirring groggily with John Williams' Superman fanfare in my head, Man of Steel on my mind, and a knot of nausea in my stomach. "I haven't read any reviews nor discussed the movie further outside whatever's happening in my subconscious," I wrote. "I'm not sure I've ever had such a visceral tidal change, what feels like a revelation almost, in my assessment of something. I feel sick with myself for rationalizing away contradictions to the very core of what Superman is. I need more sleep just for sanity's sake ... but I'm afraid this feeling of revulsion won't go away." The days since have given me more time to sort out the whys and wherefores of my mixed feelings, allowing me to grapple with both the revulsion and my original embrace of the film but only reinforcing that when the movie tweaked the Superman legend in ways it had room to bend, the results were kind-of fascinating, yet what it got wrong it got terribly, twistedly wrong.

I added one more post on Facebook later on Friday as a caution to parents looking
to take their children to Man of Steel. "I wouldn't bring kids under about 12," I wrote, "depending on the kid; it's rated PG-13 for a reason. There's some utterly unnecessary crude language early on that will only make most kids giggle, and there's another moment that I'd want my, or any, kids to be able to process with some maturity, ideally after other exposure to Superman."

The first review I read of Man of Steel was Mark Waid's, to which Forces of Geek mastermind Stefan Blitz linked in reply to my first Facebook post. Mark is almost certainly the biggest Superman fan I know, writer of different takes on the character himself in 1996's Kingdom Come and 2003-2004's Superman: Birthright. He's written movingly in the past about his reaction to the 1978 Superman and his feelings on Man of Steel echo my own. Any of you who've seen the movie or don't care about spoilers and want some more plot-specific insight into the aspects of the film that I just can't abide, you can check out Waid's thoughts as rough surrogates of mine for now.

Update: Forces of Geek's roundtable discussion featuring me and a dozen other writers is now online.

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