I’ll admit it: I rarely rewatch a movie when it arrives on Blu-ray. Sure, months or years later, I’ll watch something I enjoyed to see if it holds up, but my memory, my first take, is usually sufficient. But Man of Steel was sufficiently powerful, and left me with enough questions, that I had to see it again. To my surprise, it proved even more gripping the second time around.
In the re-visioning of the famous exchange between Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and his wife at the beginning of Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie, we find that director Zach Snyder isn’t terribly interested in shaking up our expectations (yet). We get some of the mythological and Christological elements, where Jor-El believes that his son, Kal-El AKA Clark Kent AKA Superman will “be a god to them,” that is the people of Earth. But we’re quickly introduced to the baptism by fire of Clark’s coming out party when he hauls the school bus out of the river, and we find that Clark’s father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner), isn’t is as convinced of the divinity involved.
Jonathan tells the teenage Clark that “When you find out what you can do, it’ll change everything. Our beliefs, our notions, what it means to be human. Everything.” He proceeds to tell Clark the hard truth that people are afraid of what they can’t understand, and when Clark worries that “God did this to me,” Jonathan reveals the ship that brought Clark to the Kents as a baby. But Jonathan continues to claim Clark as his son, even while acknowledging that another father (Clark’s biological one) sent him to Earth for a purpose, and it’s up to Clark to figure out what it is.
We see soon that Clark is a pacifist. He could easily maul the trucker to the point of oblivion (he takes out his frustration elsewhere), but the earmarks of peaceful coexistence with the human race, that will become more important later, are hinted at earlier. Overall, the two themes of greatest importance rolling through the film seem to be a) the responsibility of Kal-El to figure out who he is and b) the way that power is used for good or abused. He’s both helped and hindered in the first by his two fathers: Jonathan doesn’t want him to expose himself for fear of being ostracized (and Kent puts his life on the line to defend his beliefs), while Jor-El is closer to Zod in his understanding of the place that a powerful person has in the global hierarchy (even if he thinks it should be used for good).
Michael Shannon’s Zod is a morally complex alien being, who is still the blackest of souls but not someone we can dismiss as amoral or sadistic. He is in fact an insurrectionist, a terrorist on Earth, who wants to protect the things of Krypton, first while living on Krypton and later while struggling with Clark/Superman. He’s still something like a Neo Nazi, determined he needs to keep the bloodline pure, but he’s not the devoid-of-morality monster that he was understood to be in the Donner versions or comic books. He does believe that the power of his physical nature grants him “divine right” to make decisions, that “might makes right.” He’s determined to make his own decisions for what’s best from his point of view, and the fact that Superman is the only one who can stand against him physically means that no one else can change his mind.
Still, in a world where our superhero movies seem more and more determined by the complexity of the villain, this movie is about Kal-El and the individual who he will become. Burgeoning out from the hologram conversation he has early on with his birth father, he learns that the symbol of the house of El means hope: “the potential in every person to be a force for good.” It’s this motto that drives him to be moralistic in his own actions and to inspire others. It’s tied to Kal-El’s belief that the people of Earth will rise to meet him “in the sun,” to “accomplish wonders” through his leadership. Sure, Zod’s comparison to Clark shows a depth of evil that makes Superman brighter, but there’s still development in Cavill’s portrayal that gives the film its grit and staying power.
While I wasn’t a huge fan of 300 or Suckerpunch, Snyder’s work was visually stunning, and the budget he was allowed for Man of Steel has been spent on casting and making this the visually spectacular film that a flick about Superman should be. The scene where the bus plunges into the river (in slow motion) and then rises thanks to you-kn0w-who, plus the battle sequences, the Fortress of Solitude, frankly, all of it, make this one of the most amazing flicks I’ve seen experienced in awhile. Sure, it’s not the deepest thing to come out this year (hello, 12 Years a Slave) but it is wildly entertaining, and a delight to watch.
And again, I’m struck by the fact that the visually-obsessed director still manages to work David Goyer’s screenplay in a way that provides great depth, in addition to the ways I’ve already mentioned. Superman/Kal-El’s interaction with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is a satisfying reboot of the relationship between the alien superhero and the intrepid reporter; the commentary of the various public officials (whether it’s Lawrence Fishburne’s Editor Perry White, Christopher Meloni’s military man, or the talking heads on the news) shows us what it might look like if this really happened. And of course, from my perspective, that only adds to the “what if Jesus came back like that?” moments that are already permeating the film (thank you, Colin Raye).
But, wow, those peacemaking elements run deep (“what kind of man do you want to be, Clark? Because whoever he is, good or bad, he’s going to have the power to change the world.”) And the example of Clark/Kal-El’s decision-making has life-altering implications for him AND for others (see: Pete). All of this only makes the decision that Kal-El ultimately makes, by performing the one thing that only he could do, and taking it upon himself… Well, that just makes Snyder’s Superman even more like the Christian Messiah. He literally bears the sins of two worlds on his shoulders, knowing that he will carry the weight of that forever.
And, like any great movie, it forces us to ask what we’ve done with the opportunities, powers, and skills that we’ve been given. We’re forced to ask, “are we representing what is good and true and right well? Have we learned from our own lives and from the teaching of our parents and leaders?” (Some will say, “no! I hope not.”) At the end of the day, we all have choices to make and situations that will test us beyond the bounds of anything we’ve known before. The way we live our lives before we get there will help us understand how we should respond when we find ourselves under attack. We’d best be ready.