Man of Steel: The Franchise of Tomorrow?

With one filmmaker hired to channel an old franchise and another hired to make it wholly unlike an aborted one, can Man of Steel fly?

In 1978, Superman made audiences believe a man could fly. In 2013, he made them think a man can leap, bound and destroy large swaths of an entire metropolitan area without any long-term repercussions. Yes, this weekend’s Man of Steel has proven to be a very different take on The Man of Tomorrow than the hopeful Norman Rockwell icon brought to life so lovingly in that Richard Donner picture. For that very reason, fans and critics have become hopelessly divided over the movie for the past few days. There are old curmudgeon moral authority gatekeepers of good taste who lament that Big Blue is no longer the boy scout next door in backwards-looking reviews, as there are more measured considerations like what the new film means for the character at large (you can read our own review of the movie HERE). However, clearly something has gone right for Warner Brothers this weekend, as the still rough estimates coming in are placing Man of Steel’s weekend gross at a $120 million and $132 million domestic total when the 7pm Thursday night screenings are counted. That makes it the biggest June opening of all time (surpassing Toy Story 3’s $110 million) and the second biggest hit of the summer. This film also has a glowing “A-“ CinemaScore among the general audience. In short, despite the gnashing of teeth that many fans have due to character changes, Man of Steel is doing what WB so earnestly needed: It is building a franchise and the greater DC Film Universe. Yet, the question remains: What exactly does that mean?
 Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder (300) and scripted by David Goyer from a story he co-wrote with Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy), is in many ways less a singular film than an exercise in creating a new multi-franchise universe in our post-Avengers world. Indeed, despite Goyer insisting during multiple interviews that there will be a new Batman in the forthcoming Justice League franchise undoubtedly set to grow from Man of Steel, there is little doubt in my mind the studio would be ecstatic linking Henry Cavill’s haunted Clark Kent to Christian Bale’s tortured Bruce Wayne. So much of Man of Steel feels of a cloth with that iconic trilogy that it seems to be the DC tone going forward. The major difference between the two franchises is that Nolan’s Batman movies felt like they were attempting to tell a specific story within the confines of big budget popcorn entertainment (at least on his first outing) while Man of Steel feels more like a reaction to the dynamics of current blockbusters. Clearly, Superman’s big screen return is meant to do for DC what 2008’s Iron Man did for Marvel films, all the way to the box office nirvana that is last summer’s The Avengers. Yet, even if I can see Goyer and (to a lesser extent) Nolan’s involvement in the film being meant to bring a little of that Dark Knight somber scope to the proceedings, one film clouds all line of vision in this rerouted Kal-El flight. To ensure that Superman will be saving the day for years and years to come, filmmakers seemed determined to make Man of Steel completely unlike Superman Returns (2006). And that overriding objective may very well define this franchise and possibly DC Films for the foreseeable future.
 Seven years ago, Kal-El was almost as poised for a franchise reboot as he appears to be right now. I am not going to regurgitate all the amusingly infamous false starts before 2006 (though I really wish that ‘90s Superman with Nick Cage in black leather fighting a giant spider and polar bears existed), but let’s just say fans were desperate for anything super. However, the problem remained that everyone loved Superman: The Movie (1978). So adored is the film that each filmmaker—whether Tim Burton, Kevin Smith or J.J. Abrams—who took a crack at a new Superman decided to do almost the exact opposite. Spray-on suits, Justin Timberlake and gay robots, oh my! Meanwhile every other filmmaker, including Sam Raimi on Spider-Man and Chris Nolan on Batman Begins, was taking notes from Donner and Christopher Reeve’s boilerplate. Thus, when Bryan Singer of The Usual Suspects and X-Men proposed doing a straight sequel to that classic and its 1980 follow-up, he may as well have been popping the question to the franchise. Overnight, he dropped out of doing an “X-Men 3” and was attempting to do a true “Superman 3” that got shelved by cost-cutting producers in favor of a Richard Pryor movie that happened to co-star flying Chris Reeve. Superman Returns would be as much Donner’s movie as Singer’s! And therein ultimately lay the grounded failure’s problem. Nearly every aspect of the film was reverse engineered in some way to work with or around Donner’s first two entries. Sure Singer brought his own art-deco style to The Daily Planet and villain hangouts, but it felt uneven with the basic New York look of the rest of Metropolis that was decreed by Donner’s take. While Singer wanted to explore an emotional Superman who lost Lois Lane and their son to another man, his dour tone constantly clashes with the peppy John Williams fanfare from yesteryear and a very green and untested lead in the red cape, cast primarily because he has a passing resemblance to Christopher Reeve. In a different context and direction, Brandon Routh may have been an excellent Clark Kent, but in Returns he just felt like a stand-in for the real thing. That pretty much goes for the rest of the movie, which boils down to a thematic remake of the 1978 original; Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) again is after a land scheme that involves destroying large chunks of the continental U.S. (but this time it was the East Coast!) and once more has stolen kryptonite to kill his archenemy. In a modern sense, there was almost no action in a film only a few years after the still beloved Doc Ock battles of Spider-Man 2. Worse, there was no heartbeat in this waxwork replica to a 30-year old original. It didn’t relaunch a new franchise, it merely ended an already dead one. A finale that joylessly turned Superman into an eternal loner who must give up the woman he loves and their son to another man with the creepy implication that he may still stalk watch them from a distance. Yuck. Thus when Superman 3.0 finally got up, up and away, everything about it feels like a response to that movie. It is the clean reboot 2006 failed to be. It begins on Krypton and ends with Clark Kent/Superman assuming all the classic tropes of his identity. It does not feature Lex Luthor, but it does offer us an army of evil Kryptonians, including the classic General Zod (Michael Shannon) to fight. Oh, do they fight. The studio may have brought in Nolan to produce and oversee the basic story, but there is no doubt this is a Zack Snyder movie. Snyder, a genuinely stunning visualist, has never made a movie that does not feature striking imagery. Still, there is a certain stilted artifice about his surreal worlds from the fields of Thermopylae in 300 or the ultimate cosplay CGI fantasies in Sucker Punch. Snyder is known for glossy pictures that are slicker than a 1990s music video, as well as extreme violence. Gloriously shot, beautifully rendered violence. Always to the extreme. His style is so, well, stylish, that it in many ways seems to be at odds with the Nolan superhero M.O. of grounding these mythic icons in a solemn verisimilitude. But my God, will Superman’s fights look EPIC! One filmmaker was hired to make it like a certain franchise and the other to make it entirely unlike a brief, aborted one. The tension between bringing these two different disciplines onto the same film is ultimately both one of Man of Steel’s greatest assets and its final monumental problem.
 Right from lift-off, we know that we are no longer in Richard Donner’s Kansas. The film reimagines Krypton from the icy, crystallized magnificence of all previous Superman movies into a truly alien world. Its harsh destruction seems inevitable given its gray and gold skylines, as well as volcanic rocks shaking underneath. Also gone with the elegant crystals, is a sense of mysticism or supernatural abilities to the characters. No, Krypton is now very militaristic in its fashion sense. Even the computers operate like fluid sheets of chainmail rolling off interfaces. This new Superman landscape is so violent that even the computers need armor! The House of El from which Kal is born into is likewise represented by a feudal symbol. The famed “S” and family crest means “hope,” but it feels like an ironic statement by Jor-El, considering how cynical this alien world is. Fortunately, Goyer’s screenplay introduces some new ideas about Kryptonian life and its influence on the man who would fly. Jor-El, wonderfully played by a calm and reassuring Russell Crowe, is friends with General Zod. In this universe, Zod is less of a megalomaniac who wants to rule Krypton than a patriot knight who has its best interests at heart. His insurrection that comes about five minutes in is actually caused by Jor-El’s dire warnings that the planet is going to die. In this film, Zod is more Burt Lancaster in Seven Days in May than Terrence Stamp. These are interesting concepts that unfortunately fall by the wayside quickly in favor of laser battles and Jor-El riding an Avatar-like dragon to escape Zod and steal the film’s ultimate MacGuffin for baby Kal’s trip. Undercutting interesting concepts with an overabundance of action could be the one sentence summation of the film. This is quickly displayed when the movie transitions from Krypton to Earth with a time-jump to Clark Kent as a bearded grown man ice fishing off the coast of Alaska. Nearly identical to the story structure of Batman Begins, the jump is used not to show how startling Bruce Wayne’s life has become but to get us right into the first Superman action set-piece of the film (he saves a burning oil rig crew). Remember how boring Superman Returns was? Well, look at this explosion! I am not necessarily criticizing the film. Truly, given the bad taste from the previous entry, everyone involved is smart to give audiences immediate gratification. And while this direct approach feels in conflict with the non-linear screenplay that nearly perfectly mirrors Batman Begins, it mostly works for the running time. Cavill is truly terrific in the role. I would not dare say he replaces Christopher Reeve, but he is the first actor in 35 years that lets us forget about that magical performance. And considering how many television actors beyond Routh have tried (and failed) to do that, this is the highest compliment I can pay Cavill. Whenever he flashes that perfectly paternal Midwestern smile, he simply is Superman onscreen. Period. But not your father (or newspaper critics’) Supes.
 Snyder, Goyer, Nolan, et. al have found the perfect tonal approach to the 21st century version of the character. As Goyer describes in his interview with Den of Geek, this is no longer a Kal-El who landed on Earth during the early or mid-20th century. He would have gotten here during the time of Reagan and grown up in the Clintonian years where Generation X-ers rebelled against the harsh realities (of the greatest economic prosperity and peacetime of the last 50 years….). Like almost any Millennial, he is lost and confused with what to do with his life. This is wonderfully realized in the conflicting advice he gets from two fathers. His Kryptonian dad, who blessedly shows up to imbue needed majesty throughout the film, is raising via space technology his son to be a God meant to show humanity the path toward true enlightenment. Hope and change circa 2013. Meanwhile, flashbacks to his Kansas Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) portrays very empathetic concerns that the government will take him away or attack him if he ever reveals his true identity and powers. Perhaps, Clark is just confused because both of his dads were Robin Hood and the one with a Californian accent was somehow better. That is still an inexplicability no one can rationalize. In any event, this tension between his human concerns and Kryptonian ideals makes for a far more fascinating personality than the always-surefooted alpha male of the Donnerverse. Beyond generational shifts, this also highlights a change in allegory. Donner fully embraced the idea of Superman being Jesus Christ. Jor-El, played with a Biblical authority by a bored-yet-still-captivating Marlon Brando, was literally a face in the clouds who sent his son to Earth to save us all. Kal’s Fortress of Solitude is his refuge and his wilderness before he can begin his Ministry in Metropolis at 30. Singer takes it even further in Returns when Lex “kills” him by having his men beat the passionate savior before baldy shanks him in the side with his Kryptonite Spear of Longinus. Other than the overt statement that Clark Kent is 33 in this film (the same age when Jesus is said to have been crucified) that is all downplayed for the original elements of the character. Created by the very Jewish Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman is the classic American immigrant story. Based on the lives of so many new Americans from the early 20th century, including Siegel’s Lithuanian parents and Shuster’s Dutch/Ukrainian folks, Superman really is the ultimate tall tale of an immigrant making good in the Land of the Free. Unlike Superman Returns, which even left out the “American way” part of the old motto in favor of “all that stuff,” Man of Steel does not shy away from this classic meaning. Superman even tells a U.S. general, “I grew up in Kansas, that is about as American as it gets.” But this Superman’s Kansas is not full of quaint retro diners and happy families…well it is, but those are the endless arrays of IHOP and 7/11 product placements. No, this is the 21st century one full of God fearing folk who see Clark Kent as a gift from the Almighty, but have everyday concerns. The city folk are also updated. In the most surprising and welcomed change to the entire mythology is Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. There is no love triangle meet-cute here where she recites a poem in mid-flight while proving she is the worst investigative journalist in the world by being thrown off by a pair of glasses. Nope, Lois snoops out Clark Kent is Superman in less than an hour and is more of his confidant than damsel in distress (though she still has a predisposition of falling from high places far too frequently). In a 21st century world full of journalists professionally dying by the thousands, the top news hound of a New York Times proxy being able to put the pieces together instantly is a bold choice by Goyer and Nolan that leaves fascinating story possibilities for next time. I say next time, because as great as Adams is in the role, she is regulated in the third act to fiddling with a secondary MacGuffin while Superman punches things. Everything.
 Ultimately, Man of Steel feels like WB’s thesis for their impending cinematic universe. A Nolan-ized one that is decidedly a mature roar at the supposed kiddie and cookie-cutter tone of Marvel’s movies. However, this is not a Nolan film and his big ideas that I have just been praising get buried under other franchise necessities. Namely an unending and relentless sense of pounding action. At about the 100-minute mark, Man of Steel quits being about Clark Kent struggling with his identity and powers. Suddenly, the movie radically transforms into 45 minutes of senseless violence. Clearly meant to be more resonant and dangerous than the New York romp in The Avengers, this sequence is filled with the self-important undertones like the Nolan Bat-trilogy. However, those movies’ 9/11 allegories never were applied to beings with the power of gods. When Superman saves Metropolis When Superman saves the crumbled ruins of what was once Metropolis from Zod, it is a hollow and empty victory. Wanting to get more serious than Spider-Man 2 is commendable, but Zod’s total devastation of first Smallville and then Metropolis make Bane’s five-month hostaging of Gotham appear to be an everyday urban inconvenience, like traffic, in comparison. There is no Metropolis left when the fight is over. There is only death. Nearly an hour of Superman, Zod and Faora (Antje Traue) hitting each other is the exact opposite of exhilarating or thrilling. It is only numbing and tiring when Zod or his machines cause literally the 20th skyscraper to collapse and Superman shrugs as another car is thrown through a building causing its foundations to shatter. It is visually stunning, but like Snyder’s 300, Sucker Punch and the most tonally deaf moments in Watchmen, there is a complete lack of pacing to the violence or a sense of joy, horror…anything. It is just destruction wrought as pornography because it looks cool and fans want action. Be careful what you wish for.
 The senselessness of its ending comes with the only moment I feel obligated to write the word SPOILER before: Superman kills Zod. Snaps his neck clean when Zod tries to heat-ray a family in Grand Central to death because Superman would not go along with the plan to turn Earth into New Krypton. It was in this moment that I realized Snyder and company were going for an ending similar to The Dark Knight. In that film, Batman is forced to reluctantly murder Two-Face. He feels guilty for Harvey Dent’s insanity and doesn’t want to do it, but Jim Gordon’s son may die otherwise. It is a powerful moment that goes against decades of comic books, but is earned by 2.5 hours of storytelling building up how Batman will never kill, not even the vile Joker who murdered the love of his life. The consequence to this action is he must go on the run for eight years. This pointless act of death in Man of Steel is the movie in a nutshell. It is meant to be a big and dramatic moment where Superman cries for killing the last other Kryptonian and thus breaking his one rule. Except, it is never established that he had the one rule. It is expected of the audience to know Superman does not kill to make the moment powerful. But on its own, it is just stark and grim with an unearned sense of pathos. Kind of like the last hour of the movie. END SPOILERS. The scene is the product of a producer and writer wanting to dig into the psychology and mythology of an American icon in a complex and nuanced way and a director (or studio) wanting to create the biggest eye candy smackdown of the summer after all the complaints from a 2006 funeral dirge. Ironically, it turns this movie into something almost as dreary and depressing as that film it is trying so hard to erase. Which brings us back to the franchise. Man of Steel has successfully rebranded the character for modern audiences. Snyder and Goyer are already hinting at ideas for a Man of Steel 2 while rumors spin that both are attached to a Justice League film (nothing is confirmed).