Warning: this review contains spoilers
Superman’s iconic “S” is one of the most recognizable symbols in pop culture. For decades, we have known it to stand for Superman, but in the new Man of Steel movie, we learn that it is not an English letter, but a Kryptonian symbol of hope. While this detail may seem trivial, or perhaps a novelty, it exemplifies the identity crisis that the Man of Steel suffers throughout the film.
Christopher Nolan, who directed the latest Dark Knight trilogy, comes back in The Man of Steel as a producer and co-writer. With suspicions of this movie setting up a future Justice League movie (in a similar fashion to Marvel’s The Avengers), I instantly became nervous how Superman’s character would be handled. The Dark Knight finds its roots primarily in Frank Miller’s pivotal comic, The Dark Knight Returns.
Miller’s treatment of Batman is in a world of corrupt politicians where the Dark Knight returns from exile as a vigilante crime fighter. The Dark Knight is older, grittier, and lives by the mantra that the ends justify the means. In the same comic, Superman remains loyal to the government’s bidding and dutifully follows orders to stop the Dark Knight from carrying out his ideology of vigilante justice. Miller’s comic is brilliant, for the Dark Knight and Superman cannot exist as friends and the two superheroes reach an impasse where they must fight one another.
The Man of Steel tries hard to distance itself from the name of Superman. He is simply known as Clark or the alien, but remains mostly nameless in most cases. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) at one point tries to name him as Superman, but her words are cut off by a sudden noise in the background.
The remolding of Superman is a noble pursuit, but he suffers from a lack of consistency in The Man of Steel. Throughout the flashback vignettes, we see Clark in his greatest moments. We see him resist a fight in a bar, where an unruly patron pours a drink over his head and then lands a punch on Clark’s rock-hard chest. Clark simply turns around, taking off his apron, and resisting the fight. This is what his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, had taught him to do. This is mostly to avoid attention, but it also has become a part of his moral fabric. Of course, the audience needs a little justice and off-screen, Clark makes a tangled mess of the man’s semi truck in the parking lot.
In a second sequence, Clark watches his father get swallowed up in a giant tornado as he saves women and children (and finally the family dog) from the twister’s path. This is an emotional moment, as Clark shows complete control of himself through the most traumatic of situations. He, as a young man, has learned complete control of his senses and emotions.
Clark as an adult is a different matter. In one sense, he stays to character and has a humorous exchange (using his x-ray vision) with General Swanwick and Dr. Emil Hamilton through the room’s one-way glass. He is forging a relationship with them and has every intent of integrating into human society. But when Krypton’s evildoers, General Zod and Faora, come to Earth, Clark is resilient in his aggression. The charm of Superman is lost. In Superman 2, Superman is cunning in his defeat of General Zod. In Man of Steel, the second half of the film is filled with utter destruction and violence. Clark is uncontrolled in his attack of Faora when she threatens the life of his adoptive mother and he pummels the Kryptonian with an onslaught of punches to the face as he steam-rolls her through buildings and other constructs.
This grittier, more violent Clark becomes confusing as the film progresses. There are so many action sequences that there is little time for character development. He and Lois Lane only exchange a handful of words with each other and at the film’s end, they share one of the most awkward kisses I have ever seen in Hollywood. The jarring editing of the film’s non-linear timeline only adds to the confusion. Only at the very end of The Man of Steel are we given any redemption as the recognizable Clark Kent (with a suit, glasses, and briefcase) makes his appearance at the Daily Planet.
While I am quite critical of The Man of Steel, I actually have high hopes for its sequel. Perhaps this is the hope that the Kryptonian symbol on Clark’s breastplate was referring to.