“You’re scared of me because you don’t control me. You can’t, and you never will. But that doesn’t make me your enemy,” Superman (Henry Cavill), tells military officials and researchers halfway through Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. It’s an argument that gets at the difference between the superheroes in the Marvel universe, who have been tidily corralled under the influence of S.H.I.E.L.D., and correspondingly, into a franchise system that alternates between letting them out to play and bringing them together in a single blockbuster when the market and the moment demand it, and the more fragmented cinematic superhero universe that DC hopes to render more artistically and commercially coherent starting with this picture. But it’s also an argument for what could be DC’s strength, and is often Man of Steel‘s. While Marvel’s movies are all about how superheroism and its consequences affect superheroes themselves, Man Of Steel at its heart is a story about what will happen to humans and aliens alike when we each find out we’re not alone, and that we’re going to have to live with each other.
In Snyder’s telling, with a screenplay by David Goyer and story contributions by Christopher Nolan, who also produced the movie, the instability of the physical planet of Krypton after unwise mining of the core for energy has two consequences. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) decide to have a biological child, rather than one born through Krypton’s population-control inspired genetic engineering program, which produces workers suited to various Kryptonian professional slots. And General Zod (Michael Shannon) decides to stage a coup, convinced that Krypton’s deadlocked legislature will never make a decision in time to save his species. Aliens, they’re just like us—at least when it comes to fertility problems and partisan gridlock! The differences between Jor-El and Zod’s approaches to Kryptonian sustainability intensify after the latter kills the former and gets chucked in the Phantom Zone for it. Once Zod is free, and once Jor-El’s son, Kal, has grown to manhood in the care of a human couple named the Kents (an extremely strong Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) deep in the heart of Kansas, Zod wants to rebuild Krypton on the structure of Earth, a rare viable planet, while Kal, now Clark, finds that he’d prefer not to kill off the humans he’s grown up around in order to replace them with an essentially extinct civilization.
After the movie’s opening sequence on Krypton, rather than proceeding chronologically on earth, Man Of Steel slides back and forth between the present, in which Clark Kent works on an Alaskan fishing boat and at a bar, moving on from jobs after each intervention to save someone against the odds, and his childhood in Kansas, when his superpowers manifested as autism-like symptoms, and he was periodically bullied for his strangeness. As Clark finds himself drawn to a more active role in the world, he’s also pulled between the vision of both of his fathers, Jor-El, who believed he would be not just welcomed on earth but worshipped, and Jonathan Kent, who adores his boy and is terrified for him, ultimately making a terrible sacrifice to preserve the secret of his son’s difference. The flawed, human scale of that conflict is genuinely touching, and not without allusion to–but not heavy-handed about–the prospect of growing up gay in a less-than-cosmopolitan area. Superman, the creation of two young American Jews, isn’t just an immigrant or an alien anymore: he represents a much wider array of fears and hopes about what America could give us, and what it could take away.
Man of Steel is also the rare movie, superhero or otherwise, that remembers that it isn’t only technology and design that determine whether what we’re seeing on screen looks like the future. In an appearance at the Motion Picture Association of America in May, Geena Davis cited research that suggests that women make up just 17 percent of the people in crowd scenes in family films, but Snyder’s created a world that’s full of them, both in crowd shots, and in position of leadership—often working with people of color. This is a world where Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) are both African-American men, and where they both work closely with female deputies, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Jenny (Rebecca Buller) at the paper, and Major Carrie Farris (Christina Wren), along with a number of female intelligence analysts, in the military. The bridge between humans and residents of other worlds may be a hunky white dude who’s the same age as Jesus, but the humans he’s reaching out to aren’t the same old middle-aged white guys.
Chief among them is Lois, oddly maligned by Salon critic Andrew O’Heir as “perhaps the most boring of all boring female characters in the boy-centric world of comic books,” and played with bourbon-drinking briskness by Amy Adams. A journalist who claims “I get writers’ block if I’m not wearing a flack jacket,” and who, on the location of an Army excavation in the Arctic tells Col. Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) “If we’re done measuring dicks, can you have your people show me what you found?” eyes sparkling when he sticks her in primitive accommodations to test her, Lois is a tremendously refreshing break from pop culture’s present pack of scheming, slutty girl reporters, and part of what makes Man Of Steel perhaps the most unabashedly feminist superhero picture of the current era. This is a movie where women remain fully clothed, they scream when rational, and at every step of the way, they have important roles to play in the events at hand, whether as heroines or villainesses like Zod’s deliciously tough henchwoman Faora (Antje Traue). After following Clark into a vessel from Krypton that’s inspired that military mission, then finding her story on the mission killed by Perry because of physical trauma she sustained while reporting rendered her account less than credible, it’s a pleasure to see Lois regroup, tracking down rumors that ultimately lead her to the Kent farm, and building what’s at first a strong source relationship with Superman himself. “Even if I did, I wouldn’t say,” Lois tells Perry when, after a mysterious craft demands that Clark Kent be turned over, her editor asks her if she knows where Superman is. “The whole world is being threatened here!” Perry blusters at her, but Lois is willing to be taken into custody to protect him, a more admirable Judy Miller. And even when she’s not reporting, she’s not out of the action, playing a key part in the fight to stop Zod.
That fight itself is a nice match for Snyder’s taste for grand-scale action choreography: it makes sense that clashes between beings like Superman, Zod, and Faora, operating at the top of their capabilities, would be at the edge of human comprehension, and the duels between them are fast and physically nasty. But there are smart pauses built into the sequences to let audiences catch up, as when Faora regards a close-range machine-gun barrage with amused contempt, or when Zod and Superman fling each other about with such abandon that Superman has to pause in mid-air to get a sense of where his antagonist might have landed. I don’t disagree with Kyle Buchanan at Vulture that Man of Steel‘s very much in keeping with the rather unpleasant blockbuster trend of inflicting wanton destruction for the aesthetic pleasure of watching buildings fall and invoking September 11 panic reflexes. But at the film’s conclusion, there’s a real and powerful sense of Superman stretched beyond his physical and moral capacities that, if paired with an exploration of the cost of Zod’s visit to Metropolis, could provide a fine setup for the sequel to Man of Steel that’s already been greenlit.
There’s no question that Man Of Steel is, with a few lovely exceptions, a darker film in the current superhero tradition, rather than a purely cornfed celebration of truth, justice, and the American way. But the American way is a difficult thing to embrace wholeheartedly these days. And Superman films have never been without darkness, or without caprice, whether Superman is literally turning back time to save the woman that he loves, or unwisely abdicating his abilities to be with her. Having the powers of a god is an awful lot of responsibility, and it doesn’t mean that you never get to face a no-win scenario, or that you never make a wrong decision on faulty assumptions. Man of Steel recognizes that, and its young superhero has the potential to reverse the polarity of his genre in a way that accords with his mantra. While men like Iron Man and Batman have ventured into the void or the pit and stayed in darkness until they abandoned their mantles, Superman is going to have to find a way to use his powers that he can live with. And nothing’s more American in this year of drone debates and exposed evesdropping than that very quest.