There are two halves of Superman’s origin story.
The first is simple, relatively earthly. Clark Kent, raised by Jonathan and Martha, struggles with the notion that he’s different. You know the refrain: “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive.” Clark yearns to be normal, but comes to accept that he is not. This is the first act of every superhero movie, really. The next part usually features the protagonist harnessing their abilities. In contrast however, Superman’s mythology demands something different, and arguably more compelling. Because his powers are overwhelming, the second act struggle is not physical but philosophical. Superman seeks his place. He must to learn to guide rather than interfere.
The second half involves an identity crisis of another sort, one that has little to do with the superhero archetype. The relevant identity is neither Clark nor Superman, but Kal-El, a baby rocketed from a dying planet. He is unaware of this as a child, of course, and even remains in the dark into adulthood. But once Clark discovers the truth about his birth, everything he knows is thrown into question. Kal-El’s notion of himself is challenged. His relationship with the Kents is altered. And his duality takes shape. He has grown up among us, but he is not us. Kal-El is the last son of Krypton.
Man of Steel attempts to deal with both halves of the Superman origin, but it shortchanges the first and strips the second of its complexity. It primarily focuses on the latter: Jor-El (Russell Crowe) introduces the idea that Kal-El can be a “bridge” between the Kryptonians and mankind. In fact, the movie sets up the duality theme quite strongly. During an extended – and breathtaking – opening sequence on Krypton, we find Jor-El and Zod (Michael Shannon) on opposite sides of an attempted coup, centering on a debate about the direction of their civilization and the value of life. It imbues Kal-El’s existence with meaning from its start. But the nuances of this are never fleshed out.
David Goyer’s script draws a straight path from Jor-El versus Zod to Kal-El versus Zod. It even takes great pains to preserve Jor-El’s presence posthumously to guide the audience, in at times awkward and rather silly fashion. Anyway, after the infant rockets to our world in the prologue, the movie skips to Clark (Henry Cavill) as an adult, at 33 years of age. A Kryptonian scout ship is discovered on our planet. Its activation draws the attention of the freed Zod, who comes to restore the glory of his civilization. But he seeks solely to colonize Earth. The existential debate is thus reduced to black and white; the central conflict stripped in the process of transfer from Jor-El to Kal-El. Superman’s Kryptonian identity is rendered irrelevant.
The simplification of Superman’s duality would be a less glaring flaw if Man of Steel weren’t completely structured around it and the interrelated Jor-El / Zod conflict. By preferencing the Krypton story, the script necessarily relegates the superhero origin story to the background. As Clark makes his way to the scout ship that will contain the secrets of his identity, he has these short flashbacks, vignettes about his time in Kansas and beyond. These are the best parts of the movie. As with the scene on Krypton, they tackle questions posed by both halves of the origin story. They are beautifully written and acted (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are standouts in a stellar cast). But the sum of them is inadequate. Worse, there is an inherent tension between them and the rest of the movie.
In these flashbacks, Jonathan challenges his son. You have another father out there, he says. Find your purpose. But his world is not ready for Clark, and may never be. Let them die? “Maybe.” That caution is something he sacrifices his life to impart. Jor-El, meanwhile, sees the other path. Kal is the future. Kal is hope. “You can save all of them.” Yet, the internal and external conflicts over Clark’s identity are introduced only in the past, and never fully explored in the present. Because of the genocidal nature of Zod’s plan, the world quickly embraces Superman. Because of the immediate character of the threat, Clark never explores what it means to be Superman. Character development doesn’t just take a backseat to the plot, but is contradicted by it.
It is telling that hologram Jor-El simply grants Clark the Superman costume. “Here,” the film tells the audience, “he is officially Superman.” It is anti-climactic. The transformation is a plot device, necessitated by Zod’s impending presence. All the complications of that change are brushed aside. The idea that Superman cannot save everyone is reduced to ‘honing his skills,’ encapsulated in a pithy exchange about sensory overload during a fistfight with Zod. The duality of Superman’s identity gives way to an easy choice free of ideology, between a group of psychopaths and the human race they are trying to exterminate.* The rich philosophical and existential ideas introduced in the scenes on Krypton and in Kansas become tremendously diluted.
*Superman as essentially human is underlined by the fact that he cannot handle the atmosphere on Kryptonian spacecrafts.
Man of Steel is a noble effort to reconcile a host of foundational Superman stories. Clark struggles to be Superman. Superman struggles to be human. Kal-El represents the last hope of Krypton. Zack Snyder twists the mythology slightly here and there, but change in itself is not the problem.* Instead, the arcs simply don’t mesh. The editing exacerbates the incompatibility; the pacing suffers. Ultimately, the movie feels like a hodge-podge of half-baked ideas. The action sequences are awe-inspiring, but I would have happily sacrificed half of them for more about who Superman is and what he represents. When he stands with humanity against Zod, it should have more impact than it does. Superman should be more than just another hero. Man of Steel is a good movie. But it almost was so much more.**
*The results are mixed. As mentioned, Jor-El imparting the costume upon Clark is problematic. However, the character of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets a boost, at least for most of the movie. The romance that surfaces later is forced, if understandably so.
**IHOP. Also, Nikon.