Who is Superman? Is he Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton? Or is he Clark Kent, the adopted child of Smallville farmers? Is it even a choice? Can’t he both? Superman has been dismissed as the “blue boy scout” by those who aren’t willing to take the time to consider his fascinating origin. He’s an immigrant from a destroyed planet, he’s the loneliest guy in the world, he’s an outsider, and he’s humanity’s shining beacon even though he’s not human. He’s the best of both worlds, and arguably belongs to neither. Zack Snyder‘s Man of Steel tries to get to the heart of this conflict, but ends up missing the heart of Superman. Almost everything that surrounds the character is amazing from the set pieces to the restructured origin story to the score to the acting to his path before putting on the cape. But inside the iconic suit, there is no Superman.
Krypton is about to die, but the world’s chief scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) has built a rocket for his son Kal-El to travel to Earth. The infant Kal-El is imbued with the planet’s codex, which contains all of Krypton’s knowledge, in particular the ability to craft the species’ eugenics. General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup and tries to get the codex, but is apprehended and sent into the phantom zone along with his co-conspirators. Krypton explodes, Kal-El reaches Earth safely, is found and raised as “Clark Kent” by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), but with the twist that Pa Kent wants Clark to hide his powers for fear the world will reject him. The adult Kal-El (Henry Cavill), eventually discovers his true origin, and then has to fight to protect the Earth when Zod discovers that the Last Son of Krypton—and therefore the codex—are on our planet.
The overarching narrative loosely follows the origin story we all know, but with many welcome twists. Clark’s journey is viewed through the prism of his two fathers rather than him going through the standard story beats of discovery, fortress of solitude, join Daily Planet as a cover, and then save the day as Superman. We’ve seen that so many times before. In this new adaptation, the beats are there, but given far more depth. Most importantly, we see two different belief systems. Jor-El believes that Kal-El should embrace his powers, and become a force of good for Earth to guide our planet to a better tomorrow. Jonathan believes Clark needs to keep his powers a secret in order to stay safe or else humanity will reject him.
But all of this conflict happens around the adult Kal-El/Clark Kent. He’s a wanderer and a super-powered good guy who can fight off super-powered bad guys. But the conflict that’s presented is two teachings rather than an inner conflict we see on screen. He’s given a purpose and the suit by Jor-El, but the uncertainty is with Clark. The suit doesn’t bring certitude. It doesn’t bring anything. There’s no nobility, no joy, no humility, nor any of the personality traits we associate with Superman. His guard is up so high that we can’t see any growth behind the emotional wall he’s constructed. A shy, concerned Superman is interesting to a point, but if this is an origin story, we need to see how Kal-El/Clark emotionally fights and reconciles the conflicting ideologies of his fathers.
Instead, the only fights we see are physical. I will say that these fights are spectacular. They are truly a wonder to behold, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen on screen. Snyder has taken an understanding of Superman’s physical abilities and attempted to test them in a way that’s convincing and exciting. Furthermore, Snyder does it without his trademark and tired speed-ramping. He’s fighting alongside the character rather than trying to eclipse him. When it comes to sheer action, these are the battles that Superman deserves (although the 3D adds absolutely nothing).
However, these battles lack any emotional weight and eventually become exhausting. They don’t tell us anything about Superman’s personality or development. That doesn’t mean the fight needs to take an intermission so that Kal-El can have an emotional breakthrough, but these set pieces are completely devoid of any character moments for our hero. For example, a fight along Smallville’s main street has plenty of smashing, and Superman trading blows with Zod’s compatriot Faora (Antje Traue), but it doesn’t tell us anything new about Superman, and it doesn’t develop his character. We never see a moment of Kal-El having even a semblance of a revelation that would bring him one step closer to the hero we know and love.
Even outside of the action scenes, the story struggles to push Superman forward. Zod is presented as a rejection of the choice Kal-El/Clark has to make. For Zod, who, like most Kryptonians, was genetically engineered into his profession (as opposed to Kal-El, who was the first natural birth in centuries), a new Krypton must be built on eugenics. Whether Kal-El chooses to reject his purpose or take a chance on humanity, we know he’s never going to consider Zod’s option of wiping out humanity to make room for Kryptonians. Kal-El may be rejected by humans, but he’ll never destroy them. Furthermore, despite Jonathan’s warning, we don’t really see a hint of humanity’s rejection. At most, we see paranoia from the military, but it’s the military, and it’s their job to be paranoid.
The American military doesn’t represent all of humanity, and Clark mostly interacts with individuals as opposed to a faceless mob. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is a fine human being, but there’s never any chance she’ll reject him. The story does a wonderful job of redefining her character to not only show her journalistic abilities (rather than just tell us she’s a good journalist), but also makes her a central figure in the plan to save Earth from Zod. There’s also the chemistry we’ve come to expect from Lois and Clark, and it develops in a way we’ve never seen before. Clark’s experience with humans is pretty common: mostly good people, but there are also some jerks. But the people from his childhood don’t know him as Superman, and we never learn what anyone outside of Lois and his parents think of him. Even in his big battle in Metropolis, there’s hardly anyone to look up and discern if the object above is a bird or a plane.
This inability to make the conflict hit at the heart of Superman as a person is so damned frustrating because everything that surrounds him on a technical and emotional level is beautiful. Crowe and Costner are deeply moving as two fathers who only want the best for their son. As the young Clark Kent, Dylan Sprayberry captures the fear, anger, and heartbreak of someone who knows he’s always going to be an outsider and struggle to find his place in the universe. The film cuts back and forth between Clark’s past and the present, which is absolutely necessary in order to prevent the film from getting bogged down in exposition, but it also shows how Clark has become guarded to he point of not having much a personality. He’s the blue boy scout but without the smile. The only time it peeks through is during his first flight, and we witness the pure joy and exhilaration on Superman’s face. It’s a wonderful moment, and it’s sadly absent from most of the picture.
Our enchantment comes from what’s happening on a technical level. Krypton is absolutely gorgeous, and as I watched what was happening, I had trouble imagining how Snyder could ever recapture the experience of complete and total awe once we were on dumb, ol’ Earth. Krypton is a sci-fi fantasy like no other. Liquid metal flows through the technology while the world collapses from above and below. Spaceships zoom through the air alongside winged beasts. And it’s not just eye-candy. All of it is anchored by the conflict between Jor-El and Zod.
The events on Krypton don’t overshadow the movie because its essence permeates the rest of the picture. We see it in Zod and his comrades; we see it in the design of Superman’s suit, which blends the details of Krypton with the bright colors of Earth. And most of all, we hear it in Hans Zimmer’s astoundingly gorgeous score. There is no competition between Zimmer’s work and what John Williams did with earlier Superman films because it’s not a matter of one being better than the other. They’re both perfectly suited to the story being told. Zimmer’s music brings us perfectly through Clark’s melancholy, Jonathan’s concerns, Jor-El’s hopes, and Superman’s brawls.
So much care and devotion has been brought to create the world of Superman, and Superman isn’t there. It’s a big, expensive party, and the guest of honor hasn’t shown up. Snyder’s take hasn’t corrupted or disrespected the character. This isn’t a careless adaptation as much as it’s a misguided one. Superman isn’t easy. Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer try to find the hero in his fathers, in a character caught between two worlds, in a “realistic” take about an alien hiding amongst humans, and as long as Superman isn’t on screen, they’ve succeeded on an emotional level. Trying to find depth outside of the hero is important, but Superman is supposed to be the realization of all the hard work that’s gone into his past. He’s supposed to be the product of hopes, fears, triumphs, and downfalls, but it only adds up to someone who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. When Lois asks Kal-El what the “S” emblem stands for, he responds that it’s not an “S”. He says on Krypton, it means “hope”. But in Man of Steel, it’s a symbol without a Superman.