In Man of Steel, the ghost of Jor-El appears and disappears and appears again while helping Lois Lane escape from a spaceship. Russell Crowe, stumbling into every shot, seems to be channeling Javert from Les Miserables. If the Kryptonian Council had seen this unintentionally hilarious scene, maybe it would’ve acted to save the movie.
Director Zack Snyder had good intentions. He has said that Man of Steel would “not be based on a comic book in particular,” a smart instinct, and mostly executed—he’s cobbled together his story from an exhaustive canon. But a good chunk of his inspiration comes from the 2010 graphic novel Superman: Earth One. Here, our hero, like Earth One’s hero, has a predisposition to wearing hoodies (before he wears the cape), and his eyes glow red when he’s angry. Thankfully, neither iteration relies on lazy storylines involving kryptonite or Lex Luthor (at least not yet).
And as in all the comic books, there’s a terrific amount of supersized action in the new movie. Like any 11-year-old, we just want to see Superman beat stuff up and look cool while doing it, and Synder delivers just that, leaving our senses battered. In a fun way.
So, with so much divine inspiration, why doesn’t this film soar? Partly because Snyder veers from the source material, and partly because—in movies as in comic books—the words matter, too.
When they were going crazy in CGI-ville, Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan certainly tried to pump up the franchise with some of the gravitas of Batman’s Dark Knight. Their Superman, played by Brit Henry Cavill, is more brooding than bumbling, a far cry from Christopher Reeve. He spends a lot of screen time immaculately groomed, posing like Christ, and pondering why he’s alone in the universe.
Much of this iteration of the Man of Steel borrows from the comic books for relevance. Like the reimagining of the character in The New 52 series, he has ditched the red underwear and donned a suit of Kryptonian armor. Likewise, in comic books as in the film, we see Clark Kent’s life in Smallville through speeches from the always-wise Papa Kent—played by Kevin Costner but inspired by John Schneider of the TV show Smallville. In an inexplicable scene in the film, Clark, heeding his father’s advice not to use his powers in public, watches his father get sucked up by a tornado. No wonder he has daddy issues.
But Man of Steel isn’t quite exactly the same as Earth One. In Earth One, a revenge-thirsty alien named Tyrell comes to Earth to kill the last son of Krypton. In Man of Steel, that’s General Zod’s mission. While Superman II’s bad guys’ fashion sense screamed Euro-club-meets-Riverdance, Michael Shannon’s Zod seems to be hosting a Robocop convention.
Some panels are translated directly to screen Tyrell and Zod go on television to demand that Superman reveal himself (Zod hijacked a news broadcast in Superman II as well), a monstrous spaceship hovers amongst the skyscrapers in Metropolis, and Superman is weighed down by a bright beam from the ship in the final battle.
So what got lost in translation? Let’s zoom in on a scene.
After an hour-long barrage of special effects where the Man of Steel tosses tons of steel like beach volleyballs, the most chilling scene in the film is when Superman snaps Zod’s neck. This isn’t the first time the hero’s had to kill—in 1988’s Superman Vol. 2 #22, he executes the rogue general and his henchmen using kryptonite.
But this scene, in this movie, matters. It’s a refreshing moment without CGI. Skyscrapers have fallen and killed thousands, the amount of destruction is numbing. Here, one person is murdered and it’s meaningful.
If only Snyder had managed to channel the same sense of humanity elsewhere in his film.
This Superman has the rare ability of making us look back fondly on 2006’s nostalgic Superman Returns—a film that elicited a nearly universal “meh.” Not once in Snyder’s film is there a moment like this, when Superman, having impregnated Lois and then disappeared for five years, shows up for an awkward conversation.
Oddly enough, with comparisons like that, this movie just might turn out be the film franchise’s savior.