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The puritanical undertones beneath the mess of 'Man of Steel'

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

When the early trailers for Zach Snyder’s new Superman movie, Man of Steel, premiered last year, it appeared that Warner Brothers was looking to piggyback on the success of its recent Batman franchise, The Dark Knight Trilogy. Christopher Nolan’s films had been a huge success (despite their flaws), and the first glimpses of Man of Steel looked similarly serious and weighty. Nolan co-wrote and co-produced this more recent film.

Now the movie has arrived, and it is certainly serious, although it has replaced weightiness with bulk. Man of Steel is overlong and overproduced, with too many action scenes and too little cohesion. It’s also brimming with achingly bad dialogue, characters who disappear with unexplained suddenness, and ugly visuals. By contrast, the Nolan films seem light and breezy. But the strangest aspect of Man of Steel is its quasi-religious undertones: Not only is Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El presented as a Jesus-like figure, but the movie is stuffed with moral questions about salvation.

The film begins on the planet Krypton, where Superman’s scientist father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) faces off against a rebellious General Zod (Michael Shannon, looking confused and out of place), who has had enough with the enfeebled Kryptonian democratic-ish government. Zod specifically expresses frustration with the “endless debates” of Krypton’s legislators, but rather than, say, wrangling votes to end filibusters, he kills the leader of the senate. Zod is sent away to some sort of space prison, but when Krypton is destroyed soon after (Kal-El has already been sent to Earth for safekeeping), Zod becomes, for whatever reason, free from captivity and able to wreak inter-planetary trouble.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Kal-El is raised by humble farmer Kevin Costner. The boy is told, “You have another father too,” which is the first echo of something numinous, but in the meantime we watch him rescue his classmates from a school bus that goes off a bridge and listen to Costner lecture him about a responsibility to humanity. (The script tends to go back-and-forth about whether Superman is a human being). My notes say that it is Costner who gravely intones, “You will change our notion of what it means to be human,” but it very well could have been Crowe. The boy is thus cursed with two of the most pompous, didactic fathers imaginable, and for this reason—rather than his inability to “fit in”—he summons our sympathy. (Others have made impressive lists of the character’s similarities to Jesus: He has superpowers, his dad sent him to save humanity, he has a beard, etc.)

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Henry Cavill as Clark Kent

Clark spends the rest of the first hour of the movie embarrassing a bully in a restaurant and saving oil workers from a nasty fire. (His shirt, conveniently, burns off, revealing what fine shape he is in; but as with Bruce Banner, whose shorts somehow expand when he becomes The Hulk, the clothing beneath his waist survives unscathed.) Clark also travels somewhere very cold, for reasons I couldn’t decipher, where he saves the life of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the hard-as-nails, Pulitzer Prize–winning Daily Planet reporter who senses there is something off about our hero. Adams is a good actress, but she is saddled here with an absurd character who downs scotch and mouths silly lines such as “I get writer’s block if I am not wearing a flak jacket.” It reminds me of the days when the Bond films tried to balance their blatant sexism with unintentionally comic attempts to make the “girls” seem tough.

Pretty soon, Zod lands on Earth, and the second half of the film devolves into tedious big action scenes. The only amusement to be had comes from the Matrix-like tendency of the quasi-immortal characters to engage in pointless hand-to-hand combat and the constant attacks waged by the U.S. military on those same characters—attacks not unlike those in the old Superman show from the ’50s, where the clumsy villain would fire a pistol at Superman, watch the bullets bounce off his chest, and then, as a last gasp, throw the gun at him. But all the action is directed with the same frenetic energy by Snyder, who can’t keep his camera still (it jiggles up and down even when merely following someone walking) and adds portentous sounds effects to everything (a door closes with a riotous crash). Hans Zimmer’s overbearing score doesn’t help.

As for the rest of the movie, it is notable only for its joylessness. Henry Cavill, who plays Clark, makes Christian Bale look like Leslie Nielsen, although this is mostly the fault of the script. The dialogue is rife with “thoughtful” pauses, just to make sure the viewer understands how important everything is.

The film is all the more disappointing for avoiding some exploration of the relationship between Superman and us Earthlings. In most superhero flicks—from The Dark Knight to Spiderman—the superhero saves the day, only to be resented by the people he has saved. The metropolis would have been wiped off the face of Earth were it not for Spiderman, or whomever, and yet the citizens—usually led by a grumpy news editor—resent their protector. (Nolan took this to especially absurd extremes.)

In the strange world of this film, however, it is not that we resent Superman—we hardly know him. Rather, the question is whether we are morally fit for our savior. Costner’s character repeatedly tells his son that when the world is “ready” he must announce his presence and save us from evil or extinction. But in early scenes, for whatever reason, the world is too immature. The undercurrent is puritanical: The world doesn’t deserve to be saved until it has met some unstated level of goodness. (Oddly, in the film’s one scene where Clark really does seem determined, Costner seems disappointed, and asks him what is wrong with being a simple farmer.)

Clark eventually steps forward—although not really by choice—and is told by a priest, “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith.” (Get it? “Leap” of faith.) Alas, it is Superman’s actual leaps where the movie really suffers. Both Nolan’s Batman films and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies managed to inject real joy into the simple swinging or soaring of their heroes. Here, however, there is very little pleasure to be had, and the special effects themselves are ugly: Each shot looks coated in dust.

Will audiences buy it? I assume so, but the lack of humor may rankle viewers. (People were pretty quiet at the screening I attended.) “They will join you in the sun,” Superman is told of the masses, in one of many, many silly lines. Let’s hope the world’s masses decline to lobby for a new franchise.