The much anticipated Superman reboot is here, and as well as being much anticipated, I suspect it will be much debated. This version of the strange visitor from another world is likely to provoke enthusiasm from many but disappointment from others. It looks to be a huge winner in the summer box office race, but whether it will command the respect that the Christopher Nolan Batman reboot managed to get is questionable. I come from a perspective far outside of the comics. My world of Superman experience is limited to the 40s era cartoons, the 50’s era television show, the 70s era movies, and the early nineties TV adaption. I have no axes to grind based on Smallville or from the many variations of Superman that have apparently populated the comic book universe. I will freely state that my bias is strongly toward the version embodied by the late Christopher Reeve, and therefore my assessment of this film is likely to involve measurement by that standard.
Let me start with those things that I liked about this movie: Russel Crowe, Kevin Costner, and Diane Lane. Just about every scene they were in was worth the price of admission. Crowe is the hopeful scientist father that plans to save his son and the legacy of Krypton by sending his child to Earth. He is poet, warrior and visionary to the family he is trying to save. The opening section on Krypton features the kinds of fantasy elements that ought to make anyone with imagination drool. There is technology that morphs substances into objects to interact through, there is a complex genetic system that both strengthens and weakens the Kryptonians at the same time. A military coup is frustrated while the planet comes crashing down. Crowe is a super hero himself in the opening scenes of the movie. He steals vital information, he daringly stands up to his oppressors, and he has a solid throwdown with the General who is trying to save Krypton by means of conquest rather than peace and science. We don’t get the discovery of young Kal-el by Johnathan and Martha Kent, but we do get to see the legacy that they try to create for their adopted son. Ma Kent played by Diane Lane seems to have the greatest influence on Clark at a young age, but Costner’s Johnathan Kent is the moral center of the film. He trains Clark to control his impulses, choose his battles and learn to understand good from evil. Costner is terrific as the kind of thoughtful and decent man that was exactly right for Kal-el to model himself after here on Earth. It may be the basic nature of the character, but Glen Ford was one of my favorite things about the 1978 Superman, and Costner lives up to that memory very well. His greatest moment involves saving the dog and his adopted son at the same moment. It is a moment undermined by the story structure.
The story of Clark’s development is actually told through a series of flashbacks rather than in a linear narrative. This allows that part of the story to intrude at key moments in the film. We can understand a choice that gets made by a reference to an earlier experience. I understand that it is a creative story telling technique, but I think it undermines the emotional arc of the character.This is the beginning of the problems I had with the movie. The character of Clark Kent is introduced in intermittent sequences and just when we begin to relate to him, boom we’re in another part of the story. Jor-el returns in electronic visual form at several points in the story and is almost as impressive as a hologram as he was as a real person. The reveal when Clark discovers his genetic father is undermined by the laying on of the Louis Lane story at that point. This movie is trying to cover a lot of territory so that by the end we will be caught up and ready for the confrontation with the forces from Krypton that threaten the planet. The presence of the flashbacks make the movie feel almost like a time travel story,because characters don’t stay down and events change instantaneously. I got used to the experience but I still feel as if emotions are undermined by the way things get played out in the non-linear format.
General Zod was another thing about the movie that I liked. The character is played true to his genetic programming, and as a result, despite the heinous nature of his acts and plans, there is a logic to it that is understandable. Michael Shannon is not in over the top villain mode, his goal is actually a noble one despite the immorality of his means. The absence of the megalomania that drove Zod in the previous films will probably feel like a cheat and a let down to those wanting the face off between the two refugees to be more satisfying. It is a touch of consistency that when the confrontation is resolved, there is more mourning than there is satisfaction. This brings us to the major complaint I have about the film. It is serious. It is so serious that it drives most of the joy out of the movie. There is not really any humor, the love story is almost non-existent and there are no pieces of business that are designed for the audience to be entertained by a movie, everything is in aid of the story that has been created. When super beings engage in fisticuffs it is natural that there be damage. The damage of a single blow by one of the combatants however, is the equivalent of a 9/11 event. Buildings crash and collapse. Explosions rise hundreds of feet into the air. Thousands of people will be displaced and thousands more will die, even though we will not see them do so and the only sense of threat to humans that we get at this point is limited to five or six characters. I know it was cartoonish to have the bad guys flung into a Coke Ad in 1980, but the laughter was real and our sense of adventure was spirited fun. This movie makes the Herculean task feel exhausting. As a comparison, last year in “The Avengers” the attack that takes place in New York City is also massive in scale, but there are moments of humor, threat, relief and joy built into those sequences. Here Kal-el and Zod are brutally trying to off one another and the rest of the world be damned. Only in a final moment is there a hint of the humanity that is needed to make this confrontation work. It is a grim, realistic vision of a battle between super beings, but it is not much fun despite all of the spectacle.
There is are two references to Kal-el being Superman. One of them is partially muted, the other is the closest that they come to having a joke in the movie. Neither is satisfying. I think Henry Cavill is effective in the role, he looks the part and except for one moment of youth based ingratitude, that he quickly regrets, he is a noble character. In this film he has become the image of Superman that most people who like other comic book characters always fault him for. He is boring and mostly without fault. I know some criticized the 2006 reboot attempt for making Superman a bit of a loser. Yet, even a loser has some personality, our Superman here is nearly a cypher. We will be able to project what we want on him, but the story tellers are not giving us much to go on. This is a solid film with many qualities to admire. It is simply not the entertainment that I was hoping for. I liked it a lot, but any love I have is tentative at the moment. I may feel more passionately about it when I see it again. I don’t use a rating scale for movies because I want people to understand why I feel a certain way about a movie, not just that it scores a certain number. When I post on The Lamb, a scale is required. If you want to see it, head over there and you can evaluate for yourself. If you are already buzzed to see the movie, then anything I have to say should not dissuade you. If you have no intention of seeing it, maybe I can get you to reconsider. The end of the movie promises more interesting things and a little more fun. I wish all of the movie had that going for it, but It has a lot of other things to recommend it for regardless.