Dear Man of Steel,
The character of Superman is one that is easy to make thrilling but hard to make compelling. He in invulnerable, capable of great strength, speed, and the ability to fly. He can see through walls, melt steel with his eyes, and live in the vacuum of space. Aside from giving him progressively heavier things to lift (like the underrated Superman Returns) or threatening the mortals in his life, there is not a lot of stress you can put on him as a force for good. There is a presumption that he will prevail physically, and thus his only real conflict could be moral. However, he is also an unwavering beacon of good, so how can that be his struggle?
The answer that you find, Man of Steel, is to truly mount the action and the conflict in Superman’s sense of belonging, and to accentuate and emphasize his alien parentage. Given all of the cultural baggage regarding Superman’s place a purveyor of truth, justice, and the American way, we often forget that he is the son of Krypton, an alien sent to earth and who is in every way superior to us. If he wanted to he could destroy us like ants. He could pretend to be one of us and use his powers to great personal gain.
Instead, the dual influence of his two fathers – Jor-El and Jonathan Kent – have instilled in him a path of righteousness and peace. However, even this moral compass cannot assuage the sense of loneliness and loss that he feels. On his shoulders is the weight of his very existence amongst us, and he has to learn the way to break himself of his sense of purposelessness and his alienation. Jor-El, his alien father, gave him life and history and singularity. Pa Kent gave him a sense of purpose, meaning, and prudence in the use and deployment of his gifts.
In a film like The Avengers, the uniqueness of the characters is unremarked upon, brought to bear only as a reason to execute impossible feats of destruction and strength. In your story, however, the aspects of Superman that make him great also make him vulnerable, an icon to be subtly managed and cared for. He breaks humanity’s conception of itself, and forces us into a state of confusion and wonder, and with that single focus it falls to him to guide our new gaze toward the greatness inherent in us. This both makes him the best of us, and wholly separate from us.
Heady ideas to be brought out in a super hero movie, and yet you execute them perfectly. The stories of fathers and son that are teased out in exposition and flashback breath life into an otherwise hollow icon. Henry Cavill perfectly embodies the quiet nobility and strength of Superman, and the suffering alienation of Clark Kent. From these two struts alone a balanced and compelling movie could be crafted.
Marvelously, that isn’t all there is. For what could be a more powerful antagonist for an alienated protagonist than the offer to belong. General Zod (an energetically evil Michael Shannon) comes to earth looking to breath life back into his dying race, offering Superman the chance to belong once again to a race that understands him, in a society that will embrace him as one of their own, rather than an invincible being. The price, however, is the life of every one of his adopted planet’s inhabitants. There is a choice to be made, between taking up an impossible mantle among a race to which he does not belong, or becoming the easy savior of a race he has never known.
All of this is great, I am sure, but if we are seeing alien super-beings in combat, it stands to reason we should talk about the action. Luckily, there are plenty of energetic accolades to be given here too. Strength, speed, and impossible feats of survival and combat are to be expected here. The most ingenius thing that you have done, Man of Steel, is to anchor the battles here within the madness of the absolute carnage these fights would cause. As the bullets and bombs of the army explode around them, as buildings crumble and cars rain from the sky, two powerful warriors engage in hand to hand combat. The spectacle of the immense destruction is enlivened by the intimate combat of the two fighters. Here, Zack Snyder’s penchant for visually intricate and almost bombastic excess serves to create a maelstrom which accentuates and tightly focuses the acts of the combatants.
World-spanning consequences (I haven’t even touched on the master plan of General Zod), species-affecting choices, personal pain and growth, and profound existential questions. The juxtaposition of all of these elements creates an experience that is both grand and grounded, micro and macro. More than any film since the Dark Knight triology, you, Man of Steel, find the balance between the reptilian desire to view impossible feats and the human desire to be moved emotionally.
With lasting and energetic fondness until we meet again, or until I get to meet one of your progeny,
Brian J. Roan