Superman,” wrote Gary Engle in his iconic essay, What Makes Superman So Darned American?, “is like nothing so much as an American boy’s fantasy of a messiah. He is the male, heroic match for the Statue of Liberty, come like an immigrant from heaven to deliver humankind by sacrificing himself in the interest of others. He protects the weak and defends truth and justice and all the moral values inherent in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” For nearly 70 years after being created as a villain by high-school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933, Superman was cast as the embodiment of Good, and by extension, America. In the post-9/11 era, as being American became more and more distinct from being Good, the comics focussed more and more on the Man of Steel’s relationship with the new America — in 2011, he even renounced his US citizenship.
Man of Steel, therefore, was never going to be the Superman we all grew up with. Audiences have been disappointed by the general lack of bank robberies being foiled or plunging trains being caught and returned to the tracks. What we got, instead, was bearded Henry Cavill drifting through Americana and an existential crisis, though, at times, the existential crisis is not whether his true allegiance lies with the planet of his birth or his adopted home, but whether he is Superman or Wolverine. In any case, the name ‘Superman’ is almost excised from the movie, as is the giant ‘S’, now a Krypton symbol for hope.
Which is fine, actually. The nature of comic books, particularly the fact that there are only a finite number of superheroes to build mythologies around, necessitates the concept of the reboot. Superman has, over the years, been reinvented or rejigged umpteen times depending upon the whims of the authors involved. dc Comics explained away the inconsistencies by saying the different Supermen were in different universes. In this particular universe, Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder look at Clark Kent through the lens of the immigrant experience, which Engle says Superman raises to the level of religious myth. Much like a character in a Jhumpa Lahiri novel, Kent sees his attempts at assimilating being met with alienation simply because he is different.
The problem lies, however, with how Nolan and Snyder represent these feelings of alienation. The bearded Clark Kent undergoing a journey of self-realisation is very reminiscent of the bearded Bruce Wayne undergoing a journey of self-realisation in Batman Begins. Tacking on the same story arc for Superman seems forced, and Nolan’s increasing propensity to use a shovel to drive home his point doesn’t help matters.
That shovel comes in the form of General Zod, an occasional comic-book villain who was removed after dc’s attempts at clearing up inconsistencies in 1985 led to a rule that no other Kryptonian would appear in future books (so that Superman’s status as the last of his race would be unchallenged). Though Michael Shannon is always excellent as the self-righteous villain, the ethical dilemma he poses to Kent is the basic Hollywood theme of duty versus humanity: on Earth, if not on utilitarian Krypton, the latter will always win. Instead of focussing on the dilemma, however, we get the high-adrenaline pyrotechnics Snyder revels in, which leaves the additional complexity half-baked and mildly juvenile.
There’s still hope, though. Man of Steel is an imperfect origin story, but if past experience is anything to go by, it’s the second film where Nolan is at his best.