The Unrealistic Expectations Placed on 'Man of Steel' and Why They Matter

by Bill Gibron

12 June 2013

Warners is trying to reinvent Superman for the 21st century (yes, again) and, this time, the stakes are even higher.
cover art

Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Russell Crowe

(Warner Bros)
US theatrical: 14 Jun 2013 (General release)
UK theatrical: 14 Jun 2013 (General release)

Spoiler Warning…

It makes perfect sense. After all, you’ve seen Marvel muck it up a bit, only to straighten out their artistic agenda and turn their plethora of possible film franchises into a multi-billion dollar international phenomenon. Not that impressed. Think about it for a minute. Five years ago, Iron Man was a nobody, a frame of reference in rumored productions (Tom Cruise once flirted with the comic book character) that few could see holding his own. Now, the latest installment in his stand-alone cinematic efforts has broached the aforementioned nine digit club and fans are clamoring for another Avengers collaboration.
So it you are DC, sitting on two of the most recognizable superheroes—Batman and Superman—of all time, it makes sense to try to repeat your rival’s success…and so far, you’re halfway there. While Kal-El and his Krypton destruction exile has faltered a bit, Bruce Wayne has rocked not one, but two amazing motion picture re-franchises. First, Tim Burton turned the Caped Crusader into an alienated outsider with defiant dead parents issues, then Christopher Nolan stepped in to reinvent the character for a more realistic, pragmatic age. The resulting Dark Knight Trilogy set the bar so hire for comic book movies that many have simply given up replicating its success and have found other artistic streams to navigate.

Having one of the best superhero series ever is apparently not good enough for supporting studio Warner Bros, however. Ever since Burton brought Batman back to life, they’ve been desperate to do the same for Supes. There have been dozens of proposed reinventions, including one offered by the aforementioned eccentric auteur himself (more on this in a moment). Now, having secured the services of the man mainly responsible for the rise in the genre’s relevancy (read: Nolan) as producer, the studio is set to unleash Man of Steel on an unsuspecting/over hyped public. Those enamored of the previous incarnations of Clark Kent and his desire to help the people of Earth need to heed this warning: this isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s or big brother’s) version of Superman. No, it’s something entirely different.

Needing to more or less remove itself from all previous incarnations of the Superman mythos, we get much more Krypton backstory, a limited view of life as part of the Daily Planet, and only cursory memories of Clark/Kal as a kid. Perry White is more or less an extended cameo and don’t even ask about Jimmy Olsen. Instead, we have a weird Star Trek (2009) style vendetta where General Zod stages a coup, loses, and spends the rest of his exile hoping to make the only child of his home planet pay. Why? Well, it doesn’t really matter beyond a basic movie MacGuffin (there is something called a “codex” which can help rebuild Krypton on another world - read: Earth) and the standard good guy/bad guy dynamic. Indeed, someone like Superman needs a super-villain to battle against. Apparently, Lex Luthor (whose name appears in carefully concealed Easter Eggs) is being saved for later.

It’s not just the changes in the standard Superman stuff that’s odd. It’s the overall approach that amplifies the alien angle and downplays things like truth, Justice, and the American way. We don’t get a single “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” and that’s fine, except it seems like some kind of similar shout-out should have been incorporated. After all, expectations are high here, perhaps higher than they’ve ever been for any comic book movie ever. With billion dollar benchmarks all around you, anything less than a masterpiece will be seen as a travesty. But what about the legion of Superman fans who were floored when Tim Burton and Kevin Smith wanted to radically reinvent the character (the former for its look, the latter going back to the comics)? How will they react to a movie whose main character is a mere shadow of his previous particulars.

The Dark Knight is the natural response, one supposes, but that answer can only go so far. Just because Christopher Nolan and company could find a way to make an arcane concept like a costumed vigilante work in a modern day, true crime setting doesn’t mean Superman can follow caped suit. Similarly, Bruce Wayne is a viable alter ego that can be exploited for the emotional heft the character needs. Superman carries none of this credential. Indeed, Clark Kent is usually depicted as an awkward boob who is barely capable of carrying on a career, stuttering and shifting in his seat as he waits to hear a call for distress (oh, and by the way, there is no phone booth change-up because… well, because phone booths no longer exist).

The young Clark here is a troubled, bullied boy, capable of greatness but constantly stymied by the “what if” aspect of his existence. His dad constantly warns that the people of Earth will not accept their suddenly non-singular place in the universe, but one imagines that could be quickly countered by the reality of what he can do (like save a sinking school bus full of kids). Later on, the US military, in true cliched style, categorize Superman as a threat (since Zod and his gang of grunts is one) - that is, until he goes out of his way to save them and show them what sacrifice really is. The romance between Lois Lane is fostered on something other than anonymity and, just when you think the floating head of Marlon Brando couldn’t be topped, Russell Crowe turns up to tells us time and time again about how important Clark/Kal will be to the future of humanity.

Okay, okay, we get it - Superman is significant. Superman is essential. Superman is epic. As cities fall, oceans part, and buildings literally topple during the last act confront, as a massive machine screws with gravity and threatens to rip our planet it two, we acquiesce and readily acknowledge that a fight between two superhuman beings would be so devastatingly destructive. But is that what Superman is really about? Is that what audiences are coming to see (especially when Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich deliver a similar level of wanton destruction before their second cup of coffee)? Some would argue “yes,” since a massive international box office is needed to make sure Man of Steel sees a sequel and nothing translates easier than mindless mayhem and eye candy. In fact, should this attempted franchise fail ala Superman Returns, it throws an entire cinematic strategy in the balance.

You see, Warners clearly wants a Justice League movie. They want to pair Superman up with Batman, throw in Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern (ignoring the proposed solo start-up stumble for that character, one imagines), the Flash and Aquaman and turn them loose on a named baddie ala Loki in The Avengers. They want audiences cheering and fanboys panting. Ignoring the miracle Joss Whedon worked for one moment (did you see what he had to work with before attempting such a task?) they obviously feel that Nolan laid the groundwork, and if Snyder can deliver a sizable audience (and profit), they can proceed. Forget for a moment that Marvel made (or planned) two Iron Man movies, two Hulk films, a pair of Thor epics and a Captain America duo before going for its heroic group hug. This studio has decided.

All of which puts even more unreasonable expectations of a film that could never really fulfill them in the first place. Some believe Superman lacks depth and is too “goody-goody” to have a contemporary relevance. Others complain that in a post-modern dynamic where heroes must be flawed and villains identifiable, such black and white contrasts no longer matter. Heck, the only clear cultural relevance remaining in the actual graphic is when something gimmicky happens (Superman DIES!) or a rube discovers a rare copy of Action Comics #1. Let’s face it, there’s a lot riding on Man of Steel. It has to not only undo decades of dedicated Superman worship but rewrite the character for efforts to come. Marvel didn’t have this issue. There was no Christopher Nolan turning Tony Stark into a brooding entrepreneur who worked out his need for power among the people of Gotham. By staying true to its source, Marvel succeeded. DC doesn’t have that luxury and its said lack of slack that may sink Man of Steel in the end.

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