“You have another father who gave you another name. He sent you here for a reason.” Thirteen-year-old Clark Kent (Dylan Sprayberry) looks appropriately dumbfounded when he hears this news from Jonathan (Kevin Costner), the father he’s known all his young life. He can’t know now that this other name is Kal-El, much less the reason that Jor-el (Russell Crowe) sent him anywhere. But you know all too well, because you’ve heard this story before and now you’ve seen it again in Man of Steel.
The familiarity of this story cuts at least two ways in this decidedly not-new version. It means the film will rehearse and reinforce the grandly mythic saga of Superman (here played by Henry Cavill as an adult), provide rationales for his eyeglasses and his cape, his effort to disguise himself as a regular puny human and his determination to rescue earth’s population from ongoing threats, internal and external. It also means the film will remind you of films made before, some of them featuring Superman in other eras, and some of them made by this movie’s team of supermakers, Zack Snyder, Chris Nolan, and David Goyer, what with Clark’s 300-like abs and facial hair, his alter-ego’s heroic brooding, allusions to recent American history (specifically, terrorist acts with resulting fears and aggressions), and a slew of piled-on dark shadows and darker, forever-war-style themes.
Amid all these repetitions, this movie’s focus on the two fathers is both predictable and, not to put too fine a point on it, tedious. True, when Jonathan is killed early on — in front of his son and in a manner to ensure that son’s Dark Knight-ish trauma — Martha (Diane Lane) becomes something of an emotional touchstone, the nice white lady who safeguards her husband’s memory and maintains their hearth and home, recalling, say, Peter Parker’s Aunt May.
The fact that this home is a farmhouse in Kansas helps a bit when Clark has to assert his patriotism to a suspicious General Swanwick (Harry Lennix), who asks whether he might “one day work against American interests.” That Superman makes this assertion, assuming with the general that American interests are global interests, is not a little troubling, given Kal-El’s broad understanding of the universe. And as such, it’s another indication of the film’s desire to have it all ways, or perhaps more precisely, to have Superman serve multiple allegorical purposes, pre- and post-9/11.
These temporal markers provide another repetition, lining up Man of Steel alongside all those other US-made superhero movies (the Iron Mans, The Avengers, that take the war on terror into account, as a model for villainy and responses to same. Here the terrorist is Zod (Michael Shannon, excellent as always, but also looking frankly silly when he strips down to a body suit to do battle with Superman in one of this film’s multiple, decreasingly climactic endings), the bad guy Jor-El sends into a deep-spacy purgatory as Krypton explodes, owing to the planet’s governing body’s shortsighted abuse of resources (read: climate change). That Krypton had previously been sending creepily tentacled ships out to colonize other planets is revealed almost in passing, but it suggests why Jor-El believes he can send his infant son to earth and believe he will be viewed as a god. These Kryptonian men — Jor-El as much as Zod — are a cocky group, abetted by a fiercely loyal wife (Jor-El’s Lara, played by Ayelet Zurer) or a fiercely loyal minion, like Zod’s Faora-Ul (Antje Traue).
It’s unfair to say that Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is here exactly one of these girl abetters, but she comes close, less a person unto herself (despite her brief and occasional revolts against her editor Perry White, played by a weary-seeming Laurence Fishburne). While Lois first appears on screen, touting her cred as a war zone reporter and accusing a colonel played by Chris Meloni, of all people, of measuring dicks when he should be getting down to business, she’s almost immediately swept up into Clark’s life story, rather than maintaining her own. When she performs her reporter’s duty by following Clark into a mountain (don’t ask), she’s duly battered and frightened by yet another sort of creepily tentacled machine from Krypton. Her consequent resentment isn’t quite on the order of, say, Faora-Ul’s or Lara (who, unlike her husband, who reappears as a kind of hologram, stays utterly absent in her death), but Lois does become a special human, with access to a truth about Clark.
That truth looms large in the film, but it’s also interpreted variously. Amid all the explosions and fights 9and there are lots of them), Clark’s appears a hero to Lois, a mortal-legacy enemy for Zod, a good son for Martha, and also an emblem for what’s so very annoying about humans, that is, according to Jonathan, “People are afraid of what they don’t understand.” While Jor-El dies assuming that his son will reign and be loved by puny but also rational earthlings, Jonathan remains cautious and protective of his son to his death. Clark’s like anyone else, looking for a community, until he’s briefly a Christ-like martyr (the imagery here is thumping), and he’s also anomalous, until he’s not (Zod too discovers the powers the sun affords a guy from Krypton). He’s super-strong and (for a minute) super-weak, super-smart and super-slow, super-different and super-the-same. And here’s another truth. As frequently and emphatically as Man of Steel insists that Clark is super-everything, he’s super-unoriginal too.