Time for some random ramblings, but first, "who do you like more, Superman or Batman?" Many have complained about Superman being a boy scout. That he's boring and just can't compare to grittier characters such as Bruce Wayne's alter-ego. My own tastes do tend towards the darker characters. I find that the hero who is more tortured and goes through the proverbial rabbit hole will come out the other end as a stronger individual against his or her challenges. Heck, one of if not my favorite movie Schindler's List features evil incarnate in the form of Amon Goeth thus making Oskar Schindler more compelling because he is a hero who doesn't realize that he is even the least bit heroic to combat such cruelty. To use characters from the same genre as that of Zack Snyder's Man of Steel- audiences prefer their Jason Bourne's, Daniel Craig's James Bond, and Christian Bale's Batman and on TV we like Walter White, Jax Teller, Dexter Morgan, and Don Draper. So does that mean in the mainstream film/TV climate I just described that other characters should be written off because they are too shiny or heroic?
I remember when I first started reading comics at the age of 9, I started out reading purely because of the characters. Then I learned after reading a really good Spider-Man comic and a really bad Spider-Man comic from two different creative teams, that there was no such thing as a bad character, only a bad writer. Not to take the passion away from or denounce the fans that will pick up every X-Men comic simply because it is an X-Men comic, but ultimately any fictional character can be made interesting (obvious observation, but I'll mention it nonetheless). I've read incredible Superman stories and not-so incredible ones. Screenwriter David Goyer, Christopher Nolan's (who is also a producer on this film) writing collaborator for his Batman trilogy, has very obviously decided to infuse Superman with some grit. I'm not against that (as I mentioned, I read Superman stories of all sorts, some with darker tones), but I think the approach to concentrating on Kal-El's tortured soul didn't need to include a lot of what was ultimately chosen to be included in Man of Steel.
I enjoyed Snyder's Dawn of the Dead and Legend of the Guardians and I feel Man of Steel is certainly better than 300, Watchmen, or Sucker Punch. He is a capable filmmaker in that he understands he deals with a visual medium, but even at his best I find him to be heavy-handed. Not just because of the slo-motion everyone loves to place him in a corner for, but just in how he conveys the script's events. Man of Steel is full of a lot of action that certainly makes up for Bryan Singer's passive Superman Returns. Yet at a certain point, the action becomes joyless and endless and full of carnage that could only exist with post-9/11 imagery. I hate to sound like the hoighty-toighty movie nerd, but I truly did enjoy the quieter scenes in this film more than Superman just pummeling Zod. Even when they were fighting, what they were saying was something I wanted to see be explored more than the trading of punches.
Superman can also do what many consider to be the coolest and most wish fulfilling superpower of all time- he can fly. The moment when Superman first takes flight in Man of Steel is wonderous and handled well from the cinematography to the booming score by Hans Zimmer. The fighting in Smallville and Metropolis just didn't capture that wonder for me. Maybe that is where people get annoyed at Superman. They want to see him be a badass and nothing is less badass than a man having a zen-like moment as he hovers above the ground. It's cool, but fans (and myself included) could care less whether Batman can jump really high as long as he's kicking ass at the same time. The film also tries to work in Superman's backstory from Krypton as a major point of the villain's plot and although it creates an emmotionally tense atmosphere, I can't help but feel it was a convoluted way to bring the story full circle and over-complicate Zod's conquer-all scheme.
Now, I'm mentioning a lot of the negative and I'm only really doing so because it's the easiest to write the most about, but on the positive side- I can't stress how well-acted this film is. For any of the typical tropes of the blockbuster action-movie genre, this film was at least a testament to how just having a damn good cast can elevate the material. Henry Cavill (The Tudors, Immortals) probably gives the best acting performance as Superman on-screen. The emotion he brings to the controversial ending and throughout (especially in flashback scenes involving his upbringing) makes this on-screen version of Superman the most fully formed version there's been. The idea of going with a lesser known actor for such a role does work and it not only makes the performance but the character's arc feel relevatory. The chemistry with Amy Adams' Lois Lane might be lacking the expected 'oomph', but it wasn't as bad as I felt some reviewers were making the relationship out to be. Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe all also have some incredible moments, but it's Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Revolutionary Road) who steals the show.
Zod is such a great villain. He was the brawn to Jor-El's brain and he was sent into an empty void for years because his dedication to his own people was not shared by others. The man therefore embarks on a potential blood feud with the son of his enemy, a young man who doesn't even know his place in the world yet. There's a lot to play with there and Shannon finds every faucet of Zod's character to explore and expose in his performance.
Now back to the grit. I'm not against it, but I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to see the other side. Jeff Jenson recently wrote a great article for Entertainment Weekly about anti-heroes and he pointed out Don Draper's arc on AMC's Mad Men this past season. Don is the biggest dick in the world on that show. He is the villain of his own story like Michael Corleone. He sunk so far this past year and was duely punished for it. So what does he go and do? He shows his shame to his kids in the final moments of the season finale. It spoke a lot more to me than just having him delve deeper into darkness.
Cue that Aaron Eckhart quote from The Dark Knight about darkness before a very bright dawn.
Now as a fun extra, here are some of my favorite Superman stories that I read as they came out.
-Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu
-Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen
-Mark Millar's Red Son miniseries
-Jeph Loeb's run on Superman/Batman (Public Enemies, Supergirl, Absolute Power, and Vengeance)
-Busiek/Johns' Superman/Action Comics crossover Up, Up, and Away
-Kurt Busiek's Camelot Falls
-The Geoff Johns run on Action Comics (Last Son, Escape from Bizarro World, Legion of Super-Heroes, Brainiac, the Secret Origin miniseries)
-JMS's recent Earth-One graphic novels
-Grant Morrison's Action Comics relaunch
-Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis have some great Superman moments
-The greatest Superman story ever- All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely