Man of Steel: A (Mini) Review

I’ve been a comic book fan for as long as I can remember. So along with millions of other Americans, I looked forward to the latest movie iteration of the world’s most famous super hero. In this, I was certainly encouraged by Man of Steel’s trailers, which offered evidence that director Zach Snyder (300, The Watchmen) and producer Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy) were taking Superman in an intriguing direction.  

Having now viewed the final product, I’d characterize my experience as entertaining but somewhat unfulfilling. Though I won’t hazard a full-blown review of the film, I will offer a few thoughts to elaborate.

[Minor spoilers ahead.]

First, let me say that anyone who tackles Superman via film is faced with no small challenge right out of the gate. The defining characteristic of Batman lies in his dichotomy: vigilante darkness in service of the light. Spider-Man’s pluck amidst danger masks deep feelings of guilt and responsibility. But the essence of Superman lies in the fact that he is a kind of paragon, a personified standard of excellence with respect to both power and character.*

Quite likely, this is why Superman has sometimes been criticized as “less interesting” than other heroes. Then again, his iconic popularity might suggest otherwise. And any fault may lie less with the character itself and more with those who attempt to bring him to life. I won’t be the first to suggest that rendering any kind of “glorious goodness” in a fashion that rings true is difficult for human beings, scarred by sin and brokenness as we are. That can be doubly true on screen, a medium more limited to this end in some ways than the stylized comic art of Superman’s origin.

In any case, I generally I found Man of Steel to be most successful when portraying Superman at his most “human.” The film’s many action sequences, while technically accomplished and often cool, eventually lent themselves to more spectacle than drama (and why any Superman worth his salt wouldn’t have tried mightily to get his incredibly powerful enemies away from populated areas I’ll never quite understand). Instead, the greatest appeal of the film is located in Clark Kent/Kal-El being the son not only of two worlds, but also two loving sets of parents. His most compelling challenges are not physical, but rather the emotional/relational difficulties that arise out of his unique circumstances.

Returning again to the relationship of theology to the film: while Christians are sometimes too eager to identify neat messianic figures in movies, a character like Superman (whose creators, not incidentally, were both Jewish) naturally lends himself to the comparison. And as Superman Returns did a few years ago, Man of Steel certainly capitalizes on Christological concepts and images. But in my judgment, the former film, while limited in other ways, better accommodated these allusions within the story. Man of Steel’s efforts on this score seemed both calculated and mostly unnecessary.

One final note: Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer should be given credit for recognizing that the appearance of a being like Superman—absent knowledge of his character—would be a deeply anxious event for humanity. One doesn’t need to be a theologian, or even a historian, to recognize that power, without benevolence, is a fearful prospect. Happily, the biblical gospel demonstrates that the ultimate standard for both can be found in one gracious Person.

* Here I’ll only add that the relationship of this idea to a few elements of the film, particularly the ending, is problematic. See this very informative take by a Superman comics writer (major spoilers).

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