Alien of Steel, Men of Krypton
Give screenwriter David Goyer credit. When the American general asked Superman how the government can trust he’ll act in America’s interests, Superman explained he grew up in Kansas, and how much more American can you get? At least Goyer didn’t go for the cliche, “truth, justice and the American way.”
Man of Steel avoids the many cliches of Superman. No fumbling, bumbling Clark Kent. No Jimmy Olsen saying, “Gosh, Mr. Kent.” Lois Lane isn’t stupid enough to be fooled by the Clark Kent glasses, and she isn’t the damsel in distress in need of constant rescuing. There isn’t a phone booth, or even a joke about changing in a phone booth. The only hint of Lex Luthor is the “Lexcorp” logo on a truck.
This is not the Superman comic book you remember, or even the comic book movie starring Christopher Reeve. This is not a nostalgic look at a cartoon.
Man of Steel is actually a science fiction story, a story of first contact and the difficulty of an alien isolated on our world. The alien, Kal-El, grows up as a human being, Clark Kent, but is acutely aware of being different. His struggle for understanding who he is and, the more important question we all ask, why are we here, has terrifying consequences when his past comes back to haunt him.
General Zod and his followers are freed from the Phantom Zone with the explosion of Krypton and attempt to track down the son of Jor-El. This is not a simple revenge plot. Jor-El has given Krypton’s entire genetic heritage, the codex, to Kal-El before rocketing his son into space. Zod needs to find the codex if he is going to restart the Kryptonian race, a process which would destroy Earth.
The residents of Metropolis and Smallville suffer heavily in this movie as the collateral damage in the fight between Kryptonians, Superman and the military. Unlike in the comic books or in the Richard Donner Superman films, people are killed by the thousands while the aliens battle. (It is a Zach Snyder movie, so prepare yourself for Superman and Lois Lane kissing among the ruins of Metropolis.)
I’m going to wonder if the scene where Kal-El follows the computer generated ghost of Jor-El through a space ship was an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, or to Hamlet chasing his father’s ghost at Elsinore Castle. After all, Hamlet was trying to discover his purpose in life from his father, as was Kal-El. “To be or not to be” has real meaning for this Superman.
There are familiar comic book film moments, but trust that they are at least better written, actually have something to do with the story, and they’re better acted. But this is not typical Summer escapist fare. There are subtleties to be appreciated in the story amidst all the CGI effects.
The contrast between Zod’s character and Kal-El’s character is the theme of the film. Zod was bred to defend the Kryptonian race without any sentiment or empathy. The alien Kal-El stands for humanity and freedom, including the freedom to choose one’s destiny. Ironically, the child Kal-El is planned from the beginning to grow up to be a symbol of that freedom on Earth.
At the end of the movie, we’re left with the superhero Superman,z and all the familiar comic book elements are in place. But we’re also left with the unanswered question, will the Kryptonian race survive?