Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reforging the Man of Steel (with some spoilers)

Steel is not a pure metal.  It is an alloy, iron mixed with other things to shape it in different ways.  Its virtues include its strength, its durability, its flexibility in some configurations, and its ability to be melted down and reforged for different uses.  Bear that in mind when you watch MAN OF STEEL.

Superman is one of the most durable characters in popular fiction.  He has many times survived that crisis point every long-lived fictional character faces:  When every story that can be told about him has been told, sometimes multiple times, and those creating his stories wonder what the hell else to do with him.  His story is several stories, often contradictory.  Sometimes he is a young, rough-hewn reformer fighting strike-busting goons and manufacturers of unsafe cars in the depth of the depression.  Sometimes he is a fatherly renaissance man of the fifties and sixties, devoting godlike strength to charity events, teaching his idiot friends Jimmy and Lois life lessons by humiliating them, and occasionally fighting off mad scientists.  Sometimes he is teenager in the era of Bonnie and Clyde, sometimes a kid of the mid-2000s.  Sometimes his birthplace is a sterile crystalline planet.  Sometimes it is a Flash Gordon paradise of ruby forests and giant rideable dragonflies.  Like contradictory legends of Norse gods, they are all true, each in its way.

Bryan Singer and the other folks who made 2006's SUPERMAN RETURNS did not seem to understand that.  Their idea of reviving the big-screen adventures of Superman was simply to recycle a previous big-screen version -- the Christopher Reeve Superman, who starred in one great movie, one pretty-good movie, and two awful movies -- as if that was the only version of Superman that would survive on the big screen.  But Superman cannot be adapted by simply copying what has gone before -- especially when "before" is 20 years previously.  They underestimated Superman's ability to be reforged.

Fortunately, MAN OF STEEL has found the right forge and the right composition for its alloy.  The Superman in it is, portrayed with great humanity by Henry Cavill, still recognizably Superman.  He still adheres to a moral code, the ideals that are all that prevent an all-powerful man from simply turning into a raging ball of ungovernable selfishness and destruction.  He still asks less-powerful people to trust him, instead of forcing them to obey him.  He still is a dream come true:  He has all the power in the world, and he just wants to help.

And of course, there are still the tropes of superhero fiction, the ones Superman pioneered.  There are threats to face -- bullies who use their superior abilities to harm humanity rather than help it.  There is the superhero method of solving problems:  fisticuffs, here writ large and with lots of collateral damage.

What has put off some folks (including many reviewers) is the approach the filmakers take in recasting the Adventures of Superman.  They test Superman's reserve and self-control by setting him in an uncomfortably realistic world, one where a frightened humanity learns of his existence at the same time as they learn of others of his kind -- others who lack his control.  They have only his word, and his apparent acts of submission to authority, to believe that he is any different.  And they must make the leap of faith to believe that someone with such power will not use it for either personal gain or an ideal at odds with the safety of humanity -- like those whom he faces.

This is a different approach from the eye-twinkling, winking presentation of the Christopher Reeves films, so poorly aped in SUPERMAN RETURNS.  This is a more science-fiction oriented extrapolation.

And other changes have been made.  The entire dynamic of Lois Lane's relationship with Clark Kent is changed to reflect an audience's need for a heroine who is not simply lovesick and imperceptive to the point where she fails to realize that the man she spends most of her time watching is also the man sitting next to her in the Daily Planet office.  As enacted by Amy Adams, Lois is less a damsel in distress than a sidekick -- someone who learns the truth early on, and uses it to help the hero.  And yes, even a Superman sometimes needs help.

On top of it all, we've got the sheer joys of fantastic cinema.  A lush-but-doomed Krypton where Superman's father battles tyrants and rides a giant dragonfly.  Epic flying scenes, something that can be portrayed in movies better than in any other medium.  Lots of exciting battles (although at the end they do go on too long -- and our excitement is tinged with regret as we watch buildings crumble and presumably thousands perish as super-beings clash).

That is why MAN OF STEEL, in my opinion, is a worthy entry in the crowded contest of film and TV portrayals of Superman.  It's yet another way that a metal of 75 years' vintage can be reforged for a new audience.  And it's a testament both to the strength of the metal and the skill of the forgers that it remains so strong.