Man of Steel has Heart of Gold

Back in the 1980s, the big comic houses - Marvel and DC - went through a period of superhero realism. This was the era of Frank Miller's successful run on Daredevil, and his highly influential Batman miniseries, The Dark Knight Returns. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created the Watchmen, an Orwellian meditation on power and corruption featuring a misfit cast of costumed vigilantes. Chris Claremont wrote many of his seminal X-Men story lines during this period as well, in which he explored racial discrimination through the prejudice encountered by his mutant protagonists. In short, superhero stories in the '80s strove for relevance,  and in doing so, became darker, more nuanced, and more violent.

Hollywood has adopted a similar approach to the onslaught of superhero movies that have been released in the past decade. Whether it's the irony of Sir Ian McKellen's Magneto, the Nazi concentration camp survivor on a mission to protect mutants by establishing them as the world's master race, Heath Ledger's Academy Award-winning turn as a terrorist Joker, or the thinly-veiled parable for American exceptionalism found in the Iron Man movies, it's clear costumed heroes aren't just here to protect us from otherworldly threats - they're here to tell us something about ourselves.

Take the latest Superman movie, for instance. Man of Steel is the most recent attempt to revive the popular film franchise of the late '70s and early '80s. Yet this is not your father's Superman. Gone is Christopher Reeve's bumbling Clark Kent, kryptonite, Gene Hackman and Richard Pryor, and the simple acceptance the on- and off-screen public seemed to have for a flying man dressed in a bright blue suit and a red cape.

In his place, we have a brooding outcast (portrayed with smoldering super-sexuality by Henry Cavill), who spends the first half of the film in a state of protracted existential crisis, jumping from job to job, trying to find his place in the world. Fortunately, the arrival of the nefarious General Zod (a diabolically delicious Michael Shannon) forces Supes to man up, and in a carefully constructed sequence of scenes intended to parallel the Biblical Passion, the Last Son of Krypton is handed over to his enemies, where he is given a simple choice: join with Zod's invading forces, or die.

Critics of Man of Steel have lobbed a number of disparaging attacks against the film's portrayal of Superman. Some purists have taken issue with the fact that Supes kills Zod just as the renegade militant is about to incinerate a family with his heat vision. Yet this is the sudden moral dilemma that forces the Man of Steel to make a final, heartbreaking choice between the planet of his birth and his adopted home world. By killing Zod, Superman enters the morally ambiguous realm of human experience, thus gaining greater understanding of the world, his place in it, and the people he protects. His ear-shattering scream after taking Zod's life is the cry of a man who has suddenly and irrevocably realized he can never go home.  

Man of Steel has also been criticized for its somber tone. However, a closer look at portrayals of Superman will show - fairly conclusively - that any intrinsic humor in the books or films is largely rooted in Clark Kent's travails at the Daily Planet. In fact, just as Superman - the costumed hero - comes to understand humanity 'from above', by providing protection from innumerable threats and modeling the best qualities of our kind, so too does Clark Kent come to understand humanity 'from below', in his often humorous quest to pass creditably as 'one of us' during his tenure at the Planet. Since Man of Steel ends just as Clark gets a job as a reporter, there's good reason to believe that the sequel will have a few more laughs than this film did.  

One of the subtexts in Superman - whether onscreen or in the comics - has always been a study in what it means to be human. Man of Steel is a continuation of that same narrative, showing how Kal-El - the last son of a dying world - becomes grounded in a troublesome, conflicted humanity so that one day, he can learn to fly.