NOTE: The following article contains allusions to certain "spoiler" story-elements of the film "Man of Steel."
Upfront confession: I don't really want to write another column about "Man of Steel."
I reviewed the film. I mused on its big-spoilers and future potential. I've blogged about it. I've gotten into pages and pages of Twitter discussions about it. For the record: I still think it's a solid but profoundly-problematic film, but I like it less and less the more I think about it. At this point, what I'd like to do more than anything as far as "Man of Steel" goes is just let it slip into the background of my mind for awhile, maybe see it one more time (for a total of three) before it leaves theaters sometime in late Summer and ultimately form a fuller opinion of it divorced from the sturm und drang of both "The Rebirth of Superman!" and "The Potential Birth of The DC Cinematic Universe!"
But, damn my luck, this movie I'd like to put out of my head for awhile (for both our benefits) is doing something that I honestly wasn't expecting... and which also happens to be something I chide most Summer blockbusters for failing to do: It's starting a discussion. Several, in fact. Not insubstantial ones, either. "Man of Steel" may not be the deepest, most richly-nuanced of Summer action flicks (in fact, I'd contend that it's notably shallow despite its bombastic pretense otherwise), but it's inspired a surprisingly intense and weighty discussion among critics, "fanboys," and audiences in general about tone, content and presence of violence in film that has somehow managed to transcend the usual tiresome pitfalls of "This film will inspire REAL violence!" versus "Don't censor me!" All of it surrounding one central question:
Is this movie too dark to be "Superman"?
The reason why you will never, ever make the Superman movie that satisfies everyone is encoded into the character's very DNA. In fact, it's right there in the name: Superman. Super Man. The Superior Man. He doesn't have a specific "theme" to his superheroism like the myriad crimefighters who followed him - like the way Batman incorporates bats into every aesthetic facet of his persona, or how Green Arrow self-consciously riffs on Robin Hood iconography, or how Captain America... is, well, Captain America - his theme is simply his superiority. He's "man," only super. He's you, but better.
You can jump? Superman can fly. You can lift a box? Superman can lift The Moon. You can see? Superman can see through walls. Oh, and he's also more super as a person than you or anyone else can hope to be. After all, he's a guy with the abilities to conquer and enslave the entire planet a dozen times over without breaking a sweat who instead not only devotes himself only to helping the rest of us but doing so largely in deference to our own laws and customs - who else but the best human being imaginable would do that? And if he does that right, then it only stands to reason that he'll do everything else right, too.
And that's where everyone tends to get hung-up: Outside the basic fundamentals, we've all got a different conception of what "doing everything right" would/should mean. To one person, the conventional conception of Superman as benevolently flying about rescuing kittens from trees, talking down suicidal jumpers and tut-tutting the occasional mugger between word-games with Mr. Myxsptlk and slugfests with Metallo is the essence of righteous behavior. To another person, anything short of using his abilities to take over global operations and institute Utopia on Earth is a kind of selfish waste.
"Man of Steel," on the other hand, isn't especially interested in either of those visions of one of the most iconic fictional figures in human history, nor in entertaining any other questions of what he can or should be doing outside of two conjoined observations: Superman can easily endure the most brutal beatdown action-specialist Zack Snyder, dour-bombast-enthusiast Christopher Nolan, Christopher Nolan's personal Human Wikipedia for DC Comics references (aka screenwriter David Goyer) and a huge pile of Warner Bros' money can dream up... and then he can punch whoever meted it out very, very hard.
And that's more or less exactly what Superman does for what feels like the entire second half of "Man of Steel." There's no shortage of dissonance caused by this, even when confined strictly to the film itself. The first hour or so goes to great lengths to carefully lay out a set of thematic and philosophical underpinnings for the film (and franchise?) to come: Eugenics, conspicuous-consumption of natural resources, stagnation of societal evolution, militarized-revolution begetting fascism and abandonment of outward-looking intellectual curiosity are among the seemingly-heavy new wrinkles baked into the re-imagined backstory of the doomed Planet Krypton and its survivors Kal-El and General Zod.
What's more, we witness Clark growing up absorbing even more Big Idea philosophizing from his adopted father. Paradoxically, Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent instills an almost socially-crippling humility in his alien stepchild by saddling him with a profound sense of his own supremacy: The would-be Superman must wait - even at the expense of saving his loved-ones from harm he could easily thwart - for the correct moment to reveal himself to the world. Not just for the purpose of drawing out the narrative to quasi-epic length, but because the mere facts of his existence are monumental enough to turn the entire world's understanding of itself upside-down.
Soon enough, he also has the computer-virus/hologram/ghost of his biological father telling him that something akin to Motivational Coach Godhood is his intended destiny. Make no mistake, for about an hour it seems like "Man of Steel" is setting itself up as just about the weightiest meditation on its title character since Alan Moore symbolically sent him packing...