Critics aren’t crazy about Man of Steel, the new Superman movie. It has a 56 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the site that aggregates reviews. But audiences love it; the Cinemascore poll gives Man of Steel a grade of A-.
So what accounts for the discrepancy? The answer is simple: Man of Steel is an effort to do to the Superman story what The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises did to the Batman story. It is the superhero-movie-as-morality-play, and today’s critics don’t like morality plays—unless, of course, they involve good liberal people standing up to evil conservative people.
Man of Steel is deadly serious, unashamedly melodramatic, and entirely without irony. (It shares its screenwriter, David Goyer, with the Dark Knight movies, whose director, Christopher Nolan, produced Man of Steel.) The movie’s plot requires its godlike hero to do something he does not wish to do because he is facing a villain only he can stop—and the villain must be stopped permanently if the Earth is to survive.
In the movie’s first half, the drama in Clark Kent’s life is whether he can survive if the world learns he is an alien. His adoptive father, played by Kevin Costner (who’s really good here), thinks not, and is willing to pay a grave price in service to his conviction. But then Clark has no choice but to reveal himself, at least in part, when villains from his home planet show up, demand that he be surrendered to them, and then begin to remake the earth so that it can become the new Krypton.
Director Zack Snyder uses the same monochromatic palette for Man of Steel that he did for his breakout hit, 300. This has the effect of taking Superman about as far from his comic-book origins as it would be possible to go. The villains, led by the brilliant Michael Shannon, are neither cutesy nor creepy nor silly; they are determined and purposeful and relentless.
So the moral dilemmas for Clark/Superman are plain: Does he help others, or protect himself? Does he side with the civilization that gave him birth, or the civilization—the American civilization—in which he was raised? Is he willing to commit a lesser sin to ward off a greater evil?
Superman may be the first and most enduring of the superheroes, but there is a central dramatic problem with him: If he can’t be hurt, and he can do just about anything, what’s the point in telling his story? He’s perfect already. He doesn’t need to change. The clever solution back in the 1970s, when the first of the groundbreaking Christopher Reeve movies was made, was to turn him into a 1930s comedy lead, with a fresh twist. Reeve (and writer Tom Mankiewicz) made him two paradigmatic screwball characters in one. When he was Superman, he was Cary Grant, the sexiest and most unapproachable being on earth; when he was Clark Kent, he was Cary Grant’s foil Ralph Bellamy, a goodhearted and dull schnook. This was so sensible an angle to take with such a ridiculous character that the charming ABC television series Lois & Clark, which ran from 1993-97, was simply a romantic comedy in which one of the characters could fly.
Remarkably enough, Snyder and Goyer actually succeed in making the action that swirls around Superman visceral and gripping. The dilemmas are very well conceived. But they just can’t do that much with Superman himself, especially since they play up his commonality with Jesus Christ—another perfect being whose perfection makes him unrealizable as a character. Henry Cavill, who plays the lead, is insanely good-looking and carries himself attractively, but he’s not much spicier than the deeply bland Brandon Routh in the failed 2006 “reboot,” Superman Returns.
It’s pretty good fare, and I don’t quite get the critical hostility, but I understand why audiences are taking to it. If they’re going to wait in line, spend 20 bucks a ticket for the 3D/IMAX version, and watch $250 million worth of explosions and mass destruction, they want to feel something. They actually want their popcorn entertainment to mean something. They want some gravity with their mindlessness. Man of Steel gives them a bit.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.