I've had a few days to wrestle with my impressions of "Man of Steel," the new Superman reboot that is well on its way to selling a billion dollars worth of movie tickets in the coming weeks. It's hard to disagree with those who consider it extremely well-done as far as summer blockbusters go. "Man of Steel" has more ambition than a lot of ostensibly artier films that have come out this year.
So director Zack Snyder has proved that not every $250 million production has to be a soulless special-effects-driven mess. But "Man of Steel" is the most violent Superman movie ever -- and shows callous disregard for civilian life. This is what the Hollywood machinery believes the people want?
The darker interpretation of the Superman mythos has to stem from producer Christopher Nolan, the auteur behind "The Dark Knight" trilogy. Mr. Nolan gets a story credit for "Man of Steel" and you can see the film aspiring to the level of psychological depth and complexity that characterized his interpretation of Batman over the last decade.
Still, I'm more disappointed with "Man of Steel" now that the story and images have had a chance to marinate in my brain for a couple of days. Reading some of the reviews -- even the unqualified raves -- has only sharpened my sense of unease.
The best parts of "Man of Steel" come early on with the exploration of Superman's literal birth on Krypton 33 years ago. The audience is given Kal-El's (Superman's) familial backstory and a primer on the dysfunctional politics that lead to the destruction of Krypton. Superman's antagonist, the treasonous General Zod, is introduced during this sequence and his motives for pursuing the baby who would later become Superman is clearly delineated.
Though Kal-El's parents launch their newborn to Earth in an unmanned spacecraft, they're confident he'll survive the journey across the stars and be received "like a god" once humans get to know and appreciate his capacity for goodness. Jor-El, Superman's father, is motivated to send his son to Earth not only to save him from the doom awaiting Krypton, but by noblesse oblige and cultural arrogance that besets those who believe technological superiority entitles them to rule. From the very beginning, Kal-El, who will later be known as Clark Kent/Superman, is imbued with messianic expectations.
"Man of Steel" is at its best when it deals with Clark's profound alienation. The friendless boy becomes a friendless man who knows he has powers and abilities not shared with other humans, but doesn't know why. All he knows for sure is that he's not of this world and that even his loving human parents, the Kents, can't fill the void in his soul. Still, his human father expects him to be an example to the rest of humanity one day. It's sort of like white privilege on steroids, but far more benign.
Most of this is familiar to anyone who has read a Superman comic or seen a movie or television show based on the character in the last 75 years. Where "Man of Steel" diverges from the familiar is how Superman goes about protecting the world from General Zod and his fascist posse.
Though Superman ultimately saves the day, there's an unprecedented amount of collateral damage along the way. Unless the buildings that topple into each other during a climactic battle scene are empty, tens of thousands of innocent people die -- but there's no acknowledgment of that unimaginable horror.
The sad thing is that I'm not convinced that this particular version of Superman cares. He's more like Nietzsche's "Superman" -- the One who is Beyond Good and Evil -- than the superhero created by two Cleveland teenagers during the Depression. Where previous versions of Superman in film made a point of rescuing everyone in the path of danger, this latest incarnation of Superman is far more casual about it. He concentrates on the battle at hand. Everything else literally falls to the wayside, people included.
Given the film's obsession with messiah complexes, it strikes me as odd that Superman is so manifestly lousy at saving people other than Lois Lane. What good is a Savior who can't save those in the immediate path of a genocidal maniac? Is an abnormally high body count the New Normal in our entertainment reality post-9/11?
Last year's "The Avengers" had the same cavalier attitude toward civilian life, but "Man of Steel" dwarfs even that carnage by a mile. Consequently, it feels more realistic -- and hopeless. If it's true that every generation gets the Superman it deserves, then we're screwed.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.