Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by David Goyer
Story by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Superman is not one of us. That's the bit we take for granted. That's the bit we get profusely re-acquainted with here. That's the bit that may cause a lot of fanboy disgruntlement. Curb your devotions, then, if not totally abandon them, and with it, disregard continuity as well and lose whatever territorial claim you have on the character, which it to say that it might help not to come to this with your version of the character in your back pocket, which may well be the version of its creators, of its parent company, of the rest of the world, but is not necessarily the version Nolan/ Goyer/ Snyder have in mind. Let's move on, too, from Christopher Reeve, who was and is the quintessential Superman, may he rest in peace. And the Salkinds. And Brandon Routh and Dean Cain and Tom Welling, too.
Granted, the icon comes with a lot of puritan baggage, messianic gravities , mythic resonance. But all of these have no place in the ground zero parameters the film has set for itself. It's not like they've been stripped away, more like they don't exist yet. This may not be demeanor befitting a superhero, except that in the world of Man of Steel, superheroes don't exist yet either. We can safely assume that the only Superman this world knows is Nietzche's (or Shaw's). And all Clark Kent is, at this point, is someone(thing?) from another world that hides in plain sight without a green card and under a false identity. He has all the circumstance of an illegal alien, really, pun intended. And is every bit as potentially against us as he is with us as a sleeper agent. He does have a compulsion for decency, but that can often be dangerous to misconstrue as a heroic impetus. He rescues people from bus accidents and oil rig fires, but you don't see him roughing up mobsters or swooping in on muggers. Fighting crime isn't exactly his calling. He's an orphan in a world he doesn't belong to. And he's lived a life repressing his true nature for its good. Also, he's got a lot on his mind. He's been outed. In the congested, intergalactic, multi-dimensional melting pot that is a comic book company's shared universe, he at least has the tactical advantage of looking more like us than, say, the man in black dressed like a bat, meaning his disguise doesn't look like one. In a world where he's the only extraterrestrial in town, though, it doesn't have quite the same cloaking effect.
The fundamental hubris of the comic books is in how a world in which Superman exists remains very much, if not exactly, like a world in which he doesn't, that is, like ours, with no severe re-structuring of belief systems and social structures, and with no systematic and wholesale reprieve from such banal calamities as disease and famine and war, all of which Superman has, given his immense capabilities, and in isolated episodes throughout his seventy plus year run, either eradicated or quelled. This is essentially the anomaly Man of Steel is seeking to rehabilitate. It's not as if we see Superman intervening in Syria, not yet at least. It still, for the most part, strip-mines the mythos for surplus, getting as many things right (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents, Russell Crowe as Jor-el) as it does wrong (Krypton, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Russell Crowe as a Jor-El AI that's equal parts expository mouthpiece and guardian angel and deus ex machina) and it falters horribly when the Kryptonian characters stop to explain themselves, which is often and clumsily staged each time, halting everything in its tracks, undermining the efficiency of its time-jumping structure. But then, who cares what geek beats it hits and misses? That gets boring after a while. It's the ramifications of having Superman exist in the real world that packs more voltage. And this, it gets right, too, mostly by co-opting Alan Moore's penultimate Miracleman issue (#15) in the third act and having Kryptonian insurgents, led by Michael Shannon as General Zod, lay waste to an entire metropolis in the hopes of terra-forming the Earth into the new Krypton.
The genocidal wave of carnage in the wake of the Kryptonian face-off is both overwrought and gloriously unhinged. The death toll, and Superman's callous disregard when it comes to preventing it, is almost nihilistic in its severity. One can always argue that it's out of being weaponized without being honed. That the sun may have made him a god but didn't give him combat skills and moral wherewithal. And that if you take that away, he really is just as conflicted, as fallible, as the rest of us. Regardless, and flawed as he is, this is what it's like to have a god walk among us. This is the apocalyptic degree of the havoc he can wreak. And this is how helpless we are if he decides to lift a finger against us. A superhero movie about what a bad idea a superhero is.