The second of the two major motion pictures I had missed in theaters which ended up under my Christmas tree, Man of Steel shares with Into Darkness one other thing: both are parts of a reboot of an old and respected property, reboots which have drawn considerable fire from the older fandom of their respective sources.
Man of Steel is the latest attempt to revive the Superman movie franchise, which died after the execrable Superman IV: Quest for Peace in 1987 and took even longer to be revived because – to put it bluntly – it was virtually impossible to find someone who could reasonably be expected to step into those red boots and get out of the shadow of Christopher Reeve. There were other live action and animated TV "takes" on Superman – Lois and Clark, Smallville, Superman: The Animated Series, and others including Superman as a significant character such as Justice League.
A reboot was attempted in 2006, titled Superman Returns, which used the clever concept that the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies had happened and that Superman had then gone off to deal with some personal business. It was an interesting approach, trying to respect the most iconic film portrayal while moving forward, and in some ways it succeeded. However, while it was far from terrible, with a worthy successor to Reeve in Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey taking the Lex Luthor created by Gene Hackman and making him terrifying, a failure to deliver huge box office (though at $200M, hardly a total failure) and an honestly terrible casting/directing choice in Kate Bosworth (not a bad actress, but the script, her far-too-young appearance, and some direction choices just made her fail her part) as Lois Lane made this franchise reboot dead in the water.
That might have been it for a couple decades, were it not for the obvious and immense upswing in the popularity and success of superhero-focused movies. This time, there would be a clean restart and a completely new vision for Superman, right down to eliminating "Superman" from the title and, for the most part, the movie itself.
Man of Steel begins with a complete and detailed reimagining of the origin of Superman. The basic essence – last survivor (except perhaps for a few criminals) of Krypton rocketed off to Earth by his brilliant scientist parents just before the planet self-destructs is left intact, but we get more details of the disaster's cause, the reason for Kal-El's being the only child to be saved and what makes him different from other Kryptonians, and also get to see our villain – General Zod – and his accomplices caught and imprisoned shortly before the destruction of Krypton.
Right away I knew that they were doing something right here – by not bringing in Lex Luthor. I'm sorry, but I'm BORED with Lex. Having him the primary antagonist in your Superman story gets old, and he's MUCH better as a villain to bring in later. (I felt the same about The Amazing Spider-Man avoiding going straight for the Green Goblin and doing the Lizard instead, but that's a separate review!)
This, and the rest of the movie, also showed another commonality between Into Darkness and Man of Steel: really misleading trailers. This is becoming a trend, and one I really don't like. Stop trying to mess with my head with your trailers. I want to know what the movie's going to be like, and I don't want you to give me false impressions.
SPOILERS BELOW, a lot more than I've given so far, so I'm going to separate things with
One of the primary complaints I heard from fans was the fact that Superman kills (Zod, to be precise), and that he seems unaffected by the deaths around him, not caring how much destruction was unleashed.
Honestly, I find these complaints pretty much unfounded. General Zod and company gave him NO CHOICE in virtually every situation. Superman had barely begun to make use of his powers, and was still learning what he could do. These aliens – not even just three, as in Superman II, but a whole battleship worth, at least – show up and threaten Earth in an Independence-Day style shock-and-awe manner; knowing who Zod is, Superman knows damn well that Zod is not bluffing when he says he's willing to wipe out Earth to get to him. Then when it becomes clear that Zod's going to wipe out Earth anyway, Superman has to do the best he can – as a single being – to put a stop to them. Every single confrontation is determined by what the invading Kryptonians are doing.
Superman has few-to-zero options to take the battles elsewhere; he also has few-to-zero options to not get involved. The Kryptonians intend to reform Earth into a new version of Krypton, said process being lethal to humans on the planet at the time. Zod intends to punish Kal-El for the sins of his father, and take vital data hidden with him from his corpse. There is no real way out for Superman except to fight them whenever and wherever he can. It's clear he cares about what happens to the people on Earth – it's his major driving force, in fact – but he recognizes that his choice is collateral damage in one or two cities, or the wiping out of the human race. It's a sucky choice, but it's the choice he gets handed.
This is true with the death of Zod. Zod is forcing his hand, and while Zod has only recently gained the powers that a Kryptonian has on Earth, his military training, size, and experience give him an edge over Superman. Would a more experienced Superman – one who, say, had spent a few years being guardian of Earth, using his powers to the full, understanding the full range and variety of those powers and the different stunts he could perform with them – have been able to somehow stop or incapacitate Zod in that circumstance without killing him?
Probably. Almost certainly. But that wasn't what we had. We had a brand-new Superman, one who'd only learned to fly in the very relatively recent past, in his first serious fight ever, against a man with decades of combat experience, literally BRED for warfare, equal to him in power, and utterly ruthless. Superman made the only choice he could in that circumstance. It sucked, but it was the only and correct choice for the situation.
I was not, I admit, entirely happy with him being put in that situation – I prefer a bit more shininess on my superheroes, or at least most of them – but objecting to his actions as such when they were clearly the only moral choice given to him, that just doesn't work for me.
As far as his reactions to the deaths and devastation… heck, we don't even get a chance FOR him to react. He does his best, he eventually defeats his enemies, he sees that he HAS managed to at least save Lois Lane and some of the other people he knew, then gets blindsided by Zod again and is forced to make the hardest choice of his life. For the cost of that battle to sink in takes time, and we're not SHOWN that period of time where it sinks in and people deal with the tremendous loss.
And honestly? I'm cool with that. I don't need to see Superman angsting about how he's responsible for a bunch of deaths that, really, he ISN'T responsible for – that an alien warlord who he never knew existed until a few weeks ago is actually responsible for, an alien warlord that Superman himself defeated.
So overall, I enjoyed Man of Steel quite a bit, and I hope that upcoming movies in the franchise will give Superman a chance to be more Super and less Angst!