Man of Steel, the latest installment in the long-running Superman franchise, premiered on June 14 to mostly positive reviews. Critics and audiences prefer star Henry Cavill to Brandon Routh, the last actor to play Superman. These comparisons are a bit unfair, since the actors are associated with scrips and direction that had little to do with them, but few will disagree that Cavill looks and acts the part of a masculine icon. Despite all of the praise Man of Steel has earned, some critics have noted that Superman is uniquely difficult to modernize.
Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s first film in his rebooted conception of the Batman franchise, turned superhero movies into legitimate films. It eliminated the camp and dated goth undertones that permeated Tim Burton’s Batman films, as well as the embarrassing bloat of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Suddenly, Batman’s humanity mattered. He was dark, tortured and, most importantly, a real adult. Batman Begins sparked a trend of dark, gritty comic-inspired films whose audiences extended far beyond stereotypical superhero fans. Other comic franchises were rebooted with verisimilitude and depth in mind. However, many of them struggled to rise to the heights of Nolan’s Batman films, since the Batman character lends itself to this new aesthetic more than most other superheroes do.
This creates difficulties for a new Superman film. Arguably the most popular superhero, Superman’s appeal lies in his unabashedly positive message and lack of human vulnerabilities. How does this fit in with the new emphasis on angst? With Nolan on board as a producer, Man of Steel succeeds not by presenting a wholly different Superman, but by changing the circumstances surrounding him to show how and why this version of Clark Kent is different. Superman has entered the age of serious superhero films and, with a single surprising act at the end of the movie, Man of Steel completely redefines a character that has been beloved for generations.