A long time ago, in the pages of this very column, I once asked if superhero movies could be considered science fiction. At the time, I was mostly referring to the likes of Marvel Studios' output (such as Iron Man) and my poor answer to the question was something along the lines of "sort of?" Although the Iron Man movies deal with a genius engineer creating his own combat suit and Captain America involves genetic manipulation and what-not, it's hard to call them science fiction because they simply use some vague sci-fi concepts to construct action fantasies. Sure, there have been superhero movies that have had that dash of sci-fi, but none that I'd feel comfortable completely categorizing into that genre.
Man of Steel changes all of that for me.
Like many people, I have some fairly major problems with Zack Snyder's new take on the Superman mythos (which I wrote about over here and here), but there's no denying that it's an impressively made, handsome and frequently incredible film. However, what impressed me most was that it's one of the rare superhero movies to look at its fantastical setup, realize that it is a science fiction story and completely run with it. Man of Steel has plenty of superhero action and iconography, but it's all-in service of a familiar but well-told alien invasion story. The film wears its sci-fi on its sleeve -- if Superman had no legacy and this was his first appearance, we'd be talking about this as a very cool (if pretty nutty) science fiction alien movie, not a superhero movie.
Strangely, the closest comparison for Man of Steel wouldn't be another sci-fi movie, but rather Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Although the two are ultimately dissimilar in most ways, both films choose to examine their comic book protagonist through the lens of a specific genre. That's the biggest dividing line between the recent Marvel movies and the handful of DC movies. Marvel's movies have been built from the ground up to function as superhero movies and superhero movies alone, going all in on comic book concepts and imagery. Over in the DC movies, you can yank the superhero right out of their own movie and still find something surprisingly compelling. Take The Dark Knight, where Batman feels like a member of a larger ensemble than the sole hero. If you rewrote him into an unnamed street vigilante, you'd still find yourself with an incredibly compelling crime film. If you changed Superman's name and gave him a new costume in Man of Steel, you'd still have a very cool alien-invasion movie.
In other words, Man of Steel is a science fiction film in the same way that The Dark Knight is a crime movie. They exploit their genres instead of their characters. It's an approach that may ruffle the feathers of purists, but cinematically speaking, it's working.
Man of Steel announces its science fiction intentions from frame one, letting the first 15 minutes of the film take us on a whirlwind tour of Krypton. Many have already compared the quick, efficient and heavily detailed world-building here to James Cameron's Avatar and that's an apt comparison. Snyder's take on Superman's home world is so rich, strange and detailed that we could've spent the entire movie here. Compare that to past Superman movies, where Krypton has been a nebulous place that solely exists to have young Kal-El sent across the cosmos. Heck, the very first issue of Action Comics opens with only a single panel dedicated to Superman's home planet, with the issue more concerned about Superman fighting injustice than grappling with his alien origins. Superman's alien origins haven't always been a priority with the character on-screen or in print, so to see them fully embraced is wonderful.
All of these details about a doomed world continue to pay off throughout the rest of the film, which focuses on Clark Kent/Kal-El struggling with his powers and dual identity. The concept of an alien struggling to fit in on Earth is nothing new. Literature fans will send you in the direction of Robert Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land and film buffs bring up Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. But to see this tried and true science fiction setup applied to Superman makes for some fairly compelling stuff. We've seen just how foreign, how alien, Clark's actual home was. Knowing where he came from and knowing just how different it was from where he ended up allows us to better appreciate his struggle. He doesn't belong here. He knows it in his blood and we know it because we've seen it.
However, Man of Steel seals the deal and undeniably earns its place as a science fiction film in the second half, where General Zod and his forces arrive on Earth and begin wreaking havoc. Man of Steel may have spent the previous hour chasing more thoughtful science fiction, but it's here that it joins the likes of Independence Day in becoming one of the great, goofy alien-invasion blockbusters. In fact, if you choose to look at the final 45 minutes as a science fiction movie and not a Superman movie, a lot of the film's major problems feel a little less severe. Sure, it's irresponsible for a superhero movie to feature so much collateral damage, but for an alien-invasion movie where one good alien fights an army of evil aliens? That feels strangely forgivable.
It'll be interesting to watch what goes down with the inevitable Justice League movie with this particular take on Superman leading the team. It's tough to imagine the dense sci-fi sticking around when the character has to share the screen with the likes of Batman and Wonder Woman... but there's plenty of interesting science fiction to be mined out of characters like the Flash and Green Lantern. Could a Justice League movie follow in Man of Steel's footsteps and deliver the insane science fiction epic to end all science fiction epics? Or will it simply chase the familiar?