By Jeff Jensen
December 14, 2012 at 08:27 PM EST

Man of Steel won’t be hurting for an audience when the latest cinematic incarnation of Superman swoops into theaters next summer. The casting of Henry Cavill (The Tudors, The Immortals) has been met with great enthusiasm from fanboys, media, and pretty much everyone with working eyeballs. The supporting players ooze quality and clout: Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne. That’s an all-star team-up of acting Avengers right there. Behind the camera, a marketable, geek-cool, movie-smart brain trust: producer Christopher Nolan, screenwriter David Goyer, director Zack Snyder. With talent like this above and below the line, there’s little doubt people will be buying tickets…

But will they buy Superman himself?

Man of Steel will arrive seven years after Warner Bros. tried to relaunch the comic book icon — created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — as a 21st-century movie franchise with Superman Returns. The key ingredients in that formulation: A young Hollywood cast and faithfulness to the romantic spirit and continuity of the first two Christopher Reeve/Superman movies from the late seventies, albeit with a bit more Emo. The story tracked a Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) who had disappeared from a Metropolis that had easily embraced the super-powered mystery man… and had learned to get by without him just fine during the break. But then Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) tried to take over the world with technology swiped from Superman’s home planet of Krypton, and everyone quickly took the super-powered E.T. back.

Superman Returns was an enterprise that didn’t make enough money and generate enough interest to justify making more movies like it, especially in an era when moviegoers have been more fascinated by markedly different superhero archetypes: A grim Batman, a glibly cool Iron Man. And so Man of Steel — the second second coming” of Superman this century — comes with all the questions that its predecessor failed to answer compellingly. Is Superman relevant? Does he need to change? Do we trust The Big Blue Bly Scout’s brand of heroism?

NEXT PAGE: The look of the film.

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The new trailer for the Man of Steel provides some provocative clues as to how Superman’s new creative stewards intend to answer those questions. The first thing you notice is the look of the movie. The film is clearly full of big screen, computer-assisted spectacle, but it eschews the classicism of previous Superman flicks with a darker color palette, more naturalistic aesthetic, and more intimate vibe. The trailer seems to evoke/invoke director Terrence Malick, a comparison that’s further goosed by a section that focuses on a young Clark Kent trying to reconcile the competing worldviews of his parents, akin to the internal conflict of Sean Penn’s haunted, lost-in-life modern man in Malick’s Tree of Life. (“Mother. Father. Always you war inside me.”) The first Man of Steel footage unveiled at Comic-con even went so far as to incorporate a musical piece from Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

But digging deeper into the Man of Steel trailer, and reading it not as a collection of out-of-context imagery from the movie, but as a narrative that says something about the movie, what you glean is a Superman we haven’t seen on the big screen before, one that challenges and subverts many of the characteristics that have long defined the character.

The very first image: An unidentified floating figure, bobbing like driftwood in a sea junky with debris, arms spread like Christ. We are below him, and we see the skies above, swirling with hazy clouds, maybe smoke. It’s a cold and stormy vibe. The first Superman movie told us “You will believe a man can fly.” But the immobile gent in this shot looks like he’s been blasted out of the sky, and worse for wear: His pants are in tatters, like the Hulk’s ripped and ragged chinos. And his feet are, like, Bigfoot huge… which probably has nothing to do with anything. Just saying.

Next: Our first look at Cavill.

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The very next shot gives us our first glimpse of Cavill. The trailer has not yet given his character a name, but for analysis sake, we shan’t be as coy: The floater is Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal-El, alien orphan from the doomed planet Krypton. We notice the beard. It’s a mangy thing that hides the Man of Steel’s normally clean, open face and strong jaw line. Shall we make the beard a metaphor for the film’s scruffy aesthetic and fuzzy view of the super-hero archetype? We shall! And so this essay shall make much of beards.

His eyes are closed. It’s a portrait of dormancy, but as we are soon to see, he’s not dead. Not sleeping either. Just meditating. On the soundtrack: The kind of melancholy kid-choir music favored by directors who want to put you in a mournful, contemplative mood.

Next: Growing up scared.

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Typically in Superman origin stories, Clark Kent moves directly from his idyllic formative years in Smallville to his adult life in Metropolis… albeit after a brief pit stop at the Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic for some remedial Kryptonian education and self-directed, independent study in the way of the superhero. In these stories, Clark’s adopted parents are wise, inspired salt of the earth farmers who raise him to be a humble and selfless custodian of the planet. Sure, he’s alienated from the world, but he isn’t afraid of it, either, and when he comes of age, he’s excited to venture into it, engage it, and find his place and destiny.

But Man of Steel’s Clark Kent doesn’t appear to be that Clark Kent. The narrative that emerges in the trailer tracks the development of boy with a very different orientation toward the world.

As the camera hovers above Cavill’s fuzzy face, we hear a boy’s voice declare: “The world’s too big, Mom.” We cut to a shot of Martha Kent (Diane Lane) outside a door, talking through it. “Then make it small,” she says tenderly, trying to talk the boy off an emotional ledge. We then see shots that evoke education. Pencils tipped with erasers. A teacher’s handwriting on a chalkboard. A boy running through a school hallway. Mom continues: “Focus on my voice. Pretend it’s an island, out in the ocean. Can you see it?”

Off this question, we cut to young Clark, hiding from his mother and that scary world behind that aforementioned door. He has barricaded himself inside what looks to be a janitor’s closet — an ironic allusion, possibly, to those images of the George Reeves Superman serials of Clark Kent at The Daily Planet, sneaking away to a janitor’s closet to slip out of his reporter’s suit and fly away in his Super-skivvies to save someone from something somewhere.

Young Clark takes his mother’s advice to heart and tells her “I see it.” We cut back to Grizzled Clark floating in the water, and we see him open his eyes. Maybe it’s just my pop soaked brain, but I heard Simon and Garfunkel in the subtext. “I am a rock/I am an island.” Indeed, the song’s portrait of a man on a frozen December day reflecting on the “walls” he’s built to shield him from existential pain, “like a fortress deep and mighty,” echoes through the next section of the trailer…

NEXT: Father Knows Best?

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The moral of most superhero stories is (to quote from The Revelation According To Spider-Man) “with great power comes great responsibility.” In other words: Discipline, sacrifice, service. Most superheroes need to learn this lesson the hard way (again, see Spider-Man, as well as Batman), but not Superman: He was raised on these values, built with these values, by a pair of heartland saints who preached severe, even austere humility (think: the first Superman movie, when Clark was prohibited from being the high school football stud he could have been, and instead had to settle for being a lowly, subservient water boy), who sent Clark into the world with a Great Commandment: Go, and be Super to everyone, man!

While it’s hard to imagine that the Ma and Pa Kent of Man of Steel won’t acquit themselves well as parental role models, it’s very possible they might articulate their core values differently than Kents past, and might even have some learning to do themselves. Case-in-point: The surprising moment in the trailer when Jonathan Kent takes young Clark to task for saving a group of children when their school bus plunges into the drink.

“You have to keep this side of yourself a secret!” says Jonathan, no doubt just wanting to protect his misfit son from a world that might persecute him for his point of difference, or exploit him for his power.

Clark: “What was I supposed to do? Just let ‘em die?”

“Maybe,” says Jonathan.

It’s shocking to hear Pa Kent give the future Superman such advice. It’s also tempting to ponder the subversive politics of this scene, steeped as it is in Americana imagery, from the idyllic Midwestern farm to the presence of Field of Dreams star Kevin Costner to Superman himself — or rather, a post 9/11, post-Iraq War Superman.

Projecting too much? Perhaps. So for now, let’s keep it simple: This Superman had parents who taught him how to survive a troubled, frightening world, not save it. This Superman has a very conflicted relationship to the whole notion of heroism. Which means…

NEXT: The Meaning Of Superman Is Up In The Air.

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The trailer jumps away from drifting Clark to a slightly less lost, slightly more focused Clark. This is because he’s made a discovery, in some snowy, icebound region — the kind of Arctic wasteland where one might build a Fortress of Solitude. Cavill — now rocking a trimmer beard and clean white threads — utters his first words in the trailer: “I have so many questions. Where do I come from?” And we see him holding a small black object like a flash drive, Superman’s iconic S shield stamped on the cap.

From here, the trailer jumps again. Clark has made a colorful transformation. He’s wearing red boots. He’s walking across arctic tundra. His flowing red cape dancing in the breeze, not quite grazing the ice. We see his face. No beard. Strong jaw. He looks toward the sun — then closes his eyes. We’re not sure how we feel about him. We’re not sure if he knows how to feels about himself, but we get the sense he’s about to make a choice. Voiceover from Kevin Costner spells it out. “You just have to decide what kind of man you want to be when you grow up Clark. Whoever that man is? He’s going to change the world.”

Clark kneels like a sprinter in a starting block, but instead of finger tips flexed to ground, it’s a rock hard fist that plants him to Earth. Is he drawing power out of the planet in order to do what he’s about to do next? That’s the implication. The turf begins to rumble and the music begins to swell with triumph… or tremble with fear. It’s hard to tell.

And with that, Clark, surging with newfound power and identity, launches like a rocket, cracking the Earth in the process. He soars into the sky. Through the clouds. Into orbit, and back down to Earth. We see only a hint of his costume as he passes. It feels more like a shadow shooting by than anything else. Very (morally) ambiguous.

What has Clark become? What kind of super-man has this lonely, cut-off, scared-of-the-world man-child chosen to be? Should we be thrilled… or terrified?

NEXT: Superman: Savior or Destroyer?

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Up until its very last beats, the remainder of the trailer is a flurry of images that showcase the film’s starry supporting cast and a lot of apocalyptic eye candy.

We see Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Clark’s Kryptonian father, embracing his wife, Lara Lor-Van (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), who is holding a baby, presumably Kal-El. Crowe’s Jor-El immediately distinguishes himself from Marlon Brando’s silver-haired Jor-El, and we get the sense that the marvelous males of Man of Steel adhere to a more Brawny Towel Man image of masculinity.

We see Michael Shannon as General Zod, a Kryptonian rebel/terrorist. In Superman II, Terence Stamp played Zod, who escaped from The Phantom Zone and came to Earth to hunt the son of his jailor. Like his cinematic predecessor, Shannon’s Zod sports a goatee — albeit more scruffy — but he does not wear a shiny black disco suit. Whew. The shot of Zod is immediately followed by a shot of Superman falling to his knees, and the juxtaposition creates a sly nod to Superman II’s classic “kneel before Zod” moment.

We see an energy beam blasting a city, the impact tossing cars and buildings tossed into the sky. We see spaceships sailing through explosions and descending upon Earth. We see Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White (accompanied by an unidentified female) running through the streets of Metropolis under siege, followed immediately by a cloaked figure baring witness to the destruction of what is most likely Krypton.

What’s most interesting about this section of the trailer is that you don’t really see Clark Kent do anything that can be called, with confidence, “heroic.” No saving cats from trees or damsels in distress. No busting up bank robberies. There’s one fleeting shot of what seems to be Supes and Zod tussling in the sky, but because the trailer doesn’t tell us if Zod is good or evil, this moment plays morally neutral. There’s a shocking shot of Clark on fire, and a close-up on Clark’s face as he’s exerting his super-strength to push against… something. But you never see him or his costumed alter-ego do any overt, clear-cut do-gooding. In fact, at one point, we get the shot featured on the movie’s poster: Clark in a dark-hued Superman suit, in cuffs, as if some kind of criminal.

The final moments of the trailer put a fine point on the matter…

NEXT: “What do you think?”

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We get our first look at Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Superman’s true love and his tether to humanity. In addition to a close-up on her, we see them embrace, and we see them look at each other with grave expressions as they clasp hands. These images are included among other shots that pit Clark against the military. Coming in the wake of the deluge of apocalyptic imagery, we might interpret the narrative of the trailer like so: Clark’s transformation leads to global mayhem and puts him at odds with the world. We wonder if Man of Steel might be the first Superman movie that imagines what would really happen if a super-powered being suddenly manifested and forced himself, however benevolently, upon the planet. Would we immediately trust him and embrace him? Or would we be suspicious, fearful, even terrified? (In this sense, Man of Steel seems thematically similar to Chronicle, which reworked the superhero origin story as a horror movie, and also reminiscent of classic sci-fi/alien visitation films like The Day The Earth Stood Still, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, and perhaps most of all, Starman, one of the great underrated films of the 1980s.)

The voiceover from Clark: “My father believed that if the world figured out who I really was, they’d reject me. He was convinced that the world wasn’t ready.” This sets up the final shot. Most trailers for most movies of this stripe ring out on an affirming note for the superhero. But Man of Steel earns its chilly cool goosebumps by closing on a note of uncertainty. We see a close-up of those blood-red boots as this mystery man (who is never once called or identified as “Superman”) steps in front of a squad of soldiers, guns aimed like a firing squad. As his crimson cape sweeps in front of the camera like a closing curtain, we hear Clark finish off the recollection of his father’s fear by asking: “What do you think?”

In the context of the trailer, this question is clearly directed at us, the audience. So let’s give him an answer. Can Man of Steel reinvent Superman for the new century? Can this kind of superhero still fly in a zero dark thirty culture of dark knight vigilantes and militaristic iron men? The message board awaits your response.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

Related:

Why is every superhero movie an origin story?

‘Man of Steel’ trailer: Feast your eyes on Zack Snyder’s new Superman movie

New ‘Man of Steel’ poster reveals Superman…in handcuffs?

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