Man of Steel (Warner Bros.; PG-13)

As a lifelong fan of the character, I couldn’t have asked for more in a Superman film than what I got in Man of Steel.



On the surface, 2006’s Superman Returns seemed like such a sure thing: a director who kickstarted the superhero film revolution with 2000’s ­X-Men and professed a huge love for the characters (Bryan Singer), a star who was a dead ringer for the much beloved Christopher Reeve (Brandon Routh), and an Oscar-winning actor to play one of pop culture’s greatest villains (Kevin Spacey). And yet it just didn’t work, thanks to a lack of compelling action and a slavish adherence to the atmosphere of the ‘70s Richard Donner Superman films without understanding what made those films work. In taking a second shot at reinventing the Man of Tomorrow for the 21st century, Warner Bros. cast their lot with another set of seemingly sure things: the director of several super-stylish comic book films (Zack Snyder, the “visionary director” of 300 and Watchmen) and the team that pulled the same trick with Batman (screenwriter David S. Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan). But big questions still linger when approaching Man of Steel: Could Snyder’s flashy style gel with Nolan’s dark realism? And could Goyer and Nolan adapt their appropriately-dark-for-Batman sensibilities into something that fits the Big Blue Boy Scout?

The answer, fortunately, is an emphatic yes on both counts.
Snyder and co. waste little time with exposition, and instead dive headlong into the origin, a story that should be recognizable to pretty much anyone with a pulse, but a quick recap: The planet Krypton is destroying itself, having mined its natural resources to the point of destabilizing the very core of the planet. Scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) tries to solve the problem by approaching the planet’s governing council with reason and science, while the more militant General Zod (Michael Shannon) prefers a more direct approach and stages a bloody coup. But both efforts are too little too late. Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer), sensing the planet’s final hour approaches, place their infant son Kal-El in a rocket and fire him off into space in the direction of Earth, while Zod’s efforts are thwarted, leading him and his fellow rebels to be banished to a vacuous no man’s land called the Phantom Zone. Kal-El arrives on Earth, where he is raised as Clark Kent by his adoptive human parents Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) in Smallville, Kansas. But Clark isn’t any normal kid: his Kryptonian DNA feeds off of the Earth’s yellow sun, making him faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Oh, and shoot heat rays out of his eyes.
When we catch up with Clark (Henry Cavill) as an adult, he’s anonymously wandering through a series of cold weather towns where he works a variety of odd jobs (oil platform worker, fisherman, busboy) that inadvertently lead to situations where Clark must use his powers to rescue people then skip town as fast as possible. He’s headed to the Arctic, where the military has located an anomaly that, unbeknownst to them, is an ancient Kryptonian scout ship. Clark is going there to find out more about his alien heritage, but he’s not the only one searching for it: so is Lois Lane (Amy Adams), intrepid reporter for the Daily Planet, who finds herself aboard the ship and in grave danger before being rescued by Clark, who once again hightails it before his identity is made. Lois instantly goes into reporter mode, tracking back these tales of a mystery man with extraordinary powers. But Clark has even bigger problems to worry about: awakening the Kryptonian ship grabs the attention of Zod, newly freed from the Phantom Zone, who comes to Earth with an army and an ultimatum: hand over their fellow alien Kal-El or the world will be destroyed.
That last paragraph may seem like an outline of a fair amount of plot minutiae, but it lays out the path to the film’s success. Like Nolan’s Bat-films, the world of Man of Steel is a drab, dark one that would seem at first blush to be an ill-fit for a Superman film, and certainly at-odds with the warm nostalgia of Superman Returns or the Donner films. But as he did with the Dark Knight in Batman Begins, Goyer sets up Superman as a mystery figure, little more than an urban legend. The first time that the world at large learns who he is is when Zod arrives, so humanity doesn’t view Superman as their savior, but rather as an alien in a snazzy cape with terrifying powers that could just as easily destroy the world as Zod could.
That is how Man of Steel succeeds in bringing Superman into the 21st century: not by trying (and, let’s be honest, probably failing) to modernize Superman himself, but by modernizing the world around him, creating a shades-of-gray world and asking the question “How does a man as purely good as Superman navigate a world that fears and distrusts him?”
That thematic and emotional depth alone makes Man of Steel a compelling film, but it’s Snyder’s contributions that push it to the upper reaches of the superhero movie echelon by turning it into an action movie of epic scale. In contrast to Nolan’s Bat-films (whose shadowy fight scenes were nearly impossible to follow) or Superman Returns (whose sole action was Superman lifting heavy objects, whee!), this film is packed with skillfully choreographed fight scenes where superpowered punches land with nuclear force and each leap into the sky leaves the concrete road below a pile of rubble. That choreography is important: characters whip around the screen at lightning speed yet the action is surprisingly easy to follow (even with Snyder leaving behind his typical crutch—no sudden, dramatic switches to super slo-mo here) and satisfyingly brutal. Metropolis has definitely seen better days by the time the smoke clears.
The acting is uniformly excellent throughout. Cavill plays Clark to perfection, capturing his loneliness, his anguish, but also his warm Midwestern charm and stoic resolve in the face of danger. Adams excels as a much more capable Lois than we’ve seen in recent incarnations; without spoiling anything, the quickness with which she exercises her reporter’s instincts to get to the bottom of the Superman mystery is both dizzying and hilarious. As the two fathers whose legacy Clark strives to live up to, Crowe nails Jor-El’s coolly scientific demeanor, while Costner’s folksy Pa Kent serves as the film’s moral center with suitable gravity. Shannon is cold, brooding intensity as Zod, a villain in the Magneto role who absolutely believes he is the hero of his own story. A number of other actors also do solid work in smaller roles, including Lawrence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White (less of a blowhard than you’d typically see in the character) and Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni as the lead officers of the military effort.
The movie is not without its minor weaknesses. It’s a bit too long for starters, mostly because it wastes way too much of the runtime on the origin story—like nearly every introductory superhero film ever made, it takes about a half hour before the hero first uses his powers, and about an hour before he’s first seen in costume—and then has the gall to go through his origin twice. (First, the audience watches it happen. Then, we get to see a teenage Clark learn the exact same story in shorter form, just in case we forgot it in the intervening twenty minutes.) Both of Clark’s fathers are dead, yet (presumably because of the marquee actors cast in the roles) the film goes out of its way to keep bringing them back to life, Costner in the form of countless flashbacks and Crowe in the form of an interactive, computer-generated facsimile so lifelike he may as well have never died. And finally, as the movie rockets toward its conclusions, some of the plot machinations fall apart a bit under close scrutiny, particularly Zod’s motivation, and the movie’s grasp of physics gets a bit dodgy, as well. These plot weaknesses manifest at the height of the film’s action, however, making it easy enough to shut your brain off for a minute and just revel in the spectacle.
Minor complaints aside, as a lifelong fan of the character, I couldn’t have asked for more in a Superman film than what I got in Man of Steel. It’s got action, drama, heart, high stakes, some deep things to say about heroism in the modern world, and the purest of superheroes fighting the good fight against the forces of evil. | Jason Green
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