Man of Steel is to movie adaptations of DC Comics characters what Iron Man and Iron Man 3 are to movie adaptations of Marvel’s superheroes. It cuts through the multiple iterations of Superman origin stories from 75 years of the character, takes the best bits, filters them through the filters of story writers Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer and then zaps them with the energy and vision of director Zack Snyder. It is best Superman movie since Superman II – and easily on a par with that film.
You will undoubtedly read elsewhere that Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a mix of Christian parallels and Nietzchean quasi-fascism cloaked in a guise of pop culture entertainment. While writers who cite those influences may have some valid points, they’re missing the point – this is a summer superhero movie that brings a character that is over the top by the very nature of his existence into a recognizably real world – and makes it work.
The way that Nolan, Goyer and Snyder make it work is by telling the story not as a superhero story, but a first contact story with Kal-El/Clark Kent as the alien. The way they establish this is by giving us a longer, more detailed look at Krypton – where society has evolved into one that is almost religiously based on science, and every Kryptonian is created to fulfill a specific function, from worker to warrior to leader. It is a society that been out of touch with the things that and it great that personalities as different as military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) and leading scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) have decided to rebel in their own way: Zod by attempting a coup; Jor-El and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) by having a child the natural way.
Both are too late – Krypton is doomed because of extensive misuse of its natural resources. Zod is defeated and his followers exiled to the Phantom Zone, while Jor-El and Lara send baby Kal off to Earth where he is found and raised by the Kents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane).
From the scene of Krypton’s destruction, the movie moves to the present, following the grown Clark (Henry Cavill) as he helps people while trying to metaphorically keep his head down. Juxtaposed with scenes of him as an adult, are scenes from his youth, learning that he was different, trying to fit in. Jonathan taught him to be wary because people fear what they don’t understand and they would likely fear him – but at the same time, he tried to give young Clark (Cooper Timberline, Dylan Sprayberry) a sense of right and wrong and the need to do the right thing.
Meanwhile, freed from the Phantom zone by Krypton’s destruction, Zod and his followers have spent thirty-three years trying to locate Kal-El and their eventual arrival on Earth forces him to reveal himself – leading to all sorts of superhero comics mayhem.
This is not your grandfather’s Superman – in fact, the term is only used a couple of times in the movie (though you know it’ll stick for the inevitable sequels). Clark/Kal is not the Big Blue Boy Scout here. He’s a man with completely reasonable hopes, dreams and fears. As played by Cavill, he’s tough and smart, yet sensitive and vulnerable.
Man of Steel is mostly concerned with establishing Clark/Kal as a person so that he can become a hero. As a result, most of the foremost canonical characters from the comics are barely sketched in – his relationship with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), for example, takes the entire movie to reach its beginning. To be fair, it does something pretty cool here – it takes a very different approach to the whole Lois trying to prove Clark is Superman plot from the comics.
Other staples from the comics, like Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) get little more than token screen time, though both actors give us a sense of who their characters are because they’re just that good.
Adams’ ability to play spunky characters gives Lois more than the writing here. Her background as a reporter comes to us more from comments by others than what we see in the first half of the movie – though she does play a key role in the rest of the film. Unlike Lois, though, Daily Planet intern Jenny (Rebecca Buller) – who is rumored to be the franchise’s version of Jimmy Olsen – gets a few lines and some screams.
Crowe does some great work as Jor-El – both as the outraged Kryptonian who breaks one of his society’s greatest taboos (natural childbirth) and as the AI who mentors the adult Kal/Clark.
Where the film really shines in its villains – two of them, at least. Michael Shannon plays Zod as a patriot whose sole purpose is to protect his people. To that end, he is prepared to do anything – up to and including genocide. Antje Traue may not have a lot lines as Zod’s second-in-command, Faora-Ul, but she would pop off the screen even if Man of steel hadn’t been converted to 3D. If Krypton had ninjas, she would be their leader – she’s tactically smart, shows terrific fighting moves and is utterly ruthless.
Although there are plenty of character beats, Man of Steel is still, first and foremost, an action-filled attempt to reinvigorate its title character as a movie franchise – so there’s action, action and more action. And let me just say that, if you love action, you will love this movie even if you don’t like much else about it.
Man of Steel was shot with handheld cameras, so there’s an immediacy to it – and the feel of a real world – that we haven’t seen in previous superhero movies – at least one where the characters involved had actual superpowers. And in building that sense of a real world, there is a creative decision made that, while absolutely essential, will spark a very lively debate amongst Superman fans.
There a few things that bothered me about Man of Steel, but they were mostly minor things – characters that were barely sketched in will undoubtedly get more play in the sequel(s), for example. But the biggest problem, for me at least, is that Man of Steel should probably not have been released as a 3D movie. Not only does it not add anything to the experience, it actually makes parts of some key action sequences (like in that half-hour of the movie) burry and hard to follow.
Then there’s the lack of humor – not that the film is devoid of humor, but rather that Clark/Kal is too serious, outside of a couple of brief exchanges with Lois. Man of Steel, as a film, actually has more humor than most of the trailers and TV spots might have led you to believe.
Final Grade: A-
Photos by Clay Enos/Courtesy of Warner Brothers