I don’t want to hear any whining about the new Superman movie, Man of Steel. No, it’s not like any previous version of the iconic hero’s story that we’ve seen before. Accept that fact. Much like different artists interpret the character in different ways, movies are allowed to do the same thing. This version is not the familiar Boy Scout who spins the earth backward to reverse time. He’s an original creation who’s reluctant to use his powers, but eventually fights his battles in an orgy of physical destruction. Whether or not you like Man of Steel depends on whether or not you like this interpretation of Superman. I didn’t like it… I loved it!
We’ve seen plenty of Boy Scout Superman. Christopher Reeve in 1978’s Superman defined the character for an era; however, that era no longer exists. Brandon Routh’s version in Superman Returns (2006) failed because it tried to resurrect the Superman of nearly three decades ago. Things aren’t as simple in this day and age. You cannot be a force for good when society is permeated with doubt and mistrust, when the military is a more powerful presence than the President and when the media follows your every step.
It’s no wonder that Clark Kent’s adoptive father, played by a surprisingly touching Kevin Costner, raises his son by telling him he can’t use his super-powers and he must remain in hiding. He’s so adamant about it that he’d rather let a tornado rip him to pieces than have Clark expose his secret. That’s likely to cause some psychological damage, super-powers or not, which is why we first see adult Clark Kent as a hired hand on a fishing boat. He’s still compelled to help people, but only in the shadows and without costume (or shirt, for that matter) in early scenes of the movie.
One of the things I really liked about Man of Steel is that, while it begins (as many other variations do) with the destruction of his home planet, Krypton, it skips the part about Jonathan and Martha Kent finding his crashed space ship. As the ship speeds toward Earth, the movie immediately jumps to the adult Clark Kent as described above. The story of his life in Smallville is told through flashbacks of key events at times that are opportune for reflecting the inner anguish of the grown man. It’s an emotionally effective storytelling device.
I also liked that the least interesting part of the legend for me, the whole Krypton part, is envisioned as never before. It’s not a sterile, icy planet; instead, it’s a living, breathing entity all its own, with cliffs and waterfalls, flying creatures and liquid metal technology. It’s the first indication that this will be a different type of Superman movie; but, while important to the story, it dominates relatively little actual screen time. Both of these approaches combat the inevitable dread that Man of Steel will simply rehash a story told many times before.
What I don’t like, not specifically about Man of Steel, but about the Superman legend itself, is that his father Jor-El, played here by Russell Crowe, always returns from his Kryptonian grave to tidily explain his past and reveal his destiny. I’m not sure when that component became part of the legend, but it feels like a lazy way for Clark to learn about his heritage. Wouldn’t it be more compelling if he discovered it himself during the course of his adventures? That approach would have worked particularly well in Man of Steel, considering that the villain is another refugee from Krypton, General Zod (Michael Shannon). Instead, I think it’s trying to make some statement about fatherhood; if so, that’s something I didn’t find entirely satisfactory in this case.
Speaking of Zod, he’s an adequate villain in Man of Steel, but he doesn’t stand out like, say, the Joker does in The Dark Knight. Shannon is an intense actor, but his performance lacks… charisma? He probably won’t receive an Oscar nomination like Heath Ledger did. This is a good time to remind you that Man of Steel shares the same creative blood as the Dark Knight trilogy: producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer. I credit them for successfully modernizing both the character(s) and the story.
I credit director Zack Snyder for the look of Man of Steel, and its equally unique (or somewhat annoying, depending on your point of view) style. There are a lot of extreme close-ups and Battlestar Galactica-like action shots with quick, jerky zoom-ins. More often than not, Superman is a speck in the distance, zipping through the sky, until a sudden zoom shows him closer for a split second before switching to another shot. It’s all presented with a muted color palette; the entire movie seems… “gray”. In the fight sequences, it’s sometimes difficult to follow Superman and Zod, their presence demonstrated only by the path of destruction they leave in their wake.
I’ve mentioned “destruction” a couple times now. You’re likely to leave Man of Steel either terribly desensitized or highly energized. It’s a loud, visually (and literally) explosive movie, relentless in its action. While it’s nice to finally see a realistic battle lifted from the pages of a comic book, it borders on being too much. It might not seem so except for the fact that while a handful of people have Superman to thank for saving their lives, you can’t help but wonder how many people lost their lives in the fallout.
Two other tweaks to the legend seemed liked revelations to me. First is Clark/Superman’s relationship to Lois Lane (Amy Adams). It remains at its core a sweet, but challenging, romance; however the specifics of it are cleverly reconstructed. Second is Clark/Superman’s relationship to The Daily Planet. We’re so used to that being at the beginning of the story. Here, it really has nothing to do with the development of Superman. Instead of realizing his potential while he’s a reporter for the newspaper, it comes after the fact when he knows how he can use it to his advantage. (Because of that, we never really see the bumbling Clark Kent.)
Ultimately, it all comes down to Superman himself, played here by Henry Cavill. There’s no doubt he’s built for the part; no padding is required in the muscular areas of his costume. It’s the first time we’ve seen a hairy Superman, onscreen at least, but it works. At the end, the general’s assistant probably won’t be the only one saying how dreamy he is. But to carry the additional emotional baggage that Man of Steel has added takes more than just a pretty face. Cavill is up to the task. Yes, he’s serious, but watch the grin on his face as he learns to fly for the first time and the twinkle in his eye as he’s interrogated by Lois Lane. It’s a star-making performance.
As I proofread this review, I realize I’ve pointed out a lot of things about Man of Steel that aren’t perfect. Honestly, I can’t say it’s a “great” movie in the same way that I thought The Dark Knight was a “great” movie. If you think about it, it’s really just another glorified remake of an earlier, perhaps better movie sequel (Superman II), much the way –SPOILER ALERT– Star Trek Into Darkness is a glorified remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Whether or not you like it depends on whether or not you like the new approach to an iconic character and a familiar story. I did, and I experienced a fast, entertaining two-and-a-half hours that left me a lot to savor… and a lot to look forward to in the inevitable sequel.