Superman is possibly the most infamous fictional American icon ever created. What is it about this Kryptonian with super-human strength that resonates so deeply with the cultural zeitgeist? Is it that we’d all like to be “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?” Sure, that’d be cool. But since that isn’t possible, it’s more the allegory for what it means to be a “man” in society. Superman is a selfless savior who was put on this world to do good. His alter ego Clark Kent is just an ordinary guy who isn’t impervious to the imperfections of the human body, after all he does wear glasses. So by day we might all be Clark Kent, but when the moment arrives where we need to change into the suit with an S-logo on the chest (whatever that would mean to the individual, allegory remember?) will we man up to the challenge? Do we possess the characteristics of a brave and kind-hearted hero with a strong sense of justice, morality, and righteousness? Man of Steel asks these questions even more so than some of the other incarnations of this superhero franchise.
– This review contains spoilers –
If you’re a woman reading this and have already zoned out because you find the preceding paragraph unrelatable or even misogynistic, you’re probably right. After all, Superman was a comic book created in the 1930’s with a character inspired by Greek mythology, namely Greek gods such as Hercules. While Man of Steel casts Amy Adams, one of the better actresses of her generation, as Lois Lane, Lane’s main purpose in the film is to further the story of Superman. As a reporter she is instrumental in learning everything she can about Superman and where he came from, with her findings ultimately serving to develop his character. We learn practically nothing about Lane, and while she has moments of displaying bravery and even sass, despite her best efforts she eventually always needs Superman to rescue her. However, Amy Adams is very likable in the role and besides being very pretty, she has a certain moxie to sell the character as being willing to go to any lengths to get her scoop. And not to worry, when an eventual Wonder Woman movie is made, the boys will feel left out.
Henry Cavill, a relatively unknown actor (but probably not for long), is serviceable as Superman but comes off somewhat wooden and dull at times. This probably isn’t so much Cavill’s fault as it is the nature of the character and the material he’s given to work with. Unlike the snarky Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Superman is as straight-laced and stoic as it gets. With his arms and chest bursting out of every outfit he wears, Cavill certainly looks the part, and is believable in the role if not particularly exciting. What isn’t as believable is the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane, as Cavill and Adams lack the chemistry needed to sell their romance.
This version of Superman isn’t a sequel or continuation of the series, but a reboot/re-imagining of sorts. Implementing an interesting strategy, a large chunk of the film consists of flashbacks interspersed throughout the present day action. Most superhero origin stories will use a 10 minute prologue to tell you everything you need to know about the character’s beginnings. But, Clark Kent had such a complicated and dysfunctional childhood that a we’re often transported back in time to see why he is who he is, and the structure works quite well. Before we meet the ‘Man of Steel’, we get two great examples of what a man should be, Clark’s birth dad (Russell Crowe) and Earth dad (Kevin Costner), the two men integral in shaping Clark Kent into Superman. The most emotional aspects of the film come from Jonathan Kent’s interactions with his son. Clark’s father knows that the world is not ready to find out that someone with Clark’s abilities exists. Clark would be labeled a freak, probably be seized by the government and have scientific experiments done on him. Bigger than that though would be the ramifications his existence would have on the planet if everyone’s notions of what was possible were turned upside down. Kevin Costner is fantastic in the patriarchal role and with most of his scenes taking place with Clark as a child, the father/son relationship is grounded in reality, really giving you something to care about. After an adolescent Clark rescues a School Bus full of children by pushing the bus to safety and out of the river its crashed into, some of the kids start talking about Clark’s superpowers. His dad is concerned over the high-profile incident. Clark asks, “What should I have done? Let them die?” “Maybe”, his father responds. Jonathan Kent isn’t insensitive, quite the opposite. He has the foresight to do what is for the greater good of humanity.
The crux of the story is the same as in other adaptations. A 20-minute opening sequence features Krypton on the brink of destruction at the hands of General Zod (Michael Shannon), so Russell Crowe’s Jor-El decides to send his newborn son on a spacecraft headed for Earth, with the baby being the one glimmer of hope that the Kryptonian people can live on. Jor-El’s wife is not so crazy about the idea of giving up her infant son. Jor-El convinces her that they have no other choice and she goes along with it, (again the men are always right). So baby Kal-El lands on Earth where he will be appointed with the more human friendly name of Clark Kent by his adoptive parents Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and the aforementioned Jonathan. After Clark grows into a man thanks to the values instilled in him by his farm-raised parents, he next needs to grow into a ‘superman’. Although Crowe’s Jor-El dies in the first sequence of the film, he shows up many times in spirit form, with all the memories and emotions of his mortal self. He gives some fatherly wisdom to his son that Costner’s Jonathan Kent isn’t able to give, such as how to defeat General Zod and his army. Michael Shannon (who often plays a bad guy but has never been bad in anything) gives a standout performance. He plays General Zod almost as if he were the villain of a Shakespeare play. Shannon is menacing and a pro when it comes to delivering foreboding dialogue.
At 2 hours and 23 minutes the film is a bit overlong, especially towards the end with a final 30-40 minutes consisting of nonstop mayhem. There’ve been complaints that Man of Steel takes too dark an approach on Superman, but the film isn’t nearly as bleak as The Dark Knight. It isn’t as light as The Avengers either, but as good as The Avengers is, it’s practically a kids movie. Split the difference and you have Man of Steel, a somber character study mixed with fun and over the top action sequences. However, it’s in these final sequences that the film becomes somewhat tiresome as we’re bombarded with so much imagery and chaos, it’s hard to keep track of all the spaceship flying and building exploding action that’s going on. Unlike The Dark Knight, which used mostly practical special effects to give the sense that it’d be possible for Batman to exist in the real world, Man of Steel is way too CGI heavy. The post-converted 3D only serves to blur the images, especially when mixed with the often shaky camera work. These superhero movies really enjoy destroying major cities and for the most part the spectacle is impressive, but for once it’d be nice to see a mano-a-mano showdown between superhero and super-villain go down in a more intimate setting.
Man of Steel gets a lot right and makes 2006’s mediocre Superman Returns look even worse by comparison. Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) delivers his best big-budget extravaganza yet and shows a surprising restraint when it comes to avoiding filming everything in a highly stylized slow-motion, a technique used rampantly in his other films. While another look at the origins of Superman probably wasn’t necessary, (by now everyone gets the gist of the story) the movie is well done and carries an emotional weight that the other films lacked. Sure, a scene where we see how Superman learns to fly is extraneous (Superman can fly, no need to know how, we’re on board). But now that the groundwork is all laid out, the inevitable Man of Steel sequel will probably be even better.