Man of Steel opens with the literal birth of Superman, which serves a greater metaphorical purpose than anything else. Not since the 1978 Richard Donner version starring Christopher Reeve has the character been able to capture cinematic lightning in a bottle. Under the watchful eye (albeit a hands-off approach) to the “rebirth” of the Man of Steel, Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy) stood watch as director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300, Sucker Punch) and screenwriter David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight) ushered in their vision for a contemporary Superman film, which would hopefully right the wrongs of director Bryan Singer’s 2006 misfire, Superman Returns.
In terms of righting wrongs, Snyder has delivered poetic justice, as Man of Steel is, in fact, THE Superman film most of us have always dreamed of seeing.
I say most, because naturally there’s always a small amount of folks who see it differently (Shit, there are people who hated The Avengers) and that’s to be expected. However, I feel I must address the amount of nerdcore backlash that the film has received, as I find it annoying, unwarranted, and childish. Opinions are opinions are opinions, I get that, but ultimately I feel as though many of the reviews for the film have absolutely failed to grasp the concept of who and what Superman is and how this film captures it perfectly.
Superman is an alien. He is not a human with superpowers. He is a bona fide foreigner from another planet, who is granted amazing abilities merely by his genetic make-up in a different environment. As such, he is a creature with an identity crisis, struggling to fit into a world that isn’t of his origin, but at the same time is. As both Clark Kent and Kal-El, he is an orphan of two worlds; one he’s known his entire life and one he’s never known. In Man of Steel, this conflict of identity is played with precision, as it’s part of the greater dynamic of Superman, which boils down to choices.
Clark/Kal/Superman must choose his own destiny, which is never an easy thing to do. Guided by the shadows of both his biological father and his adopted father, Superman is forever haunted by the angel/devil syndrome. With Jor-El on one shoulder and Jonathan Kent on the other, he is ultimately given a full understanding of who he is as a Kryptonian and an Earthling, then left to make his own choice of how to best live his life, given the circumstances of his unique abilities. The dynamic of his two fathers, their ghostly presence forever haunting his conscious and subconscious world, is one of the crowning characteristics of Superman. In fact, out of all superhero origins, Superman’s is by far the most compelling, which is both a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing because his origin never gets old. Unlike last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man, where the tropes of Peter Parker becoming the ol’ webhead were tired, bland, and boring, Superman offers a unique opportunity in exploring how we choose to live. Superman’s choice, to be Earth’s savior or its conqueror is a thought-provoking question and Man of Steel beautifully orchestrates that conundrum throughout its entire runtime.
For the first time, we see the planet Krypton as more than a bunch of ice crystals and bleached-out attire, as Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe in a surprisingly engaging and emotional performance, welcomes his newly born son into a dying world. Krypton is shown as more than a desolate and barren land, but an abundant and highly evolved one, as if seeing Earth in an unimaginably far off future. We meet General Zod, played with a fiery intensity by Michael Shannon, who is hellbent on the preservation of Krypton to the point of rebellion. Just as in the comics, he is captured and sent to the Phantom Zone, a dimensional prison that has long been a part of DC comics’ lore.
Instead of plowing along at a pace that shows Clark Kent’s origin from childhood to adulthood, the filmmakers did something respectful and innovative. They used flashbacks. Now, that may seem like a cop out to some, but the truth is, we have already seen that linear story told in the 1978 film. Why on Earth would we need to experience that again? After Kal-El’s trajectory to Earth as an infant, we are taken immediately into the final moments leading up to him becoming Superman, blending in the flashbacks to build and enhance his journey to that point. Each flashback serves a purpose and is relevant to the progression of the character.
It’s the very same principle that should’ve been used in the aforementioned The Amazing Spider-Man reboot. It respects the audience’s knowledge of the source material, but without dragging it out in a “we already know this” manner. It’s fresh, exciting, and tugs all the right heartstrings. That’s right, ladies and gentleman, he may be the Man of Steel, but there are plenty of moments here that put a lump in your throat and cause your eyes to well up. That shows not only the strength of the character, but of the filmmakers and actors bringing him to life.
Which leads us to Henry Cavill. A British actor who was actually cast as Superman once before in another version that eventually fell apart (the role finally went to Brandon Routh for Superman Returns), Cavill hung in there and was rewarded for his patience. Or, I should say, we’ve been rewarded. Cavill, in my opinion, is the perfect embodiment of Superman. He has the look, the physicality, the voice, the presence, and hot damn, he can really act. Cavill’s physical appearance is never used to anchor the film. It’s merely one piece of the whole. Cavill is run through the gamut of emotions; sadness, pain, anger, love, and fear. He is never merely a chiseled frame meant to hit things. But, thankfully, I’m glad he was allowed to do just that, because really, it’s the first time we’ve ever seen it done right. I found myself getting the “awesome chills” every time Cavill roared with ferocity, a show of his absolute power and strength as a Superman who won’t quit. It’s a barbaric yawp to remember, for sure.
The rest of the cast is solid, including a less obnoxious Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, A black Perry White, played by Laurence Fishburne, a surprisingly engaging military officer played by Christopher Meloni, and a perfectly motherly performance by Diane Lane as Martha Kent, who provides the right amount of gravitas and maternal energy to help guide a fatherless son. The stand out, for me, was Antje Traue as Faora, General Zod’s second-in-command. Traue has got tremendous presence as the badass female Kryptonian warrior with a cold, hard beauty. I think Man of Steel will open some doors for the actress and deservedly so. Of course Michael Shannon as Zod is reliable, as expected. I won’t say he’s a definitive villain, but he is certainly evil and full of rage, which Shannon does exceptionally. It’s a great start to Superman’s rogue gallery, which will hopefully expand in the sequel to some of his more colorful bad guys.
Having read the comics off and on for the better part of the last twenty years, it has always been my dream to see a Superman film that showed Superman being, well, super. And by super, I mean kicking some serious ass. We all know he can lift shit and shoot lasers out of his eyes and blow things into ice, but in the end, I think most of us want to see him use that superhero power to throw some devastating punches at his enemies. The older films starring Christopher Reeve got a few licks in, but nothing I’d ever call a real brawl and in Superman Returns we spent 2.5 hours just to see Superman hurl a giant rock into space.
In Man of Steel, however, we are finally able to bare witness to the awesome brutality that is a superhero throw down. It only took thirty or so years. The scraps in this are definitively epic, with each punch, smash, toss, etc. felt with the force of beings that transcend our own physical strength by a million times over. It’s truly a battle of the Gods, ripe with awe-inducing destruction. It’s a sight to behold and one that requires more than one viewing to truly soak it all in.
Now, many who have seen the film call this “destruction porn,” as tons of buildings are obliterated, creating a death toll that likely goes into the hundreds of thousands. Many such people, including critics, cite this as a major flaw of the film. However, this is where I feel the nitpicking cynics who call themselves film geeks become their own worst enemy. Like a child who can’t be pleased simply because they don’t really know what they want, even when given exactly what they asked for, just can’t be pleased. This clouds them from understanding the many complex ideas going on in the film (and, ultimately, the comics).
By their very nature, superheroes revel in destruction. It’s all about the spectacle. Anyone who has read a few comics knows that the setting of any sequence is just as important as the characters. Now, in a “real world” superhero fight (I know, I know, absurd, but hear me out) we would prefer an open field, away from heavily populated areas, so as to minimize casualties. Ultimately, though, superhero comics thrive in those city environments, raising the stakes (and visual impact) of a battle that truly matters. When human lives aren’t at stake, the battle becomes something else entirely. And, with General Zod’s plan to inhabit Earth and make it the new Krypton, thereby sacrificing all human life, why wouldn’t he start in a heavily populated area?
The second, and deeper aspect of the citywide destruction in Man of Steel, is universe building. Man of Steel is presented as a film that introduces superheroes to a “real” world for the first time. Humans are now confronted with the fact that aliens exist and that super-powered beings are very real. That’s a lot to take in. And with this new discovery comes a world of new threats that they must be prepared for. The destruction of Metropolis is a sounding call to the new world order, which ultimately paves the way for the introduction of new superheroes. Why? Because this “new world” is going to need them if they want to keep their world from being completely destroyed. The invasion and destruction of Metropolis is the perfect example of such. This, dear readers, is the true seed of the Justice League and the ultimate unveiling of the DC Cinematic Universe, much like Marvel’s Iron Man was to the Marvel Universe (and the “do-over” for the failed Green Lantern film, which was originally meant to do this).
There is so much to love about Man of Steel, even if you are able to find flaws. I have had a hard time in doing so after two sittings. There are some minor issues, but none that can’t be written off with the notion that, dude, seriously, it’s a comic book movie and an exceptionally well made one at that. Seeing Superman’s conflict, his childhood, his birth, his awakening, his journey in Man of Steel is an amazing feat for the comic book film genre. It truly sets a new bar, especially in the emotional development department. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older and have a son of my own or what, but there were many moments where I felt my chest tighten with emotion, particularly when Kevin Costner (as Jonathan Kent) or Russell Crowe were onscreen, both commanding every second of their turns in this film and dishing out fatherly sermons that could turn anyone around. It perplexes me when I hear some call this film cold. I can only imagine that either they are swimming in cynicism and daddy issues or if they just have some growing up to do, but Man of Steel is the opposite of cold. It’s an endearing look at the father-son relationship and an allegory for finding an identity as your own man, super or otherwise.
In the end, Man of Steel is chock full of the action and spectacle that’s been devoid of his cinematic exploits for decades and with an emotional core that is delivered in a brilliantly tailored structure. Toss in Hans Zimmer’s amazing, lung-punching score that takes a life of its own throughout the proceedings and you’ve got a clear contender for best superhero film ever made. Big, bold, and centered, Man of Steel is a film that speaks to everyone, no matter your walk in life. He is all of us, in one way or another, and he is a symbol for the best that we can be, based on the choices we make throughout our lives. It’s a rare film that can take you there, especially if it’s one based on an alien in a red cape with an “S” on his chest. That’s accomplishment enough for Man of Steel.