Movie Review: Man of Steel
THE MAN OF STEEL
Movie Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Rated PG-13/143 mins/Science Fiction/Action/Comic Book
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan, based on SUPERMAN, created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
WARNING: Mild spoilers ahead.
Director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan (of DARK KNIGHT fame) and writer David S. Goyer faced a problem: how to take Superman--unquestionably the most famous, iconic superhero of all-time, the one against whom all others are measured--and retell his story, which has been told many times before, in many mediums, but particularly in the most universally beloved iteration: 1978's SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve as Superman; and do so in an engaging way that works for a modern audience.
So not only did Snyder & co. have to compete with the memory of the Donner films, while wiping out the bad taste left behind by 2006's noble failure SUPERMAN RETURNS (and without treading on fans of the well-regarded, recently departed SMALLVILLE series on TV), they did so with the knowledge that DC and its corporate parent, Warner Brothers, have been counting on MOS as the cornerstone of their own long-term comic-book-film franchise, a la Marvel--with the ultimate goal of making a JUSTICE LEAGUE movie that can stand toe to toe with THE AVENGERS.
No sweat, right?
Fortunately, they have walked that fine line and succeeded admirably. Though they've recycled and reshuffled a number of beats from the Donner films, they do so in a way that feels relatively fresh.
So back to basics: On the doomed planet Krypton, where everyone is genetically engineered to fulfill a specific role in society, chief scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife have decided to have a child by natural birth, a child who can choose his own destiny. With the planet's days numbered, they send him off to Earth, barely in time to escape a military coup by the ruthless, murderous General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his followers -who are themselves sent into a cosmic exile that conveniently spares them their planet's fate.
Crash-cut to present-day Earth, where we meet that Kryptonian child, now christened Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). Similar to Nolan's BATMAN BEGINS, the story of young Clark Kent's pre-Superman childhood is told through flashbacks, most of them centered on his folksy upbringing by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane).
The central conflict is set up quickly: young Clark is different, and he's outcast by his peers at school for it--so he needs to brace himself for rejection and misunderstanding for the rest of his life. Just like young Bruce Wayne, he becomes a drifter (we meet him at the appropriately messianic age of 33), wandering from place to place, quietly helping people and disappearing, and waiting for the day when something will happen that will explain to him who he is and why he's here.
That day comes when he stumbles across an Arctic expedition that's unearthed an ancient Kryptonian spaceship. Therein he finds the answers he's sought all his life--and also comes face to face with intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). In one of the film's major departures from SUPERMAN canon, the whole notion of Lois not knowing Superman's true identity is dispensed with almost immediately. Indeed, she discovers it almost as soon as he does.
But the cost of his learning is that Zod and his followers, who have escaped from their temporal prison, are drawn to Earth, coveting the Kryptonian DNA that Jor-El encoded in his son's body--which could lead to a complete revival of Kryptonian society, but only at the cost of every life on Earth.
And this is where MOS finds its moral center: as a child of two worlds, which one will Clark choose--and what will be the consequences of his choice?
Sacrifice is a major theme in MOS. Jor-El sacrifices his world for the sake of his son. Zod will sacrifice everything to bring back his society. Superman is prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of his adoptive home. The message is clear: no matter how dark things get, if one person stands up against the darkness, there is always hope.
And this is where MOS shines most brilliantly. The fanboy speculation, fueled by all the pre-release hype, suggested that this was going to be a completely reinvented Superman: dark, gritty, nihilistic, cynical, tonally closer to Nolan's TDK trilogy than what Donner created. I'd been apprehensive about this, because NONE of that is what Superman is all about: he IS the beacon of hope and positivity in a dark world, but is not blemished or tainted by that dark world.
I'm glad to say my fears were mostly ungrounded. Yes, the setting is darker, grittier and more realistic; yes, some superficial aspects (like the costume) have been subtly altered, some continuity changed or dispensed with; but the Superman character, himself, is relatively unscathed and uncompromised. Which ironically makes his light shine that much brighter. He's still Superman, and though he may be wrestling with his own share of demons--and, it's true, he may be a bit more prone to express his anger than in the past--he's still the Supreme Good Guy, here to fight for Truth, Justice, and The American Way. He's just doing so in a more human, and relatable, way.
The new film IS intense, and on a visceral level it's a lot of fun, though I will say it does lack an earnest sense of joy. But on the filmmaking side, Snyder's penchant for strong visuals and kinetic action sequences really come to the fore. When he's not trying to be an auteur (or gods forbid a writer), the man can shoot and edit brilliantly. Indeed, all his films are visually beautiful, but here, finally, there is some substance to match the eye candy.
The performances are almost uniformly strong, though I wish Amy Adams' Lois had more of a chance to develop--a result of her basically being a plot device is that she and Cavill never quite spark. But Cavill himself is a revelation. He embodies every aspects of the character as thoroughly as Reeve did, but in an entirely different way (even if he's using, consciously or not, an almost identical vocal tone and cadence). It will be interesting to see what he does with the role in future installments.
All of the parents are cast appropriately, with Russell Crowe in particular standing out as a steady, calming presence amidst scenes of utter chaos and destruction. My only caveat is that Michael Shannon's Zod initially comes across as too over-the-top to be effective. Later revelations about the character mitigate this somewhat, but I still find myself wishing he'd dialed it down a bit earlier on.
There is one thing about MOS that leaves me somewhat disturbed--massive displays of civil destruction, with concomitant collateral damage. Entire cities are leveled, with (presumably) thousands or hundreds of thousands of casualties. Much of it caused by Superman himself, which goes unaddressed. (I almost wonder if they're engaged in a game of one-upmanship with THE AVENGERS.)
But despite all the death, darkness and destruction in which the story partakes, it ends on a hopeful note: our most beloved hero has finally returned, in style. Welcome back, Supes.