“... style and swagger attempt to compensate for its flaws and mostly succeeds in doing so...."

A Superman Apart

(062113) The last time we saw Superman on the big screen, Bryan Singer was pondering if the world still needed him, and the seven years since have only made it clearer that the answer should be a resounding “yes.” Not only has our world become more tumultuous, but so too has our cinematic landscape come to resemble the worst bits of the evening news blown up to apocalyptic proportions. Even our definitive superhero film, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” is awash in post-9/11 moral ambiguity and a dour disposition. With Nolan moving over to shepherd Superman back to the big screen in “Man of Steel,” it’d be easy to assume that The Last Son of Krypton might be set to bear the cross in another angst-ridden interpretation of the character. Instead, he’s made a triumphant, majestic return that pummels cynicism and grit and makes the case that, if nothing else, the movies at least need Superman.

As a reboot, the film moves through the expected motions by opening on his ill-fated home world of Krypton, where his birth to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lana-El (Ayelet Zuerer) is both miraculous and heretical. Whereas Kryptonians have engineered their young through birthing matrixes for generations, Kal-El is a natural birth with no genetically encoded destiny. When he’s jettisoned from the crumbling, fiery planet besieged by both geological instability and a civil war, Kal-El is shot across the stars not as an ordained savior, but as an alien with the capacity to become a vengeful god to lord over an inferior flock of Earthlings.

After about fifteen minutes of familiar trappings, “Man of Steel” provides the iconic image of the Kryptonian space-craft hurtling towards a Kansas homestead before abruptly jumping ahead a few decades to find Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), bearded and Christly, working aboard a fishing boat that runs afoul of a burning oil rig. Without hesitation, he decides to intervene and rescue the trapped workers. When he bangs down a steel door (much to the astonishment of the rescued) and emerges covered in flames, the image is striking and the message even more so: Kal-El has chosen his fate as savior.

He’s Superman.

Noticeably, he lacks the iconic costume and the christening at this point, but it’s at that moment you realize that Zack Snyder and company have at least nailed the unflinching, eternal goodness of Superman. It’s the sentiment that guides “Man of Steel” and even informs its narrative. To draw the obvious comparison to Christ, if “Superman Returns” was concerned with the passion and the resurrection, then “Man of Steel” features earlier accounts of the Gospel: the birth, the childhood, and the ascension (which conspicuously comes when he’s 33 years old). However, instead of skipping over Kal-El’s missing years (in both Biblical and Richard Donner fashion), “Man of Steel” explores them to reveal a Clark Kent that isn’t conflicted so much as contemplative after spending a lifetime reckoning with his outsider status.

Rightfully, this doesn’t become “The Last Temptation of Superman,” either—by the time we meet Kent, he’s thoroughly embraced the call and has spent the bulk of his adult life working odd jobs around the globe and becoming something of a mythical figure. Flashbacks reveal his childhood upbringing at the hands of the Kent's (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who instilled him with heartland values and provided him with stability during a trying childhood marked by otherworldly anxiety attacks (at one point, a young Clark flees his classroom in terror of the cacophony of sights and sounds granted by his heightened senses). Whatever doubts he ever experiences about his destiny come during his younger years, where he still can’t resist using his powers for good, even as Pa Kent expresses his reservations about Clark revealing them to the world.

All of that turmoil has resulted in a man that is truly his father’s—both of his fathers’—son, as Cavill exudes Costner’s All-American warmth and Crowe’s regal sense of duty. He carries himself with an essential dignity that’s instantly recognizable as Superman’s unique brand of small town Americana. While Clark’s childhood was often difficult, it didn’t produce a man driven by angst or bitterness; he’s perhaps slightly haunted by certain memories and traumatic events, but he’s accepted outsider status and is still committed to seeing the best in his adopted planet. The result is the most compelling and well-rounded big screen portrayal of Superman yet. “Man of Steel” hits the familiar beats of Donner’s film (albeit with a jumbled structure that recalls “Batman Begins”), it adds a subtle layer of solemnity and threads the origin story (a typically perfunctory device in many comic book adaptations) throughout in order to illuminate the internal conflict. There’s no question that this Clark Kent will become Superman—it’s only a matter of how he’ll finally get there.

Superman remains at his most compelling when Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer explore his basic humanity. Once the first hour of the film has expired, it’s spanned an entire universe, much less the globe, as Clark’s journeys have taken him from Kansas to the Arctic Circle, but there’s still a fascinating intimacy to the quest that allows for universal themes of discovering one’s purpose and finding a place to belong. It’s not demystification so much as it’s a reminder that Superman is a child of two worlds, and it’s his human side that appeals to us. The same was true of Donner’s film (whose first half still represents a high-water mark for this genre), and it carries over here: Superman is much more potent as a man than as a god.

Once the expected myth does start to come together, “Man of Steel” becomes more uneven. During his travels, Clark encounters Lois Lane (Amy Adams), an intrepid reporter chasing a story surrounding an arctic discovery. It ends up being a Kryptonian vessel that more or less serves as a mobile version of the Fortress of Solitude, where the consciousness of Jor-El awakens to guide Clark towards his destiny. Even these familiar beats are interrupted with some nice re-jigging of the status-quo, as Lois stumbles upon both the ship and Clark’s secret, which allows this new take to forego the tip-toeing around secret identities and such.

It also allows Adams to portray a fierce, proactive Lois Lane that’s thoroughly involved in the proceedings. While her romance with Clark does develop, she’s not simply dragged into the film’s conflict because she’s Superman’s girlfriend. In fact, it wouldn’t have been completely odd if she never assumed that role in this film since they work more as a platonic duo rather than a hero and his damsel in distress (at one point, Lois essentially rescues Superman, which is an awesome inversion the theme).

But “Man of Steel” must assume the position, so to speak, and it yields to the big spectacle stuff when General Zod (Michael Shannon) escapes imprisonment from the Phantom Zone (a sentence he earned after murdering Jor-El and staging a coup) and comes to Earth in search of his fellow Kryptonian. Eventually, it becomes more complicated than that, and the film clunks its way through Goyer’s clumsy brand of exposition that constantly reiterates the film’s plot points and themes. There’s some slight prodding of the mythos here, too, since Superman hasn’t acquitted himself as Earth’s protector and breeds distrust.

Such a concept seemingly looks to entangle Superman in a modern malaise (at one point, there’s even a reference to a drone), but the film mostly cuts through the b.s. and takes every opportunity to reaffirm heroism: Clark allows himself to be captured by the U.S. authorities, which still doesn’t convince them to consider him an ally during his throw-down with Zod’s minions in Smallville’s main street. Their fighter jets bombard both Clark and Zod’s henchwoman Faora (Antje Traue) as they pummel each other through the small town’s establishments and virtually reduce it to a crater. Through it all, Clark never wavers, and the scene serves its purpose well by paying off with a resounding (yet expected) beat that finally unites him with his fellow earthlings. What starts as a Christ-like sacrifice ends with Kal-El taking up the Moses mantle as a shepherd destined to lead followers out of the wilderness.

Jor-El intends for his son to help mankind “accomplish wonders” (a nicely lyrical bit that’s unsurprisingly culled from actual comics), and “Man of Steel” fully commits to this notion with a climax that finds Superman battling alongside just about everyone: Lois, a pair of commanders (Christopher Meloni & Harry Lennix), a scientist (Richard Schiff), and even Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne), who gets a moment of heroism that captures the ideal that we should all strive towards even if we aren’t gifted with superpowers. The unfailing optimism and the insistence that mankind will get its act together in the face of crisis is still refreshing even in the face of similarly sunny stuff like “The Avengers.” Gloomy cynicism has no place alongside Superman, and “Man of Steel” does not yield to it.

It does, however, get quite enamored with spectacle, and “Man of Steel” pairs Superman with the director he deserves from a visual standpoint. Even when he misfires (as he did with “Sucker Punch”), Snyder has a way with a camera, a guy that goes for sheer grandeur. With this material, he finally has a sturdy emotional backbone to match (something I’ve found to be largely missing from his previous efforts), which actually ends up carrying the film since he opts for cartoonish, CGI-driven brawls for his huge set-pieces. They don’t feature a lot of his signature tics. Instead, he’s going for grandiose chaos on a scale heretofore unseen. Forget previous “Superman” films—the climactic sequence with Kal-El and Zod bounding through and laying waste to Metropolis makes the aforementioned Smallville scuffle look like a schoolyard scrap.

As is often the case with Snyder’s films, it also becomes a bit exhausting. That second act capper damn near careens right into the climax and leaves very little room to breathe. Perhaps unexpectedly, Snyder excels at those quieter moments that escape the film in favor of sheer destruction. It’s difficult to deny the impressive scale of the climax, but its moments seem fleeting when compared to some of the film’s more intimate, emotional moments, such as Lara resigning herself to Krypton’s demise or Pa Kent looking on with pride as a young Clark foreshadows his destiny in the backyard.

Snyder’s ambition is beyond reproach, and he immediately claims this as his film with a staggering vision of Krypton that features billowing flames and Jor-El saddling one of the planet’s winged beasts. Indeed, this viewer was pleasantly surprised by this interpretation of Krypton. This is the doomed planet seen, not from the comic book page. But retooled as science fiction. The world building here is some of the best I've seen in a major Hollywood film in years. The Krypton tech feels alien. Perhaps my favorite moment in Man Of Steel is when the Jor-el avatar explains to Kal his birthright. Surrounding the two characters are moving artwork that I would describe as alien art-deco. It makes for an audacious eye-opener that eases any worries that Nolan may attempt to ground this franchise as well. Even the 3D post-conversion seems so unnecessary here, as Snyder’s bold, imaginative vision allows Krypton to leap right off of the screen on its own. Krypton itself has always seemed like an obligatory element permanently fused to the origin story, but it really comes alive here.

“Man of Steel” is a completely assured production whose style and swagger attempt to compensate for its flaws and mostly succeed in doing so. It’s a film that empties the tank in many respects but leaves a few things on the table. For a film so focused on humanity early on, it’s somewhat disappointing that it comes down to a collection of pixels flinging each other around and causing wanton destruction with little regard for human life. That it comes down to such a blunt force approach is likely unavoidable, but there’s a missed opportunity with Zod, a man who was genetically engineered to protect his home world, so he could make for a fascinating tragic figure, a victim of Krypton’s failings.

We’re briefly told that he was once a great man, and it may have been worthwhile to explore a more cerebral, philosophical tack that engaged his character rather than his physical prowess (the loud, unrelenting battle highlights one of the difficulties in matching Superman up with someone who can match his powers—it sort of comes to resemble a couple of bumper cars violently clanging off of each other). Shannon does hammer Zod’s one note with reckless abandon and forgoes affected vocal tics and eccentricities. Instead, he brings a pure, lunatic energy to the role, his eyes providing a look into a soul full of bitterness and rage. There’s a fury to Shannon’s performance that recalls the operatic qualities of Terence Stamp’s previous turn, only they’re dialed up to 11—which is exactly what you might expect from a Snyder movie.

When the film emerges from the rubble, it does regain its footing and confirms that Snyder and company do largely understand Superman and the core optimism he represents. In many ways, “Man of Steel” is a bold rejoinder to a world that's mired in bleakness and unsure of heroism: only can heroes exist, but they must do so; this Kal-El may have been born without a specific destiny, but the film insists that he must become Superman--not because it’s in his alien blood but in his Midwestern soul. Perhaps that’s why the final moments reveal that this hasn’t been Superman’s origin story all along—it’s Clark Kent’s, and maybe that’s who we’ve really needed all along.

Directed by:    Zack Snyder
Written by:    Screenplay by: David S. Goyer, from a story by
 Goyer & Christopher Nolan. Based on the
 characters created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster.
Starring:    Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon
Released:    06/14/13 (USA)
Length:    143 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence,
 action and destruction

MAN OF STEEL © 2013 Warner Brothers Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

(aka "Old Reviews")