You know those polls that people do where they show pictures of various pop culture icons like Mickey Mouse, Super Mario, and Ronald McDonald to people all over the world to gauge how recognizable they are? I’m pretty sure that if you did that with pictures of all the famous super heroes the one that would be most recognized is Superman. However, if you asked the average person to list off any of the deeper characteristics or famous storylines that any of those given super heroes are known for there’s a good chance that people will know a lot more about Batman, Spider-Man, and maybe even the X-Men. To some degree Superman is a lot better known as an icon than he is as a true character and the reasons for this have been debated for a while. The prevailing wisdom is that he’s so powerful that it’s hard to really create any kind of believable threat for him and that he’s such an invulnerable boy scout that he can be hard to relate to. As such, pretty much ever time they’ve tried to make a T.V. series, movie, comic book, or videogame about Superman it end up paling in comparison to comparable projects about Batman.
Perhaps the only exception to this is Richard Donner’s 1976 film Superman: The Movie and its 1978 sequel Superman II, which were both very awesome super hero movies for their time, although I don’t personally have all that much reverence for either of them. Most of the rest of the semi-successful Superman media projects have been on television like “Superman: The Animated Series” (which was good, but didn’t compare all that favorably with Batman’s animated series), there was the mid-90s ABC series “Lois & Clark” (which was fun, but not overly memorable), and there was the WB/CW show “Smallville” (which some people seem to like for some reason). When it finally came time to bring Superman back to the big screen in the super hero-crazed 2000s it was in the form of 2006’s Superman Returns which a sort-of-sequel to the old Donner films, and which a lot of people seemed to hate. I for one didn’t think it was all that bad, but I didn’t necessarily think it was a home run either. So now DC and Warner Brothers have decided to scratch that effort and take one more shot at bringing ol’ supes to the big screen and to do it they’ve enlisted none other than Christopher Nolan to produce and guide project and Zack Snyder to direct.
Like most Superman origin stories, the film starts on the planet Krypton, which is a lot more elaborately designed this time around than it was back in ’76. I won’t go into all the details, but as usual a young Kal-el is sent to earth by his father Jor-el (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) before their planet and everyone on it are destroyed. The big difference is that this time he steals the Kryptonian codex and sends it along with Kal-el, an act for which the rogue Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) declares to one day get revenge. The movie then shifts thirty three years into the future, and shows a young Kal-el (Henry Cavill) traveling the earth under his assumed name of Clark Kent. We learn through flashbacks how he was raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and also of his first meeting with a young reporter named Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
To some extent, this film is guilty of re-telling the same damn Superman origin story all over again, which is something that Nolan’s Batman films didn’t need to worry about so much if only because earlier adaptations of that franchise almost always began with batman as an established character. Still I think that Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, and credited screenwriter David S. Goyer were right to sit down and give the character that definitive beginning this time. The biggest change this time around is that they’ve made Clark Kent a much more human and much more reluctant hero this time around. They explore how hard it likely was to grow up with weird and hard to control powers and also shows him being forced into the midst of battle rather than having him become a “super hero” over night.
Once again it was decided to have Superman played by a relative unknown in Henry Cavill, who imbues the character with just enough angst to keep him interesting while still making him something of an “awe shucks” Kansas boy. The rest of the cast is also rich with well chosen actors. Amy Adams makes a very good Lois Lane who’s strong, brave, and adventurous but a little less shrill the character has been in some iterations. She’s closer to a believable modern journalist and it was nice to see Lawrence Fishburne brought in to play her editor Perry White. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are also good choices to play Kent’s adoptive parents, though both are used less than I expected because the “Smallville” portion of Superman’s life are (wisely) relegated to flashbacks this time around. An actor with a much more prominent role than I expected is Russell Crowe, who man’s the film for the first twenty minutes and also reappears a few times later in hologram form. I wouldn’t call this Crowe’s best work, but he does what the film needs him to do and it’s cool seeing him in the role that Marlon Brando famously took on in the Donner film.
Of course no superhero film would be complete without a super villain, and for that the Snyder and Nolan have tapped Michael Shannon to play General Zod. Zod has traditionally been a fairly standard guy who wants to take over the world because he’s eeeeeeeevillllllll, but for this project they’ve given him a little more of a clear motivation. Essentially, he’s loyal to the idea of Krypton beyond all fault, and his attempts to kidnap Superman and take over Earth are all part of a misguided attempt to rebuild his homeworld. At his heart he’s still an evil conqueror, but there’s more to cling onto and Shannon give his maniacal side an intense physicality. In short, I think Man of Steel does everything with the character that Star Trek Into Darkness was supposed to do with the character of Khan. It doesn’t waste the audience’s time pretending that the character isn’t who you think it is, it brings in an actor who truly exudes an evil ruthlessness, and it gives the character interesting motivations. Also, at no point does the film ever pander to having him or anyone else shout “kneel before Zod!”
But before I go bashing the new “Star Trek” movies too much I should probably stop and acknowledge that Zack Snyder does seem to have taken a few notes from the J.J. Abrams playbook for rebooting dead franchises. In fact it wasn’t until I saw this version of the film and compared it to the 2009 Star Trek that I noticed just how similar the lives of Clark Kent and James T. Kirk are. At least in these iteration, both were born in the midst of a crisis, both were raised in Kansas to be angsty young men, and both came to realize their true potential once the man who killed their respective fathers show up in the final acts. He’s also shot the film on 35mm and in anamorphic in order to give the images a beautiful earthy and filmic feel. This results in a little more lens flare than people are often used to seeing, but I think it’s more than worth it because this movie is flat out beautiful, especially when compared to the more workmanlike looks of the Marvel films. That said, Snyder’s imitation of Abrams’ Star Trek films only goes so far: he’s taken the tonal elements that work from them and left behind their penchant for immature humor and out of place pandering and has also avoided any flawed attempt to fit his film into any old continuities, this is a reboot plain and simple.
One force in modern blockbuster filmmaking that Snyder does not seem to have paid too much attention is Bryan Singer, the director of Superman Returns. There are a lot of things about that movie that people complain about, but one of the biggest ones is that it didn’t show Superman getting into any fights with comparably powered super humans, which is most certainly not the case with Man of Steel. It takes a while, but once Superman is forced to contend with Zod and his comparably powered henchmen the battles are absolutely epic in proportion. You get the real feeling that you’re watching people with god-like powers clash out in the open and leaving Akira level destruction in their wake. I wouldn’t say that I was 100% in approval of every CGI shot in the film, but for the most part the effects were both massive and omnipresent and gave the film the absolutely epic feel that it sort of needed.
Man of Steel is significantly better than any Superman film I ever thought we’d see and it’s superhero origin film that I’d place right next to Batman Begins without hesitation. And yet a lot of critics don’t seem to see it that way; at the moment it’s sitting at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s in part because of that negative response that I waited almost a week after the film’s opening to see it. I won’t be reading any of those reviews until I finalize my own, so I’m kind of left scratching my head as to what isn’t to like. Maybe they thought some of the action scenes were a little over the top, maybe they weren’t too keen on re-watching this origin story, maybe they have some misplaced reverence for the Donner films, or maybe they just just haven’t forgiven Zack Snyder for Sucker Punch… I don’t know. My biggest worry is that Marvel and the Iron Man franchise have somehow killed any thirst that critics and audiences have for ambitious and sincerely made blockbusters like this film and Nolan’s Batman films. But for those of us who want an antidote to all the snark and frivolity of that brand of blockbuster, this is it.
**** out of Four