“Man of Steel”
2 hours, 23 minutes
Though I grew up reading every comic book I could get my hands on, I have to say I was never much of a “Superman” fan. That’s not to say I didn’t like the guy. I think everybody, on some level or another, likes Superman, but I was a Marvel comics reader, and “Superman” probably seemed a little broad compared to the angsty teen reality of “Spider-Man” or “The New Mutants.”
I mention this to say that, unlike some comic book fanatics, I went into this week’s super-spectacle “Man of Steel” with very little baggage. I, like the rest of the world, adored Christopher Reeve’s take on the character, but I’m not hung up on it. When you think about it, despite 75 years of history, there’ve only been two fairly decent “Superman” movies, despite the three television series, a radio drama, and countless print versions. When I heard Zack Snyder was rebooting the series, I thought, more power to him. And power is one thing he certainly brought.
The film opens on Krypton, Superman’s doomed home world, just days before its cataclysmic destruction. Snyder wastes no time in unleashing his vibrant, electric, massive vision. These early scenes of Krypton are nothing like what we’ve seen before, previously shown as a cold ice world populated with dreary scientists. Instead we get Russell Crowe riding a kind of dragon/dragonfly over a breathtaking and thoroughly alien landscape, a full on military coup initiated by a justifiably angry General Zod, and some of the craziest technology I’ve seen. Sure, some of it’s a little over the top, but you can clearly hear the director saying, “Forget what you’ve seen before. This is something completely new.”
Almost immediately, the film jumps to the present, with a mid-20s Clark Kent crab fishing in the Bering Sea. He’s hiding out, performing feats of derring-do and disappearing. Before long we flashback again, a motif Snyder wisely uses throughout the piece, to meet Clark’s earthly parents, played beautifully by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. Ma and Pa Kent, though proud of their son, are terrified about what will happen to him once the world knows who he is and what he can do. Clark’s father advises caution and circumspection, but that’s not easy when you’re a young boy with nearly unlimited power.
As a young adult, Clark’s occasional feats of heroism have left a trail — one that Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Lois Lane has uncovered. But once found out by one person, will our hero choose to reveal his true identity to the world? The first two thirds of the film are introspective — beautiful, meditative looks at the nature of Clark’s nearly god-like power and the position it puts him in living among the puny mortals.
It’s not until the last part of the film, complete with the arrival of General Zod and his crew of minions that the film turns into a full-on action superhero extravaganza. There are those, I foresee, that will welcome the explosions, but for me the finale is where the film finally stumbles.
Though some may cry foul, I think one of the best things that Snyder, and his producer Christopher Nolan, have done with this story is to give it some weight and remove much of the camp. I wouldn’t say it’s dark, not in comparison to the Batman films, but it is certainly more serious and somber than the Christopher Reeve versions.
Which is as it should be. One, this is a story with huge implications. First contact with extraterrestrial life. A god walking among mortals. Free will vs. blind loyalty. It’s heady stuff and is rightly treated as important.
On the other side of the coin, this new “Man of Steel” is such a departure from the 1978 “Superman” that it stands alone, leaving pristine a movie that is almost universally loved. That was part of the problem with Brian Singer’s 2006 version, “Superman Returns.” It was a misguided attempt to completely recapture the glory of those earlier films, and instead just feels both dull and campy, and somehow slavishly reverential.
One of “Man of Steel’s” greatest assets is in the casting. As Superman himself, Henry Cavill does a great job. You might imagine this role getting filled by hunkiest beefcake in the audition, but Cavill really brings his A-game. Russell Crowe, as our hero’s Kryptonian father is also great, though has little to do besides stand around and deliver exposition. Amy Adams, as Lois, brings much needed life to the character, and Diane Lane is as sweet and kind as you’d want Ma Kent to be.
The strongest performance, in my opinion however, comes not from the showy anger displayed by Zod’s Michael Shannon, though I was impressed by him as well, but rather from the quiet dignity of Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent. As written, this small role is far more complex than I’ve ever seen it, and Costner plays it perfectly. Clark’s earthly father is a strong man, but is terrified at the thought of how humanity will persecute his son once they know his true identity. He tells Clark to hide this side of himself, at all costs, and it’s not always clear that he’s right. I thought this was a bold choice, to make Jonathan Kent a man beset by human frailties and fears, taking on the huge job of raising a god. Costner rises to the challenge with ease. It was nice seeing him on screen again.
“Man of Steel” has it’s problems, certainly. The climactic battle goes on too long, and it was a little depressing to think that after all the build-up it would all come down to a punching bout. I’ve heard people complain about the huge loss of life that occurs during this final struggle, that it’s decidedly un-Superman for the hero to unintentionally knock down a building or three while fighting his nemesis. That’s a good point, but one I didn’t really contemplate until later.
With this reboot, Snyder and Co. have asked us to set aside our preconceived notions and take this new character at face value, and while this is entirely appropriate, it’s also very difficult, especially with such an established icon. But it’s also the only way to breathe new life into the character. I’m not saying we have to accept a Superman who endorses wanton destruction, but we do have to be willing to set the past aside and see where this new story takes us.
Already, Snyder and writer David Goyer have added new depth and dimensions to the mythology, adding layers and complex motivations to Clark, as well as General Zod, with their vision of a genetic caste system on Krypton. They’ve given meaning and reason to Superman’s outfit, a detail other versions of the story often gloss over.
Yes, this new version is different, and sometimes different is hard to take, but Zack Snyder’s immense and beautiful vision is taking this tale in the right direction.
“Man of Steel” is rated PG-13 for non-stop sci-fi destruction and violence, and mild language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.