Man Of Steel
Directed by Zach Snyder
Henry Cavill as the newest film version of Superman.
Zach Snyder’s Man Of Steel has had an almost uneasy amount of hype around it for months. Comics folk and even regular moviegoing folk have been hungry for a new, good Superman movie ever since Superman Returns left a weird taste in our collective mouths back in 2006. Snyder, whose track record as a director is spotty at best, was tasked with delivering not just a good movie but a good Superman movie.
Having now seen the movie, I’ll say this: Man Of Steel is the Superman movie we’ve all been waiting for. There’s never a moment on screen where I feel like I’m watching Henry Cavill play a part. I know I’m watching Superman. That is crucial to the movie’s success.
As purely a movie, however, Man Of Steel is imperfect but nevertheless still Very Good.
(Warning, SPOILERS to follow.)
Visually, Man Of Steel is stunning.
The movie’s interpretation of Krypton is a hybrid of John Bryne’s cold and sterile world from the 80’s comics, with a pulpy sci-fi aesthetic (flying dragonmounts! An ocean of Kryptonian fetuses! Moebius-esque headdresses!). Russell Crowe’s take on Jor-El certainly owes something to Marlon Brando’s on-screen origination of the character in Superman: The Movie (1978), but I was happy to see they played up the Action Scientist elements of the character like in the pilot episode of Superman: The Animated Series (1996).
Jor-El (Russel Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) say good-bye.
The obligatory “putting baby Moses in the space-basket” scene was no less touching this time around, much of that due to Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer’s performance as Lara. A neat trick the movie pulls with the Kryptonians is that many of them are played by non-native English speakers. It’s clever shorthand and avoids the dreaded Space British Accent. If this portion of the movie has a glaring problem, it’s that it’s wall-to-wall melodramatic “explain-y” dialogue. The big takeaway from this segment is the way Snyder set ups how repellent the dying Kryptonian empire is; it’s a world not only on the brink of physical destruction (thanks to core mining), it’s a culture in decline with government mandated breeding programs and a strict caste system.
It’s this society that gives us Michael Shannon’s General Zod, a villain with solid menace and a surprising bit of depth. Zod is essentially the walking, talking embodiment of the old Kryptonian world. Shannon, eye-twitching and lip quivering, plays him as a man whose rage is constantly threatening to overwhelm him and who will fulfill his birth-assigned purpose (the protection and proliferation of Kryptonian life) at whatever cost.
The villainous General Zod, played by Michael Shannon
When the film takes us to Earth it quickly becomes the story of Superman and Lois Lane. Before I get into Superman himself: I don’t think it’s too soon to say that Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is the definitive live action take on the character. Man Of Steel gets Lois Lane. It’s refreshing to see a Superman ANYTHING where Lois is a supremely competent, capable reporter. I particularly enjoyed that the film skips the usual “Superman rescues Lois from a crashing ____” we’ve seen so many times before and, instead, surprises us with a weirdly touching heat vision surgery scene.
She’s rescued by Superman a few times but it always feels like they’re operating on a level of mutual respect. I mean, how great is it that we got a Superman movie where Lois cold figures out Superman’s identity with no magic kiss or anything to undo it? Man Of Steel‘s conception of the Clark/Lois romance isn’t one where Superman is constantly tricking her, it’s one where she is a fully aware participant in Clark’s glasses and tie subterfuge. That’s a pretty progressive take on the fairly stagnant, 75 year old Lois and Clark formula, and it’s even more surprising that it comes in a movie that shares a director with (ugh) Sucker Punch.
Perry White and Lois Lane, played by Laurence Fishburne and Amy Adams, respectfully.
Henry Cavill’s Clark/Kal-El/Superman is beautifully realized in every respect, although I still miss the spitcurl. Cavill nails one of the crucial elements of Superman: he is a man who doesn’t want to see anyone get hurt, whether that’s a bus full of his schoolmates, his adopted father, or an abusive truck driver who humiliates him at a diner. Man Of Steel takes a pretty big risk by having Superman snap Zod’s neck at the end of the film to save some innocent bystanders.
It only works because Cavill’s Superman prefaces it, not with a “cool” line or anything, but by desperately begging Zod to stop. It’s important that, when Zod is laying dead on the ground, a devastated Superman cries out in anguish at what he’s done. While that’s maybe the film’s darkest moment, Man Of Steel makes a point of including some fun Superman moments. His willingness to wear useless handcuffs to put his military captors at ease; his “Hey, you okay?” to a rescued soldier during a fight with his fellow Kryptonians; a really outstanding bit where he learns to fly.
Man Of Steel‘s strongest emotional beats come from the scattered flashbacks to Clark’s childhood in Kansas. While the dialogue gets heavy on the “YOU HAVE A DESTINY, MY SON” stuff, Goyer’s script gives us some really wonderful character moments. Diane Lane as Martha Kent gets two of my favorite moments in the whole film: when she talks young Clark out of a closet and, later, the heartbreaking moment when Clark tells her he’s found “his parents.” Kevin Costner’s performance as Jonathan Kent is also stellar and I appreciate the new wrinkle the film puts on his death in this version of the Superman origin.
Clark (Cavill) spends some much-needed time with his adoptive mother, Martha Kent (Diane Lane).
While there are many things to love about Man Of Steel, I’d be dishonest if I said there weren’t a few problems. Snyder’s Kryptonian-on-Kryptonian fight sequences toward the end of the film, while often breathtaking, feel like video game cutscenes at times. Downtown Metropolis is rubble by the end of the film and thousands are presumably dead, but there’s no weight to any of it. David Goyer’s dialogue is delivered well by a great ensemble cast, but definitely suggests to me that he’s a better collaborator than solo scripter. Snyder’s shaky camera and deliberate aping of J.J. Abrams’ “Shot, quick zoom in on shot” formula wears a little thin in a nearly 3 hour film.
Despite these glaring weaknesses, Man Of Steel is a wonderfully realized film. Snyder takes real chances in many respects (after all, it’s a Superman movie without Kryptonite or Lex Luthor and it spends very little time in Metropolis) and isn’t afraid to tweak the established mythos when it needs it.
This is a movie that loves and embraces the things that make Superman great, and I look forward to a few more summers at the movies with this particular vision of Krypton’s last son.
Man Of Steel opens in theaters worldwide Friday, June 14th.
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