Review: Zack Snyder's 'Man Of Steel' delivers a whole new level of superhero thrills
In the film, the most important struggle that Clark Kent aka Kal-El (Henry Cavill) has to overcome is the tension between his Kryptonian nature and his Earthly nurture. He is the last remnant of a once-vibrant race, and he is also fully human, a nice kid from Kansas. From that small description, this film spins a story so epic, so powerful, that my first viewing of it left me dizzy.
Growing up, I was much more of a Marvel fan overall, and of the DC characters, Batman was the one I really dug. I always thought Superman was okay, but somehow perpetually corny. It occurred to me as I was preparing to write this review that the most fundamental difference between DC's two flagship heroes comes down to one important detail: Batman is defined by his missing parents, while Superman is defined by his surplus of parents. Batman's grey moral code and his brutal, cold nature make sense based on his formative experiences, while Superman's optimism and his belief in the good inside people is completely due to the example given him by Pa and Ma Kent.
The release of "Superman: The Movie" and "Superman II" made the character live and breathe for me in a way that the comics never did, and I loved the way those films made me feel. Revisiting them over the years, I'm amazed at how uneven they are, and how much the seams show from where the Salkinds played their behind-the-scenes games, eventually forcing Richard Donner to walk away from the unfinished second film. I find myself deeply conflicted when I look at the films now. I think the chemistry between Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty is hilarious, and much of their dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. But is that really what I want from a Superman movie?
Snyder's film, written by David Goyer and starring an impeccably cast ensemble, is remarkable mythmaking, a canny spin on the oft-told details that have defined the character over time. While there is plenty about it that can be be described as new, the bones of it are instantly familiar. Make no mistake; this is Superman. For my own personal sensibilities, this is the most interesting, emotionally-satisfying, richly imagined version of the story. Ever. Comics, TV, animation, live-action… doesn't matter. Even the novel that l have often mentioned as "the perfect version," Tom De Haven's gorgeous "It's Superman!", seems to me to be overshadowed now by my excitement about what this movie does, how it does it, and what it means for the character as a whole.
The film opens with the birth of Kal-El. We hear his mother Lara even before the image fades in, crying out in pain, and we hear the heartbeat of the baby being born. It's a private moment, attended only by Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, Lara's husband and the proud father of the baby. It has to be private because the birth is a crime, an event that hasn't happened on Krypton in a thousand years. Babies are engineered, not conceived, and nature births are unheard of. Each person on Krypton is created with a specific purpose in mind, a role in society that they spend their lives fulfilling. Jor-El's heresy is the idea that a child should be allowed to choose their own destiny.
We spend a surprising amount of time on Krypton at the start of the film, and the way the planet has been realized is breathtaking. Right about the time Jor-El jumps on the back of a giant winged beast and takes to the skies to avoid a group of warships, I realized that Snyder isn't doing anything by half-measures in this film. There's more visual imagination on display before the rocket containing the baby is fired into space than we see in other entire films. While the film takes its time on Krypton, it jumps forward immediately to the adult Clark Kent as soon as the rocket touches down on Earth. We see that he's a drifter, trying to make sense of his powers, never staying in one place for long. There's a thrilling sequence on an oil rig where Clark acts with no regard for his own safety, and once he's managed to save as many people as he can, he disappears again. Turns out, this is the life he's chosen for himself, and while he thinks he's doing a pretty good job of staying anonymous, there's someone who has started to put the pieces together.
One of the film's biggest pieces of revisionism is the way they've imagined Lois Lane, and I don't think I can praise them enough for what they've done with her. One of the things that has always driven me slightly crazy about Superman stories is the idea that this investigative reporter who is supposed to be great at her job could work side-by-side with Clark while also spending close-up time with Superman and yet didn't immediately know they were the same person. In this film, Lois (Amy Adams) is on his trail from the very start of the film. She doesn't know who she's looking for, but she's sure there is someone out there at the center of these mysterious stories. She's two steps ahead for the entire film, and it makes her so much more appealing as a character.
Clark's childhood is handled largely in flashback, and it's used to explain just how difficult his journey has been. Seeing him as a boy struggling to understand his x-ray vision and his super hearing and seeing how it makes him look like a crazy person, you have to feel for this poor kid. He has no idea who he is or why these things are happening to him, and it's not easy for his father (Kevin Costner) to help him make sense of things. The hardest thing for Pa Kent to explain to him is how to balance his sense of moral obligation with a sense of self-protection. Kent knows that there's more at stake here than just his son's happiness. After all, Clark is an alien being, and his very existence both answers certain questions and raises others. I'm guessing that Goyer's initial pitch hinged on this approach, because it's something we really haven't seen in any Superman film so far. Once he reveals himself to the world, nothing can ever be the same afterwards. We know at that point that we are not alone in the universe, but more than that… we know that we are helpless against these things. That's a terrifying thought.
When Clark finally comes across a long-buried artifact that helps him make sense of his own origin, he begins to evolve into the Superman we know. These are early days for him, though, and before he can get comfortable in the role, he accidentally sets off a beacon that brings General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his troops to Earth, and there is a very specific reason that Zod wants him. While it would be easy to make Zod a simple comic book bad guy, the film doesn't play it that way. Instead, Zod is what he was made to be, a tireless protector of Krypton, firm in his belief that anything is justified if it will help him bring back some piece of their long-dead home world. This is where the film's difficult moral terrain becomes most interesting. At no point does "Man Of Steel" make things easy for Clark, and learning who he really is only complicates things further.
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