There is a long and troubled history to Superman movies. How do you create challenges and struggles for such a man, a man who is both more invulnerable and more powerful than anyone on Earth? More specifically, how do you do so without resorting to the now-decades old tropes that have become such a conventional part of the contemporary cultural understanding of the character? Superman is, and should be, so much more than Kryptonite and real estate scams. (I’m looking at you, Bryan Singer). Superman is supposed to be vast and massive in scale and scope, a man whose choices have far-reaching and planet-shaking consequences.
Man Of Steel, Zack Snyder’s reboot of the franchise, seeks to tackle these questions and conundrums with mixed (though mostly positive) results. The reboot aspect of Snyder’s film is one fans are most skeptical about. But after watching it, I can easily see why it is necessary — and why it ultimately works. Thankfully, for the most part, Man Of Steel doesn’t go down the “dark and gritty reboot” path, but it modernizes and grounds the son of Jor-El in a way we’ve never seen before. And perhaps in order to do so the origin must be told, if only to give us an understanding of Kal-El/Clark Kent’s place in the natural order of things.
The film begins on Krypton, and for once the homeworld of Kal-El is given more than a passing introduction. Parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) fire their son into the stars in an effort to save him from their doomed world, just as the zealous madman General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup d’etat to try and save Krypton through brute force. Infant Kal-El escapes, and Zod and his compatriots are banished just as the planet begins to devour itself. Cut to years later, and the story begins anew on Earth, as we find a grown Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) traveling the world, trying to find his path, while sharing the occasional flashback that tells just enough of his history and Earth parents Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan (Kevin Costner) without spending too much time away from the story at hand.
That story is, of course, that General Zod and his cronies, including Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), have found the last son of Krypton and are seeking a technological marvel called a Codex that … well, let’s not get too spoilery. Suffice it say, what Zod wants would have far-reaching consequences for both Superman and our planet and, as a result, he must be stopped. Of course, this is still very early in Superman’s career — early enough that this is the world’s first encounter with him, as well as his introduction to intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who doggedly tracks him down after a harrowing encounter.
What follows is a breathless, deafening, and hugely enjoyable series of action set pieces that barely ever slow down, a cacophonous string of battles that become almost exhausting after a while. Yet, that actually works in the film’s favor because it succeeds in doing what so many Superman projects have failed to do in the past, and that is to show us just what the Man of Steel is capable of. Superman battles a small host of other Kryptonians and the results are devastating, as it should be. Whole cities and towns are destroyed, railroad cars are flung like rocks, and the destruction is wholesale and absolutely, positively breathtaking. Director Zack Snyder has always had a gift for visual flair, but one of his greatest weaknesses has always been that his films never feel real. Films like 300 and Watchmen, in addition to occasionally being clunkily directed, blur the line between reality and animation and often feel like a clumsy combination of the two. Man Of Steel has none of that. It’s short on lens flare and completely absent of slow-motion. That works in the film’s favor because, along with its terrific effects, it allows us to finally fully grasp what the character — and the antagonists this time around — are fully capable of in terms of power and speed. Much like the climax of last summer’s spectacular Avengers, Man Of Steel showcases what you can really do with a superhero movie in the modern era. Yet the action is also smooth and fluid enough to avoid the sort of nauseating hyperactivity that has also plagued Snyder’s previous works. All of this is aided by some brilliant cinematography and an outstanding, pulse-pounding score by Hans Zimmer. As a result, whether it’s set in a small town in Kansas, a spaceship in orbit, or a devastated Metropolis, the action is huge and, frankly, amazing. (I’m not including the entirely too-CGI’d Krypton, which felt a little Avatar-ish at times.)
The key players involved (Cavill, Adams, Shannon) as well as the secondary characters — Christopher Meloni and Harry Lennix as steely military men trying to decide whether or not they can trust Superman, and Costner and Lane as the forces that shaped his moral compass — are all, for the most part, terrific. Cavill plays the role with a sense of wistful loneliness, a man who has resigned himself to the fact that he will always be apart from humanity, even as he tries to save it. Shannon is a psychotic force of nature, a megalomaniacal fury who sees nothing but what he has convinced himself is right, and he’ll destroy anything in his path. Adams, meanwhile, is given curiously little to do once her investigative stint is over, and instead she spends the second half of the film being thrown from high places so that Superman can catch her (although she’s redeemed with a critical role in the film’s resolution). That said, for the first half the character is a shrewd investigator and overall, she’s a thoroughly likable character.
But all of that would be for naught if the story couldn’t hold up, and here’s where the question of complexity and nuance comes in. In the wake of the Batman films of Christopher Nolan (who also executive produced the film and allegedly served as a sort of “godfather” to the production) and the films in Marvel’s Avengers franchise, the expectations are staggeringly high, especially on as large a production as this. And while the actors themselves are all solid, the same cannot always be said of the story. It’s a fairly uncomplicated tale, and in all fairness, we can’t really expect the same from a Superman story that we’d expect from, say, The Dark Knight. In part, that’s because there’s little mystery to Superman. Sure, there are his shadowy origins, but that’s his mystery to unravel, not ours. Zod’s plot is massive and sinister but hardly complicated. The story sticks pretty closely to the Superman canon (although that’s a bit of a moving target in and of itself), but also succeeds in occasionally injecting some originality that, while a little jarring now and again, often works in the film’s favor.
That said, many of the film’s expository moments feel empty, as if there wasn’t quite enough story to fill in the cracks between the action scenes. It’s also strangely devoid of humor, which I found to be a little disappointing, and the rapport between Lois and Clark starts off very strong but then rushes towards a forced intensity that falls a bit flat (in part because she figures out who he is very early on). As a result, it feels surprising when it eventually comes to a romantic head because, frankly, there’s probably only been about 15 solid minutes of conversation, between Clark punching Kryptonians through buildings and saving her from being splattered all over town.
Man Of Steel is unquestionably an enjoyable superhero movie. It’s stunning in its breadth, and right from the onset it sets a breakneck pace and rarely lets up. That pace serves it well because when the writing (mainly provided by David S. Goyer with an assist from Nolan) slows down, it gets a little clunky. There is, however, an exhilarating joy that’s perfectly captured in so many moments that you desperately want to forgive the film’s little foibles. Cavill’s expression when he first truly flies, the looks of awe and fear on peoples’ faces as they see him in action, his first full-scale brawl with a Kryptonian villain — these things feel more like the page come to life more than any Superman film ever has, and for that sensation alone, I’m truly grateful for it. For the Superman fan, something wonderful can be found, a real sense that what you are seeing on the screen — narrative inconsistencies be damned — really is Superman. The film may drag a bit, and some major characters are practically ignored (Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White is practically an afterthought), but when it fires on all cylinders? That’s Superman you’re seeing up there, and you will absolutely believe.