by Steve Habrat
With Christopher Nolan making the decision to bring his Batman trilogy to an apocalyptic close and 2011s The Green Lantern bombing horribly at the box office, DC Comics has been forced to turn to their last A-list hero in a final attempt to hang with comic book juggernaut Marvel Studios. Now we have Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a gritty and epic reboot that is the Superman film we deserved way back in 2006. DC Comics made a grave mistake when they allowed Bryan Singer to craft another sequel to Christopher Reeve’s Superman films of the late 70s and 80s, a flub that has actually ended up hurting Snyder’s breathtaking reboot of the big blue boy scout. Man of Steel has taken quite a bit of negative criticism for its decent into massive action set pieces in the final stretch of its runtime, something that Singer wasn’t as eager to do in his wandering effort. The fact is that Man of Steel is seven years too late and it is entering a market that has been saturated by Marvel Studios. If this film would have been released in 2006, I guarantee it would have been met with as much praise as 2005s Batman Begins. That being said, Man of Steel is still a powerful entry into the superhero genre, a film that is perfectly grand for a true-blue do-gooder. It completely rejects the sunny optimism of the previous Superman entries and embraces a heavy heart of darkness that many fans may not be quick to warm to. In my opinion, it is just what the legendary superhero needed.
Man of Steel begins on the planet Krypton, with the wise scientist Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara (played by Ayelet Zurer), giving birth to a baby boy they name Kal-El. With the planet of Krypton doomed to destruction, Jor-El and Lara send their son off to Earth, where he will have a chance for a survival. Meanwhile, General Zod (played by Michael Shannon), the military leader of Krypton, attempts to take over the planet with a handful of loyal followers including the vicious Faora (played by Antje Traue). Zod’s attempt to overthrow Krypton’s counsel is prevented and as punishment, he and his followers are banished to the Phantom Zone. Thirty-three years later, Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill) is a mysterious drifter with superhuman abilities. He largely remains in the shadows, working odd jobs and occasionally saving people from horrific accidents. Word gets out about a mysterious object found in the ice in the Artic, which catches the attention of Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams). Lois sets out to do a piece on the mysterious object, but as she snoops around the dig, she comes face to face with Clark, who has also taken an interest in the object. After Lois is injured, Clark narrowly saves her life and then disappears. Shaken by what she has seen, she begins digging into rumors about a drifter who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Clark, meanwhile, uncovers secrets about where he came from and learns about his superhuman abilities.
Almost instantly, Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan set their vision of Superman apart from the previous attempts through a gritty and emotionally riveting stage setter on the crumbling planet of Krypton. Gone is Donner’s neon crystal environment and in its place is a gunmetal gray landscape full of zippy spaceships and roaring and soaring alien beasts. There is plenty of exposition about Krypton and it is spiced up through bone-snapping fistfights and blaring explosions that dwarf anything we saw in Superman Returns. While this sequence ends in tragedy, there is still plenty of optimism from Crowe’s Jor-El, who is convinced that Kal-El will be a god to the people of Earth. When Snyder shifts clumsily to Earth, Nolan’s gloomy cinematic fingerprints begin to emerge. The filmmakers take their time working up to Superman’s big reveal, spinning a soulful tale of a man who is completely at odds with his abilities. To make things worse on the guy, he is entering a post-9/11 world that trembles in fear over the very idea of a man that can glide over the clouds. Despite numerous attempts to convince us that he means no harm, he is still met with suspicious eyes from the jumpy U.S. government.
The most pivotal part of Man of Steel is Henry Cavill’s performance as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman. Cavill is absolutely excellent as an outcast who has been warned not to reveal his superhuman abilities to the world. He wants to help any way he can but the fear of rejection hangs heavy over his head. Cavill uses his eyes to convey this constant vulnerability and confusion, looking to the stars and his earthly father, Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner), for guidance. While the new vulnerability is great, wait until you get a load of him in a fight. There is a surging intensity and almost a pulsing anger buried deep within his character that was completely unexpected. When Cavill is finally allowed to stop brooding, it is easy to see why he was chosen for the role. He is just bursting with all-American charm and he certainly is a warm figure of hope, even if he isn’t relegated to saving a kitten from a tree or helping an old lady across a busy Metropolis street. No, this Superman has bigger fish to fry when Shannon’s General Zod comes calling. We all know that Shannon can go fully crazy when he wants, and he certainly does get a little nuts with General Zod, but there is a measured insanity to his performance. He is a man driven by the love of his planet and he will stop at nothing to carry out his mission.
Then we have Amy Adams as the no-nonsense Lois Lane, who early on proves that she can hang tough in a room full of guys. Her strength and determination is certainly well played, but near the end of the film, her character is slowly shifted to damsel in distress, which was a bit disappointing. There was also a lack of build up in her romance with Supes, which sort of felt stuffed in there because it had to be. They share plenty of scenes but that spark just didn’t seem to be there. As far as Kevin Costner goes, he shines as Jonathan Kent, Clark’s adoptive father who constantly warns Clark against revealing his powers to the world. He shares a scene with the teen that is guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Russell Crowe is strong and sturdy as Jor-El, Clark’s biological father who believes that his son will be the Christ-like savior that Earth needs. Laurence Fishburne shows promise as the stern Daily Planet editor Perry White, a small role but one that I feel will be elaborated on in future installments. Diane Lane is affectionate and understanding as Martha Kent, who has to walk and talk a terrified Clark through his emerging abilities. Antje Traue is wickedly evil as Zod’s right hand woman Faora, who snarls threats like, “for every one you save, we’ll kill a million more.” Now THAT is a threat if I’ve ever heard one.
When Man of Steel finally ditches all the character building, the film dives into a climatic battle that is fittingly colossal for Superman. There is an adrenaline pumping battle in the streets of Smallville and the end man-a-mano between General Zod and Superman in the streets of Metropolis laughs at every superhero finale that has come before it. As far as criticisms go, there are a few plot holes that are difficult to ignore and Clark’s education about his home planet and abilities from a holographic Jor-El seems a bit brushed over. There are also a few lines of dialogue that will make you giggle and not in a good way. I should also mention that Snyder bashes us over the head with the Christ references, something that Singer was also guilty of. In case you don’t see the similarities between Jesus Christ and Superman, wait for the scene that finds Clark Kent wandering into a church and confiding in a nervous priest. Overall, while it isn’t perfect, Man of Steel certainly sets the stage for a refreshed Superman franchise for our dark times. It has a unique hand-held visual style and features a pounding score that only Hans Zimmer could provide. Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan successfully manage to wash away the sour taste that Singer left in our mouths and leave us wanting more from the hero that stands for truth, justice, and the American way.