To look at him you wouldn’t think Superman (aka Kal-El, aka Clark Kent) was seventy-five years old, but indeed he is. That’s if you go back to when he first made his appearance in Action Comics #1, published in 1938. He is regarded as the first comic book superhero and also an American cultural icon. With a logo that is as identifiable as Coca-Cola, he has remained in the public eye having had his character live outside of comic books by appearing on radio, on television and in feature films. Extending beyond the purview of different mediums, however, is the manner in which the character of Superman has fascinated all walks of life, be it including literary scholars, cultural theorists or even entertainers (Jerry Seinfeld is a big fan). So it only makes sense that a filmmaker like Zack Snyder be the one to take a leap of faith and pull on Superman’s flowing red cape to bring him to today’s world.
Snyder may be a brazen filmmaker in terms of his visual style – his use of slow-motion action is a hindrance at times – but as a director that is well aware of the comic book spectrum, having done Frank Miller’s 300 and the they-said-it-couldn’t-be-done adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, he seems like a novel fit to present Superman anew. He fully understands the idea of the “monomyth,” or the hero’s journey made famous by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Rereading some of the stages of the monomyth (there are seventeen in all) it’s interesting how they correlate with Greek mythology, stories from The Bible, but most importantly, and for the purpose of this review, the film Man of Steel.
With an incredible marketing blitz of trailers and TV spots, the film arrives with much anticipation. The anticipation is seeing if Warner Bros. and DC Comics can take the iconic character’s rich mythology and apply it to the world of today. Any apprehension you may have should be extinguished at the film’s onset in Krypton, which sells us the story of an alien sent from a dying civilization only to crash land on Earth.
We know of the duality of man, having seen its depiction countless times before in other superhero movies. But Superman is a special case. This isn’t just a man hiding behind a mask to protect his identity from others. Clark Kent is his alter ego. The life of a Midwest farm boy in Smallville, Kansas, is all he’s ever known. However as he grows older, Clark notices changes in his body. As such, a festering conflict develops internally where he is at odds with his place in the world and, as he would discover, his alien homeland of Krypton. With this conflict comes resolution. Knowing the apparent xenophobia that very much exists in a post-9/11 world, Clark must shield his uncanny abilities so he isn’t perceived as being hostile, despite the contrary. This leads to the first of one climax, where Clark learns of his Krypton origin. The second resolution comes with the world learning of his existence and Clark Kent being at peace with being Superman.
But to reach this climax he must first take and dish out one hell of an ass whooping. That’s right. Superman throws punches! So if you missed seeing them in Superman Returns, Kal-El makes sure to make up for lost haymaker opportunities.
While Man of Steel may be Zack Snyder’s film, Christopher Nolan’s fingerprints are all over the production. From sharing co-writing duties with David S. Goyer, the man responsible for developing the stories for The Dark Knight trilogy, to producing the feature with wife Emma Thomas, Nolan made sure that if the origin of Superman was to be retold it would be accomplished adhering to a real-world aesthetic. But Superman’s reach extends way beyond Smallville; no singular town can contain him, not even the grand city of Metropolis.
Ever since Richard Donner directed the first legitimate big-screen Superman release, Superman, with Christopher Reeve donning the iconic suit and logo, few have come close to being as convincing as a superhero. Of those few we have Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. Henry Cavill will soon be added to that list. His invincible exterior is matched with a hint of vulnerability, having lived among humankind for his entire life. Plus he has boy-scout charm and a wandering spirit, seemingly knowing when to act when others won’t while also able to slip in and go unnoticed by his peers.
Outside of Cavill’s convincing portrayal, the other standout performances are Russell Crowe as Kal-El’s Kryton father, Jor-El, Michael Shannon as the menacing Kryptonian, General Zod, and Kevin Costner as Superman’s earthbound dad. It is in those father-and-son moments between Clark and Pa Kent that have an aura of truth as it pertains to the consequences of our actions and the willingness of sacrifice to prevent the truth from coming to light.
As for Russell Crowe’s portrayal as Jor-El, it’s no mere cameo. He isn’t Marlon Brando just preening for a big payday; Crowe has such gravitas as Jor-El that when he speaks so eloquently about idealism you accept them as truth at face value.
“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive toward. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
Michael Shannon is his old reliable self as one of the few vestiges of life of a dead planet in General Zod, a Kryptonian that is seeking to re-establish his civilization even if it means destroying another. Zod is a villain but it’s easy to sympathize with his desire in wanting to see his people thrive once more.
For those wanting to know about Amy Adams’ portrayal as Lois Lane, the whip smart journalist of The Daily Planet that isn’t your normal damsel in a dress, she’s is fine in her role. The story could have used more of her, but she didn’t have a great story arc. Granted, this is about Superman’s origin, but the manner in which she becomes involved with the story is a weak link. Still, it’s good to know that Lois knows how to handle a glass of Scotch after a bad meeting with her editor, Perry White (who is played by Laurence Fishburne). Also helpful is the chemistry she has with young Cavill.
The production team had their work cut out for them, having to create the futuristic Krypton, the massive skyscrapers of Metropolis, and best of all, Superman’s flowing red cape. Purists who have shown disdain for the alterations made to Superman’s classic suit – get over it. Wearing red spandex over blue tights is so passé. The update is well deserved.
Depending on how much action you can stomach, the visual cornucopia of destruction on a massive scale will either be something you’ll enjoy or come to loathe. That was one of the problems with the climax of The Avengers. The action, while well orchestrated, seemed to go on forever. At least with Man of Steel the destruction is mitigated by an alien being looking to re-establish his civilization against another alien who has adopted the practices of what it means to be human. So with each new calamity, including a number of set pieces that haven’t been spoiled by advertisements, the stakes are raised that much more. Superman wouldn’t have had it any other way.
To my surprise, the slow-motion machinations we’ve come to expect with Zack Snyder filmed action scenes are gone. In fact, Man of Steel at times doesn’t feel like a Snyder film at all. This is all due to Christopher Nolan’s influence I’m sure. He even makes a point of having Hans Zimmer conduct yet another memorable score. Not once did I have an inkling of wanting to hear John Williams’s classic Superman theme in the background. The Zimmer score is nuanced throughout hitting the right emotions.
It’s too early to say where Man of Steel will rank in the pantheon of superhero movies. The origin story is up there with Batman Begins and Clark Kent’s can-do spirit recalls Captain America: The First Avenger. Definitely a good sign, as both are strong comic book movies.
One thing is for sure, however. It sets up what will most likely be an even better sequel (fingers crossed it’s Superman vs. Mighty Mouse). If the ending is any indication, developments that I wanted to occur – like the hustle and bustle of Metropolis and the famed Daily Planet - will most likely be saved for the eventual sequel. Hopefully, it arrives faster than a speeding bullet, or at the very least is more powerful than a locomotive.
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Notable Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne