Some directors understand the depth of human emotion better than anyone else. Some know how to work big budget action better than others. If there ever was a director to properly go through the mythos of Superman it would be Zack Snyder. Snyder’s become the best in Hollywood at being able to craft the mythos of something into a larger tapestry. He crafted 300 into a tale of battle, necessarily embellished for inspiration. Watchmen was a look at the realities of the superhero. Legend of the Guardians was about the realities of hero-worship.
With his relaunch of Superman with Man of Steel Snyder has crafted his take on the mythos of the man from Krypton: that of the power of hope.
This is a basic origin story. We see Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as an infant on Krypton, where his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) views him as a hope for a lost cause. Krypton is a dying planet and General Zod (Michael Shannon) is attempting a coup de tat. Jor-El sees his world dying and wants his son to have a life instead of dying with the rest of his race. Sent to Earth, Clark winds up living a vagabond existence because of his powers as a sort of super-powered, anonymous do-gooder due to Earth’s sun giving him super-powers. He’s more myth than man, living under assumed names, as he wanders the Earth trying to find himself. When his feats of heroism (and Zod) catch up to him, Clark must take the mantle of his destiny to save Earth. And while it could be a fairly formulaic comic book origin, which would’ve sufficed, Snyder has opted to do something brilliant instead.
He’s made it about hope, about the expectations of his biological and adopted fathers upon him.
Superman has always been about hope. It’s the one thing the prior films have never been able to capitalize on; Superman has been a hero that’s never been truly developed on the big screen because it’s a difficult character to make vulnerable. Superman is nigh invulnerable, can fly with super strength (among others). Making him vulnerable is something that’s difficult but making him sympathetic is something that really hasn’t happened until now.
That’s because Snyder is exploring why Clark Kent became Superman instead of his adventures as Superman. Snyder is exploring why Kent would go from being a wanderer, content to do miraculous things, and views it through the prism of his two fathers. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) just wants his son to fit in; he’s concerned that his son’s special abilities will make him an outcast and hated. Jor-El views him as something humanity will strive for. Both men wind up dying for what they believe in, as well. Snyder’s casting of Costner and Crowe is brilliant on any number of levels but both men capture the essence of what they mean for Superman. This isn’t a stunt casting, like Marlon Brando in Richard Donnar’s Superman. Crowe is given a substantial part, as is Costner, and both men contribute directly to Snyder’s narrative.
It starts with Snyder’s extended first act, which takes place on Krypton. It’s something that’s never been explored for Superman, at least in the films, and by going there and giving us context about Jor-El, Kal-El and the death of that planet gives us perspective on Superman’s arrival. This isn’t Jor-El sacrificing his own happiness for the greater good of his son’s extended life. This is a father making a choice to let his civilization die off, permanently, instead of having his family together while the world ends. Seeing Krypton at the end, and seeing an extended look as to why it was dying, gives us perspective we’ve never had of Superman’s origins we’ve never had. It makes the choice of Jor-El that much more intriguing and powerful of a moment; this isn’t just putting a baby into a spaceship.
This is about a father and his son at a crucial moment in both their lives. And that’s what makes the film so enthralling when Jonathan Kent is added into the mix. We’re given two perspectives and two looks on the father/son relationships that drive Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman and his existence.
This isn’t Henry Cavill fighting Michael Shannon in a jaw dropping, city destroying finale in a grittier, more modern take on the character. It’s much more substantial than that. This is about Superman as he was intended, as the icon of hope to strive for. We’ve never seen why Superman got to become who he is on the big screen; it’s always just presumed and never touched on. Snyder has given us Superman as a beacon of hope, touching on the mythos behind it. And it might wind up being the best film of 2013 when all is said and done.
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