Review by Pete Mason
The legend of Superman has been part of American culture for more than 75 years, bringing a god-like alien to earth to serve as a protector for the planet. No, he’s not Jesus, but that comparison does arise in “Man of Steel,” the latest reboot of the classic comic book story – and one that finally gets it right, making a film that comic book fans and audiences have been waiting for, thanks to Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Superman.
Actually, the word ‘Superman’ is uttered merely twice in the film, as he is known to others only as either Clark Kent or Kal-El, his name on Krypton. The movie begins on the planet Krypton, where over-mining of the core has led to the imminent destruction of all life. Jor-El (played perfectly by Russel Crowe in a more engaging and active role than Marlon Brando’s original take) sees the trouble ahead and does his best to prevent disaster, looking forward enough to send his child to safety on Earth. A coup by General Zod (an incredibly intimidating Michael Shannon) leads to a rift between Jor-El and Zod, resulting in Zod’s banishment to the Phantom Zone with his acolytes. Shannon’s eyes are deep and foreboding, staring back at you like the paintings in the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, and his jaw, square and stern, intimidates as his character shows a duality – he wants to rebuild Krypton, but at the peril of Earth and all who live there.
Zod eventually finds his way to Earth to locate Kal-El, the last survivor of the planet and holder of the Codex, which holds the blueprint for a new Krypton, people and all. The search for this mirrors Kal-El’s search for his own true self, a difficult task as he attempts to come to terms with his super human abilities. We first see Kal-El (only known as Clark to his parents and those in Smallville, Kansas) in his early thirties working on a fishing vessel, then as a cook and later a laborer, never staying long at each job, especially after performing feats that are otherwise inexplicable – saving oil riggers, protecting waitresses and hiding his identity, an unknown even to him. Henry Cavill looks the part and acts perfectly, restraining his passion, protecting throughout and fighting to save others, showing truly raw emotion in only a few instances.
The film is interspliced with flashbacks to his youth, and we see how came to realize he is special. We see young Clark recognizing his powers all at once, then saving his schoolmates on a bus that has fallen off a bridge, awakening to the reality that while he seeks to do good, he has to keep his true self secret. This framing of the 30-year-old Clark as he discovers who he is, through flashbacks to his younger self, is done in a manner befitting the story, keeping the present-day moving forward and not tear-jerking the audience cheaply to provide plot progression. We see Clark develop among his family and peers, discovering that he came from another planet and giving context to the man he is at present day – a 33-year-old lost and in search of answers.
Of course, there was another famous 33-year-old who spent time coming to terms with his abilities, learning he was sent by the heavens to give the planet hope. This comparison, while thankfully not overdone, is a basis for the Superman legend and one that leads to his status as a godlike being. He is not worshipped in the film, but he is looked up to once Earth (but mainly just America) accepts him as not being the enemy and allows him to fight back against Zod on their side.
Zod unleashes a deadly barrage on Smallville, showcasing Kal-El’s inclination to save others, recognized by the Zod-disciple Faora (Antje Traue) as having a key weakness – his morality and compassion for Earthlings. Slowly harnessing the power of the sun, as Kal-El has, his foes become equals in strength and able to unleash destruction when Kal-El does not join ‘Team Zod.’ This leads to larger scenes in Metropolis where destruction of the city rivals that of “The Avengers” (yes, that was NYC; six of one, half a dozen of the other) and the planet hangs in peril while Kal-El fights it out against Zod’s World Machine.
Director Zach Snyder portrays Superman in an ideal way, a reintroduction of the character who has been lost for a generation of movie-goers, if you can forget “Superman Returns,” which most of us will after seeing “Man of Steel,” if we haven’t already. Writer David S. Goyer pens a script that has a steady flow, hope and passion, as well as the expected elements of Superman and his circle of friends and family and all that we identify with Superman – The Daily Planet, Ma and Pa Kent and Lois Lane. Laurence Fishburne as Perry White is a fresh take, although he barely gets screen time; Amy Adams portrays Lois Lane in a more relaxed manner than Margot Kidder or Kate Bosworth did, pacing herself as an investigative reporter searching for this no-named hero. Kevin Costner gives his best performance in decades as Jonathan Kent, and Diane Lane serves as the rock that Clark returns home to from time to time.
In “Man of Steel,” Kal-El/Clark is merely a wanderer trying to find his place in the world, slowly discovering who he is, just as the story of Superman has been trying to find its place in the greater comic book movie universe. Snyder and Cavill find this place, with the help of Christopher Nolan’s story, and casually frame the next phase of Superman: taking on his dual persona as Clark Kent, a mild mannered reporter for The Daily Planet, who seeks to protect the planet as a whole.
“Man of Steel” is rated PG-13 for violence and really awesome action sequences. See it in 3D for the full effect of a resurrected franchise, and hopefully, a Justice League movie in the next few years…
Tags: Pete Mason