Growing up, I was never a huge Superman fan. Maybe I simply didn't understand the values that the comics offered. Certainly, the ideals and messages behind Superman are often lost in translation when it comes to my generation, which seems much more attuned to the swagger of Iron Man or the darkness of Batman. But on June 14, I saw "Man of Steel." And now, finally, I understand.
Directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300), this wildly impressive film is a complete reboot of the series, erasing the history of the Christopher Reeve stories and starting anew. From its fantastical beginning on dying planet Krypton (at once both reminiscent of Avatar and the surrealist art of H.R. Giger), to the grounded struggles of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) under the guidance of his surrogate parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), right up to the smash-bang super-fight at the end, this film redefines the Superman legend without ever sacrificing the elements that made it so powerful in the first place.
The serious, dramatic, character-centric creative force that drives the movie can be felt both in the Krypton and Earth scenes (between which the transition is admittedly a bit jarring). Beneath this, Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception), who stays on as producer, ensures that the story is presented in a modern context, without becoming pretentious or crumbling into a pile of overreaching self-parody.
The creative sci-fi components (terraforming, cryogenic exile by black hole) and social/ethical quandaries the story includes are innumerable, and presented in the subtlest fashion, to boot. Indeed, subtlety and nuance are the unsung gems hidden in this film. It utilizes such touches to deliver atypical - but nonetheless profound - social commentary.
Meanwhile, there's some religious symbolism present. In one scene, Clark is juxtaposed beside Jesus while speaking with a priest. Yeah, we get it: Superman is a selfless do-gooder. Such scenes are few and far between, but they're unneeded, and the only parts of the film that feel forced.
Fortunately, "Man of Steel" brings Superman back down to earth through his actions. Too often in these stories, these super-powered heroes (with their laundry lists of personality disorders) get so caught up in their petty vendettas and firefights that the people they supposedly care about are reduced to a faceless mass, far away from the front-and-center battlefield. Not so with this movie. Superman is truly a man of the people here; he helps fishermen, saves a bus full of children, and works with the military. Remember when comic book heroes used to be humble and align themselves with the everyday citizen? I do, and apparently Zack Snyder does too.
On the other hand, many critics claimed that, in the end, the profound drama unraveled into a messy, skyscraper-destroying CGI extravaganza that became overlong and monotonous. I failed to see that. In fact, it feels like "Man of Steel" goes above and beyond to make even the climactic battle unconventional: Superman has to stop a "world engine" from modifying the Earth to make it fit for genetically-engineered Kryptonians to inhabit.
Superman himself does not quite represent the tired vigilantism of other recent superheroes (and for that I'm grateful). Instead, newcomer Henry Cavill portrays a clever mixture of emotional depth and, at times, contemplative withdrawal from a world he does not yet fully understand (perhaps outlining the need for his Fortress of Solitude; future plot setup?). Cavill's fantastic performance outlines the difference between a man in red-and-blue spandex and Superman; Cavill is the latter. I will forever associate the role specifically with this actor.
Michael Shannon plays the tyrannical General Zod, who gets dangerously close to becoming the hackneyed arch nemesis. But his quasi-fascistic talk of preserving bloodlines and his anarchistic disregard for Kryptonian bureaucracy make him more interesting than that. It's just a shame we aren't provided with more backstory for his character. Also, there's little iconic about Zod, if anything. He's neither a Joker nor a Darth Vader. But he's serviceable, even enjoyable.
Russell Crowe plays Superman's father Jor-El, and gets a surprising amount of screen time, which is cool. Despite being given some rather predictable dialogue, Crowe makes the best of it. He gives a memorable performance, though it's trumped by Kevin Costner, who, in terms of the acting-screen time ratio, does much more with less.
Amy Adams rounds out the main cast with a decent portrayal of Lois Lane. Adams' chemistry with Cavill could use some work, though in all fairness, romance is ultimately not a major thing the filmmakers chose to highlight. That may disappoint some, but in my eyes it's a nice departure from the original movies.
Going in, I had every reason to worry that this incarnation of Superman would fall victim to one or ten of the endless possible flaws. I mean, how do you make a super-powered, cape-wearing alien work in the eyes of a cynical, seen-it-all-before 2013 audience? "Man of Steel" gave me my answer in every facet of its form, content, and presentation. It is a brilliant contribution to the Superman legacy.
It's been criticized for having the "Nolan touch," and being a "Dark Knight knockoff," but "Man of Steel" is not dark and nihilistic. In fact, it seems to depict the end of nihilism and the beginning of renewed optimism. And that's fitting. Superman is an icon of American optimism. Even more appropriately, the film ends on an enduring note of hope.
Before the film began, one of the people in the theater declared, "This is the Superman I've been waiting my whole life to see." And so it was for me, as well. I just didn't know it yet.
"Man of Steel"
Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne
2013, PG-13, 143 mins.
Photo: Man of Steel official site