Hey, there are gonna be some SPOILERS below. I’ll try to keep the major stuff out, but you’ve been warned. Go see this movie, then read the review. Or don’t. I’m a preamble, not a cop. (Community reference)
I remember a few years back when a new Superman film came out. Starring some relatively unknown Christopher Reeve look-alike, Superman Returns flatlined at the box offices and set the superhero genre back a few years. It was thought then that a story about Earth’s immortal protector would never capture filmgoers the way it did comic readers.
It’s understandable. After all, what makes a story about a hero interesting? Both Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne had to cope with the loss of everything in their third movies. Thor chose stopping his brother and saving Earth over a trillion-light-year booty call. And the Green Lantern was terrible.
We allowed this to happen. Never again, I say. Never again.
We, as an audience, want to see our heroes challenged. So how can a movie hold our interest when the hero in question is an immortal? Think about it: as long as Supes stays away from glowing green rocks, he is essentially unstoppable. And, unlike certain Dark Knights I could mention, his daddy issues only make him more of a boy scout. He is perfect, an example for humanity to stand behind and idolize. So why should we watch him be awesome for almost three hours?
Because he’s fucking SUPERMAN, that’s why.
Oh, I’m sorry. Were you doing something with this planet I’m holding?
It’s not a perfect movie, and it does have its share of flaws, but Superman has just returned in a big way. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, more than anything else, captures the visual essence of Superman. Henry Cavill (Immortals) has sculpted his body into that of an action figure. He looks like Superman, even if the suit is more “New 52” than Golden Age. The lone curl of hair on his forehead is noticeably absent, but otherwise this is a faithful recreation of America’s most beloved icon.
More than that, Cavill plays Krypton’s last son as more than just the uncrowned god-king of Earth. He is an adopted child, always hidden away because he’s different. He feels compelled to help make the world better, but is terrified of what humanity would do if his existence were to be known. He is confident in his abilities, but never arrogant. It all serves to bring you into the world of the alien immigrant, into the life of the metahuman who would change the planet.
Visually, this is a spectacle to behold from frame one. Krypton is a combination of Avatar’s Pandora mixed with the techno-wizardry of Star Wars. It is beautiful and unique, if not exactly the futuristic vision we’ve seen in “Secret Origin” or even the new run. Russell Crowe plays Jor-El with a solemn reverence and quiet intelligence that plays wonderfully against Michael Shannon’s hypnotic madness. There is a history between these two, and you get that from only a few minutes of shared screen time. It builds a world that is lived-in and believable, and one that is doomed from the first second of the film. There is a bitter irony in knowing how this story will end, as you want more than anything for Jor-El and Lara to go with their newborn son to the paradise of Earth.
There’s no joke here, but that tank? That’s my tank.
Seriously. My tank, from my company, from my battalion. Natty Guard!
In this opening, there are a few things of note as to the world-building that went into the movie. Taking a cue from Mark Waid, the iconic “S” on Supes’s chest is derived from his family’s House. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know the quirky scene with Amy Adams, as Lois Lane, pointing out that on Earth, he is wearing a giant S. Kal smiles and says: “It’s not an S. On my world, this means ‘hope.’” It felt like Game of Thrones, and I mean that in the best of ways (don’t worry, half of the cast doesn’t die every other scene). The idea that the different bloodlines of Krypton would all possess unique sigils within the pentagonal-shield sells the idea of a realized society.
It should also be noted that, like most origin stories of Superman, there is a disconnect between Kryptonian society being super-advanced, and at the same time not understanding that digging the core out of your homeworld COULD END POORLY. It seems like a few minutes playing Jenga could have provided some insight into why their world is bound for implosion. But destruction is necessary, and the Last Son leaves amidst a civil war and needless bloodshed, under the murderous gaze of General Zod.
Seriously. Michael Shannon’s eyes.
Flash forward about thirty years, and Clark Kent is doing odd jobs to stay incognito while, at the same time, saving lives and righting wrongs. Oh, and enacting petty vengeance on drunken truck drivers (go see the movie, I don’t want to ruin a great visual gag). These scenes are mostly used to show off the amount of work Henry Cavill put into his physique, and to provide an excuse for dragging your significant other to the movie. Seriously, I know Papa Kent wasn’t a rich man, but did he have to shop at Baby Gap for all of Clark’s clothing?
Eventually, Clark finds himself a hired hand on a SUPER TOP SECRET GOVERNMENT PROJECT. Wait, what?
Security clearance? Have you seen his shoulders?
The government has found what they suspect to be an alien ship inside a glacier. Super-reporter Lois Lane is brought in to…snoop around? Her involvement is never really fleshed out beyond “didn’t want this expedition to become a sausage-fest.” Clark’s being there is explored even less, and is a sizable plot-hole that nobody cares about because this is a Superman movie and we paid good money to see a dude in blue tights punch people through the planet.
Patience. It’s coming.
Clark uses a Kryptonian USB to access the spaceship and discovers who he is and where he comes from, as well as the reasons for his powers. He also finds the SUIT, though how he managed to luck upon the one ship in the universe that came from his own bloodline we’ll never know. He dons the red and blues, walks out onto the ice, and shows off his flying skills.
And then shit gets real.
SUPER STORY SPOILERS TO FOLLOW. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
Before General Zod was imprisoned and sent into Dark Space, he had intended to stage a coup on Krypton and select only choice bloodlines to continue the civilization on a new world. Kryptonian society no longer has children the old-fashioned way, but rather grows them like grapes and has them harvested by robots, all after imprinting them with some manner of professional skill-set (it’s so Matrix, you’ll flashback to 1999). Kal is the first child born naturally in a millennia, and he is bound to be a leader of Kryptonian people.
Knowing that their world is bound for a mega-splosion, Jor-El steals the Codex–a storage device containing the history of the Kryptonian houses, somehow stored in a half-a-human-skull–and imbeds it into his son. Zod, being the reasonable fellow he is, stabs Jor-El in the life button and screams threats at the baby rocket before being taken into custody.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, blowing up your own world has dire effects on your penal system. Zod and his crew awaken from space-ice sleep to discover Krypton pulled an Alderaan. Knowing there is hope somewhere out in the universe, they begin to search for Kal-El with the intention of rebuilding the Kryptonian race.
Also, probably planning a little murder.
The thesis of the movie revolves around Kal-El making first contact with humanity, while also demonstrating that he is here to help. It is a new take on the hero, at least for film. Most new takes on the Superman origin story have included this theme. Moreover, there is the question posed by the military: is Superman here to protect us or rule us? Mark Waid and Alex Ross explored the concept in their 4-part epic Kingdom Come, and it has become a staple in the newer runs of the DC hero. Superman is also an alien. He is the answer to the question “are we alone?” It seems likely that writers David Goyer and Christopher Nolan took that idea to heart when putting together this reboot. How would Earth really react if a god appeared in our midst?
Which explains all the Jesus metaphors.
There are stumbles along the way, and I’d like to touch on them before I start gushing about the rest. Take note, I am nitpicking in some respects because Superman is near and dear to my heart. Though I entered the comic book world through Spider-Man, the Death and Return series cemented my love of the medium.
Lois Lane is better than the FBI: In the first half of the film, Lois Lane is saved from a robot-cobra-scorpion by Kal-El. He leaves her to be found (or die, depending on how the next day played out) on an ice floe near where the alien ship had been buried. She then goes on the hunt for this super human, tracking him back from drifter job to drifter job until she finds a little town in Kansas named Smallville. It takes her literally six cuts before she is talking to Ma Kent and hanging out in a graveyard waiting for Supes to show. It makes it pretty hard to believe that, after the events of the rest of the film, the authorities couldn’t find Clark in about TEN SECONDS.
Oh, he’s a farmboy named Clark Kent.
Though we can’t do much about it, because he’s still a bulletproof space-god.
Or is he?
While we’re on the subject of Lois, it should be said that she is barely described by the script at all. When she is given some exposition, it is very clearly told and not shown, like when she shouts at Lawrence Fishburne, “I’m a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist.” In fact, if you never mentioned her name in this movie, people might have some trouble figuring out which character she is supposed to play. Absent is the strong-willed, take-charge reporter with a knack for hooking readers and a weakness for spell-check. Amy Adams plays the role very well, but the script does her no favors.
This also leads to trouble when it comes to the romantic aspect of the film. Lois and Kal-El have some chemistry, and it’s a testament to the acting ability of these two stars that they sell that much with so little. By the end of the film, when a magical kiss ensues, you can’t help but feel this was a paint-by-numbers romance. It’s a shame, because so many other relationships in the movie are fleshed-out. Jor-El and Zod show their history through body language and Michael Shannon’s crazy eyes; Perry and Lois speak with a sort of shorthand regarding their working relationship; even the crew of the fishing boat at the beginning of the movie seem to have a well-formed routine. I have to call the romance a miss, at least in my opinion. It ends up feeling more like the love story in Captain America, where the sassy British officer falls for the muscles that appeared on the wimpy Steve Rogers.
Because women in the 40s were shallow, according to Stan Lee.
I rarely like to get into scientific debates where superheroes are concerned, but this last scene drew a little too much attention. The bad guys have just discovered that Kal-El contains the Codex inside his cells, and that harvesting them will allow the future of Kryptonian society to be secured. General Zod, feeling jaunty, asks if Kal-El needs to be alive for the harvesting. Jax-Ur, mad scientist, says no. At this point, my friend Sam leaned over and whispered, “Um, if he’s dead, and his cells are dead, you ain’t harvesting SHIT.”
Lastly, let me gripe about the henchmen, or rather, the creepy/hot henchwoman and her cast of disposables. Zod’s second-in-command, Faora-Ul (Antje Traue of Pandorum) is a blue-eyed, ghostly she-demon with a knack for terrible one-liners. She is one of the main antagonists in the movie, though her character’s only attempt at breaching the third-dimension comes from a few tears shed over the loss of Krypton. She is a machine of anger, murder-kicking her way through waves of human soldiers while taking sporadic breaks to pose and sneer. They try to establish some sort of C-Plot animosity between the Air Force Colonel (Christopher Meloni from Law and Order: SVU), but it comes off as ham-fisted and only a little satisfying.
Though she can invade my planet anytime.
The rest of the skull-faced crew either get shot by Lois (in a rather brilliant sequence aboard the alien ship), or get mega-punched by Superman. Props should be given to the casting director for finding a nineteen-foot tall juggernaut for a scene I’ve titled “Showdown at the Kr Corral.”
Seriously. Dude could dunk over Darkseid.
These plot holes and glitches are abound, but with so much source material to draw from, it’s impossible not to cross a few wires. If this were a straight-remake of the Donner original, than we would have other issues to talk about. As it stands, the story weaves a compelling narrative and leads you, the viewer, on a journey where superhuman fists meet superhuman faces. And that’s what you’re paying to see.
Zack Snyder is famous for overusing slow-motion to kinda tell a story. Sure, 300 made us all feel manlier, and Watchmen was an inspiring attempt at bringing a graphic marvel to life, but was he the right man to helm the beginning of the Justice League saga?
Holy crap, yes.
Man of Steel is imperfect, but its flaws are barely visible when compared to the great successes. Superman, for the first time since Christopher Reeve joined forces with Richard Pryor, feels like Superman. The fights are incredible, with CGI that is as convincing as it is magical. Trains are thrown like lawn darts and buildings topple like dominos. The audience bears witness to the power of god-on-god combat in a beautifully choreographed ballet of violence. Sure, Metropolis is completely obliterated in the process, but you as the viewer get to enjoy the show.
The biggest suspension of disbelief is that anyone survived this.
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane nail it as Ma and Pa Kent, and the dialogue between adolescent Clark and his adoptive father may bring a tear to your eye.
Russell Crowe again asserts himself as one of the most badass men on the planet. Seriously, how has there not been another fifteen Gladiator movies?
My favorite part of the entire film has to be the interaction between Michael Shannon’s Zod and Henry Cavill’s Superman. Zod is the product of his society: a genetically engineered soldier with the weight of his species on his shoulders. He is the perfect antithesis for Kal-El, who bears a similar weight in the form of Earth. Zod is not malicious in his intentions, merely calculating. The final showdown demonstrates that not all villains are evil, and not all evil is without a moral foundation. I think that, of everything else done, making Zod sympathetic is a true achievement for the writers and actors.
Finally, I want to say that Hans Zimmer has once again written a gorgeous and haunting score that perfectly fits its film. Sure, I miss the John Williams march, but this is a reboot in the purest sense. Nothing from the original films was allowed to tag along for the ride, and it gave the rest of the movie room to make its own way.
No, dude. Just no.
Without a doubt, this is a movie you should see in theaters. Zack Snyder and his band of misfits have put together something more than just your usual summer popcorn movie. This isn’t better than The Avengers in the same way that The Godfather isn’t better than Jaws. It’s a different movie, a more somber movie, and it tells a story that resonates with every generation. Look past the flaws and plot holes and you will find a beautiful retelling of our favorite superhero. His journey is only just beginning, and you will regret not joining in. So take a seat. Our hero has landed.