I could go into my whole personal history with Superman, if I wanted to. I remember one particular conversation I had with my father, when I was a child, a daydreamer, living in a fantasy world full of superheroes, Wookiees, lightsabers, and dragons - "Superman's not real, you know. None of this stuff is," he said, motioning towards my wall of posters, books, and assorted stuff. He thought he was doing me a favor, you see. He wasn't, and I still love him, but it was far too late. I was already hooked on movies, books... STORY. Now, many years later, story still has its hooks in me, and if I have any say about it, it will never let me go.
In 1988, I saw Martin Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which supposed that Jesus was a man, with human needs and emotions - and also God, with a sense of duty and destiny. Those halves warred with each other throughout Jesus’ whole life, at least as it was portrayed in Scorsese’s remarkable film. LAST TEMPTATION is a powerful work, wrongly maligned by religious groups who simply don’t understand it, and a very spiritual experience. Even though I'm non-religious, I could identify with the struggles within that film, and it moved me to my core. No, MAN OF STEEL is not THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, but they feel remarkably similar thematically. MAN OF STEEL, like Scorsese's movie, dives into the conflicted nature of its main character, and in the process creates something stunning, especially coming from a supposedly simple comic book movie.
Zack Snyder has made a superhero film for the ages. More importantly, Snyder and writer David Goyer have brought the character to life in a way that even the Richard Donner film couldn't accomplish: this is the Superman of the comics, big, brash, and powerful, and yet Snyder and Goyer understand that essential truth of the character - he is lonely, but not alone; he is not from Earth, yet intrinsically a part of it; a god among mortals, yet so fragile in his emotions. This is the Superman I've been waiting to see since I was that young boy in my room, wishing so fervently that he was real. Because I think a world with Superman in it is a world worth living in.
Superman was always the hardest superhero to be a fan of. He was invulnerable (except for Kryptonite), too goody-two-shoes, and just too vanilla for the more complicated world out there. And yet, for me, he was always my favorite. Oh, other superheroes came and went, but Superman meant something. For a nerdy kid like me, picked on growing up, the idea of turning the other cheek, to being the best possible person I could be, even when everything around you is pushing you otherwise - that was a struggle I could identify with. The best Superman stories ask one essential question: is Superman a part of this world, or above it?
You all know the origin story by now, but Zack Snyder and David Goyer show us a Krypton that has never before made it to screens - this is the Krypton of the comic book, and Goyer doesn't hesitate to dive into 75 years of back history to get it right. On Krypton, where a rigid caste system defines everyone's role since birth, a natural birth hasn't occurred for thousands of years. Everyone has their role, and no one can break free of their place. But Jor-El (Russell Crowe) does not want that life for his son, the first naturally born Kryptonian in thousands of years, and in defiance of the law. He also knows that because Krypton has tapped into the energy of the planet's core, all of Krypton is now unstable and will self-destruct in a matter of weeks.
To make matters worse, General Zod (Michael Shannon) begins a rebellion against a planetary Council he sees as corrupt and against the best interests of Krypton. His rebellion fails, but he urges Jor-El to join him. But Jor-El knows that Krypton is doomed, and sends his child Kal-El far away to Earth, in hopes that he may save their heritage and history. Zod and his minions are cast into the Phantom Zone, but not before Zod vows that he will find Jor-El's unnatural son and kill him.
Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) grows up to be a man torn between two worlds - the ideals and aspirations of Jor-El, and the love and concern of his human parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). He cannot seem to find his place in this world - Clark does odd jobs, never staying in one place long. He seems to be an innately good person, helping anyone in need, but he remains apart from people and from the world. When he discovers that there is a place in the Arctic Circle that might contain all the answers, he heads north in the hopes of finding them. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is following a scoop of her own - possible proof of extra-terrestrial life to visit Earth. Clark and Lois's paths cross, and Clark learns of his true destiny - as a protector to those who need him. But Zod is coming, and Kal-El may not be ready to face him or his minions. Kal-El is torn between helping the people of Earth, his adopted home, or choosing Krypton and the path of his people.
MAN OF STEEL is unabashedly a comic book movie. It's big and audacious, and Christopher Nolan's real world influence feels very absent here, at least in comparison to his work on the Batman films. This isn't THE DARK KNIGHT - from the very first opening shots of Krypton MAN OF STEEL establishes that this is a story of grand scale. Regardless of that scale, it still feels intimate - this is a story about one man, and his decision to either be a part of this world or not. As we explore Kal-El's life, much of it in flashback, even with all the giant setpieces (and some of them really are about as big as it gets for a movie like this) the movie never strays from that essential question.
Henry Cavill is perfect as Kal-El. He makes you forget about Christopher Reeve. He makes this character his own - a man almost genetically predisposed to do good, to help people, and yet his conflict with his place in the world is always there within him. I must also compliment Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline - they play Clark during his younger years and bring that same sense of gravitas that Cavill does. I love the fear and confusion Sprayberry gives to Clark when Jonathan reveals to him his alien heritage, and he and Costner have a very nice moment together.
Some fans may have issues with the changes the film makes with Jonathan Kent - instead of a noble father-figure instilling his values into Clark, Kevin Costner plays him as a true father, concerned with the well-being of his son, fearful of a world that might reject him. But he cannot help, also, giving Clark those values, because they are so much a part of him. Costner's wonderful in just about every scene he's in MAN OF STEEL. So is Russell Crowe as Jor-El, who through the years and the distance gives Kal-El purpose and destiny.
Amy Adams gives Lois Lane purpose as well. She plays her as a real journalist, even though the article she's working on puts her at odds with her editor, Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne). Adams gives Lois that spunk the character has always had, but she's not simply a love interest for Superman, either; she has her own goals and motivations. Diane Lane as Martha Kent is a calming influence on Clark, from his younger days to the present.
Michael Shannon as General Zod is one of the best comic book villains yet; Shannon doesn’t play Zod with the B-movie villainy that we might be used to, seeing the undeniably great Terence Stamp in the role. Shannon plays Zod essentially as a hero. He will do anything to save his people, and woe to any Earthlings who get in his way. He cannot understand Kal-El’s reluctance to save his people, and when Zod and Superman go at it, the destruction in their wake is tremendous.
Han Zimmer’s score is tremendously good. It evokes the same awe and grandeur that John Williams’ original score did, but goes about it in a very unique and original way. I love the percussion that provides much of the rhythm of the movie, and while there’s no grand theme like Williams’, it’s still melodic and memorable. There’s an emotional thrust to it – at times the music is quite gentle and others it kicks into high gear, sweeping over the audience. It’s probably the best score of the year so far, and it’s quite beautiful and powerful.
Are there issues with the movie? I think some of the exposition regarding Krypton is a bit clunky, but after reading a few of the comics again, it feels appropriate to what Zack Snyder and David Goyer are doing. Sometimes what works on the comic book page comes across as silly in translation to film, but I admire that Goyer stays loyal to the source. Although this is an origin story, MAN OF STEEL feels genuinely new in how all the pieces fit together, but there are moments of confusion at times; there’s a lot of plot to cover, especially in the first half. It’s a long movie, and with some selective editing could have been made shorter and more streamlined, but Snyder and Goyer are laying a foundation, which takes a bit more care to build. There will obviously be more of these films, and it’s important that the stakes are set appropriately.
Even with the heavy themes, this is not a somber affair – Snyder’s action sequences are about as amazing as they get. When it comes to sheer scale, there isn’t anything I’ve seen in a long time that matches the action of MAN OF STEEL. I almost wanted a running tab on the lower corner of the screen just to see the property damage. There’s some stark devastation imagery in MAN OF STEEL – cities are leveled, buildings collapse, and through it all Superman must try to save as many people as he can. The second half of the film is a relentless action feast, and about as intense as it gets. At last, Superman punches again, and Snyder shows him as an all-powerful force, where every step he takes shakes the planet. This is superhero filmmaking at its best, with battles that practically burst through the screen.
The supporting cast shines as well, especially Fishburne as Perry White and Antje Traue as Faora, who gets some wonderful moments amidst the action. But Cavill must carry the movie, and carry it he does. I don’t think anyone could ask for a better Superman – he seems to intrinsically get the character, and he also has the right physique for the role. He commands attention, and always plays his role earnestly. I look forward to wherever this role takes him in the future.
MAN OF STEEL is the Superman movie we have been waiting for. Full of action, emotion, and spectacle, this is Zack Snyder’s finest work so far, and I prefer David Goyer’s work here to his work on Nolan’s Batman films. This was the harder job, by far – to make Superman relevant again, and to give him life beyond the page. It is true to the comics, to the films, to everything we love about this character. When I dreamed of heroes as a child, dreamed of taking flight, I saw this movie in my mind’s eye. Zack Snyder has pulled from the dreams of millions of fans, and brought us something to cheer for. MAN OF STEEL soars on the winds of those visions. I imagine fans will lose their damn minds over this movie, and deservedly so. What the future holds for DC on film, I cannot know, but MAN OF STEEL lays the foundations for something quite extraordinary. I can’t wait to see what’s next.