MAN OF STEEL
BEWARE OF SPOILERS! A couple of years ago I wrote a furious rant entitled Superman: Why He’s Not So Super Anymore. In it I described my feelings on why I didnt think the character was as relevant in the modern age as he once was. Looking back it was very General Zod-esque, but that was where my mind was back then. Now after seeing Zack Snyder’s reboot, I’m still processing exactly where I’d rank it but for the most part I think it accomplished what it set out to do with the standalone re-imagining of the Superman legend.
The opening of Man of Steel, like the original 1978 Superman film, focuses on the end of his home planet of Krypton. Where it differs is how it depicts that world with more detail. This isn’t the bleak ice glacier world of the Donner film, it’s closer to something like Avatar with flying creatures and strange Prometheus-style devices that talk to you. Tensions have risen due to the honorable Jor-El (Russell Crowe) pleading with the council members to evacuate all citizens because of an unstable planetary core, but of course they won’t listen. The only one who is on his side is none other than General Zod (Michael Shannon) an imposing soldier who is planning a coup de tat that Jor-El refuses to take part in. Meanwhile, Jor-El and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) have birthed the first natural baby on Krypton in many years due to it being against their laws (their citizens are procreated on Matrix-like farms). With impending doom from both Zod’s wrath and the planet’s destruction, Jor-El chooses Earth to send the baby he names Kal. The getaway ship is launched with Kal inside along with a genetic codex (Krypton DNA) before Zod and his minion can stop it. Following the murder of Jor-El, Zod and his followers including Faora (Antje Traue) are sentenced to The Phantom Zone, a Kryptonian style prison (no this time its not that floating mirror from Superman II).
When his spacecraft lands on Earth, Kal is adopted by Smallville, Kansas residents Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). It’s here Clark learns about life from his hardworking, loving parents and becomes the goodhearted guy he grows up to be. After leaving home and hitching across the country, he works many odd jobs including as a fisherman. On his travels he finds two very important things that will change his life: a Kryptonian scout vessel that houses information about where he came from and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) a reporter for The Daily Planet who he falls in love with. Not long after receiving his red and blue duds from his father who appears as an A.I. hologram in the spacecraft, Zod shows up on Earth looking for Kal-El because of the genetic codex that he plans to use for creating a new version of Krypton. Of course once Kal learns of this, things get rather heated and the War of the Worlds begins.
Henry Cavill is super as Kal-El. He does with Clark/Superman what Christian Bale did with Bruce Wayne/Batman i.e. his own serious take on the DC super hero. He has a reserved, stoic tone but adds those subtle moments of humor and honors what made the character so special to comic book fans. Snyder even includes parallels between Superman and Jesus with imagery like Clark talking in front of a church’s stained glass window pictoral of the Son of God as well as him holding a Christ-like pose before he saves Lois from danger.
Michael Shannon’s General Zod is not just a cold, robotic villain as Terrence Stamp had portrayed him. There’s more going on in terms of his relationship with the El family and the love he has for the Kryptonian people who he has sworn to protect and keep alive at all costs. Of course, from our point of view he’s a “bad guy” but as the old saying goes “the villain is the hero of his own story” and that fits Zod perfectly. As evil as Zod got, I never felt Shannon was overdoing it, he played the character with an integrity and purpose for his mission.
The CGI sequences are well done (let’s face it, they can do ANYTHING today with it) although at times it did sort of feel like bit of an overload. I was thinking while watching the mega destruction going on that it makes Singer’s 2006 film seem extremely subdued. That could be good or bad from whatever POV you’re coming from. I think Snyder actually needed to set this adaptation apart on all levels and that meant taking it to the edges of where the “Kryptonians on Earth” concept could go. For example, I loved seeing Zod’s henchmen unleashed on Superman. Faora actually kicked his ass and was the nastiest and most ruthless of the alien visitors. The earth shaking climax of the film goes through two stages: 1) Zod implements an Independence Day style gravity terraforming machine to turn Earth into a new Krypton that he plants right in the center of Metropolis and 2) the big Face/Off which is a city demolishing punch up in which Zod’s maniacal temper tantrum forces Superman to go for the jugular.
Snyder’s approach to the Superman story is similar to what J.J. Abrams did with Star Trek in that it takes the traditional story we all know and skews/modernizes it. It helps that it has nothing to do with the Donner films and Cavill leaves the bespectled Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby styled nerd Reeve created behind. Instead he’s one part displaced extra-terrestrial, one part Midwest farmboy and that keeps it more grounded and realistic, not tongue in cheek like the 80s movies were. This aspect can be seen best through Clark’s parents, Jor-El, Lara, Jonathan and Martha who bring most of the greatest moments of emotion to the film. The score by Hans Zimmer is as un-John Williams as it gets and closer to those slow pounding sounds of Nolan’s Batman films which works well in this version. What is truly most impressive about Man of Steel to me is how it balances the Earth based heartfelt moments with otherworldly spectacle.