I’m “biast” (con): was a little worried about where Snyder might go; wasn’t sure Cavill could carry a movie like this
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Of all the many things I may have been expecting from a Superman reboot by Zack Snyder, a filmmaker who has taken us to new heights — with 300 — and new depths — with Sucker Punch — of stylized ridiculousness, it wasn’t this. There’s an honest, ardent majesty that no retelling of Clark Kent’s story has managed before… yet it’s paradoxically somehow soulful, too, as if the film were both large and small at the same time. It towers with ambition, swelled by sweeping philosophies about power and presence on scales both planetary and personal: What should you do with what you can do, and what if what you need to do alienates you from everyone else? But the wellspring of wry tragedy that beautifully balances that out keeps it from ever becoming pretentious or preposterous. We believe a man can fly… but also that he’s gosh-darn really torn up about not punching people who might be asking for it.
Man of Steel is surprising, in a truly gratifying way, too, in that it wholeheartedly embraces the science-fictional side of the Superman story. This is primarily a slow-burn first-contact tale: Clark Kent, aka Kal-El (Henry Cavill [The Cold Light of Day, Immortals], putting to rest my fears that he couldn’t carry a movie), takes the long way around in trying to figure out how to fit in with the aliens he’s stranded among, something he’s been struggling with from childhood, when his extraordinary abilities start to overwhelm him — one touching scene early in the film makes it plain that as a kid, he found what he is capable of far from “super”; it’s horrible and scary to him. (Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry as, respectively, the 9- and 13-year-old Clark, are wonderful.) Now, as an adult, he tries to hide, doing nasty, dirty jobs that call to men who don’t quite fit in anywhere else — he’s working on one of those Most Dangerous Catch fishing ships as the movie opens — but he can’t keep himself from using his powers to save people when necessary. (He’s gosh-darn really torn up about not helping when no one else can, too.) And humanity is forced to play quick-draw first-contact when General Zod (Michael Shannon [The Iceman, Premium Rush], burning up the screen as always), another last refugee from Krypton, shows up in Earth orbit in a terrifying-looking ship and demands the planet turn over the alien they’ve been harboring all these years.
Oh! And the preamble that takes place on Krypton and sets up the whys and the hows of Kal-El being sent to Earth — and particularly why as an infant — is rather magnificently science fictional in a way I was afraid movies had forgotten how to be. It’s grand worldbuilding that creates a truly alien environment and a truly alien civilization, but also a clear cautionary tale for us 21st-century humans about the generally bad idea of damaging one’s planet beyond repair and letting your culture stagnate. Kryptonian technology works as a cohesive whole, too, both as design — this stuff all looks alien, but it also all looks like it came from the same other place — and not as magic, but as science with its own rules and limitations.
But every time — every time — you’re tempted, as a wide-eyed geek, to wonder and gape at what is before us, Snyder’s emphasis or the smart script by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Rises, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance), or both working in tandem, slyly undercut you and force you to see this with a fresh eye. It’s little, Pa Kent (Kevin Costner: Swing Vote, Mr. Brooks) trying to comfort his confused adopted son by explaining how special he is with an awed “You are the answer to ‘Are we alone in the universe?’” met with Clark’s “But I don’t wanna be!” — not a bratty whine but a plaintive wail of pain. It’s big, the power of first-contact imagery not in discs over a skyline but a buglike alien shuttle hovering near a Kansas farmhouse.
Man of Steel is so very matter-of-fact, in many ways: this isn’t a movie about spectacle and it’s barely an action movie; and though it has flashes of warm humor, there’s little of the lightness we’ve come to expect from Superman on a big screen (or even a small one). It’s serious — though never overly solemn — drama about fear and smallmindedness, about figuring out what to do with our potential. The villain Zod is never truly villainous, only tragic, too, because he cannot see past what he thinks his limitations are. Even when it does become, in its finale, all about spaceships over a city and mass urban destruction — demons of 9/11 are all over this part — there’s the quirk of the tragic about us in it. The obvious Jesus metaphor is hit upon a few times throughout the film — Jor-El (Russell Crowe: Broken City, Les Misérables) explicitly states that he’s sending his only son sent to Earth to inspire humanity; Clark notes that he’s been on the planet for 33 years. And when all eyes start to turn to Superman with reverence after the climactic battle with Zod, which all but levels Metropolis, it’s hard not to see the “He saved us…!” awe as ironic: we only needed saving because Kal-El came to Earth in the first place; he drew Zod to us, however inadvertently. (It was too much tinkering with the natural order that doomed Krypton and its people, too. Too much interference is not a good thing.)
There’s so much more to love here, including Amy Adams (Trouble with the Curve, On the Road) as Lois Lane and Diane Lane (Secretariat, Jumper) as Ma Kent, both tough, smart women whom Clark relies on — his mother, always; Lois new in his life. As with almost everything else in Man of Steel, they are traditional aspects of a familiar story that are reinvigorated here, made more real and plausible than perhaps we’ve ever seen them before, with lives of their own that stretch beyond Clark’s. Everything here, in fact, stretches beyond what we’re given, potential glimpsed but not yet wholly satisfied. Like what we’re told the sigil on Kal-El’s chest means: it’s not an ‘S’; it’s the family crest, and it means “hope.” There’s tons of hope here, but it’s not yet fulfilled, for Clark has only just awakened to himself and his potential. There’s hope not only for him, but for us, that the inevitable sequel will still have some story left to tell.