Man of Steel
by Zack Snyder (dir)/David Goyer (wr)/Christopher Nolan (prod)
Review by Drew Bittner
Warner Bros Film
Date: 10 June 2013 /
A world dies, a baby lives. As the planet Krypton implodes, wracked by civil war and natural disaster both, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his infant son Kal to a world where his powers will make him godlike. But as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) grows up, he is plagued by the questions "who am I?" and "why am I here?" Even Superman has existential crises, it seems.
In Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder, screenwriter David Goyer and executive producer Christopher Nolan explore the struggle facing young Clark Kent: what does he do with the amazing powers at his command?
Taking a page from John Byrne's reboot of Superman, the Man of Steel miniseries published in 1986, Clark wanders the world for a few years after high school. He spends that time learning about the world and its people, as well as thinking through his place in the scheme of things. Clark works on a fishing boat (and saves a drilling rig crew from a fire); he works in a truck stop restaurant (and dishes out justice to a bullying trucker); and he leaves a trail of inexplicable "miracle rescues" in his wake.
His journey takes him to a U.S. Army project in northern Canada, where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is reporting for the Daily Planet. It seems the military found something buried for 18,000 years in the ice--and Clark, using his heat vision, is curious about it. So he goes inside...and discovers more than he could have imagined, with Lois Lane on his trail.
Long before that, however, the movie actually opens with the last days of Krypton. Jor-El tries to convince the planet's ruling council that recklessly drilling into the planet's core has left it unstable: Krypton will self-destruct very soon. General Zod (Michael Shannon) chooses that moment to stage a coup, attacking the council and arresting Jor-El. Jor-El manages to send his baby into space, even as Zod's coup attempt fails and his small cadre of traitors is exiled to the Phantom Zone.
Krypton then explodes, as the tiny starship carrying Kal-El jumps to Earth.
In a story told mostly in flashback, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) raise Clark to hide what he can do. He is bullied, pushed around and harassed by classmates, yet he rises to the occasion when a class trip goes wrong. Later, a crisis puts Clark's convictions to their ultimate test--and he suffers a terrible loss. But, if anything, it steels his resolve (no pun intended) to find a way to use his powers to help wherever he can.
Clark finds a legacy awaiting him, in the form of a blue-and-red uniform, and then a destiny when Zod and his crew attack Earth. Dubbed "Superman" by those he has saved, Clark/Kal-El faces a choice imposed by a madman, where his ideals face their toughest challenge.
Henry Cavill navigates the highs and lows of being Clark Kent/Superman with great dexterity. He is troubled by what he knows and uncertain of what it means--he's an alien who only wants to fit in--but when he puts on the uniform bequeathed by his father, he's thrilled in the moment he learns to fly. He gains tremendous self-confidence, as well, such as when he advises Col. Swanwick (Harry Lennix) that the handcuffs on him are just to make the Army comfortable--and that he's only letting himself be detained as a courtesy.
Likewise, his interactions with the ruthless Zod are a study in contrasts. Zod is hellbent on resurrecting Krypton, using a technology "borrowed" by Jor-El, no matter the cost. He has the tools to do it, not to mention the ability to shrug off humanity's best efforts to stop him; that leaves Superman as our world's only hope. Superman's nobility and belief in innate goodness are a stark refutation of Zod's fascism and egomania, which gives their climactic battles a powerful philosophical resonance.
And oh, that battle. Moviegoers have NEVER seen such epic destruction in a superhero movie, bar none. This is Roland Emmerich-scale devastation, as spaceships crash in Metropolis, Kryptonians unleash their full might against each other, and buildings topple like dominoes. It's horrifying--and a bracing reminder of what such godlike beings can do when they really cut loose. Snyder does an amazing job here by keeping the moment-to-moment action very specific, such that the viewer is never lost amid the explosions, collapses and screaming bystanders.
Adams is fantastic as Lois Lane, bringing a fresh take to the character as a no-nonsense reporter who does what Lois had never done before (something I won't spoil here). She helps Superman when he needs it most, providing an anchor to humanity that he sorely needs, and shows herself to be a terrific partner to the Man of Steel.
Representing the military, Christopher Meloni shines as Col. Hardy, who has a "take no prisoners" attitude when it comes to the dangerous aliens suddenly popping up on Earth. The battle of Smallville--a preview of the larger battle of Metropolis later--shows that, to the Army, ALL of the Kryptonians need to be stopped. He also has some amazing scenes confronting Faora (Antje Traue), a sociopathic ally of Zod's.
And Laurence Fishburne steps away from the main action this time, taking on the role of Perry White, the Daily Planet's gruff editor-in-chief. He proves he's no bystander, though, when his staff faces horrible danger and yet he stands his ground. He might be just a human but he's a hero.
I'll confess to going into this movie with some ambivalence. The muddy colors of the Superman suit, for one, struck me as out-of-character, and I dreaded the idea of another origin movie. (For the record, I'm really tired of superhero origin movies.) I also worried that Christopher Nolan would deliver a Superman akin to his vision of Batman; it worked for the Dark Knight but Superman is a whole different kind of hero.
The movie systematically addressed each of my worries and overcame them. Cavill was a superlative Superman, on par with Christopher Reeve, and the rest of the cast was just as stellar. The story, while being an origin, did not rely much on the by-the-numbers approach often taken, but used flashbacks and "showing not telling" to great advantage. And Cavill's excitement at discovering his powers, especially flight, made his Superman the classic upbeat, "I'm here to help" guy rightly called "Earth's Greatest Hero."
If the cinematic destiny of Superman remains with Messrs Snyder, Goyer and Nolan, then the Man of Steel's future will be very bright indeed.