MOVIE REVIEW: Man of Steel




There are characters from literature, performing arts, or mythology that are popular and memorable and then there are those that are transcendent cultural icons.  For example, Stephenie Meyers's Edward Cullen from the Twilight book and movie series is simple pop culture.  He counts as a brief fad and minor influence on the topics of vampires, romance, and bad haircuts.  Nothing more and nothing less.  He will not stand the test of time.  Icons do that.

Make no mistake.  The Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel creation of Kal-El, the orphaned alien child sent to Earth and raised with Midwestern values to become the hero we know as "Superman" is an absolute cultural icon.  That diamond-framed "S" shield on his chest is the second-most recognized symbol in the world after the Christian cross.  The character has stood the test of time for 75 years now with an American and international appeal that, despite some low points here and there in its history, has never wavered or faded away.  He is the original superhero and the barometer that all others are measured against.  Even with the popularity of Batman and the competing world of Marvel Comics, Superman is the flagship.

With its glorified anniversary year red carpet return to movie theaters, the largest challenge faced by Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is the whole notion of remaking an icon and offering a new interpretation of a classic character for a new era and new generation.  Can it be done?  Should it be done?  I'll tease what I'm going to talk more about later by saying: "they broke the mold."

Thanks to the involvement of Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, the creative stewards that rebooted Batman from carnival clown to proud hero with the outstanding Dark Knight trilogy, as a producer and screenwriter for Man of Steel, this immense effort is more about grounding a new and non-canonical interpretation of a legend.  The pre-release hype for Man of Steel has surrounded how modern is too modern, how much change is good and, by contrast, what changes are sacrilegious, all before seeing the final product.  The scrutinizing prejudgment has exceeded the usual comic book geek and fan boy teeter-totter of support and outrage we usually see for these kind of movies.  To answer that early, go see Man of Steel for yourself and let it earn your respect before you judge.

All of that trepidation stems from the nostalgic love that will never go away for the wholesome prior interpretations of Superman.  Generations that grew up with the smiling George Reeves on television fell in love, and rightfully so, with director Richard Donner's efforts from 1978's Superman: The Movie and its solid 1981 sequel both starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman.  Those movies were perfect for their time, ushering in the superhero era of movies the same way the character did as a debut comic in the 1930's.  Millions of people in this world close their eyes when picturing Superman and still see the late Christopher Reeve's blue eyes, perfect hair, and endless charm.

The second reinforcing piece to the trepidation is the flawed 2006 effort of Superman Returns from director Bryan Singer that starred newcomer Brandon Routh.  While it did its best to respectfully match the romantic tone and joy established by the Donner films, John Williams score and all, the final film didn't fit a 21st century world dominated by the humanistic, realistic, and successful Marvel films of the last two decades (like Singer's own X-Men work) and Nolan's inspiring Batman Begins from the year before in 2005.  Simply put, it has left a deflating bad taste in the mouths of the majority of fans.

That journey brings us to the present and Man of Steel.  Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer have each gone to great lengths to explain that their picture is an all-new approach and interpretation not based on any particular comic book story and not connected in any way to anything Donner or Reeve.  They loved the old films, but want nothing to do with them, unlike Singer's work.  We've seen those tea leaves and clues with the radical and controversial costume update, the casting of a Brit as an American hero, and composer Hans Zimmer's staunch departure from the memorable Williams march.  All of this hypothetical worry has cooled down some, thanks to the outstanding mood-setting teasers and trailers that have dazzled us all to make Man of Steel the most anticipated movie of this summer season.

For as much as we all likely know the traditional origin story of Clark Kent/Kal-El becoming Superman, director Zach Synder and primary screenwriter David Goyer have dared to give that bedtime story of a comic book tale a tremendous infusion of ambitious depth and staggering importance.  Without flying credits, we still start with Kryptonian scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelut Zurer) coming to the gripping and painful decision to send away their newborn son, Kal-El, to Earth, sparing him from their doomed fate of their world's impending self-destruction.  That substance is the same, but there's more to it that this time around.  Kal is a special child that means something and carries unique ramifications for the dying civilization.  He has a different purpose than you might think.

Kal's very existence and Jor-El's actions are at odds, to say the least, with the planet's military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon), who has led an unsuccessful military coup of Krypton's leadership.  If you're thinking about Terrance Stamp's beard and his constant need for kneeling, stop right there.  This is completely different.  His goals are far greater and far more purposeful than those of your usual comic book movie villain.  His prison sentence to the Phantom Zone spares him and his allies from Krypton's destruction, but that does not deter his quest to right the perceived wrong that is Kal-El's survival.

That space-faring child is still found and raised by two God-fearing Kansas farmers, Johnathan and Martha Kent (the perfect pairing of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), with heartland values that make him the honest and virtuous Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), but, again, there's more to it than that this time around.  Clark learns at a very young age that he is different and special, and also learns the hard lessons that not everyone in the world is ready for what he can do.  He is guided to restrain his abilities and hide his identity.  Nevertheless, he is affectionately reinforced with the faith that, someday, he is meant to lead and be a shining example of what's best in the world.

Now, in the present, Clark is a 33-year-old drifter desperately seeking answers to his purpose and place in the world.  He uses his heroism anonymously and never sticks around any place too long.  Stories of mysterious and miraculous rescues have caught the eye of hard-nosed journalist, Lois Lane, an investigative reporter from the Daily Planet in Metropolis.  She seeks the truth to this unsung hero, but, once again, there's more to it than that this time around.  Once Clark learns his full Kryptonian roots and honors his late biological father's wish to become a symbol of hope by revealing his existence to the world in a time of peril upon Zod's arrival to Earth, Lois becomes his advocate rather than his whistle blower, changing their usual relationship.

Much like the Dark Knight  trilogy, Snyder and company have worked to make something modern and grounded while maintaining the core of the character.  Their presence equals grit, class, realism, introspection, and emotion over the old gleaming glory, overused patriotism, and waxy nostalgia of prior movies.  Those adjectives may upset the hardcore fans of the Big Blue Boy Scout, but their approach should be welcomed and accepted for daring to be unique.

Sure enough, that promise of hype has been made completely true with the final result of Man of Steel.  This is, without a doubt, a Superman you've never seen before.  If you think you've seen it all or read it all, you haven't.  If you think you have a grasp of the movie or a prejudgment based on the trailers, you're still not close.  The re-imaging is that dramatic, modern, and different.

The casting was superb.  Henry Cavill more than looks the part and brings a noble earnestness and stoicism that previous actors haven't brought to the Clark Kent and Superman personas.  Too often, Clark Kent is the nerdy charade to the real man underneath.  That is not so here, at least so far.  Clark is Superman and Superman is Clark.  Amy Adams was born to play Lois Lane.  None of her peers would match her clout.  While Lois still ends up as a bit of a damsel in distress here and there, Adams more than asserts her presence without pushy annoyance or helplessness.  Remember, she's a four-time Oscar-nominated actress and that calculation, craft, and talent shows.  In pursuit, Michael Shannon is a terrific villain of purpose as Zod.  He dials the correct level of coiled intensity and maniacal influence and the writers wisely left the tendency and cheesy cliche fallback to make him a sympathetic villain on the shelf.  He is all business and that never crosses the levels of bluster, camp, or weakness.

The two roles that really resonate and pack a super-powered emotional punch in Man of Steel are those of the two fathers.  Joke all you want about Superman being raised by a pair of Hollywood Robin Hoods, but both Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner couldn't have been better choices for this interpretation of the Superman mythology.  Crowe, who, as a matter of fact, admitted that he has never seen the Marlon Brando Jor-El, carries a grand regal presence and follow-through of action that trumps Brando's speechifying.  On the other side of the coin, Costner's quiet, confidence-building tone really sticks with you.  The movie slows properly in his presence and we hang on his every prophetic word.  Their combined heart is overwhelming.

Through every heightened story angle that transpires, every revealing flashback that fleshes our hero out, and every cinematic action sequence that shows us what Superman can do and what he is truly meant for, Man of Steel takes on and continuously increases its intentional mentality of seriousness and importance to a level that is unmatched by any previous superhero film.  Low-brow comedic side characters, senseless stock fill-in characters, wasteful dialogue, and/or planted inside jokes and nods to appease fanboys are nearly non-existent, giving Man of Steel an extraordinary sense of righteousness and purpose.  Zero apologies are made for this re-imagining and reinterpretation of a true American and cultural language.  All is told with as straight a face as possible.

In ways I cannot fully explain, Man of Steel has a level of ambition, risk, and achievement in terms of epic scope and scale that none of the superhero movies we've seen before have reached, not even the massive culmination that was The Avengers from last summer.  In terms of summer entertainment, Star Trek Into Darkness might be your energy drink, but Man of Steel is your five-course steak dinner.

To go a step further, Man of Steel even breaks a few boundaries of scope and scale for the genre of science fiction films as well.  It's got that level of effect and sheer epic size to transcend and transform both genres.  As a critic and reviewer, I cannot label Man of Steel with a peer or apt comparison.  There just plain isn't one.  I cannot call it "a dash of (this) with a dose of (that)."  Nothing matches it in style and achievement.  It's in a class by itself right out of the gate.

Where John Williams's memorable musical theme was the icing on the legendary cake for the old movies (and it always will have its applauded historical place), Hans Zimmer goes a completely different direction with his percussion-heavy, electronically-tinged, but highly atmospheric score.  Where the old movies needed the music to help its excitement or stylize the romantic mood, Man of Steel does not need that overpowering enhancement.  It overpowers on its own, allowing Zimmer's score to breath rather than chant.  Small moments get poignant detail while the big action isn't drowned out by a repetitious motif or forced theme.

One could go on all day with the technical aspects of this film, but the surreal visual effects top the list.  We've seen a trio of Transformers movies attempt destructive mayhem on a city-wide scale, but not like this.  Man of Steel exceeds any of those films in enormity.  Furthermore, I have never seen human-sized physicality achieved this way on film.  For all of you that kind of laugh at Christopher Reeve on wires slowly rolling and recoiling backwards or forwards in painfully slow (and dated) fight maneuvers, your ears will be pinned back and your eyes will be stretched open by the sheer speed and impact of Superman's abilities in Man of Steel.  Far surpassing the ferocity and capability of destruction shown by the scene-stealing Hulk from The Avengers last summer, the unbridled power and force is spectacular.  This is the physically-superior Superman we've all dreamed of seeing in action on screen since the first time we opened a comic book.

This is the best Zach Snyder has ever been, surpassing his wisely reverential (and under-appreciated) Watchman adaptation and his blood-lusting fan favorite 300.  He shot the heck out of this movie across the continent.  The trailers really don't do it justice and I was exceedingly pleased that he left his overplayed slow-motion antics at home.  Maybe he can share that memo with J.J. Abrams on lens flares.  Snyder shows that filmmakers can evolve from cheap tricks to true talent with the right push.

Is Man of Steel too serious, as some critics are saying?  I don't think so and I'm one of those grown-ups with boxes of Superman comics still in his old closet at his mother's house.  I was that kid, just like everyone else post-1978, that watched the cartoons and old movies and stuffed his favorite blanket in his shirt for a cape while wearing his Underoos on the outside of his pajamas on a Saturday morning.  That said, I was ready and open for a new vision and I think everyone else is too.  I felt that the landscape was ripe and right for something new and challenging.  I was completely on board with allowing the Donner films, and even TV's Smallville, to be put aside into time capsules for remembrance and archival storage.

Man of Steel delivers on its massive hype, promise, and, most importantly, potential in every possible way.  For as challenging and different of directions the creators have taken this iconic character, their choices worked while still retaining every bit of this hero's essence.  The unified goal to change the way we are presented Superman and give us something we've never seen before was a phenomenal success.  They've done that and then some.  This version of Superman is going to be talked about, dissected, and remembered for a long time.  They made a believer out of me and I hope this is just the first chapter.

LESSON #1: FINDING YOUR PLACE IN THE WORLD-- As extreme in the science fiction direction this film actually is, Superman is still a parallel to the quintessential story of the American immigrant.  He just happens to come from a different planet instead of the different country.  Like other foreigners, he is special and different from the rest of the society he has grown up in.  In this interpretation, we meet a drifting and silent hero Clark Kent/Kal-El instead of an intrepid and nerdy reporter.  Clark doesn't yet know his place in the world and is seeking the right answers and opportunity to make the most of his abilities and talents.  While we aren't superheroes ourselves, many of us can identify with the journey to fulfill potential after our formative years.

LESSON #2: HIDING YOUR TRUE ABILITIES VERSUS FINDING YOUR LIMITS-- With this film's release happening over Father's Day weekend, it's appropriate to see this lesson's roots. Superman is split down the middle as a man of two fathers.  His biological father Jor-El, a man of science, represents the driving encouragement for Kal-El test his limits and ascend to lead the people of Earth.  His adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, a man of faith, preaches the moral right and wrong of Midwestern values while cautioning Clark about his dangers and repercussions of his gifts and differences.  Each influence shapes the hero's greatness.

LESSON #3: MATCHING MORAL STRENGTH WITH PHYSICAL STRENGTH-- We all sit-back with wonder when viewing the physical gifts of Superman.  The man can move mountains and fly around the world, things we never dream of doing.  Thanks to his modest upbringing, the fuel for his true strength comes from his morals, not his muscles or solar-powered biology.  He learns to take stock in the effects his actions could cause before acting.  He has chosen the right morals, which leads to the final lesson for Man of Steel.

LESSON #4:  BEING A FORCE FOR GOOD-- Even Jor-El acknowledges, before sending his son away, the notion that his own son would be a "god to them," with "them" being us Earthlings with no superpowers.  If he wanted to, he could vanquish us all with little effort.  Instead, he chooses to be a force for good.  While we are steeply in the realm of science fiction fantasy, the idea that someone with superior power stands to be a feared and imminent threat is not a foreign concept.  We innately fear what we don't understand, can't control, or that which stands greater than us.  Upon his public reveal, Kal-El goes to great lengths to establish and prove himself to the world as the symbol of hope Jor-El intended and not the threat we should fear.  With the panic of alien destruction, he has an uphill battle to earn society's trust as an ally and not an enemy.