The first time I saw Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel, I was disappointed. Very disappointed. It was only after a second viewing about a year later that I realized I was simply biased and unfair with my perception of the film. I grew up with the Richards’, Donner and Lester, films that featured Christopher Reeve in the role of Superman/Clark Kent. Nothing could violate what was done in those films from the ’70s and ’80s.
My impression of Man Of Steel now is that it is a marvelous film. It’s an exploration of a stranger in a strange land questioning how to adapt to a living environment that he is not from, nor where anyone around him is genetically built like him either. Henry Cavill fills the role of the title character. What’s especially important is that he is not attempting to do what Reeve memorably did before him. Actually, David S Goyer’s script really doesn’t allow for the hijinks of the prior films. Clark Kent is not portrayed as a goofy and lovable klutz this time around. Instead, the boy from Smallville, Kansas is challenged to limit his abilities at the behest of his Earthling father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner). It’s dangerous for Clark to show all that he is capable of from his super strength to his heat vision. Clark’s Earth mother, Martha (Diane Lane), is more protective of her son. A really powerful scene occurs when young Clark is in the classroom and he has a bout with sensory overload of super hearing and super x-ray vision. He can’t get the encompassing sounds and sights out of his head. One of many CGI effects in the film come with Snyder showing the skeletal insides of Clark’s classmates and teachers. It’s frightening; even to an innocent alien boy from another world. This is good conflict. Does the world need Clark Kent? Would Clark Kent be better off someplace else? Can he manage to live with daily life drowning out his sensibilities?
Another dilemma opens the film on Clark’s home planet of Krypton where he was born with the name Kal-el. His father, Jor-el (Russell Crowe) has insisted to the governing body that the planet is expected to self destruct soon, and civilization needs to be relocated to another planet. The politicians refuse to accept his theory. Jor-el’s friend, the military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) sides with his opinion. Though his approach is violent insurrection of the Kryptonians. Zod is punished for his crimes and sentenced to an eternal prison known as The Phantom Zone before baby Kal-el is shipped away, and the planet implodes with all its inhabitants.
Following this opening, Snyder cuts his film with flashbacks and forwards showing Clark in various different roles as either a fishing boat crewman or a bartender trying his best to remain undercover even when the temptation for use of his powers repeatedly shows itself. Clark reflects on moments from his childhood when he and his Earth parents questioned how to present himself.
Superman’s known love interest eventually shows herself, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Daily Planet, Lois Lane (Amy Adams). She’s following up on an alien ship that has been discovered in the arctic after 20,000 years. Clark and Lois connect at this moment. Of all the Superman angles that are familiar to so many of us, this is where Goyer and Snyder perhaps do not focus enough. Man Of Steel is a satisfyingly long film, but there’s a lot of material and drawn out action to cover as well. So the Lois and Clark relationship is somewhat sacrificed and not as nuanced as we have experienced in other iterations.
Zod arrives on Earth requesting that Kal-el reveal himself along with the intent to destructively turn Earth into a new Krypton at the sacrifice of the planet’s human population. Naturally, a city wide battle will ensue. and lemme tell you reader you wanna talk about destroying the village just to save it….well…that’s what happens here. When New York got destroyed in Marvel’s The Avengers or Ghostbusters, those pictures looked like spilled milk compared to what Superman and Zod do here.
Man Of Steel is the best film of the new Warner Bros/DC universe. It might be Zack Snyder’s best film as well. The assembly of the picture is masterful. Hans Zimmer’s score has these great build ups as Clark discovers more of his capabilities. It especially lends to when the character dons the cape and costume for the first time ready to leap in the sky and fly. Snyder shows the efforts needed for Superman to carry out this talent. The flying doesn’t come easy. It looks like work on the super hero. Zimmer’s score starts out quiet and then advances to these powerful notes as Superman soars higher and higher. The boy from Kansas is making himself into something greater that he has no familiarity with.
Michael Shannon plays another of many kinds of villains and antagonists on his resume. I’m not sick of this guy’s antics yet. It’s time he become a James Bond villain. He plays Zod with an uncompromising determination and disregard for anything else but to rule. It’s all very sci fi like but I love how unforgiving he is with the role. Much less Shakespearean than when Terrance Stamp played the part so well with Reeve as the hero. Shannon is more direct and bloodthirsty. Michael Shannon just knows how to be scary on film. This kind of personality would work great in a silly comedy from the Farrelly brothers as well.
Amy Adams is fine as Lois, but there’s not much here to work with honestly. More details of her relationship with Superman come through in later films. However, this story development soured me on my initial viewing. The iconic irony of Superman pathos is that as sharp a reporter as Lois Lane is, she can not realize that the guy wearing the glasses who is working right next to her is actually Clark Kent?!?!?! Readers and viewers were always thankfully in on the joke. On follow up viewings of Man Of Steel, I understand that Goyer and Snyder were never aiming for irony. Lois knows who Clark really is from the get go. What was once an unforgivable departure for me, no longer is a concern. There are deeper angles to question in Man Of Steel, like a purpose to others and the freedom to force a change because it can be done.
Snyder and Goyer broach on the well known Christ allegory with Superman. The film takes place in Clark’s thirty third Earth year. Jor-el is slain with with a stabbing to his rib. There’s also the crucifixion pose on a number of occasions. I must admit, as a Jew raised conservatively with just the Old Testament, I am not very educated on the texts of Jesus Christ. However, the basics are explored in Man Of Steel. Is Superman a savior? Snyder wisely even has Clark visit with his Smallville priest to question his obligations to Earth and to Zod’s calling, with window artwork of Christ in the background.
One vice I have with Snyder’s picture is the shameless plugging. How overt must signage from Sears, U-Haul, 7-Eleven and IHop be? Granted, all of these summer blockbuster films have the inserts of brand labels going all the way back to the original Superman films. Here though, the corporate advertising is a true eyesore. Superman being thrown into the dining area of an IHop is not as memorably funny as when Zod’s underling, Non, crashed into New York’s famed Coca-Cola sign back in 1981.
The seemingly endless battle consuming about forty five minutes of the third act of the film are over the top outrageous. I might normally be saying I’ve seen enough while casualties are never considered as buildings literally topple over into mushroom clouds of concrete dust. Still, the cast keeps these moments alive. Shannon and Cavill, along with Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, the Daily Planet editor, and Amy Adams, actually show risk and fear amid all of this bombastic action. Still, Snyder is insistent on his freedom to go crazy with CGI effects. It’s more than a bit much, but the characters up to this point keep me engaged with the film all the way through. Later DC films in this franchise don’t do it so much for me, but that’s another column altogether.
Again, what I especially like about Man Of Steel is how Snyder cuts back and forth with the film. Heroic moments occur and then are reflected back to times in Clark’s childhood with Jonathan and Martha. With Zimmer’s score, it seems to allow Clark to consider conversations and moments from his past as meaningful to what he is experiencing in the present. When Zack Snyder stays on this trajectory it makes Man Of Steel more than just another comic book movie for summer box office. There’s depth from Goyer’s script that Snyder wisely does not disregard.
Man Of Steel is a new and unfamiliar kind of Superman, but its a very welcome Superman too.