Watching “Man of Steel”
If we didn’t already have the “Iron Man” films, “The Avengers,” and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, “Man of Steel” might be regarded as one of the greatest superhero films ever.
But the fact that it’s just the latest in a long line of films about a beloved comic book character, retrofitted for these angsty post-9/11 times, makes it difficult to evaluate the new Superman film.
Yes, it has eye-popping, state-of-the-art visual effects. Yes, it pays homage to the source material while also finding subtle ways to subvert it. Yes, it’s dark and brooding. But so what? At this point, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about a superhero movie that’s eye-popping and revisionist and dark and brooding. Almost all of the newer superhero films share these qualities. In trying to reinvent superhero films for a new age, Nolan and his contemporaries have created a template and formula that is starting to feel stale.
That said, “Man of Steel” is a pretty good film — better, in my opinion, than Nolan’s Batman films. Sure, the film concludes with the sort of spectacular and ultimately numbing scenes of fighting and destruction that you can find in any superhero film, but the build-up is genuinely interesting, and director Zack Snyder’s take on the mythology surrounding Superman is thought-provoking and appropriately epic. When this film focuses on character and story, it’s highly entertaining. When it becomes just another “let’s fight until the death” film, it begins to lose steam.
“Man of Steel” neatly weaves the story of Krypton with the childhood memories of Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill as an adult) and Kent’s search for his roots. When the film opens, Kent has been traveling throughout the country, working a series of odd jobs and occasionally performing acts of kindness and bravery.
The movie periodically flashes back to his childhood in Kansas, where he was regarded as a freak and struggled to control and hide his powers; from an early age, his adoptive father (Kevin Costner) urged restraint, saying that Earth was not ready to accept someone with Clark’s unique abilities. Eventually, Clark discovers that he was sent to the planet Krypton shortly before it self-destructed; he meets the consciousness of his long-dead birth father (Russell Crowe) who passes along bits of wisdom and guidance, and eventually encounters the Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon), who wants Clark — whose birth name is Kal-El — to return to his people and help them take over Earth. But Clark is now an adult, with human attachments, and he doesn’t want to help Zod eradicate Earth’s human population so that the planet can be recolonized by natives of Krypton.
The fact that Zod has a motive beyond simply being evil makes him stand out from the crowd of boring villains populating comic book films. I saw “Iron Man 3” less than two months ago, and the name of the film’s villain, much less his motive (he didn’t like being regarded as a nerd?) are hard to recall. Zod is compelling, and also somewhat sympathetic — his mission is to save the Kryptonian race, and it’s hard to object to his desire to prevent his people from going extinct. But the fact that he’ll stop at nothing to achieve his goal, not even genocide, is what makes him a villain. Of course, casting Shannon, a great actor who excels at playing offbeat, slightly deranged people, as Zod was a stroke of genius.
Cavill fares fairly well as Superman, although I still prefer Christopher Reeve, Amy Adams makes for a tough and appealing Lois Lane and Costner and Crowe are both very good. I found the scenes with Lois Lane totally hilarious, though I suspect they’re funnier if you work at a newspaper — listening to Lane’s editor (Laurence Fishburne) tell her they simply cannot run a story in which she suggests there is an alien among us had me guffawing in my seat. Speaking of which, “Man of Steel” has a real “X-Files” feel to it, what with its constant references to Superman being an alien and “the truth is out there” vibe, which fits with the film’s religious undertones. I was aware of these undertones going into the film, and I thought they would drive me bananas. But I actually felt they made the film a little more interesting, and although the multiple references to Superman’s age — a very Christ-like 33 — got a little repetitive, I enjoyed his encounter with a priest and some of the other Biblical symbolism.
It can’t be easy to reboot a comic book as popular as Superman, and Snyder is more than up to the task. Which surprised me, because I didn’t like Snyder’s “300” and I wasn’t a huge fan of his film adaptation of “Watchmen.” But in “Man of Steel” he hits his stride. The film has its flaws, but doesn’t everything? “Man of Steel” is smarter and more entertaining than it has any right to be, and I’ll be interested to see what Superman ends up doing next.
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