Review: Man of Steel
Man of Steel is a movie we need right now, and while normally such blanket statements refer to films of great portent or contemporary significance, I’m not convinced that Man of Steel is either of those things, not really. It’s a remarkable piece of popcorn entertainment with a few lofty issues on its mind that are simply expressed beautifully throughout the film. It’s an impressive retelling of a story that is generations old, and that somehow feels fresh here, without sacrificing the greatness that began with Action Comics #1. It could, to use the common parlance, be referred to as “awesome.” But awesome no longer means “awesome.” Awesome means “strikingly cool.” Man of Steel is awesome in that it inspires a sense of genuine awe. That, dear readers, is something of value by its lonesome.
The experience that individuals will have watching Man of Steel may vary, but what I suspect most people – whether they love the film or hate it – will take away from Zack Snyder’s movie is its utter bigness. The story is told clearly, with character and personality, as all the best movies are. But few of the best movies are told with this sense of mighty scale. It’s not enough that – as he often does in Superman stories – Pa Kent dies at a crucial turning point in Clark Kent’s life. In Man of Steel he can only be swept into a tornado eating away Smallville, KS. Spoken aloud, or read in print, the half-mad plot point might even seem like a joke, but to sit and behold it on a theatrical screen, mouth open, taking it seriously because you care enough about the characters to do so, elevates Man of Steel to true greatness.
The story of Man of Steel is familiar and new. Those who know the Superman myth will recognize many old beats, hit here with rhythm and motion. The planet of Krypton is dying. Superman’s parents send their infant son to Earth so he can escape the devastation. Superman is raised in Kansas by kind-hearted parents. Superman becomes Superman, meets Lois Lane, and saves the day. Contemporary children, it seems, are born already knowing this storyline from beginning to end. It is a part of our pop cultural heritage, and so it is important to tell again, every so often, so that every generation can treat Superman as their own.
Zack Snyder, working with a script by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, embraces this myth of Superman but has a clear, canny understanding of how to present it in a modern way. The simple choice of a flashback structure – cutting from Kal-El leaving Krypton to Clark Kent as an adult, filling in the gaps over time as necessary – keeps Man of Steel moving forward, and the action from getting stuck entirely in the movie’s second half. The upbringing of Superman on Earth, being pastoral and often very thoughtful, earns even greater emphasis by juxtaposing it with the later thrills of Superman’s adult adventures. Smallville isn’t important because Superman grew up there, it’s important because it informs who Superman is, every single day. Though edited by pieces into Man of Steel, Superman’s human upbringing is more important now than ever before, at least in the cinema.
The significance of Superman’s journey to adulthood is made all the more significant by a new wrinkle in the hero’s origin story. The Kryptonian species does not reproduce naturally. Every member of the species is bred with a specific purpose in mind. Presumably Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) was bred to be a scientist. General Zod (Michael Shannon) was certainly bred to protect his race. Superman, nee Kal-El, was the first Kryptonian born naturally, outside of this system in many generations. For a character the audience sees as predestined for greatness, this tiny twist has greater implications: he is the first person in the history of his people, for all intents and purposes, with the ability to choose his own path. That he chooses personal sacrifice is what makes that sacrifice meaningful. It may seem like a broad plot point, but Snyder & Co. intentionally highlight that when given infinite options – like everyone in the audience – a true hero chooses to do what’s right, instead of what is easy. Superman can be all of us, and we are all of us Superman.
The challenges that face Superman over the course of Man of Steel range from natural disasters to giant devastation machines to fights to the death with his physical peers. These challenges are displayed with scope rarely scene in a modern milieu, and a respect for the obstacles being overcome. Hope works most effectively, as a dramatic device at least, when it springs from utter hopelessness. Snyder & Co. defy conventional wisdom – that Superman is “too powerful” to challenge – by coming up with a long series of imaginative hurdles for the hero to face. He never feels anything less than “super,” but he never has it easy either, leading to one memorable sequence after another of absolute destruction and potent heroism.
As Superman, Henry Cavill has it a little easier than his predecessors. Christopher Reeve was a strikingly muscular boy scout as the Man of Steel, but excelled particularly at the bumbling alter ego of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Man of Steel spends no time whatsoever with that version of Clark Kent. Clark Kent springs from his Midwestern upbringing and alien nature, not his job, and although promises are eventually made, Man of Steel simply could not fit in any more time at the Daily Planet newspaper without it simply being a distraction. Rather than shoehorn every single detail of Superman into a single film, Man of Steel lets many aspects of the story wait for future sequels. Lex Luthor can wait. So can Jimmy Olsen. So can kryptonite. This is Superman’s story, and it’s a story that’s more important than a simple catalogue of familiar contrivances, no matter how popular they may be (or how significant they may later become).
Case in point: Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, defies many of the character’s most familiar traits. She does not look down on Clark Kent, she does not make goo-goo eyes at Superman, and she figures out almost immediately who the hero really is. The classic, troublesome cliché – that Lois Lane is a talented reporter who knows Superman and Clark Kent personally, and yet somehow cannot make the connection between them – vanishes in Man of Steel, and not just because it’s a clever bit of metatextual irony. It’s important that Lois Lane knows who Superman is, and that she knows right away. It establishes her intelligence, but first and foremost puts her in a position to embody all of humanity to an alien hero. She’s the first person outside of the Kent family to learn Superman’s secret, and because she can be both inquisitive “and” trustworthy, the rest of the population of Superman’s adoptive home surely can too. She’s not just a love interest, and in fact she hardly ever needs rescuing: she can handle herself, and she yet appreciates Superman’s help. Just like the rest of mankind.
The details of Man of Steel sometimes falter – why, exactly, General Zod needs Lois Lane on his warship is incidental, and various other contrivances are just that, contrivances – but they are in service of keeping a thoughtful, meaningful story very lively. Superman goes on a journey in Man of Steel that has a greater resonance than in any other Superman film, but it entertains. Snyder & Co. keep the action rollicking, the explosions enormous and globe thoroughly trotted. As an adventure in a classical sense, Man of Steel leaves one feeling like they have traveled somewhere and accomplished something themselves. It’s a thick volume of a movie, easily perused in one sitting, and yet requiring much longer than that to properly absorb. And as a sheer spectacle, it may be one of the great blockbusters.
Awe-inspiring and, by far, the best Superman movie ever made, Man of Steel may not present a new standard for epic filmmaking. But it certainly evokes a grandeur rarely attempted on the big screen anymore, and achieves on a level greater than most other cinematic epics. It’s the Superman we wanted, the Superman we need, and – thankfully – the Superman we actually got this time.
Up, up, and away…