I’m going to do what I can to keep this review spoiler-free, but, obviously, if you want to know absolutely nothing going in, turn back now.
Superman is my favorite. More than Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America or Tom Strong, Superman is my go-to superhero. The sad thing about being a Superman fan is that he’s rarely done right. He’s a notoriously difficult character to write and many a great storyteller has stumbled in their attempts to chronicle his adventures. The difficulty is pretty simple: great Superman stories cannot be rooted in plot. He can do pretty much anything and solve just about any problem. Superman is a walking deus ex machina, so the plot is almost beside the point.
What you’re left with, then, is character. It’s too easy to define Superman solely by what he can do, but that’s all surface stuff. Superman is just as much about what he won’t do. What, in his mind, he can’t do. It’s who the guy is underneath that fascinates us; that moral center that allows him to make the hard choices and resist temptations that might more easily beset the rest of us.
So, how does Man of Steel tackle this issue?
This is the Superman movie worthy of the character from the first minute to the last. That’s an important distinction. There is much greatness in Superman: The Movie and Superman II, but they’re not all great. Man of Steel is pretty much all great. It gets Superman and it gets what we want to see from a guy who can level mountains with one punch.
The movie begins on Krypton with a scene that, straight off, evokes The Nativity. Director Zach Snyder and Writer David Goyer do not shy away from the Christ allegory that is inherently a part of the mythology of Superman*. Superman is born, his is a special birth, a powerful man wants him dead, the baby is sent away, and then it’s off to the races. I’m selling the sequence short a little (Krypton has been reimagined in great detail–much of it taken from the many versions of Krypton seen in the comics through the years), but this is all prologue and frames up the central conflict between General Zod (Michael Shannon) and Superman perfectly.
*I realize that Superman was created by two Jewish kids and that many see him as a Moses figure, but in the Christian faith Moses is a type of Christ meant to serve as an example of what to look forward to, so it all works out.
I’m confused by early reviews that claim Zod’s motivation is unclear. I don’t think it could be more clear. Zod himself spells it out in the film’s final moments with some dialogue that was, admittedly, a little on-the-nose. Zod wants to save whatever he can of what’s left of Krypton (I’m being vague on purpose), which is an admirable goal. It’s how he wants to go about it that’s the problem, and that’s what forces Superman to make some hard decisions.
Someone asked me last night if it ends well. Too many superhero movies these days have endings that amount to little more than punching and cleaning up. These too-long sequences take character out of the story and assume all we want are visceral thrills. Man of Steel certainly has its share of thrilling, maybe-a-touch-too-long action sequences, but it grounds them in character in a way that holds our interest and makes them much more than pure spectacle. I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that, for me, the best moment of the movie–and the one in which I decided the film is truly great–comes at the very end. Something happens that I didn’t see coming and… I admit it, I was moved. I don’t usually get teary at superhero movies, but this one did a little number on me.
Henry Cavill as Superman acquits himself incredibly well. As my wife (not a comic book fan) said, he plays Superman with the same qualities Christopher Reeve brought to the role–an unfailing human decency, a mixture of kindness and strength that I have to think is incredibly difficult to pull off. Mind you, Cavill is not doing a Reeve impression. He makes the the role his own in a big, big way.
The other key aspect of Superman’s character that the movie addresses over and over again (to great effect) is that Superman is meant to inspire. The weight of that is almost too much to bear for the young Clark Kent (the film very well could have been retitled Superman Begins), but he gradually comes to an acceptance of this responsibility and fully embraces it. There’s a great moment near the end when Superman’s heroic, godlike fight against evil is juxtaposed with the very human Perry White’s (Laurence Fishburne) attempts to rescue a co-worker from rubble and both actions feel equally as important. Superman’s deeds are meant to do much more than solve immediate problems. He lights the way.
I read recently that Batman is defined by his lack of parents and Superman by his surplus of parents (can’t remember where I read that, sorry). I think that’s astoundingly astute. Still, I was quite surprised by how much all those parents are involved in the story. They play a big, big part all the way through, past the point where you think they’re out of the picture. The story is told largely out of sequence, with frequent flashbacks to Clark Kent’s youth and his relationship with his fathers in particular. Kevin Costner is basically the movie’s MVP and he has a moment about midway through that will haunt you as you leave the theater. Russell Crowe brings a quiet, butt-kicking dignity to Jor-El that it just a pleasure to watch. This is the show My Two Dads should have been.
Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has been completely reconfigured and rethought for this version of the Superman mythology. She’s the same character, but her relationship to Superman and Clark Kent and the dynamic between the three of them has been altered in a way that not only makes a whole lot of sense, but that is also exciting for future movies. (And there will be sequels. The first one has already been greenlit.)
There’s so much more I could say, but not without getting into big spoiler territory. Going in, I’d read ecstatic-to-middling reviews of the film. It’s definitely not a perfect film–there are some odd pacing issues here and there and I wish Superman were a little more conscious of innocent bystanders–but it worked like gangbusters for me.
I look forward to seeing what comes next. Man of Steel ends on perhaps the most perfect exchange of dialogue that I’ve seen in quite a while. (I can’t believe no one else ever thought of it before.) And that line of dialogue holds within it a promise of great things in the future. I can’t wait.