A film review by Craig J. Koban June 20, 2013


2013, PG-13, 148 mins.


Henry Cavill as Superman / Clark Kent  /  Amy Adams as Lois Lane  /  Diane Lane as Martha Kent  /  Russell Crowe as Jor-El  /  Michael Shannon as General Zod  /  Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent  /  Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy  /  Laurence Fishburne as Perry White

Directed by Zack Snyder / Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan


MAN OF STEEL intuitively understands something that perhaps no other past SUPERMAN film did: 

Kal-El is indeed the “Last Son of Krypton,” which makes him, yup, a lonely extraterrestrial from outer space.

Therein lies the key psychological intrigue with the 75-year-old Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel creation: Superman/Clark Kent may indeed have god-like powers that allow him to leap tall buildings with a single bound, but deep down he’s a fringe figure, an outcast, and simply is not one of us, despite his otherwise human appearance.  Every comic book aficionado thinks that Batman is the ultimate superhero loner, but even he could live within his own world as his alter ego with relative normalcy.  Poor Clark has to pathetically exist at a constant distance from just about everyone around him. 

As the film’s title would suggest (this is the first of its kind ever without even the name Superman in it), MAN OF STEEL promises to take the iconic character in bold and audacious new directions, and on this level it certainly does triumphantly soar.  Just as he did with a then-struggling Batman film franchise, Christopher Nolan (producer and co-writer here with David S. Goyer) has overseen another redefinition of a classic comic book character for modern day consumption.  Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the pitch perfect Richard Donner SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE from 1978, which balanced sly humor and a relatively jubilant spirit through and through (it still remains the greatest of the SUPERMAN films, if not one of the finest superhero films ever).  Nonetheless, instead of taking the been-there, done-that approach to Superman, MAN OF STEEL opts to roughen up his boy scout, do-gooder mythology and takes him to darker emotional places.  

Superman will never be as ominous and gritty as Batman, but in this new film the ultimate costumed crusader is less about unwaveringly fighting for truth, justice, and the American way as he is about struggling to trust and defend a society that is afraid of him and perhaps doesn’t initially appreciate his sacrifices.  MAN OF STEEL always emphasizes that Superman is really a highly reticent Jesus figure from a galaxy far, far away.  When he does finally accept the blue and red uniform of a hero, he does so almost with apprehension.  Hell, even the bright blue, red, and yellow of his famous outfit are more subdued and muted now; the murkiness of their palette kind of mirrors the man’s somewhat cold, detached, and conflicted mindset. 



MAN OF STEEL, despite all of its inherent divergences away from the well-known Superman mythos, still contains familiar elements, especially in regards to his origin (albeit, with tweaks here and there to keep it fresh and alive).  The film opens on the doomed planet of Krypton, before shown as a city made of crystals and now is a sprawling alien landscape that seems to affectionately appropriate design elements from films as far-ranging as STAR WARS to AVATAR (nonetheless, it’s a marvel of visual effects dynamism).  Jor-El (a rather fine Russell Crowe, playing Supe’s father as a kick-ass action hero/thoughtful scientist) sees that his planet is doomed, which results in him placing his infant son Kal-El (the first naturally born baby on Krypton in centuries) in a spacecraft and shuttles him off to Earth.  Before he can do this, Jor-El clashes with former friend, now enemy, General Zod (Michael Shannon, in all of his creepily effective Michael Shannonian glory), who attempts a political coup against the planet's leaders that fails and leaves him and his conspirators sentenced to time in the Phantom Zone.  

The rest of the film – much like BATMAN BEGINS – tells Superman’s further origin story through a well-paced series of flashbacks and flashforwards.  Instead of seeing infant Kal-El found by his Earth parents, we zip forward in time to witness 30-year-old Clark (Henry Cavill) working odd jobs in an apparent desire to hide his true nature, even though he manages to reveal it when called to save people in need.  The film then cuts back to key moments of Clark’s upbringing, during which his human parents, Martha and Jonathon Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, both sweetly sincere and earnest) teach their son how to both cope with his powers keep them a guarded secret.  We are whisked back to the present when an intrepid, Pulitzer Prize winner Daily Planet reporter, Lois Lane (a top notch, emotionally tough, and spirited Amy Adams) seems determined to find out the true nature of Clark’s heroic deeds (he has a knack for vanishing shortly after he does them).  Concurrent to this is the emergence of a freed-from-the Phantom Zone Zod, who has made it to Earth and demands Clark to come out of hiding and surrender…if not, then Earth will be destroyed.  The problem for Clark is trying to decide if the time is right for humankind to learn about his real identity and what he’s capable of. 

Again, MAN OF STEEL achieves the relative impossible by both honoring and confidently subverting Superman’s well-established and entrenched comic book roots while, at the same time, offering up an epically staged sci-fi-/action film of an unparalleled scope and scale that this series has never seen before.  The film is as thoughtfully rendered as it is bombastic, which is a tough dichotomy to pull off well.  Unlike, say, the recent STAR TREK reboot sequel (which just wallowed in lazily riffing on famous scenes from past TREK adventures), this Superman entry rather pointedly tells viewers that this take on the character is going to be refreshingly different.  Gone is the limitless optimism and sense of frivolity of Superman himself and ushered in is a portrait of an outcast that has had to deal with the emotional trauma of knowing that, one day, he will be called on to be a messiah.  Henry Cavill is an absolute perfect physical embodiment of the comic character, but his performance is much more low-key and layered than most will give him credit for.  Going for Christopher Reeve-like mimicry would have been a fatal mistake here; Cavill instead craftily plays his otherworldly titan with a world-weariness, a sense of wounded alienation and nagging uncertainty.  Superman has never been so vulnerably portrayed in a film, which makes him a more intrinsically fascinating figure of pathos this go around. 

Make no mistake about it, though; MAN OF STEEL is a tour de force work of propulsive action and visual effects majesty.  I may have forgotten to say that the film was directed with an assured hand by Zack Snyder, who is no stranger to reboots (see DAWN OF THE DEAD) or comic book film franchises (his adaptations of 300 and WATCHMEN are thanklessly decent).  Using every modern technological trick at his disposal, Snyder holds nothing back in terms of staging the Kryptonian versus Kryptonian spectacle that we have always dreamed of, but have never adequately received due to limitations in past movie magic.  Key highlights include Superman battling two of Zod’s henchmen that lays the small town of Smallville (and innocent IHOP, Sears and 7-11 stores) laid to apocalyptic waste.  Then there's the climatic donnybrook between Superman and Zod that flattens Metropolis in manners that makes the destruction in INDEPENDENCE DAY look quaint by comparison.  Sure, some of the imagery here perhaps echoes 9/11 a little too much for its own good, but there’s no denying that these scenes kinetically deliver on their intended oomph factor.  

MAN OF STEEL is not as perfectly granite-jawed as its title hero, though.  Cavill and Adams, although good together on screen, don’t have the same chemistry of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, and their love story is more muted and hushed this go-around.  Sometimes, the film also seems to battle with its zeal to provide summer popcorn action and be a touchingly introspective portrait of its angsty main character.  There’s also not much lighthearted joy or merriment to be found here…but maybe that’s a welcome thing.  MAN OF STEEL represents what an effective reboot should do – go back to the drawing board, start from scratch, and do something revitalizing and novel.  It presents and radically redefines Superman in an agreeably modernized vein that revives a character that’s been on cinematic life support for too long (sorry, SUPERMAN RETURNS, you meant well).  What Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder have done is show us a Superman that needs to convince himself that he needs to be super and protect those that may or may not trust him.  That’s the trial by fire of every hero, whether he hails from Earth or not.  

Granted, Kal-El may be an immigrant from afar (make that really afar), but he’s awfully proud of his U.S. upbringing.  As he tells one suspicious and distrusting army colonel at one point, “I grew up in Kansas.  I’m as American as they come!”

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