The Zack Snyder-directed, Christopher Nolan-produced Man of Steel is the movie about Krypton’s Last Son we’ve always wanted. Big, brash, bold, and surprisingly human, the reboot deftly mixes spectacle with emotion while jettisoning the campy elements that have haunted previous incarnations of DC Comics’ marquee star.
We open on an imploding Krypton, where leading scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) escapes a military coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) by flying away on the back of a pterodactyl-dragonfly hybrid so he can fire his son into space and save his doomed race.
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This is not Nolan’s Bat-universe, which asked us to imagine what a mask-wearing crime fighter might look like in our world. This is a film about the destruction of one planet, the rescue of another, and the lengths to which our champions must go to ensure our safety.
Despite its alien backstory, Man of Steel is a human film. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is unsure of his place in the world. He is torn between his love for his adoptive parents and his desire to discover his origins, his urge to keep safe the relatively defenseless people surrounding him and his need to keep his existence a secret.
The urge to hide in plain sight that Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) instilled in Clark and fought to defend—at high personal cost—comes to an end when Clark saves Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from certain death. Convinced he is an alien and determined to discover his origins, she retraces his steps all the way back to the Kent homestead in Kansas. But Lois isn’t the only one tracking Clark’s movements. Zod is hot on Clark’s heels too.
Zod couldn’t care less if humanity kneels before him. His motivation is more understandable and more grandiose: He plans to remake the Kryptonian race and give it a new home on Earth, the current residents of which will, naturally, be displaced.
At this point, the film shifts into high-intensity action mode. Clark dons a Kryptonian costume, discovers the extent of his abilities, battles a series of similarly powered foes, and faces a massive doomsday device quickly reducing Metropolis to rubble. Super-powered hand-to-hand combat mixes with military hardware and alien lasers in an enjoyable genre-mishmash.
The auteur behind Sucker Punch and 300 is comfortable with the frenetic pace and proficient at making coherent the hectic battle scenes. I must admit to feeling some sadness at seeing the slo-mo shots for which Snyder is famous (some might say infamous) disappear, but not much vanishes with them.
As is the case with Nolan’s Batman films—and as is decidedly not the case with DC’s non-Nolan, and Marvel’s Avengers-centered, films—the climactic battle between Clark and Zod feels weighty, wrought with tension and passion. Theirs is a battle not of computer-generated constructs but of men, the physical manifestation of their competing visions for Earth and their rival moral universes.
Clark must overcome an internal struggle, as he has been taught since birth to control his passions, turn the other cheek, and steel himself from letting loose. Under the watchful eye of his adoptive father, he allowed bullies to have their way rather than risk crippling them in response. Zod’s villainy, equality in strength, and desperation force Clark to reconsider his premises.
The cast is packed with top-notch actors. Diane Lane’s Ma Kent imparts down-home country charm while Laurence Fishburne embodies put upon authority as Lois’ weary boss. Michael Shannon radiates a kind of sympathetic menace as Zod, while Costner and Crowe impart emotional and intellectual intelligence as Clark’s two dads.
You’ll notice that I’ve not yet written the name "Superman." That moniker is not granted until the film’s closing minutes; even then, it’s not coined by Clark so much as foisted upon him. It’s one of a number of elegant solutions that Nolan, Snyder, and writer David S. Goyer settle upon to avoid the kitsch. The Krypton-designed uniform no longer sports an "S," but a "symbol for hope" that is the sigil for the house of El that just happens to look like an S. The magical mineral Kryptonite has also been removed from the equation.
I’ve always been left somewhat cold by the character of Superman, especially in his cinematic incarnations. The nerd-turned-patient-god routine Christopher Reeve brought to the role never quite worked, while director Bryan Singer’s stranger-in-a-strange land angst works better when he’s dealing with mutants. There was always an element of high camp just under the surface, most irritably in the guise of Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthors.
Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer have stripped all that away. Lex Luthor is nowhere to be seen, though one imagines he is not too far in the background. Clark is not an employee of the Daily Planet, fooling seasoned journalists day in and day out about his identity by putting on a pair of specs and acting like an imbecile.
What is left works well. Man of Steel is the movie of the summer. It’s the Superman movie we deserve. And it’s about time.