Man of Steel

Directed By: Zack Snyder

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, and Russell Crowe

"You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."
-Jor-El (Russell Crowe)

Every movie lover has that one film each year they can't wait to see above all else.  For me this year, that movie is Man of Steel, the long-awaited reboot to the oldest superhero franchise of them all.  As comic book movies have flourished and dominated the blockbuster landscape for the last decade or so, one remarkable superhero has largely been absent from this boom—Superman.  Sure, we had Superman Returns back in 2006, but that doesn't count for anything.  While the Avengers, the Dark Knight, and our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man have all established their place in modern cinema with this generation, the Man of Steel has been largely absent from good movies for more than three decades.  Unfortunately, I can't say that Hollywood saved the best for last.

The Kryptonian Council's pathological greed for their planet’s energy resources has led Krypton and her people to ruin.  Because of their overconsumption of natural resources, Krypton will implode in a matter of weeks.  Jor-El (Crowe), the foremost scientific authority, encourages them to evacuate the planet to make up for their misguided actions.  Krypton's military leader and Jor-El's longtime friend General Zod (Michael Shannon) does things differently.  He opts to lead a coup and organize an effort to rebuild the Kryptonian society using the Codex, a device that contains the genetic information of all the people of Krypton. 

When Jor-El expresses his discontent with Zod's coup and flees, he steals the Codex and places it with his newborn son Kal-El (Henry Cavill) on a ship.  After thwarting the general's opportunity to preserve his people, Jor-El is killed by Zod in combat as his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) launches their son's ship into orbit and sends it to Earth, a planet whose yellow sun will radiate Kal-El's cells and give him extraordinary abilities he will need to survive on a foreign planet.  Soon after, Zod and his associates are recaptured and sentenced to somatic reconditioning in the Phantom Zone.  Before being sent to serve his sentence, Zod vows to Lara, the woman he widowed, to find her son Kal-El. 

Some thirty-three years later, Kal-El is wandering Earth as a saintly stranger who helps ordinary men and women whenever he can.  He's clearly putting his unique abilities to use for good.  While in the arctic under false identification, Kal-El finds an ancient Kryptonian ship and learns who he is.  He also gets a chance to rescue Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) after she sneaks aboard this Kryptonian vessel.  After this encounter, Lane begins to pursue some leads and find out who her savior really is.  The whole world will know soon though.  General Zod is coming to Earth and wants to reclaim the Codex.  To do that, he intends to find Kal-El and do whatever he has to do to get it.  Meanwhile, Kal-El reflects on his upbringing as Clark Kent with his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).

Last year, we celebrated Skyfall and the 50th anniversary of James Bond.  Man of Steel marks an even larger milestone this year.  Superman, and superhero comic books for that matter, turn 75 this June.  With this in mind, all I can say is that the world's oldest superhero comes back to the big screen in a modern way in Man of Steel.  Director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer flip the script on the very formula for superhero origin stories Richard Donner crafted in Superman: The Movie some 35 years ago.  Instead of doing the same old formulaic introductory story for Man of Steel, Snyder and Goyer take some creative risks.  Primarily, they focus on the physical and emotional challenges Superman faces being an alien on Earth.  In the end, most of these risks pay off.  Some of them don't.

Man of Steel is a modern Superman for this generation that cleans up the mistakes of Superman Returns.  What's most notable about Man of Steel from a creative standpoint is Snyder's intelligent treatment of Superman.  We no longer have to deal with the cheesy, silly vestiges of a story crafted three quarters of a century ago.  We no longer have to endure going through the motions with Kal-El's origin story.  Most importantly, we no longer have to suspend our disbelief beyond what's normal for any other comic book flick.  We ultimately get a movie that has a more sensible explanation for Kal-El's backstory.  However, this doesn't mean that Man of Steel doesn't make its fair share of mistakes.

One important aspect of Man of Steel from a creative standpoint is the film's tone.  It's dark and a little brooding in a way that faintly echoes what Christopher Nolan did with his Dark Knight trilogy.  What's different here is that Superman is traditionally an American boy scout we cheer on while Batman is a naturally dark character.  The reason taking a darker tone works in Man of Steel in this case is that Zack Snyder puts more emphasis on the reality that Superman is a lonesome alien trying to figure out his past and his purpose.  Snyder doesn't focus on the fact that Superman is a larger-than-life figure that can accomplish wonders.  I definitely respect this move.  However, it does have a cost.  Because of this darker tone, Man of Steel ultimately lacks the majestic feel that's traditionally associated with Superman.

The other important creative decision is that Snyder opts to bake nuggets of Clark's upbringing into the larger story unfolding.  He doesn't spend a whole lot of time with Jonathan and Martha, or Jor-El and Lara for that matter.  If a snippet of the past is in the film, it's serving one of two purposes.  It's either informing Jor-El's rivalry with Zod or providing insights into what shapes Clark's moral compass.  This definitely helps to keep things more efficient, but that doesn't mean we couldn't use some more storytelling and more exploration of Kal-El’s backstory.  In particular, we could use a few more details about Jor-El and Zod’s friendship prior to the coup or a young Clark's interactions with Jonathan and Martha.

Regardless of what Zack Snyder does or doesn't do right in Man of Steel, the cast is firing on all cylinders.  For his part as the big guy, Henry Cavill makes for one great Superman.  He's tough, compassionate, and conflicted simultaneously.  He is a little brooding but offers his fair share of humor as well.  All in all, Cavill has made the world's oldest superhero someone we can appreciate today.  For her part as his love interest Lois Lane, Amy Adams brings her best to the camera.  She's as good as any actress who's ever played the role and offers a modern interpretation of the character.  She plays into the quickly established relationship with Superman quite well.

The supporting cast members do a great job as well.  For his part as the main villain General Zod, Michael Shannon delivers all the fiery menace I expected of him.  He's a twisted, maniacal villain who will do whatever he must to “protect” his people.  Shannon oozes with malice throughout the film.  As Superman's biological father Jor-El, Russell Crowe looks like he's really having fun on screen. Sure, he gives us a noble, loving father during the film's opening scenes on Krypton.  What's more entertaining though is that he becomes one badass hologram in death years later.  He's not the same virtual bobblehead Marlon Brando offered so many years ago.  Finally, we have Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent.  They offer the film's moral center and give excellent performances with incredible emotional depth.

While Zack Snyder offers more action and destruction in Man of Steel than I've ever seen in any other comic book film, the film doesn't rise to the heights of other recent comic book adaptations by Warner Bros.  It's cool that skyscrapers are toppling like dominoes, and we're getting epic battles and confrontations worthy of a hero with Superman's abilities.  However, we're losing things such as the storytelling and the majestic feel of Superman.  Ultimately, the film doesn’t have the same kind of artistic vision driving it like the Dark Knight trilogy.  Despite having him as a prominently credited producer, it’s missing Nolan’s touch.  Man of Steel gets a strong 0.06% rating.  Have a few rounds of beer with this one.  Don't waste your time at the end salivating for a post-credits clip.  You won’t get it.  This isn't Marvel ladies and gentlemen.  This is DC Comics!