Man of Steel Review: Superman For a Modern Age

Man of Steel Review: Superman For a Modern AgeAfter 2006’s lackluster Superman Returns, the franchise took some time off with Batman claiming the spotlight as the de facto DC Comics film property. As the Dark Knight Trilogy was wrapping up, and after a lackluster Green Lantern film in 2011, Warner Bros. tapped Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300, Sucker Punch) to reinvent the “Man of Steel” in a way that would fit the world established by Chris Nolan’s Batman films. Snyder, along with screenwriter David S. Goyer and with Nolan serving as producer, got to work casting a new Superman and hopefully finding the right combination of elements to restart the Superman name as a viable blockbuster title.

Man of Steel is the product of that collaboration. Henry Cavill (Immortals) slips on the red cape this time out, and Amy Adams (Enchanted, The Fighter) is cast as Lois Lane, the intrepid reporter at the Daily Planet with whom Superman/Clark Kent is destined to fall in love with.

Man of Steel opens on Krypton, the dying home planet of Superman, as a power struggle is beginning between the soldier class, led by General Zod (Michael Shannon), and the Science class, led by Jor El (Russell Crowe). Jor El, and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), have secretly given live birth to a baby boy in hopes of finding a way to keep the dying Kryptonian culture alive. It seems that Krypton, in the past, reverted to a test-tube-like reproduction system, which gave each birthed child a designated role in society. Roles like Soldier, Scientist, Politician, Farmer, etc. Jor El and Lara knowingly broke this tradition in hopes of creating a child who can exhibit free will and make his own choices in life, even as the planet is on the verge of destruction due to over mining of Krypton’s core.

As the war is brought to Jor El’s doorstep (literally), the Els launch their son off into space and the hopes of him choosing his own path in life, as well as keeping the Kryptonian race alive, escape along with him. Zod is captured and sentenced to the Phantom Zone for his act of treason and then Krypton blows up. All of which is standard fare in the Superman mythos.

Man of Steel Review: Superman For a Modern Age

Next we meet “Joe,” a bearded, wandering hired hand that goes across the land from job to job helping out where he can and learning about the world at large. Unfortunately for Joe, bad things always seem to happen and he has to exhibit incredible superpowers to save folks (or to punish them), which then forces him to move on to the next job. Joe is essentially David Banner from the old Incredible Hulk TV show.

When a mysterious — possibly alien — object is found in the Arctic, Lois Lane shows up to write a story about it, and “Joe” just happens to be working on the dig site as a hired hand. The object is alien — kryptonian, in fact — and Joe activates it, which alerts the now-freed Zod and his cronies to the presence of other Kryptonians in the galaxy.

When the militaristic Kryptonians show up to earth, Joe–err, Clark Kent, has to make a decision to come out of hiding and confront these invaders, or continue hiding as he has been. With the help of a computer simulation program made up of the essence of Jor El aboard the alien vessel, Clark finds out his purpose, his true name — Kal El — and he is given the doorway to his destiny.

What follows is a good 45 minutes of knock down, drag-out fighting and billions of dollars of property damage as Superman, Zod and Faora (Antje Traue) tangle throughout Kansas and Metropolis.

Man of Steel is more than the usual Superman origin story. It can be argued that it is more than a classic “Superhero story.” In fact, Man of Steel has more in common with, say, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. or the classic Jeff Bridges 1984 film, Starman, than Batman Begins, or even Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger. This film is more science fiction than even 2011’s Green Lantern.

Man of Steel Review: Superman For a Modern Age

Man of Steel is an alien on earth story. He is alone and hiding, afraid of his powers, and afraid of what will happen if he is ever discovered. These fears are instilled in him by his earth father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and mother Martha (Diane Lane). Pa Kent has warned his adopted son that the world would never accept him and that he would have to choose how to use his gifts. It’s a morality play that goes much deeper than a muscular guy sliding on a pair of tights with the undies on the outside and saving cats out of trees and stopping dams from bursting.

This unique take on the mythos gives Snyder and Goyer room to tell a different Superman story. This isn’t about “truth, justice, and the American way.” It’s more in the line of can he keep his secret? Will he choose to expose himself in the face of danger? Will he remain hiding and safe, or risk coming out and being a champion, or a pariah, to a world that will never understand him, and will certainly fear him.

This is a Superman story for a post 9/11 world. Gone are the halcyonic shots of eras past that were the foundation for the Donner films of the late ’70s. Nor is there the flash of the updated version of that same world from Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. This take on Superman didn’t crash land in the ’40s and wasn’t raised in those much easier times before cell phones, the Internet, and even MTV.

Cavill’s Clark Kent is 33 years old (and yes, there is a Jesus thing very much featured in Man of Steel), meaning he was found in 1980. He was raised in as much modern times and he has modern sensibilities. Even if those modernizations include a world where bad men can fly airliners full of innocent people into skyscrapers in the name of their god. In short, this is not my father’s Superman.

Cavill does a great job as Clark/Joe/Superman, and his charm shines through the redesigned suit (which is also explained to be Kryptonian undergarments… commence with the underoos jokes at your leisure). This is Superman, the Boy Scout; the anti-Batman that makes the dynamic work between these two alpha personalities in the comic books.

Man of Steel Review: Superman For a Modern Age

Amy Adams is decent as Lois. She plays the love interest true to form in her early scenes, but then she turns to love-struck damsel in distress by the second and third acts.

Lawrence Fishburne (The Matrix Trilogy) plays Perry White, and Christopher Meloni (Law and Order: SVU, Wet Hot American Summer) works as Colonel Nathan Hardy, who works to help turn back the alien invasion.

Russell Crowe is powerful as Jor El. Filling shoes once worn by Marlon Brando, Crowe’s Jor El isn’t a fat white guy in an “S crested” muumuu. This Jor El is a fighter and will do anything to protect his son and it is refreshing to see on screen. I feel I got to know this Jor El this time out, and his motivations are sound.

Man of Steel ultimately works because of the villain. Michael Shannon completely takes over the film as General Zod. Each time he’s on screen, the film sizzles and his final fight with Superman is everything that fans have ever wanted in a true one-on-one fight between Superman and someone strong enough to take his punches. This is not some low-level criminal “mastermind” whose secret plan is to be a real estate developer (as Lex Luthor was portrayed in every other Superman film). This is Kryptonian vs. Kryptonian and it is devastating for earth.

Man of Steel is a true science fiction epic. Sure, it stars a comic book icon, but this film focuses on the Sci-fi elements more than the four color ones. It’s an incredibly bold film that tries to modernize a 75-year old myth and succeeds in almost every way. We’ve seen Superman at his worst. Hell, we’ve seen Superman do his worst. Now, now he can finally make the choice that Jor El hoped for, and that Pa Kent taught him about: to be his own person. And luckily for us, Kal El, or Clark, or Joe, or Superman chooses to be a hero, to be our protector. It’s not a clean choice, but a clear choice. And I think the ramifications of his actions will resonate throughout many films to come. And not just other Man of Steel films, but DC Universe projects yet to be filmed.

Man of Steel is rated PG-13 and opened in theaters everywhere on June 14, 2013.

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