In what now appears to be something of a “love it or hate it” scenario, the first Superman movie in seven years has arrived to much buzz and fanfare, and it has divided the critics right down the middle, while delighting the majority of audiences who have seen it so far. It’s an origin story all over again, the same one we’ve known since the Big Blue Boy Scout debuted in 1938, an origin that was pulled from the same old messianic stories that have been told for centuries and centuries, just with different twists and spins and new flavors. So how was the spin on this one? How does “Man of Steel” separate itself from not only other Superman movies, but from comic book movies and origin stories in general?
“Man of Steel” manages to do quite a bit with the same old story we’ve seen and heard. This movie managed to update this mythos for our modern world, and also for modern movie audiences who like to see more real world logic in their films. Questions that arise from simpler versions of this story can lead down a rabbit hole of doubt that bottoms out in incredulity, but in “Man of Steel,” efforts are made to take elements and icons that have been taken for granted and follow them to their logical origins and ultimate conclusions. This extends most importantly to the actual characters in the story, namely Kal-El a.k.a. Clark Kent; whereas the “Superman: The Movie” version of young Clark Kent’s biggest problem in high school was that he wanted to show off and score touchdowns to impress girls, “Man of Steel” shows us a much more nuanced and conflicted Kent, one who really struggles with fitting in to his surroundings, to the point of asking aloud why God would make his this way. And in case you miss this questioning of God’s design, Clark later seeks advice from a priest, and at one point is shot sitting in front of a giant stained-glass mural of Jesus Christ, awash in red robes.
“Man of Steel” manages to simultaneously humanize Kent/Superman and make him very relatable by emphasizing his dilemma as being an outsider, and also make his feel as alien and non-human as possible. Given that Superman and the rest of the Kryptonians all have bodies that must be 99% similar to human beings, it has always been easy to see Supes as just being a super powered human, as opposed to what he really is, which is an alien from another planet. But “Man of Steel” hammers this home and makes it a major part of the story, which is ultimately a story of a man (or Kryptonian) finding his identity and sense of self with the aid of his parents (this movie could also be called “My Two Dads“), and instead of letting it fall to the wayside, his status as an alien from another planet is front and center and helps drive the movie by eventually forcing him to make a decision between where he came from and who he could end up being.
Of course there is also more action and spectacle here than in your average summer blockbuster – Hell, the opening sequence on Krypton could have been its own movie – so it’s not like this Superman movie is all navel gazing and self doubt. On the contrary, some of the character development does get put to the side momentarily as the movie kicks in to high gear and we get about 30-45 minutes of almost non-stop action, and we’re talking about HUGE action. Of course plenty of those aforementioned “against it” critics point to this nearly endless barrage of mass destruction as a reason they don’t like it, and I guess there are some people who are just going to strike out against anything this loud and aggressive, and while superhero movie fatigue is absolutely a culprit, there is still something wrong headed about asking for a Superman movie to not have so much super powered action. We’re talking about fight scenes that destroy city blocks and small towns, over the top and insane action worthy of someone called Superman.
Even the final master plan of the main villain is more developed and interwoven into the story than most other movies of this ilk – whereas there are more than enough comic book movies that involve bad guys wanting to “rule” Earth by destroying it first and the hero trying to stop the villain because that’s what heroes are supposed to do, in “Man of Steel” we have a villainous plan that actually ties directly into Superman’s quandary about knowing where he came from and reconciling that with where he lives and who he is, which results in Superman’s actions during the final scenes coming from a place of characterization instead of just basic plot mechanics. By doing this, even the smallest moments of action have personal resonance with the character, and that’s just something that most “big, dumb action movies” like this don’t normally do.
It also helps to have such a great cast. Henry Cavill (Immortals) is just about a perfect Clark Kent/Superman, and when he’s in that suit and addressing people as Superman, there’s no denying that he’s it, he just has all the right qualities, the earnestness and strength and amiable politeness and quiet authority – he’s Superman. It’s pretty incredible. And then he has great parentage in the form of Russell Crowe (Les Miserables), Kevin Costner (Open Range) and Diane Lane (Hollywoodland), all of them great as Kent’s Kryptonian father and Earth parents, respectively. Amy Adams (The Fighter) is a great choice for the tough Lois Lane, but she wasn’t given too much to do, especially for a character who early on exclaims that she gets writer’s block if she’s not wearing a flak jacket. Even the smaller roles are given to great actors like Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, Harry Lennix and Richard Schiff. And then Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) just owns it as General Zod, doing more with his eyes than most people can do with their entire bodies.
Throw in a wall-to-wall and extremely effective and well-done score by Hans Zimmer, and you have the makings of an epic superhero movie, one that I found quite invigorating and more interesting then 90% 0f other comic book movies out there, which includes everything by Marvel, and yes I mean everything. “Man of Steel” is downright great, a movie demanding to be seen in the biggest theater as possible (but in 2D, because you’re smart and you know that post-conversion 3D is a waste of time and money), and it’s nice to see this long venerated character get a movie adaptation finally worthy of his huge name and reputation.