A superhero that’s a product of his era, Superman showed up in the common culture back in 1938. It was World War II that highlighted the tension inherent in his super-human character, as Nazi Germany proclaimed the superiority of its own super-human race, Aryans. An über-patriotic American who even dressed in red, white and blue, Superman and his alter-ego Clark Kent was an idealized American in an era where it was becoming hard to identify exactly what defined an American on the new global stage.
Seventy-five years later, it was a gutsy move for director Zack Snyder (better known for films like “Watchmen”) to delve into the Superman mythos and create a character relevant to our modern shades-of-gray culture. This is particularly true when you consider the lackluster Captain America movie from 2011, a film that also tried to take a superhero deeply embedded in his WWII era and (I thought pretty unsuccessfully) bring him into the modern era.
The good news? Snyder achieves something far beyond what I expected and “Man of Steel” was terrific!
In the title role, Henry Cavill embodies the tension inherent in the Superman character: invincible, powerful, superhuman, yet fearful of revealing his identity lest he draw negative attention. As he grows up, his human father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) reminds Clark to keep his capabilities secret, even as other boys bully and taunt him.
The film opens on the planet Krypton, with Jor-El (Russell Crowe) assisting Lara (Ayelet Zurer) in having the first natural birth in centuries. Krypton is trapped in a decaying culture that owed much to Orwell’s “1984? with a sprinkling of “The Matrix”. This phase of the movie goes on for surprisingly long, as Jor-El and General Zod (Michael Shannon) fight for ownership of “the codex”, a device that contains the collective knowledge and wisdom of the entire race. Baby Kal-El is shot to Earth in a protective capsule, along with the codex, while Zod and his allies are sentenced to eons in stasis as punishment for their attempted coup.
Clark knows he has unusual powers as a child, as illustrated in a couple of vignettes, but has no idea why. When Zod escapes from stasis and appears on Earth seeking Kal-El so he can recover the codex, well, all heck breaks loose, and the now adult Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman learns about his origin and realizes that, regardless of what his Earth father has said, he can’t just hide his identity and watch the Earth be attacked by Zod.
All of this is the standard Superman story, with Krypton, his parents sending him through space to Earth, the Kent farm couple finding and raising him, and even with General Zod as the leader of the bad guys. Just as the Batman origin story “Batman Begins” (2005) is enjoyable muchly because we already know the basics, and it’s Chris Nolan’s interpretation that brings the character to life, so Snyder has created a Superman origin story that’s fun precisely because we already know the story.
When tough reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) appears, it’s the beginning of what we know will be a romantic entanglement, but watching it grow is a pleasure, and, heck, I’d be darn interested in Lois Lane too. What guy wouldn’t?
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some problems with “Man of Steel”, not the least of which is that it feels a bit long. The beginning portion on Krypton is so long that I started to wonder if we were ever going to end up on Earth in the narrative, and the final sequence of Zod’s attack and the two of them sparring mano-a-mano while destroying dozens of the skyscrapers in Metropolis? Yeah, that was a bit over the top too.
Nonetheless, the film ended and I was smiling. Snyder and Cavill pulled off something I would never have expected, turning what could have been a really dull Superman movie into one of the best superhero films, a film that’s not as good as ‘The Avengers’, but is worthy of every comic book fan – and action movie fan – top ten list.