Review: Man of Steel

Man-of-Steel-Henry-CavillThe question of whether you will like Man of Steel is probably best answered by asking yourself how you feel about a two-and-a-half hour movie that’s essentially a commercial for itself – or, more precisely, a commercial for the idea of Superman. The best analog I can come up with is The Passion of the Christ: if you go into it thinking, “What’s the big deal about this Jesus guy,” it’s probably not going to do much for you. Similarly, if the Superman myth leaves you cold (or you want to see something more subtle than archetypal myth-making), you’re probably not going to care for Man of Steel.

Zach Snyder isn’t known for subtlety; his biggest success to date is the flashy but shallow action epic 300. (I literally cannot remember anything from that movie except for the “This… is… Sparta!” scene, and I probably would have forgotten that if it hadn’t become an unavoidable Internet meme.) The advantage Snyder has with Superman is that we all know the story of the Last Son of Krypton by heart. Some will see the writers’ episodic storytelling as laziness (a friend refers to the movie as “Man of Flashbacks”), but I thought it was an effective way of telling the story for the umpteenth time without getting bogged down in strict chronology. Contrast Man of Steel – which sees a shirtless Kal-El rescuing a crew of men from an oil platform at about the twenty minute mark – with Ang Lee’s painfully sequential Hulk, which should have been called He Turns into the Hulk Eventually, Trust Us. Snyder starts his story en media res, with young Clark Kent at the cusp that will determine who he is – a decision that has fateful consequences for the world. If this were a telling of the Christ story, it would begin with Jesus in the desert, being tempted by Satan. The story moves forward and backwards from there, explaining young Clark Kent’s conflict as he comes to term with who he is.

The movie stumbles a little bit in the second act. The evil Kryptonian General Zod and his pals come to Earth with a rather stupid plot to conquer the world: they want to terraform (Kryptoform?) Earth to make it into Krypton II, which is bad news for the Earth’s current inhabitants. Sure, if they just kept Earth the way it is, the Kryptonians could live there as gods among men, with unimaginable power, but first there are some painful nosebleeds, so fuck that. Simpler to just kill everything on Earth.

Fortunately, Michael Shannon is so riveting as General Zod that it’s pretty easy to ignore the inherent idiocy of his plan and just go with it. In fact, the whole cast is fantastic. Henry Cavill has an understated charisma that makes him a solid heir to Christopher Reeve. Amy Adams is good as Lois Lane, although her character feels under-written. Kevin Costner portrays the conflicted but caring father perfectly.

The massive destruction of the climactic battle against General Zod is definitely overkill; I love explosions as much as the next guy, but the phrase “disaster porn” comes to mind. Sometimes less is more, Mr. Snyder.

For me, the most important thing is that they got the character of Superman right. He’s tormented but not angsty; confident but not arrogant. A demigod determined to hold onto his humanity, he loves his mother, his country, and presumably apple pie. Some critics disparage the Nolan/Snyder team for giving Superman the “Dark Knight” treatment, having apparently forgotten that the best Superman movie to date, Superman II, was also pretty damn dark. The somber tone doesn’t bother me; I’d rather have a Superman movie err on the side of solemnity than camp or irony. If there’s one character that needs to be played straight, it’s Superman.

Some comic purists also have a problem with the climax of the movie, claiming that Superman does something out of character. That isn’t true, however. David Goyer’s script may violate canon (whatever that means in a world of Smallville, Lois & Clark, and Superman Returns), but it remains completely true to the character. This is Superman as he should be: a man who is a hero not because of his powers, but because he inspires us to be better than we are.