Man of Steel has long been my most anticipated movie of the summer. Though director Zack Snyder seems to be on shaky ground in the critical community following 2011’s Sucker Punch, I’m a fan of his work and was especially excited to see him take on a project of this magnitude while working alongside producer Christopher Nolan. As the casting came together, it looked more and more as if this film would finally be the Superman movie fans have been waiting for. I had insanely high expectations, and in short, this movie lived up to all of them. Man of Steel is now officially the blockbuster to beat in 2013.
As someone who has seen every Superman movie (I reviewed all of them in one massive piece here), this is my favorite of them all. By taking the story completely seriously, Zack Snyder and his team have created a superhero film that has emotional stakes just as important as its epic action sequences. Nothing ever feels silly or campy, but it also doesn’t quite feel the same as Nolan’s Batman films, either; The Dark Knight was essentially a gangster movie that happened to be populated with comic book characters, while Man of Steel actively embraces (and adds to) Superman’s mythology.
Richard Donner set the standard for casting superhero films with big name actors when he managed to surround then-unknown Christopher Reeve with legends like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman in Superman: The Movie. Snyder seems to have taken a page from Donner’s playbook; his casting here is spot-on, giving relative unknown Henry Cavill wonderful actors to play against. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent are perfect, fully capturing the small-town ideals that the Kents represent, and Russell Crowe shines as Jor-El, the Kryptonian father who saves his son’s life and inspires him to live up to his full potential. This is a film about a man with two fathers, and the theme of predestination versus free will is explored through Cavill’s conflicted lead performance. The actor manages to believably encapsulate the ideal of hope without a hint of irony or ego, and when Jor-El tells him he can be an example the people of Earth strive toward, it’s easy to see how people would put their trust in Kal-El.
Like all actors who have portrayed this character on screen, Cavill is tasked with playing more than one part: he must convincingly portray both Kal-El and Clark Kent. Snyder maintains the Christ allegory with his version of Superman, going so far as to have Cavill fall in a cross-like position out of a spaceship and to frame the actor against a stained glass representation of Jesus Christ himself in a quick sequence at a church. Keeping this discussion vague (we can have a more in depth one later if you like), Man of Steel does something interesting with the Clark/Lois relationship that we’ve never seen before, giving the Clark character an unburdened freshness that’s compelling and new. Amy Adams plays Lois Lane with less sass than I normally associate with this character (for my money, “Smallville” star Erica Durance is the best Lois so far), but Adams is a monumental improvement from Kate Bosworth’s soulless portrayal in Superman Returns. This version of Lois is fully capable of kicking ass while still being devoted to her job, and though the romance between her character and Clark/Superman is downplayed a bit, it still works.
Michael Shannon’s Zod is more emotional than Terrence Stamp’s icy portrayal of the Kryptonian general. Shannon dips his toes into melodramatic waters, but he almost makes the character sympathetic, which obviously is much more interesting than just a caricature of pure evil. He’s a physical and mental match for Superman, which results in some philosophical monologues and a few pretty spectacular battles. Hans Zimmer’s score is alternately pulse-pounding and restrained, but it avoids the reverence of the music in Superman Returns. This is a modern version of the Man of Steel, and the film addresses some of the historically ridiculous aspects of the mythos without making earlier versions seem idiotic in comparison. It’s not necessarily a “better” way to tackle the story, just a different one – and I’m excited to see how the franchise moves further down this path in the future.
The movie feels absolutely massive but still manages to be personal in all the right moments. The visual effects are among the most impressive I’ve ever seen. The film’s opening on Krypton is a far cry from Donner’s icy restraint in Superman: The Movie, as Snyder opts for a huge, city-spanning action sequence right at the start. The climactic showdown between Superman and Zod sees more skyscrapers destroyed and debris flying than Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a feat I didn’t think was possible. (The death toll of innocent civilians in that battle alone is easily in the tens of thousands.) Weirdly, the film feels strangely hellbent on hammering the audience with 9/11 imagery during that scene in particular. Filmmakers: 9/11 happened. We get it. Do we need to have EVERY action movie destroy skyscrapers with crowds fleeing for their lives below? Man of Steel also falls prey to this inexplicable recent trend of alien ships hovering over major cities with a strange blue light emanating from it.
David Goyer’s script, with a story assist by Nolan, carries us from Kal-El’s birth through his formative years and into his modern conflict with Zod in about two and a half hours. Though I loved the film as a whole, it did strike me as feeling a little too long overall; an extended fight sequence in Smallville eventually becomes interminable, and removing some blatant IHOP and Sears product placement (which felt as if it belonged in another film) may have helped out with the pacing.
But the film’s small issues are greatly outweighed by its breathtaking action sequences and outstanding performances. Ultimately, Man of Steel lives up to years of expectation and soars as one of the best action films of the year. This is the project that DC/Warner Bros. have been waiting for as a legitimate answer to what Marvel has done setting up The Avengers. Cavill will presumably play Superman in an eventual Justice League film, but Snyder is saying they might have to do another standalone Superman film before that happens. Either way, Man of Steel is a fantastic accomplishment and a great Superman movie that feels perfect for 2013. Until next time…
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