Ever left a movie theater feeling euphoric? You've just got done watching a movie you've anticipated for a long time and it didn't let you down? It didn't just have all the "best stuff" in the trailers? It delivered. It FUCKING DELIVERED . Zack Snyder's Man of Steel did that for me.
I know what I'm about to say is utter sacrilege as a fan of Superman, comics and otherwise, but the Donner films weren't my favorite. Returns while very flawed had some moments in it of levity but were still just continuations and overt homage to the prior work of Richard Donner. You know what Richard Donner I really loved? Lethal Weapon. Let's not forget The Goonies ! Christopher Reeve has always been the iconic visage of Superman for most and, I get it, he's charismatic if not schmaltzy and they were what defined the Man of Steel for many a moviegoer. They just didn't do it for me. I always thought Hackman's performance as Luthor was well, not great, and Terrence Stamp as Zod in Superman II did fine but they never had the same effect on me as others. Perhaps it stems from my downright stupid love for Batman?
Maybe it wasn't until I read All-Star Superman that I actually found a Superman story I really gave a damn about (Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow not withstanding). Grant Morrison gave us not only one of the best distillations of the well-known origin to date but also a Superman that not only was physically capable of defending this world but also happened to be a charismatic magnificent bastard and also a crazy smart scientist. That is such an awesome combo that, frankly, you can't help but like it. Not to mention it was made clear, again and again, that Superman does what he does because it is right. He protects us because he is good for the sake of good. He isn't just a character made during WWII anymore to fight some horrible evil but a stalwart protector standing at the gates of the greater cosmos before Earth. He stands watch because he needs to and because he can.
Wow. Sorry. That got kinda ranty. All that is said because I think, ultimately, what Man of Steel gets right is that notion. Clark Kent/Kal-El is good for the sake of good. His world was destroyed and he became a citizen of our planet long before he knew any better. His journey to becoming the protectorate supreme of Earth is riddled with doubts and self-loathing, questions and more questions but, ultimately, answers came. This is the Year One of Superman. Hell we get a scene where he's only just learning how to fly really yet soon after he's exchanging blows with super-powered Kryptonians. Alright alright. I'm getting ahead of myself.
We start with Krypton and the birth of a son. The first natural child birth on the planet for over a hundred or so years. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) holds his newborn boy high into the light as a robotic wet nurse circles around behind them. It is clear right away that this is like Krypton we've ever seen before. H.R. Giger influences heavily permeate the landscape and architecture but my God Snyder outdid himself with this alien world. It is breathtaking and to see it only at the end of its days is truly a tragedy. Even though it should be a joyous occasion in welcoming the new addition to the House of El there is political unrest. Kryptonian society is clearly fractured and, thus, General Zod and his crafted soldiers are charging forward to take hold of the reigns to right this civilization on the brink. Despite the warnings of Jor-El and the attempted coup by Zod there is not much to be done. Krypton is dying. The story is really familiar at this point. Kal-El (the son) is sent rocketing off to Earth in a specially made craft by his Father. He will be the last remnant of Krypton in the universe. It is on Earth that our story picks up when is found by that kindly couple from Smallville. It is tough to find anyone not familiar with the story honestly and aside from major bullet points we don't dally too long on that.
What we get, instead, is a the beginning of self-discovery for a man who has been running from himself. Flashbacks to incidents throughout his childhood show us a troubled child blessed with extraordinary gifts that, wisely, his parents advise him against showing. His existence can throw things into turmoil. The fact that he is around on Earth has huge ramifications. His nomadic wanderings into his 30's lead to a true moment of revelation about who he is thanks to his birth Father, Jor-El, in holographic form.
It is the two fathers, Jonathan Kent and Jor-El, that play a major role in not only guiding the movie along and keeping it from falling off into typical comic book madness and also ground the movie. Costner does as Costner does but here his Pa Kent is the absolute best I've ever seen. Russell Crowe nearly steals the entire show as Jor-El. We get not just some All-Father who has been trying to guide his son in secret for years but a beacon of a civilization now lost and the tenuous thread to a people that Clark Kent, now knowing his real name, is only beginning to understand.
By far one of the best scenes in the entire film (which we see in the trailers by the way so no spoilers here) is when Kal-El first discovers who he is and dons the suit. It isn't just a suit for the sake of it but battle armor complete with cape and that crest? It isn't an "S". It stands for Hope. The House of El's crest is the symbol for Hope. (Interesting little fact: They created 300 separate Kryptonian crests for the movie). He doesn't know how to fly immediately, but instead takes huge leaps before figuring out what to do. It the capstone on a journey that leads us through the winding road of a childhood defined by secrecy and questioning but ultimately shows a man who isn't of this world originally but will stand up to defend it. It is this core, this heart, that beats at the center of the film which I think is crucial to understand.
Snyder, fresh off the, well, lack of success in Sucker-Punch , came to this project and many fans groaned. They couldn't have been more wrong. This flick, visually, is stellar. The action, once it gets going, continually escalates and gives us combat that is actually worthy of the idea that there are Gods fighting on Earth. There will be collateral damage. There will be destruction. It is kinetic and fast-paced and, ultimately, made me giddy as a kid at Christmas. WE GOT SUPERMAN PUNCHING, GUYS. WE GOT THAT IN SPADES. STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT THAT WILL YOU? After the rather neutered version of Superman we got with Singer's Returns man was this a welcome sight. The scale continues to grow and things take on bigger dimensions than previously thought in superhero movies. This was way bigger than The Avengers by a country mile. It is true that usually Superman, in the past, has attempted to contain the wanton destruction just a wee bit but, frankly, I'm willing to forgive that notion because this is a hero who has just ultimately gained his footing and now he has to face not one but many super-powered Kryptonian super soliders intent on remaking the world to their liking?
There are a few other things that definitely got fans in an uproar. Lois Lane is one of them. Amy Adams, I thought, did a fine job of bringing this dated character into the 21st century. She's a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and quite an intelligent woman who just happens to be rather good at getting herself into trouble. Normally Lois wouldn't even get to see Clark Kent as anyone but Clark until much later in their relationship. Here she knows right from the beginning who he really is once the story gets going. This makes sense doesn't it? A pair of glasses aren't a good disguise. (Yes I know there's more to it than the glasses but honestly?) She's a smart lady. A simple disguise like that wouldn't fool her. I thought it was a smart choice by Goyer to make her much more integral from the beginning. Would it have been nice to see more of the interplay between Clark and her that we're used to? Sure but again we're talking about a guy who has spent most of his life in a constant state of loneliness and depression? He's not exactly going to be winning the ladies over right away. Oh yeah and the impending doom of the planet is sort of on the line. Guess he can worry about seeing if the curtains match the drapes in the sequel?
Goyer's script is equal parts linear storytelling and montage-filled bombast. It follows the Nolan approach that was applied to Batman. We see Bruce Wayne at various facets in his journey to becoming the Batman and, here, we see more of the intimate moments that helped to define Kal-El's childhood and his early teens into adulthood. Pa Kent is a guiding hand here, offering an emotional weight to many of these scenes that really served to round off an already quite shiny and downright absurd package considering how insane it gets near the end. It is parts epic in scale and intimate drama. We get to see Zod and Superman tangoing and the world is at stake but we also get to see Clark as a boy dealing with the fact that he can't fight back against a bully. Why? He'd kill him. Moments like that made this far more than just a simple origin story but a true portrait of what a guy like Clark had to go through to become the man he does.
Nolan's touches are felt heavily but really what uplifts this movie besides the stellar action set pieces and blistering CGI are the performances. For my money Henry Cavill is my Superman. He not only has wanted it al his career (He narrowly got beat out by Brandon Routh for the last one) but he manages to imbibe Clark with that weight of carrying such power yet being afraid to reveal himself. Christopher Reeve was good as Superman, no doubt, but those movies were 25 years removed now. Cavill is our Superman now and he's a great one.
There's more I could say honestly and look to our next podcast episode of Aliens Under The Vatican for more on the subject. I'll go ahead and leave you with this, dear readers. Man of Steel gave us what no other Superman movie has before. We've seen him at his lowest and most human and at his giddiest high and his most invulnerable. We didn't get the super-powered ultra scientist in Kal-El (yet) that his Father was but we got the beginnings of what looks to be a really great franchise and will serve as the tentpole for DC/Warner Bros moving forward. I loved this movie. It stands as the best Superman movie, by far, and maybe one of my favorite comic book films. Really.