“Pa never used language like that back on the farm…”
Man of Steel
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe
Directed by Zack Snyder
On paper Man of Steel has lots working against it. Director Zack Snyder, if we’re being polite, has had something of an uneven career (if the gloves are off, the guy’s pushed us through one too many ham-fisted slogs and some of us want our Maalox tab comped). Producer Christopher Nolan gave us unexpected pause last year with his messy Batman conclusion Dark Knight Rises. Russell Crowe can be a walking punchline. Amy Adams has red hair. The icing on the cake? Our titular character, perhaps the most resoundingly American icon of the last century, is played by a Brit. Maybe none of this is as heretical as flames on Optimus Prime, but eyebrows have been raised.
The skeptics should let go, however, because Man of Steel delivers as a taught, exciting, and stylish retelling of Superman’s familiar origin. We all know the drill: the alien planet of Krypton is doomed, so a scientist named Jor-El (Crowe) rockets his only son across the galaxy to Earth’s pedestrian confines. Unfortunately, a pocket of Kryptonian crooks bypass their home world’s fate and discover Baby Kal, the last hope for rebooting Krypton’s people, chillin’ in our galaxy. Lead by testy General Zod (Michael Shannon), these nogoodniks arrive on Earth around the time Kal-El / Clark (Henry Cavill) is discovering his true heritage and they decide to make themselves at home regardless of how many lives or continents it inconveniences.
Other reviews are dogging Cavill for his allegedly wooden portrayal of Kal-El. I saw an actor expressing rather well the complicated emotions that probably come with being a lifelong outcast who has secret messianic powers and is suddenly thrust into his Jesus Christ moment approximately five minutes after meeting his biological father’s intergalactic ectoplasm. Cavill is as noble and as strong as he can be in the face of what could be his most abysmal failure. You see fear, you see frustration—this Supes is doing his best. He’s only been on the job for a day. Did you master the deep fryer your first shift at Taco Pete’s? Surely the fate of the world did not rest in your ability to properly brown tostada shells.
Man of Steel plays with the established Superman mythos a tad, yielding some refreshing results. To wit: Lois Lane (Adams) figures out Clark Kent isn’t just another Kansas hick before he throws on the blue and red togs, leading to a pretty great section mid-movie where she hunts him down and he sets up some key flashbacks. Also, Clark literally has the DNA of every future Kryptonian sewn into his rippling body, so General Zod can’t just rocket the guy into the furthest reaches of space if he’s really intent on turning our planet into Krypton 2. There’s no tweak here that’s outright disrespectful to the source material, unless you’re seriously married to Superman’s red y-fronts or that obnoxious geek Jimmy Olsen.
Effects-wise, Man of Steel could have been less video gamey, but it nails all the iconic moments (Superman’s first flight, our introduction to Krypton, Lois Lane’s one instance of true peril, etc). Call me crazy but it also feels like Michael Shannon is underplaying Zod at some points, as if he’s unsure of the character’s convictions. Luckily, Mike ramps it up at the end, touching off one of the film’s rawer emotional notes that works wonderfully amidst all the visual action movie candy. It looks great, there are beats of earned humanity, every major character gets in at least one good punchline—what more could you want from a Superman movie?
If you say Krypto the Super Dog, guess what? The Kents have a pooch and while they never say his name the mutt does manage to escape a major calamity with almost too much ease. Don’t be surprised if he turns up in the inevitable sequel.
FINAL SCORE: Four Kryptonian super children (out of four).