Superman has been my favorite superhero for as long as I can remember. Some of my first conscious memories are of me running around in a homemade cape with an “S” shield on the back.
I say all this because when I write that “Man of Steel” is the Superman movie I have waited my entire life to see realized, I want you to know that I’m not exaggerating.
Superman is a character that’s difficult to get right, be it in television, comics and especially film. I had almost given up hope of ever getting a film that felt it truly fit the character. As iconic and wonderful (and, for the longest time, definitive) as Christopher Reeve’s performance was in Richard Donner’s original, it was still enmeshed in a film that was limited by the technology of the time and an often problematic script. Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” has its merits, but it’s far too slavish to Donner’s vision of the character.
What we have in “Man of Steel” is a film that embraces the emotional aspects of Superman that Donner and Singer’s films aimed for, but which also provides exciting, massive-scale action. No longer relegated to simply lifting big, heavy things, we finally get to watch the Man of Steel cut loose and engage his powers and abilities in a way we’ve never before seen.
I was hesitant to accept the need for yet another Superman origin story. After all, it’s fairly safe to say that even the most comic book-illiterate know the basics of who Superman is, where he comes from and what he can do. But director Zack Snyder and writer David Goyer (who helped craft the recent Batman films with Christopher Nolan, who also produces on this) seem to understand this, and so give us an examination of his roots that feels more in-depth than anything past films have shown us.
They communicate the weight of responsibility that Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) must carry, not only as a superpowered being, but as a son of two worlds, and just what that means. It shows us real choices he must make as he decides whether he will protect and help humanity, or crush it under his heel.
The moral fortitude to make the correct choice is instilled in him by his Earthly father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), and it is here that Snyder and Goyer’s decision to retread familiar ground truly pays off. There are moments of genuine doubt and anger and frustration and fear in young Clark (Dylan Sprayberry), moments that, left unguided and unchecked could very well have turned him into a tyrant. Yet there is Pa Kent, always ready to provide a steady hand to his adopted son, imparting wisdom, but also never sugarcoating the notion that the choices Clark will face about who he is and what he can do will be monumentally difficult.
Costner is remarkable here in that he only appears in flashbacks, yet he communicates so much with so relatively little time. It’s a superb performance and it provides an outstanding moral anchor to the film.
That moral foundation is essential once General Zod (Michael Shannon) appears, eager to reclaim Kal-El, whom he considers a fugitive of Krypton. With his planet destroyed, Zod sees Kal as an essential part of rebuilding their world, but at the cost of wiping out humanity so a new Krypton can be birthed on Earth.
Zod has also been done before, yes, but like most everything else, we’ve never gotten him quite this way before. Zod works as a villain largely because he’s not entirely unsympathetic. He may be willing to enact broad genocide, but he’s doing it because he truly believes he’s doing the right thing for his people. Shannon brings an intensity and fierceness that is unnerving at times, but you never doubt that Zod thinks he’s genuinely helping the few remaining Kryptonians.
Zod also works because he (and the other Kryptonian convicts who join him) presents a physical challenge to Superman. When your character is godlike, you need similarly-powerful beings to give any semblance of a challenge and conflict, and that’s what we get here. One thing I never doubted Snyder would be able to deliver is well-staged, superpowered action, and he more than delivers. There’s a scale and scope to the action scenes here that dwarf more or less every other superhero movie we’ve seen (save for maybe “The Avengers”). It’s thrilling stuff and Snyder shoots it in a way that is almost exhausting given how he manages to keep ratcheting up the intensity.
There’s tons of collateral damage and that’s worrisome for a superhero who is the patron saint of Trying To Save Everyone. But this is also a Superman who is still learning the limits of his abilities and trying to figure out how to properly use them in intense situations.
What keeps this from just being flashy noise, though, is that Snyder and Goyer make the majority of the movie about character, about shaping Clark and defining the foundation that will forever determine his course. It always goes back to character with this iteration.
Thankfully, Snyder has cast the film well enough that all of these character moments flow and feel true to form. To say that Cavill had enormous shoes to fill (as so many still associate Reeve solely with the role) is an understatement. But thankfully, Snyder wisely avoids Singer’s pitfall and doesn’t simply have his leading man try and replicate Reeve. Cavill’s performance as Clark/Superman is very much its own thing and he acquits himself well and feels a natural fit for the role.
Just as important, though, is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Save for a nitpick about her not being a brunette, this is the perfect Lois. She’s tenacious, defiant, smart, proactive and sharp. It’s the best depiction of Lois we’ve gotten in film, by far, and Adams is perfect.
It’s Costner as Jonathan Kent, though, that stole the show for me. So much of who Superman becomes hinges entirely on the way Jonathan raises him, and Costner makes every moment count. There’s a gravitas to every word he imparts to Clark and you can see the weight Jonathan holds, not always knowing how to deal with this miraculous child that is under his care.
It’s somewhat miraculous that we have such a huge, action-heavy superhero movie that also builds that action from moments of character. There is lots of destruction and fighting, but it’s always motivated by character and not simply there for the sake of it.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the film’s structure feels odd. It’s not a straight child-to-adulthood origin, Clark has flashbacks throughout that fill us in on his backstory on Earth, and that makes for a somewhat uneven flow at times.
Additionally, there are some other details one could debate, largely about the power levels of the Kryptonians given their relative lack of time absorbing sunlight or the number of people who almost surely died in the collateral damage during the film’s big fights.
But at the end of it all, “Man of Steel” gets so much right, both in terms of character and presentation that none of those issues affected my appreciation for what Snyder and company have accomplished here. This is the epitome of what a summer blockbuster can and should be, and I can’t wait to see where they take this interpretation of the character next.