‘Man of Steel’ Review
I believe a man can fly -- and beat the living hell out of Michael Shannon for close to 40 compounded minutes in ways hitherto unseen on film. But Zack Snyder's 'Man of Steel' is no mere slugfest. It goes for broke, faces the legend and tackles the iconography of one of modernity's largest-shared myths, Kal-El of Krypton, on its own terms. It is among the finest "franchise reboots" of all time, which may sound like a bit of a backhanded compliment until you realize that this is, in fact, a genre unto itself. It manages, somehow, to be "the same but different," a new film that everyone under the yellow sun knows from beginning to end. It is the film of summer 2013.
Among 'Man of Steel''s bigger triumphs is its full-on embrace of Superman as science-fiction. While the Big Blue Boy Scout is as instantly recognizable as Abraham Lincoln, Uncle Sam or Ronald McDonald, it's easy to forget that Superman was merely raised here. His roots are from deep in the stars, and the opening scenes of 'Man of Steel' dive headfirst into whacked-out technology, crazy-looking beasts and nerdy-sounding things, like the "Genesis chambers," "world drives" and "phantom zones."
Norms need not freak, however; for every silver, swirling, tactile 3D projection of pure thought, there's a close-up of No. 2 pencils, farm equipment, American flags and bottles of Bud. What 'Man of Steel' does phenomenally well is balance the heavy, hearty geek lore with a straight-up, fish-out-of-water story about a boy with powers he doesn't understand and the caring Midwestern parents that raise him.
David Goyer's script wisely shows us Kal-El's childhood as Clark Kent through precise flashbacks. He's at a point in his life now where his desire to "make this world better than his own" necessitates exposing his powers, which, as I'm sure you know, is derived from exposure to the radiation of a young star. Lucky for him that he's taught himself to fly, donned a snazzy suit and communed with the downloaded consciousness of his father just in time for him to confront the other survivors of his doomed planet, led by the fearsome General Zod.
In Krypton we see our possible, brutal future. While technologically advanced, it abandoned its space exploration, ruined its own environment and devised a 'Brave New World'-like system of predetermined social stratification. As such, Zod was bred to defend his people -- and Kal-El is the first natural birth in centuries.
It's still the same white hat/black hat dynamic, as is the nascent romance between Kal-El and Lois Lane. She's still a determined reporter, but hardly a damsel waiting to get rescued. She's able to defend herself and ends up being something of a go-between for Kal-El and the American military. Yeah, sure, she gets saved from falling to her death on more than one occasion, but it is hardly like it was before.
"Lane as intermediary" is needed because this is a post-9/11 Superman. It's made plain that our culture is one far more driven by fear than when Richard Donner made his bigscreen version in 1978.
While my heart will always belong to Christopher Reeve, Henry Cavill more than passes muster. Like Chris Pine, he gets the essence of the character and, as in J.J. Abrams' 2009 'Star Trek,' there's a slight wink toward the end to the version of the character we know and love.
On the whole, though, this is a wink-free movie. Early buzz that 'Man of Steel' would be discernibly similar to Nolan's Batman films are false. Even with Hans Zimmer scoring, the propulsive nature of Nolan's films is absent. It's less edgy and more contemplative, that is, until the fighting starts.
The last act of 'Man of Steel' is out of control. Beginning with an image straight from "All-Star Superman" and not letting up until Metropolis is a wasteland of twisted metal, Snyder's extremely well-choreographed and clean fight scenes rival the Battle of New York from 'The Avengers.' With wonderful inserts resembling comic panels, Snyder jumps from a video game aesthetic to classic 'High Noon' Western tropes and back again in quick succession. The final, primal push to save humanity features tightening muscles, contorted faces and an upwardly thrusting spasm of white, shooting energy. While I'm thrilled I got to see 'Man of Steel' at an early critics' screening, I can't wait to see this in a packed house full of nerds.
'Man of Steel' isn't perfect. There's an emotional beat that is supposed to have resonance, but you'll probably be thinking, "who's she?" (The answer, undoubtedly, is "someone whose earlier scenes got cut out.") There's also a dopey decision that a character makes, a beat that only an actor of Kevin Costner's quality can save. Also, the world-building in 'Man of Steel' is so good that the movie lends itself to some hardcore nitpicking of a "how did they know English?" variety. But when your scrutiny has to go that deep, you know you have a solid blockbuster on your hands.
I love Superman, and I love ridiculous sci-fi. Snyder's movie scratched all my fanboy itches. I think, though, that the emotion will ring true for fair-weather fans, too. If comic book heroes are our modern Greek gods, 'Man of Steel' is solid enough to stand proudly atop Mount Olympus.
'Man of Steel' soars onto the big screen June 14.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.