In the world of superhero cinema, there’s no question Marvel dominates. With the success of movies like the “Iron Man” trilogy, “Thor,” and of course “The Avengers,” Marvel has taken the cinema world by storm, igniting a superhero revolution and wowing millions of people in the process. All of this has been happening while competitor DC Comics has struggled in the background for success. Aside from the Batman movies, DC hasn’t reinvigorated one of their heroes at the movies in a long time, despite a solid and underrated effort by Bryan Singer with 2006’s “Superman Returns.” This week’s “Man of Steel” is exactly what DC needs. While it is by no means perfect, it reinvigorates Superman with some much needed style and defies the expectations of what most people expect from him.
The movie begins on Krypton, the alien home world of a baby named Kal-El, who will eventually become Superman. The planet is dying, so Kal-El’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), sends him off to Earth to save his life, but not before stashing the planet’s codex with him. That codex has the information required to begin life anew for his people, so General Zod (Michael Shannon), a disgraced general that was banished from Krypton and ended up watching his world implode, decides to track it down, along with the now all grown up Kal-El. Now known as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), he has been hiding his true identity to the world out of uncertainty about how the people would react.
Superman has its detractors for a number of reasons. Some of those people have valid criticisms while others miss the point of the character altogether. Superman exists as a Christ-like figure, one that is willing to put himself in danger to protect the people of the world, even the ones he doesn’t personally connect with. Just as the story of Jesus shows his selflessness, the personality of Superman is one that values others above anything else. To attack Superman is mostly frivolous given his lack of weaknesses (which is where the detractors’ issue of kryptonite being his only flaw comes into play), but it’s not attacking him that causes him pain. To really hurt him, you have to attack his humanity and put others in danger. This is why the character is so interesting. He’s not fighting back to try to bring lawfulness to a corrupt city like Batman and his motivation doesn’t stem from vengeance like Spider-man after he loses Uncle Ben. It comes from a simple desire to do good, to take his abilities and use them to help others, working as a savior to humanity.
Perhaps more than any other Superman movie, “Man of Steel” understands this. Although there is plenty of action, much of it occurs in the vicinity of the Metropolis population, all of them put in danger due to the actions of General Zod. When the army shows up to kill the aliens in one scene, their attempt quickly proves futile and Superman has to jump to action, despite the fact that the government doesn’t yet trust him and sees him as an enemy. Their perception of him doesn’t matter and although it would surely be easier to side with Zod, he instead fights for the greater good. Sometimes the Biblical allegory is a bit too on-the-nose, particularly when he floats outside of a crashing spaceship with his arms stretched out in the shape of a crucifix to save a falling Lois Lane (Amy Adams), but it makes it no less interesting.
“Man of Steel” clearly embraces the very idea of the character as this Christ-like figure, but the movie nevertheless goes in its own direction. Some may be surprised to hear that kryptonite is not featured in the movie at all. In fact, it’s not even mentioned and wouldn’t make sense to have given that General Zod is of the same origin as Superman. Although the movie creates a new narratively legitimate physical weakness for him, his real weakness in this movie is his doubt and uncertainty about a world of people he wants to save, but who fear him. In keeping with the Biblical allegory, he comes as a savior, but the people shun him. After saving a bus full of students from drowning in a lake as a child, it’s not gratitude he receives from the parents of the children, but rather suspicion. His parents, played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, teach him to control his powers, explaining to him that one day his powers will come in handy and he will need to make a decision regarding how to use them.
Of course, his ultimate decision is obvious, but director Zack Snyder, the man behind the visually wondrous “Watchmen” and “300,” makes it feel fresh. The fights, though largely CGI, are a thrill to watch and the camerawork behind them is absolutely fantastic, including one tracking shot moving at what seems like supersonic speed as Superman catches up with Zod as they fly through the air in battle. Similar to the way he took a much beloved movie and made it new with 2004’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” he makes Superman once again appealing for a new generation of moviegoers.
If any flaws can be directed at the movie, it’s that the end of the final battle is a bit anti-climactic and there is a ton of expositional dialogue, perhaps more than any other movie in recent memory, but that dialogue is written so well and delivered so strongly that it’s more palatable than one might be accustomed to. “Man of Steel” is more of a character study than an action movie, which may not appeal to some. Tack on a slow beginning (despite the most glorious and beautiful destruction of Krypton ever put to screen) and a nearly two and a half hour runtime and divisiveness is to be expected. But in my eyes, “Man of Steel” is a sight to behold and it isn’t until you think about it later that its true wonder shines through.
Man of Steel receives 4.5/5