So, Man of Steel is definitely the biggest movie of the year. Love it or hate it, that’s a statement of fact – as especially huge as the Richard Donner and Richard Lester versions were in their day, this one is every bit as exponentially bigger as movies in the modern age tend to be. It also doesn’t have their patience for exposition or restraint: back then, you believed a man could fly. When you see this, you’ll believe anything can happen on any scale – if the movie were a vehicle, it’d be a steamroller with jet engines and a couple of bazookas mounted on the front for good measure.
By the end, you will feel like you got hit and run over by a motion picture. Possibly in a good way. I’d even go so far as to suggest a new MPAA rating of “CG-14,” not for the rampant computer graphics but for the fact that anyone over 40 will not have the necessary attention span, and may require the guidance of a child to explain just what it was they saw.
Here’s an example of just how crazy this movie gets. We all know the general origin story of Superman, right? Jor-El, upset that nobody believes his doomsday prophecies, shoots baby Kal-El into space in a rocket. Pretty simple. Unless you’re Zack Snyder, director of this version. In Snyder’s telling, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is reiterating his doomsday prophecies to the Kryptonian council when they are all attacked by General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his military, who are staging a coup. Jor-El escapes by leaping on the back of some dragon creature, flying through a sky filled with spaceships blasting each other out of said sky, making his way to a giant tower, doing a high dive off of it into an underwater chamber that looks like the Matrix (babies in pods), securing a skull covered in runes and getting that back to his home, where the skull is disintegrated to power his ship for baby Kal. But wait! Zod attacks again, and then Kryptonian council forces counter-attack, and Jor-El finally launches the rocket, which, again, has to dodge the laser-blasts of a huge space battle. Zod and crew are captured and sent to the Phantom Zone in what look like giant dildos, and then the entire fucking planet explodes.
That’s just the damn prologue. Things don’t slow down from there. Yeah, I know you saw that trailer that looked like Terrence Malick, or the one that’s all father and son bonding. Guess what – those moments are the ONLY such moments in the 2+ hours of running time. Snyder has no time for character development – when he tries, there’s always something else massive happening in the background. Clark Kent has a key emotional beat with his dad…during a massive tornado! Superman meets Lois for the first time…on a giant spaceship busting out of the ice, while saving her from a robotic death machine! That kind of deal. The casting is shorthand for character arcs – you know Perry White has gravitas because he’s Laurence Fishburne. You know Lois Lane is spunky because she’s Amy Adams. You know Jonathan Kent is a great all-American dad because he’s Kevin Costner – though I don’t really know why he’d rather let people die than have Clark reveal any super powers; yes, it serves a plot point, but this isn’t like any Pa Kent I’ve ever seen, and I’d like a little more explanation. Less famous faces convey a lot just in their look – Richard Schiff is clearly a smart sciencey type, Harry Lennix is thoughtful-yet-assertive dude, while Antje Traue is beautiful and beats people up.
Surprisingly, the only character who really gets a true dramatic arc is Jor-El, who, like the Brando version, manages to appear constantly throughout the film even though, well, his fate is pretty much the same as in every version of this story. The religious imagery is overt – at one point, noncorporeal Jor-El tells his son he can save humanity, at which point Supes falls to Earth in a crucifixion pose (a huge deal is made of the fact that his age is 33 – like Jesus when he died – hey, I’m just happy to see a movie this big that’s not afraid to let the hero be older than his twenties). Meanwhile, the evil Kryptonians blather on about evolution, so make of that what you will. Shannon’s Zod is a different beast than Terence Stamp’s aficionado of kneeling, more straight-ahead military man than smooth-talker, abandoning false pleasantries the instant they appear not to be working.
And while we’re on that subject, a big THANK YOU to Snyder and writer David Goyer for not shoehorning in gratuitous throwbacks. A lesser movie would feel the need to give Zod a toss-off quip about kneeling or planet Houston; references to other movies can all-too frequently kill the one you’re watching – whether they’re the funniest thing in the movie despite not making any sense (Skyfall) or so predictable they destroy all momentum (Star Trek Into Darkness). While you won’t be surprised that Hans Zimmer’s score, laden as it is with signature BRAHHHHMs, isn’t as great as the John Williams theme, it’s a necessary change – the Williams theme belongs to Christopher Reeve’s incarnation of Supes, and always will.
That aside, you’re probably wondering how this new fellow Henry Cavill is, and the truth is it’s hard to say. The mild-mannered reporter identity that gave Reeve so much to play with hasn’t yet been created at the time of this origin story, so what’s left is a mystery man with an inherent sense of what’s right, and the actor has that part down. The “angst-ridden” idea has been played up a fair bit in pre-release buzz, but it isn’t like that at all – even Christopher Nolan understands that Supes doesn’t brood Batman-style. Here’s how Zack Snyder conveys angst: show Clark as a kid first discovering his X-ray vision by having him suddenly see everyone around him as living skeletons with internal organs. Then have him scream, lock himself in a closet, and fuse the lock with newly discovered heat vision. Snyder takes to heart the filmmaking concept of “show, don’t tell,” and appears to have been given unlimited funds to show every possible money shot that enters his head.
Is it over the top? I would rarely say this about a big action movie, but I could have stood for just a few more slow moments that show personality not related to action, i.e. the kinds of scenes Robert Downey Jr. could do in his sleep. I am getting close to forty, though, which could explain a lot. I don’t recommend the 3D, even though I usually like the effect – Snyder clearly didn’t shoot with the post-conversion in mind, and the handheld stuff and quick pans do it no favors.
At least at my screening, there was no tease or post-credits scene that would indicate a larger DC Universe – the best hope fans can hang their hat on is talk of Kryptonians having colonized many planets, all of which are presumed dead. But after a large-scale alien invasion, sequels can’t really be considered “real world” any more. And by the way, considering that invasion, viewers should ask themselves: are we far enough away from 9-11 that falling skyscrapers – followed by people running from giant dust clouds and getting trapped under rubble – can be entertainment? Statue of limitations has probably expired and all, but I’m still unable to view something like that as pure escapism. Snyder does not stylize as much as usual, but he sneaks in a narrative trick that allows him to use his favorite effect – the Kryptonians have a gravity weapon that makes stuff levitate, hold in mid air for a moment, then come crashing down.
How faithful is the whole thing to the Superman we know and love? There is one key out-of-character moment that I cannot spoil and which will be divisive, but on the whole this is finally the modern-age (post-Crisis, that is; I don’t pretend to get the New 52) Superman onscreen as opposed to the Silver Age edition most often mined by the movies. There is one big throwback to the early Siegel/Shuster days – his “flying” is portrayed more like the classic “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Like a virtual Keanu Reeves, he pushes himself off the ground in a shockwave, then flies faster than sound in a straight line. As for the costume allegedly emphasizing the crotch – can’t say I noticed that. It is a Kryptonian undergarment, with the baddies adding armor on top of that, so perhaps he needs a little extra protective padding in the Super-jewels.
Surprisingly, the retold origin is not at all tedious – it’s too aggressively action-packed for that – but I’m still more interested to see where Superman goes from here. By movie’s end he’s still on a par with Batman as far as independence from authority goes; watching him turn into that establishment symbol so viciously mocked by Frank Miller in the mid-’80s will be a journey that shows us more of the man. As is, this is a film that focuses mostly on the “Super” part of the equation and by God, it will break down your resistance one way or the other.