I’m coming at MAN OF STEEL as someone who has loathed every one of Zack Snyder’s films and who holds fondly in his heart the memories of Supermans past, from the punisher of social ills of Siegel and Shuster to the ray-smacking silent guardian of Fleischer; from the cranial-bonking animated flight stylings of Kirk Alyn and the wall-smashing Eisenhowerness of George Reeves to the good-citizen family man of the 50s and the Byrne-dom of the post-Crisis; from the cat-saving, Earth-spinning smile of Christopher Reeve’s bank to the left and kneeling before Zod, Richard Pryor and Kinda-Dolph-Lundgren; from Superfriends to Ruby-Spears; from his splash-page city-saving sacrifice at the hands of Doomsday and resurrection as none of four reclaimers, but rather the mulleted version of himself to Grant Morrison’s defining “All-Star” bookend; from Brandon Routh’s tiny-S shield and his sing-song final victory in “Final Crisis”; from Dean Cain’s penchant for hair gel against John Shea to Bruce Timm and the fight between Supes and Darkseid; from every line, every word and every iteration to every half-tone dot of blue, yellow and red, I have found excellence and transcendance in every single iteration of the character.
MAN OF STEEL is no exception.
Before I go further, this ponderance will discuss the entirety of the film, including SPOILERS. I discuss them at length, so if you haven’t seen the film, go see it and come back later.
MAN OF STEEL is “Superman Begins,” down to the omni-present father figures, the flashback structure and the conclusion. As BATMAN BEGINS was eight years ago and CASINO ROYALE was seven years ago (wow), MAN OF STEEL is the reinvention of the mythology for this generation, one not beholden to the ideals of what came before or from anyone’s memory of the character. It is as foreign as John Byrne’s Superman would have been to George Reeves, and it needs to be. It is a transitional film, the passing of a mythology from one generation to the other.
In our minds, we want our heroes perfect; in our hearts we know they are not. Superman, unlike his dark counterpart with a thing for hanging out with bats, represents the ideal in all of us, the hope that we strive for and the ultimate fantasy: to be invulnerable, to be able to soar among the skies and to save those in need. The various attempts at “humanizing” Superman and making him “relatable” are the Catch-22 of Superman: Superman is the ultimate damned if you do, damned if you don’t character: for him to be dramatic, he must have flaws; for him to be an ideal, he must have none. He must be both simultaneously. He enjoys little of the elasticity of character of Batman because of his status as iconic ideal. Batman isn’t an ideal; he is what we could become, a kick-ass cautionary tale of obsession run amok, the sacrificing of all around for one goal.
MAN OF STEEL strikes the right balance between the ideal and the dramatic. As embodied by Henry Cavill, Superman is on his way, unsure of himself and with only fight or flight built in (literally, sometimes both fighting while flying or flying while fighting). Cavill’s Superman represents something more important than the ideal: the desire within us to grow into that ideal. He is not perfect: every step, every action, from his first jumps before flight to his anguish at being forced into killing Zod (a brilliant performance from Michael Shannon, whose intensity makes Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS-another, though more overt, instance of villain as formative influence-seem benign) were steps towards the ideal.
The performances of Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, as Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, respectively, borrow much of their gravitas and heart from the unsung hero of Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy: Linus Roache as Thomas Wayne. Both actors steal the show, Crowe with all of his screen time (rare for a cinematic Jor-El) and Costner with so little of his (“you are my son” Jesus Christ still makes me tear up). Diane Lane, as Martha Kent, was his anchor to humanity through a tender word (“Focus on the sound of my voice”) rather than a halting hand in the middle of a tornado, a powerful sacrifice and self-realization that said “you will be needed, but now is not the time.”
The time was when a brutal attack-the likes of which have been unseen on cinema screens in such a visceral and gut-wrenching assault on the senses- is unleashed. We couldn’t save ourselves from Zod’s zealotry and carnage; we needed Superman. MAN OF STEEL successfully showed us the unimaginable, the thing of our nightmares: something we can’t handle ourselves, and something that would make us look to the stars for a solution.
If MAN OF STEEL is the transitional film to a new generation, then Amy Adams’ pitch-perfect Lois Lane (and the best since Phyllis Coates, surpassing, I suspect, even her) represents the transition of Kal from his beginnings as the son of El and Kent to his legacy as Clark and Superman. And, lest we forget, we finally-FINALLY-have excised the most nauseating and insulting aspect of the Superman canon: Lois now knows that Clark is Superman, making the final “re-introduction” scene pop with knowing and charm; “Welcome to the Planet” is as gleeful and smile-inducing as Daniel Craig’s first utterance of “Bond, James Bond” at the end of CASINO ROYALE.
There are certainly kinks that need to be ironed out in subsequent entries to the series: Goyer’s writing continues to plod and use subtext as a blackjack (of note is the “Krypton had its chance” line, which played like a first draft line and an ignored edit, perhaps in fading red ink, to “add subtext later”; perhaps more restraint in his Zod-ass-kicking instead of a super-powered Kryptonian bull-in-a-city-shop fan service and fuck you to Singer to “punch things,” but again, he’s new at this (but come on, Darkseid didn’t do that much damage); Zimmer’s score, while bringing chills with the fourth to minor third theme notes, falls back on his old tricks (granted, I still dig those old tricks, but he was far more inventive in his SHERLOCK HOLMES and FROST/NIXON scores); the “American Icon” scenes were delivered with something less than conviction and felt out of place (He’s kinda hot, blergh).
I have to hand it to Zack Snyder: he came into his own with this one, delivering a rousing adventure free of his Shatner-slo-fast-schick that featured a hero on his way to an ideal, the most heroic journey all of us take.