The memorable tagline for 1978’s Superman was “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly!” Despite effects that are dated by current standards, the original Superman remains convincing as one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. As for Man of Steel, the first Superman origin movie since that classic, you’ll not only believe that a man can fly but you’ll believe that Warner Bros. has finally put the Last Son of Krypton’s future in movies on the right track, albeit one that is certainly darker.
Like the original, the first few minutes of Man of Steel focuses on the last days of the world of Krypton and Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe). Crowe is a more action-orientated father figure than Marlon Brando (who played Jor-El in the original film), but he has every bit of Brando’s presence on screen. In Man of Steel, Krypton exists as a sort of Avatar gone wrong world, which leads up to…
Well, do I really need to tell you? Superman’s origin story is as familiar to audiences from his multimedia portrayals over the last 75 years. Purists might be angry that this film includes several twists and turns on the original premise, but then again even the original Superman didn’t adhere to the original comic books very closely either. The real question is, did Warner Bros., director Zack Snyder, and screenwriter David S. Goyer (who co-developed the story with Christopher Nolan) succeed at bringing the first superhero to the big screen after decades of missteps? The answer is overwhelmingly yes.
Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, is a very different type of movie Superman. This is his origin, so his Superman is an all-powerful being who hasn’t yet learned the ropes. At times Cavill’s Superman seems uncomfortable, which fits in with the overall question that Man of Steel tries to answer — is Superman ultimately a child of Earth or Krypton? However, Cavill’s portrayal shows that he has the potential to grow more comfortable into the role in subsequent films, which isn’t exactly a bad mark to make in an origin story when the character isn’t supposed to be at the top of his game. In fact, his character is very much informed by Kevin Costner‘s wonderful portrayal of Superman’s adoptive father Pa Kent, who is kindly and proud of his son’s powers but fearful of how the world would react if they knew of them, and the warm portrayal of Ma Kent by Diane Lane.
Of course, this is Superman I am writing about and some will argue that what makes Superman so iconic (others might say “boring”) is that he doesn’t fail, he doesn’t screw up, and he always does the right thing. If that’s the Superman that you are looking for you will be surprised by this take on Superman. Man of Steel is a darker origin story — Cavill only has hints of Christopher Reeve‘s cheery disposition — featuring a conflicted superhero far more akin to the Clark Kent on TV’s Smallville than the Superman you usually see smiling on lunchboxes and backpacks. This Superman is of the era of a paranoid military industrial complex government afraid of anything it can’t control or even monitor (it’s terribly appropriate that one of the main themes of Man of Steel is the government’s distrust of Superman when so many spying scandals are going on in today’s news). This darker tone is even present in the scenes of Clark Kent’s childhood. In 1978’s Superman there’s an endearing and charming scene of baby Superman casually lifting up a truck. In Man of Steel, we see a brilliant scene showing a six year-old schoolchild trying to cope with the insane amount of information his superhuman senses are relaying to his brain.
The other major hallmark is Michael Shannon, who plays the Kryptonian dictator General Zod. Zod is not a Nolan Batman villain seeking to cause chaos for chaos’ sake, he is a genocidal, hard man trying to do what he feels is best for Krypton. I am thrilled to see one of my favorite actors finally able to show his chilling presence off in a blockbuster film, and Shannon’s delivery of Zod’s authoritative speeches is impeccable. Shannon’s Zod equals the commanding presence of Terrence Stamp (who portrayed Zod in 1980’s Superman II), but he also is much more Superman’s physical match. Indeed, Man of Steel is less about who Superman is as a character as it is about what Superman can do. We have never seen Superman cut loose on screen like this, and most of the fun of the movie is finally seeing Superman in a knock out, drag out fight to the finish.
That brings me to the radical departures from the Superman basics, especially with the Superman/Lois Lane dynamic. Lois, portrayed by Amy Adams, certainly fits the tough cookie mold of every version of Lois since 1938’s Action Comics #1, yet the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane gets off on a totally different foot than any other incarnation I can think of. That isn’t easy to do after seventy-five years. One might argue against it and other choices — I myself am still not sure about the film’s resolution — but one could say the same about some of Nolan’s radical changes to the Batman basics in his Dark Knight trilogy. You don’t hear too many people complain about that, so I’m curious to what audiences will feel when this movie hits theaters.
Then again, though Nolan co-developed this story this is so much more of a summer blockbuster film than Nolan’s Batman films. It’s sort of taking Batman Begins and mixing it with Thor. It might be a shade or two too dark for most Superman fans, and it seeps into generic blockbuster territory more than once during its two and a half hour runtime, yet it all breezes by at an enthralling pace.
Man of Steel is no 1978 Superman, but it comes close at points. While I don’t think it will ultimately be as timeless as the original, at least there is a clear vision here (and not simply a desire to salute nostalgia, which was both the charm and the problem of the deeply flawed 2006’s Superman Returns). Is it a more glum Superman? Yes, and though that might not be my personal view of the Superman character, I’m already excited to see where the sequel will take us. So Snyder did his job well — he made me believe in his Superman.
Rating: A smashing theatrical return for Superman that clearly aspires to be something new despite falling back on some basic blockbuster tricks at times (8.5/10).
Note: Despite rumors, during my screening there was no post-credits sequence. I am not sure if that will be the case with the general release, but I thought I would give you a head’s up.