Man of Steel
by Christopher Nolan, David Goyer, Zack Snyder, and a bunch of other Hollywood people
So I went to see the new Superman movie this weekend. Really enjoyed it. It’s not a perfect film, by far. It’s written in full epic movie style, with all the overblown melodrama that implies. But I like its approach to the super hero genre. It has a contemplative tone and hard-hitting action, and it treats Superman’s very familiar power set as an object of awe and wonder. It’s a lot of fun.
So imagine my surprise when I got back from the theater and checked the reactions on-line. The general fanboy consensus seems to be that the film is dark and joyless, and a terrible creative misstep that doesn’t “get” Superman. The “joyless” label is lifted from a comment made by comics writer Mark Waid, whose Birthright series influenced the Man of Steel script. Waid’s reaction is interesting, but it’s full of spoilers, so I’ll deal with it later. First, let me review the film without ruining it for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Before I talk about anything else, let me get this “dark and joyless” label out of the way. It’s neither of those things. It’s just serious-minded. It treats Superman with respect and a bit of intelligence, and presents his story to us from a different perspective than we’re used to. We start out on Krypton, and spend a good bit of time there, enough for us to see that it’s a dying society as well as a dying planet. The skies are dark, and everything looks old, from the ancient members of the ruling council to the burnished brass look of even the clothing.
That’s Russell Crowe as Jor-El, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked him in the role. He brings a sort of tiredness to the character that speaks volumes about the world that birthed Our Hero. This is not to say that the Krypton stuff is completely about decay, however. There’s some great pulpy ridiculousness in the sequence that I won’t spoil here, and Crowe still has enough of the adventure hero in him to pull it off.
We also meet our villain in this sequence, and that’s where things really take off. Michael Shannon’s General Zod is fantastic, a menacing fascist who looks like he stepped right off the pages of a Kirby comic.
Check out the super-suit Zod’s wearing there. Jor-El has one, too, worn beneath the more ornate outer clothing you see above. Which means that, yes, the Superman costume really is long underwear. Heh.
And since we’re talking about it, here’s the outfit itself:
This take on the super-suit has, of course, caused some strife in fan circles, but I like it, personally. The traditional red trunks are better from a design perspective, but this one looks fine without. They do some particularly nice stuff with the cape. It flaps and billows prettily, and its noise adds some extra oomph when Superman is in flight. I’m also okay with the slightly darker color scheme. It puts me in mind of one of my favorite versions of Superman, the Fleischer Studios cartoons from the early 1940s. Those were done noir-style, with much of the action taking place at night, and the color palette is pretty close to the one used in this new film:
Getting beyond the cosmetics of Man of Steel, though, I was maybe most happy with the way they approach the super powers. The first flying sequence is great fun, for instance, but it’s the rest of the powers that give the film its contemplative tone. Through a series of flashbacks, we’re shown what it was like for Clark Kent to grow up super in a world of normal human beings. The slow development of his super senses is maybe the most interesting thing. Imagine being a kid in elementary school and suddenly being bombarded with sensory input from x-ray eyes, and ears that can hear every sound in a crowded building. It’s a long hard process just learning to shut it all out, and I get the sense that even as a grown man, he hasn’t yet learned to use the powers so much as work around them.
Young Clark has to learn a super-human level of restraint as well, though, and that restraint forms the film’s thematic core. Jonathan Kent is, perhaps rightly, afraid of how the world will react when it learns that there’s a god-like alien living in their midst, and so he teaches Clark to hide his abilities. That’s something Clark takes with him into adulthood, moving from place to place and helping people in secret (kind of like Bill Bixby without the anger management issues). That’s how we get to the “bearded Clark” stuff from the ad campaign, and one of my favorite life-saving sequences, with Our Hero rushing into a burning oil refinery to save trapped workers.
I like the idea of the young Superman essentially being a burly life-saving tough guy, and Henry Cavill fills that role every bit as well as he does the more traditional square-jawed good guy Superman becomes by the end of the film.
I should take a moment to praise Cavill for his performance here, in fact. It’s not easy portraying the world’s biggest boy scout in a way that resonates with modern audiences. Christopher Reeve handled it by playing the part with a quiet confidence that I’ve always liked. But I’ve never connected with Reeve’s Superman as a real character. Good as that performance is, it’s really a subdued sort of camp more than anything else. Cavill, on the other hand, is given the opportunity to show the character growing from the deeply sad and conflicted Clark Kent into the openly heroic Superman. Things have to get pretty bad for him to come out of the spandex closet, but once he does, there’s a palpable sense of relief. It’s the same guy, but with a tremendous weight taken off his shoulders, and that feeling is down to Cavill’s performance.
The acting’s very good in general here, though. I’ve already praised Michael Shannon’s performance as Zod, but Kevin Costner and Diane Lane absolutely KILL as Ma and Pa Kent. All the Kansas flashbacks are good, and it’s their performances that make them so. A lot goes unsaid in this script, but Costner and Lane own their characters so completely that you don’t need them to say much anyway.
I’d like to be able to say the same about Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, but… Well, Lois is something of a cypher here. I’m very happy with how the film establishes her as a top-notch investigative reporter, but beyond that she’s a blank slate of a character with weak development that’s not backed up by the same kind of acting chops Cavill, Costner and Lane give us. But to really talk successfully about Lois, I’m going to have to get into spoiler territory. Which means it might be time for me to wrap up the spoiler-free portion of tonight’s entertainment.
Ultimately, I’d say that Man of Steel, while not a great film, is a really great super hero movie. It offers a fresh, serious-minded take on the oldest super hero there is, and delivers some spectacular action in what may be the best super hero fights ever put to film. It’s not a glib pop culture construct like the Marvel films have been, and I for one am glad it’s not. Fun as those movies might be, they’re like popcorn. Tasty, but with little weight. Man of Steel strives to be something more, and succeeds more than it fails. For me, that’s a win.
Now, on to the SPOILERS… After the jump.