If your biggest complaint about previous Superman movies was that they didn’t have enough super ass kicking in them, then congratulations, because it appears director Zack Snyder, along with writers David Goyer and Christopher Nolan (who gets “story by” co-credit) heard your pleas. At the risk of overselling it a little, it’s quite possible that “Man of Steel” packs in more super fights, super destruction, and Superman superheroics than all the previous Superman movies combined. Oh, screw it. Go ahead and toss in the Superman cartoons and TV shows, too. Clocking in at two and a half hours, you won’t be bored for even a second of “Man of Steel”. Wanna know why? Because Snyder isn’t going to let you be bored. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends almost entirely on what expectations you bring to the table.
At this point, Snyder and company assume you pretty much know the general gist of Superman’s origin — shot into outer space as an infant by mom and dad, planet Krypton goes boom, raised in Kansas by childless, but good-hearted country folk. All that stuff is in here, too, though Snyder doesn’t dwell on them, and accepts that you probably already know most of the high points. What the filmmakers are betting on you not knowing nearly as much about is why Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) tried to overthrow Krypton’s ruling body (eventually losing, then getting his butt shot off into the Phantom Zone for his efforts), or that Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) grew up being bullied and trying desperately to hide his powers but failing miserably. And oh yeah, Lois Lane isn’t a complete idiot, as it turns out.
Even before Clark Kent discovers his true destiny in “Man of Steel” — that is, to save humanity as the caped superhero — Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has uncovered his identity and visited his mom (Diane Lane) at his old Kansas homestead. If “Man of Steel” is a re-invention of Superman/Clark Kent, it also spends some effort at re-introducing Lois Lane as well. Adams is still the spunky ace reporter (with a Pulitzer Prize under her belt, natch), but it’s going to take more than glasses and the absence of a superheroic curl to fool this gal. It’s almost love at first sight for the two, and their relationship actually figures prominently into the movie’s plot, which, at the end of the day, involves the merging of two species. I wouldn’t say the chemistry between Cavill and Adams burns up the screen like out-of-control heat vision, but there’s something there.
Whereas Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) thinks Kryptonians and humanity can one day co-exist (with Superman as the the bridge), Zod, who was genetically bred to do absolutely everything to ensure the survival of the Kryptonian way of life, would rather take the guesswork out of it and just build a new Krypton on the ashes of Earth. That, of course, doesn’t sit well with Superman, or Lois Lane, or all those bull-headed U.S. military types (led by Christopher Meloni) who are more than willing to shoot first and never you mind the questions. When you get right down to it, Superman is an alien. A potentially really dangerous one at that. Indeed, it appears Clark Kent’s human father Jonathan (an understated Kevin Costner) was right when he feared that humanity might never accept his adopted space son if they knew his true origins and what he can do.
“Man of Steel” opens with Clark Kent wandering the wilderness in an attempt to find himself. Although he goes from town to town, and job to job, Clark still finds time for heroics. He saves workers on an oil rig, revenges a waitress’s honor, and saves a school bus full of kids. Eventually, though, reports of possible UFO activity in the frozen Tundras of Alaska leads him to an encounter with Lois Lane, the U.S. military, and probably more importantly for the desperately aimless Clark, his Kryptonian father. Although his character dies early in the film, Crowe’s Jor-El continues to appear to Clark throughout the movie, filling him in on his past and even acting as a guardian angel. Lois Lane certainly comes to appreciate him, that’s for sure. Jor-El, as it turns out, isn’t just some egghead alien scientist, he could throw down when he needed to.
But you’re probably plopping down your hard-earned money for the action. That, my friends, is something you’re going to get. A lot. Zack Snyder doesn’t allow a sequence in the entire movie to go by without something blowing up, lives dangled in the jaws of death, or Superman leaping to the rescue. The entire two and a half hour running time is chock full of action. And that’s before Clark Kent slips on the red and blue tights. Once he dons the familiar outfit, it’s action, action, and more action. Zod has shown up by now, demanding Superman or else he’s going to do something terrible to Earth. Obviously everyone agrees to hand him over; after all, dude’s an undocumented alien! Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a movie if everything ended there. It doesn’t, and Zod launches a plan that is guaranteed to wipe out Earth’s populace. The lesson here, kids? Never, ever trust an alien General whose own people banished him.
Directed by Zack Snyder (“Watchmen”), “Man of Steel” is not new territory for the director, but he seems to be making a real effort to shake things up. Literally. Because this new take is being sold as a grittier version of the character, we get plenty of gratuitous handheld camerawork and moments where the camera zooms in and out for no apparent reason. Think the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica” TV show, but less depressing. There’s a good chance you might also leave the theater completely exhausted. For those who don’t think there is such a thing as too much comic book action, “Man of Steel’s” second half will surely test that theory. Once Zod launches his attack, it’s almost non-stop punching, kicking, shooting, and exploding. Lots and lots of exploding. The property damage in “Man of Steel” is on a ridiculous scale. There is a prolonged attack on Metropolis that, if you were to take the film with any grain of seriousness, must have claimed at least a few million lives. Easily. I think it’s safe to say that if you thought the previous Superman films didn’t have enough action, that has now been rectified.
Is “Man of Steel” the best Superman movie ever made? Honestly, that’s open to interpretation. It’s certainly a different take on the character, and how Superman resolves his conflict with Zod might leave a bad taste in the mouths of some longtime comic book fans. Henry Cavill’s Superman is brooding and thoughtful, which I liked, but this is also something a lot of people hated about Bryan Singer’s 2006 “Superman Returns” (another Superman outing that I appreciated more than the average critic). I still haven’t a clue why they changed Perry White’s race or Jimmy Olsen’s sex, but considering that the two are barely in the movie, I guess it doesn’t really matter. The problem is, once you’ve almost destroyed the planet, where do you go from here? Is Superman going to be confronted with the ridiculous, capitalist menace of Lex Luthor next? God, I hope not. The only thing worse than Lex Luthor as a villain is Lex Luthor engaged in another damn land scheme.
Zack Snyder (director) / David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan (screenplay)
CAST: Henry Cavill … Clark Kent / Kal-El
Amy Adams … Lois Lane
Michael Shannon … General Zod
Diane Lane … Martha Kent
Russell Crowe … Jor-El
Antje Traue … Faora-Ul
Harry Lennix … General Swanwick
Richard Schiff … Dr. Emil Hamilton
Christopher Meloni … Colonel Nathan Hardy
Kevin Costner … Jonathan Kent
Ayelet Zurer … Lara Lor-Van
Laurence Fishburne … Perry White