Forget all of the Supermen of the past.
Mining the planet’s core for energy has made the distant alien world of Krypton unstable. For centuries, children have been grown (in a very Matrix-like way) and pre-programmed for their role in society, causing stagnation of innovation and inspiration. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) knows this; against tradition, his natural-born child can be whatever he chooses, and he intends to send him far away to start anew. General Zod (Michael Shannon) also knows of the planet’s impending doom but chooses a military action to hold Krypton’s ruling council responsible. Soon after Jor-El sends his son to Earth, Zod is captured and banished, yet both are the last acts of a doomed world. Years later on Earth, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) struggles with having super powers but not knowing what to do with them. When an ancient Kryptonian scout ship buried beneath an ice flow is found by scientists, Clark discovers his true alien origins. What he doesn’t know is that an old foe has been alerted to his existence, and it’s not just revenge he’s coming for.
Wow, is there a lot going on here! But first things first; this isn’t your father’s Superman, nor your grandfather’s or great grandfather’s. DC already tried to reboot what they thought audiences wanted – a Christopher Reeve clone – and it fell flat… for many, many reasons. Man of Steel is a reinvention and a fresh start for 2013, the story of a lost soul from a dead world struggling to be a good man with abilities he doesn’t understand. After his terrestrial father dies (Kevin Costner), Clark drifts from place to place (not unlike the old “Hulk” television series) to find himself; this is just one instance where the exemplary cast shines, from Diane Lane’s Martha Kent to Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. The modern world is a darker, post-911, NSA-is-watching-you kind of place; being told to serve as an example for an entire race is a bit of a burden on a farm boy from Kansas… or anyone, Kryptonian or not. Here and now is the time and place that producer Christopher Nolan, writer David S. Goyer, and director Zack Snyder created their story in because modern audiences won’t accept an antiquated, four-color Zipatone world.
So, on to the nitpickers. Half of the movie critics are savaging the film, an even divide both for and against. Those overwhelmingly against seem convinced that any new films must strive for a Reeve-esque innocence and grounded in light-hearted fun. Unfortunately, this reboot follows The Matrix films, The X-men franchise, two different Spider-Man trilogies, and the Marvel Phase I initiative that put The Avengers into the box office record books while revealing writer/director Joss Whedon’s existence to the rest of the world – insert random Darth Maul joke here. So, Reeves-worshippers aside, what’s the problem? The story is solid, the performances serve it, and the special effects can keep up with what makes Superman so super. If anything, some of the combat sequences stretch on, but there is very little screen time without something amazing to see.
A word about faith: it’s here. Heck, in a scene set in a church, Clark even confesses his alien nature to a random priest, but is this Superman served up to be a Christ allegory? No more than Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Still, the idea of being an ideal, of being a living example to aspire to in a world lacking in belief, to represent hope when all seems lost, that’s VERY Superman-like. Forget truth, justice, and the American way; this incarnation is for hope, trust, and helping out whenever and however you can.
Also seldom seen in these films is an effective military – no, really! – doing everything they can and holding the line no matter the cost. Amidst all the CGI wizardry, the most powerful scenes are the intimate ones where motivations are revealed. What will you do? How far are you willing to go? Can you live with the consequences of your actions and decisions? The cast, especially Michael Shannon as Zod, put real emotion behind the destructive forces being unleashed. It’s dark, the darkest Superman you’ve ever seen on-screen – just look at the muted colors of his costume – but Cavill manages to keep the Big Blue Boy Scout earnestly in check even when things are as bad as they can get. Everyone loved Christopher Reeve’s Superman, but Superman Returns felt hollow trying to duplicate his portrayal and the innocence of those films while also reinventing them for a modern audience; it was a doomed idea from the start. Like it or not, purists, Man of Steel is the kind of theatrical reboot Superman has needed for a while.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)