Best of Both Worlds
Since debuting 75 years ago, no superhero character has been debated, scrutinized and analyzed like Superman. Despite two earlier origin stories (one successful and the other, not so much), the man who is faster than speeding bullet’s story is updated again, finally giving the Krypton’s favorite son the story he so richly deserves in Man of Steel.
After kicking off the modern superhero film movement in 1978 with Superman, several sequels that ranged from moderately successful to downright horrible, effectively killed the franchise. The 2006 reboot, Superman Returns, was deemed a major disappointment by the studios despite making nearly $400 million, worldwide. The so-called “Superman Curse” had affected both George Reeves (from the original TV show) and Christopher Reeves, while further scarring the career of Brandon Routh. With difficulty filling the cape and difficulty creating a story that would effectively humanize the almost-perfect character, Superman’s future appeared in doubt.
Meanwhile over in Gotham (better known as the other side of the Warner Bros. lot), writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonathan Nolan and Andrew Goyer, were in the midst of creating, arguably, the greatest superhero trilogy on film with Superman’s colleague, Batman. In the midst of the series, the studio turned to Nolan to make “the son of the House of El” relevant once again for a hungry audience starved to see Superman soar again.
Their latest effort, directed by Zack Snyder does that and a whole lot more, incorporating elements from Goyer and Christopher Nolan’s work in Batman Begins to brilliantly articulate Superman’s journey, creatively using flashback scenes to give the audience the information they need without wallowing too long in his early, awkward Smallville years.
Opening during the final days of Krypton’s existence, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) warns the council that centuries of space exploration, manning too many outposts in distant galaxies and a reliance on over utilizing their own precious resources have destabilized Krypton’s core and that the planet will soon self-destruct. He has a willing ally in the forceful General Zod (Michael Shannon), who seeks to protect Krypton’s future and begin civilization over again.
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In an effort to ensure the survival of the planet’s culture, Jor-El makes a bold move that puts him in direct competition with Zod, sacrificing himself so that his first-born, Kal-El can chart a new life on a planet, Earth, that in Jor-El’s words, “will regard him as a God.” Kal-El’s rise contrasts with Zod and his army’s fall as the treacherous General and his cronies are sentenced to “300 cycles of reconditioning” (which sounds like double-triple life in prison) and banished to cosmic lock-down. Ever defiant, Zod promises to Kal-El’s mom, Lara (Ayelet Zurer) and the council, that “he will find” the child, foreshadowing later events.
The story leaps ahead to present day where a now rechristened, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is looking for his purpose, while offering his otherworldly assistance in situations where he is needed. Soon, his path crosses with an ambitious reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in a desolate outpost in Alaska, where soon he finds the answers that have eluded him his entire life. Kent stumbles on an ancient chamber buried in the ice and using a key from his past, interacts with Jor-El who reinforces that he is the chosen one who can inspire hope with people on Earth.
While Kal is trying to “test his limits” to discover his true capabilities, the discovery has signaled his whereabouts to Zod, who soon tracks Kal down with a positively eerie threatening message to the planet to turn over the Krypton fugitive or face dire consequences. With the help of top lieutenant, Faora (Antje Traue), Zod and his crew wreck total havoc on Kent’s adopted community, while pushing Superman to his limits as they wage intergalactic war in the midst of a confused American military, who’s unable to tell which “alien” is good or bad. The situation tests Superman’s trust and belief system in humans as well and sets in motion several explosive fight sequences and strengthens his affection for Lane.
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So many of the missteps that plagued Bryan Singer in Superman Returns, the filmmakers seem to have solved with this film. The story allows the audience to emotionally connect with Kal as a misplaced alien trying to figure out his physical challenges and learning to hone his anger without exposing his special ability to people who fear what they simply don’t understand. Those message are reinforced to a young Kent by his earthly parents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane), who understand that their son is destined for greatness once his time comes.
The technology has afforded Snyder the opportunity to create a beautiful looking story that largely benefits from picture-perfect casting of Cavill in the title role. He plays the legendary superhero not as tongue-in-cheek as Reeves but is a vast improvement over Routh. His scenes of self-discovery when he puts the suit on for the first time, feels like as much fun for the audience as they did for the young star testing his limits and soaring for the first time. For the second time this year, Shannon gives a winning performance as Zod, playing him right down the middle, not overly campy but with a hint of sympathy as you understand his insistence to protect the memory of his fallen planet.
Despite Goyer and Jonathan Nolan’s muscular and successful screenplay, at first glance it is hard to think that if Snyder continues with this tone moving forward that it will be difficult to incorporate other DC characters into this universe without questioning their effectiveness. Even Batman, himself, would have been rendered useless against opponents of this magnitude. In action films, we always hear that bigger is better but Man of Steel could have reverted from very good to classic by trimming the length and massive destruction in one of the film’s key fight sequences. While audiences will be entertained, the sheer repetitiveness has the ability to take your attention away from the action instead of pulling you in.
For those reasons alone, Man of Steel is not a home-run but easily the most coherent retelling of the Superman story ever put on film. For many who wondered if anybody could ever get the Superman story right, put your mind at ease. The greatest of all of the superheroes has returned and his presences makes us all SOAR!!!!
Check out the audio review from Keeping It Reel with FilmGordon below: