Man of Steel

Last fall, I revisited the “Superman” tetralogy starring Christopher Reeve and I was pleasantly surprised, at least by the first two films (the other two are awful). Among other things, I was impressed by the full-on sci-fi Krypton intro of the first movie, by the role Kal-El/Clark Kent’s two father figures played in making him who he is and by the way he was positioned as a Christ figure. All those things are present in “Man of Steel”, with various variations, for better or worse.

The Krypton intro, instead of being minimalistic yet stylized, is an epic blast of spaceships, hi-tech weaponry and alien creatures. As Jor-El, Superman’s birth father, Russell Crowe isn’t quite as imposing as Marlon Brando, but his exchanges with his wife about the way their son will be perceived when he lands on Earth are still fascinating:

Lara: “He’ll be an outcast, a freak. They’ll kill him.”
Jor-El: “How? He’ll be a god to them.”

As Pa Kent, Kevin Costner only appears in a few key scenes, but he makes a lasting impression. You can see how he influences his adopted son by telling him he’s “here for a reason” while also warning him not to show off, because people might reject him out of fear.

As for the Christ figure stuff, it’s quite telling that Superman is 33 years old when the main events of the film happen, and he comes close to sacrificing himself to save humanity.

One big difference between “Man of Steel” and “Superman: The Movie” is that after the Krypton intro, it flashes forward to an adult Clark (Henry Cavill, who’s solid, if not as iconic as Christopher Reeve), who’s now living as a drifter, doing various odd jobs here and there. We do get to see some of the events of his youth through flashbacks, though, including a great one in which he discovers some of his powers – his X-ray vision, his super-hearing – and he has something like a panic attack because he’s suddenly overwhelmed by all there is to see and hear around him. Ma Kent (Diane Lane) manages to calm him down with simple but wise advice that quite moved me:

Clark: “The world’s too big.”
Ma Kent: “Then make it small. Focus on my voice.”

The feeling that the world is too big and overwhelming is one I’m familiar with, and it’s true that the best thing to do is to “make it small” by focusing on just one thing, like a loved one…

Skipping back and forth in time while recounting a hero’s origin can work, it certainly did in “Batman Begins”, but I have to say I sometimes found the storytelling to be clunky here. There’s one beat in particular that really feels off, when Clark is suddenly part of a top secret mission in the North Pole, where he’ll find this movie’s version of his Fortress of Solitude. Making this sequence even weirder is the way Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is there too, and Clark ends up using his powers in front of her. Those are two things that keep happening in “Man of Steel”: Lois Lane conveniently showing up everywhere, and Superman doing a poor job of keeping his identity secret.

Meanwhile, there are lots of interesting ideas thrown around: destiny versus free will, Superman as a symbol of hope, the need to “keep testing your limits”… Not all of it is fully developed, but it managed to keep me engaged enough during the first half and change of the movie.

Then comes the big alien invasion led by General Zod (a wonderfully intense Michael Shannon), who intends to recreate the destroyed Krypton civilization on Earth. But first, his plan involves forcing Kal-El out of the shadows… At this point, “Man of Steel” becomes incredibly action-packed. We’ve seen Clark use his powers to save people prior to that, but from that point until the end, Superman is front and center in the middle of an FX extravaganza of massive mayhem, with endless displays of super-speed and super-strength.

Many have complained that the last act of the film is too much of a good thing, as Superman and General Zod and others keep beating the Krypton out of each other while leveling whole city blocks, and I can see where they’re coming from. It’s definitely over the top and excessive… But I personally remained entertained. This pretty much describes my reaction to “Man of Steel” as a whole: it doesn’t all work, but I enjoyed it for the most part.