Last week I was fortunate enough to get tickets to an advanced screening of Man of Steel, The latest Superman movie. The movie comes out this weekend.
Some Background (you may wanna skip this)
Catching you Up: For the Newbies Only
If you have never heard of Superman, I want to say first off, congrats on being born this morning and I’m really honored that you chose to read my review on your first day of life. Allow me to introduce you to Superman, the most classic of all the Superheroes. He was created by two young Jewish boys in the 1930s and has since been in six major motion pictures, three live action television shows, five animated series, countless comic books and graphic novels, and a broadway musical.
The Character of superman has evolved over the years, but for the most part he’s stayed the same. Superman was born on the planet Krypton. Because the planet was about to collapse on itself his parents, Jor El and Lara El, decided to send their new born son to another planet.
This little boy, who they named “Kal El,” landed in a little town called Smallville, Kansas where he was raised by a farmer and his wife, John and Martha Kent. The Kents named the baby boy “Clark.”
The environment of Krypton was much more harsh than Earth, having a more dense atmosphere, an older sun, and heavier gravity. Because of this Clark adapts to earth by developing what appear to be super powers – he seems invulnerable and is able to fly. His strength and speed are superhuman as are his senses.
Depending upon which movie you watch or comic you read, Clark found out about his extra-terretrial parentage at some point when he was living with his parents and eventually leaves on a quest to find out about where he came from. Taking a relic left for him by his Bilogical Father clark journeys to the far north where, near the Arctic, Clark finds his answers in the fortress of solitude – a fortress built from Kryptonian technology created by Jor El. This is when Clark first meets his biological father through an artificial visage. After receiving some training on how to hone his abilities, Jor El sends his son out to save the world and make it a better place than Krypton ever was.
Clark moves to Metropolis and gets a job as a reporter for the “Daily Planet” so he can keep his ear close to the ground. This is where he meets Lois Lane who falls in love with Superman/Clark and eventually (again depending upon which version you’re referring to) discovers his identity.
The Trouble with Superman
The problem with a superhero that can’t be killed is that there are no apparent limits. In the classic superman stories he really only had two real weaknesses. #1) Kryptonite – that’s radiated fragments of his home planet that crashed the earth when he did. They glow green and make him weaker than the average dungeons and dragons game master. OR #2) Lois Lane – the bad guy would imprison Lois somewhere far away from wherever he was planning his scheme such that superman ‘couldn’t possibly’ save both Lois and Metropolis.
The problem with this is that it’s predictable and boring. Not only is the plot boring, but the Character of Superman is boring. He’s not an interesting character because we can’t relate to him. He doesn’t have any true threat of death – which is a key part of the human condition as I understand it. Most versions of superman haven’t strayed too far from this formula, but that didn’t bother anyone for a long time because it was Superman. He’s a classic character. So what if the Christopher Reeve Superman are cheesy and implausible? They’re the first time that we see superman on film with reasonable special effects.
But by 2006 the novelty of the character had gone and Bryan Singer’s sequel Superman Returns was really just more of the same superman we’d seen almost thirty years earlier. At that time I questioned whether it was even possible to make a superman film in a post-modern world that doesn’t believe things like ultimate truth, righteousness, and selflessness. Cynicism gets in the way when you’re talking about a superhero that does good no matter what.
That’s why I probably wasn’t as excited about a new superman film as many of my friends. I was hopeful, but not overly so. I think that I can say that Man of Steel Showed me that not only does Superman have a place in the post modern world, but he has a very important role to play.
Ok, here’s the review.
Zack Snyder was an interesting choice for the director of a Superman Film. In one way the choice was logical, he’s is best known for movies based on Graphic novels, 300 and Watchmen. But anyone who has even seen the previews of those films can tell that they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum from the shining Clark Kent. What makes Snyder work as director is the fact that he didn’t alter the Character of superman, he just altered his setting. He placed him in a world that was darker and grittier, giving us a view of this classic character in a present-day, post-modern setting.
The Plot (here be spoilers)
Man of Steel starts on Krypton where we learn that Jor El (played by Russell Crowe) is trying to reason with Krypton’s High Counsel who won’t accept the fact that Krypton’s core is collapsing. We also learn that for centuries children have been born artificially in something called a genesis chamber. Baby Kal, who is being placed in a nifty mini-space ship, is the first natural born son of Krypton in a long time. Around this time a Kryptonian named General Zod shows up and starts to seize control of the counsel. This doesn’t work out for Zod and he and his lackeys are shot into the phantom Zone. This might be the weakest plot device of the film, as it basically means that the Kryptonians decided to punish criminals by sending them off their planet that was moments away from exploding – ensuring that the only Kryptonians to survive are the most evil ones (aside from baby Kal.) I’m sure the hard core fans will come up with a reason for this, but it seems pretty foolish for a race that’s supposed to be way smarter than humans.
The first hour of the film is spent getting to know Clark, played by Henry Cavill (the soon-to-be sexiest man of the year). We see where Clark is as a young adult today, going from job to job under false names and occasionally saving people. But we’re also treated to flash backs that tell us a little of what it was like for young Clark, growing up in Kansas as a budding superhero. We get an idea of how Clark was raised in a good home by good parents. We’re also getting introduced to Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams.
Lois actually meets Clark while they’re both on a crashed Kryptonian spaceship that has been found near the Arctic. After he saves her he flies off with the ship leaving Lois with a story that no one will believe. So like any good reporter she begins to investigate and eventually traces this mystery man back to Smallville where Clark meets her and explains why he hasn’t come out of hiding. She agrees to keep his secret (probably because he’s so darn dreamy) and returns to the Daily Planet.
An alien craft shows up in Earth’s orbit and sends a earth-wide broadcast. It’s Zod. He explains that earth has been harboring one of his people and if the people of earth turn him over then they will all be spared. Clark takes some time to try to decide what to do and (this is where it gets interesting) stops by a church. We can assume it’s probably a Methodist church because, as devotees may know, Clark Kent was raised Methodist. If you don’t believe me look it up. You can find it most recently mentioned in Action Comics #850, August 2007.
The first time Clark makes a public appearance as Superman he turns himself over to the Military and agrees to surrender to Zod. Before they take him to his doom, however, Lois chats with Superman and we get this interaction that you see in the trailer.
Lois: What’s the ‘S’ stand for?
Clark: It’s not an ‘S’ on my planet it means hope
Lois: Well here it’s an ‘S’
They’re interrupted right as Lois is about to suggest a name that the s could stand for starting with “Super.” We’ll just have to assume that it was going to be “SuperGuy.” For those who are curious, yes this is canonical with the superman story. Though it was ret-conned long after the ‘S’ had been emblazoned on his chest. The “S” is a Kryptonian rune that is the family seal of the house of El, superman’s family.
The rest of the plot involves lots of buildings getting decimated and some fights that were confusing enough to make Micahel Bay say “Touché, Snyder.” While there aren’t any true ‘twists’ there are some things that I’d say were a little unexpected toward the end of the film. You do see a darker superman than we’ve seen on screen before, but it ends on an upbeat note even if most of Metropolis is in ruins.
Henry Cavill was a good choice for Clark Kent. While he’s not American, (neither are many of our other super heroes these days; Batman, Spiderman and Wolverine to name a few) he has a perfect mid-western accent. I took one of my sisters to the screening and she commented briefly on how handsome Cavill is. I don’t think I can ever remember her making any such comment over a celebrity before, so I’m just trying to tell you that this guy is gonna make all the ladies swoon. His performance is solid and not at all cheesy. It’s driven by realistic emotion and he plays it in a way that is actually relatable. I’m not sure that there wasn’t some guy out there who could’ve played it just as good, but I do think he was a good choice especially for this particular rendition of Superman.
Amy Adams is going to make you love her in any role that she’s in. One of my friends expressed concern for her ability to play the role of a spunky, abrasive reporter, but she did it well. She’s just as brash and cunning as any other depiction of Lois, but she does it with a smile and red hair. Lois actually plays a much more active role in this film. She is equal parts damsel in distress and sidekick, much like the character of Gwen Stacy in last year’s Amazing Spiderman.
Russell Crowe as Jor El might be my favorite casting choice in this film. While I’m well aware the Crowe is a jerk, I’ve been a fan of his work since Gladiator and I was happy to finally see him accept a role like this. Keep in mind that Crowe was offered roles like Morpheus in The Matrix and Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings. He turned them down, but he’s finally made a solid stride over to the nerd side of the force by playing a very convincing father-of-superman.
Diane Lane and Kevin Costner were solid as the Kents. Yes, I said it, Kevin Costner was solid. This is the first role I’ve actually liked him in since Field of Dreams. Maybe he should just stick to movies involving supernatural things happening to farmers. My friends will know that the thing that gets me up out of the bed is the hope that I’ll get to see Kevin Costner and punch him in the face and say “THAT WAS FOR ROBIN HOOD!” But yeah… Diane Lane was great.
Michael Shannon played General Zod. He may have been the weakest character, but not by much. I liked him mostly, but something about him seemed a little unbelievable as a warlord from another planet. Maybe it’s the fact that he looks like the genetic composite of Rainn Wilson and Jaoquin Phoenix. Or maybe it’s the fact that I just have a little trouble relating to an alien who wants to destroy earth anyway.
There are many other casting easter eggs for über nerds. Lots of actors from other shows and movies coming in to play minor characters. My favorite might have been Alessandro Juliani, who was Dr. Hamilton in my favorite interpretation of Superman, The CW’s Smallville. Juliani plays a very minor role, but enough for fans of the TV show to make the connection.
Superman’s role in the movie is strengthened greatly by Snyder’s choice to fully embrace the Christ Imagery in the film. I was talking to a friend who was surprised to find out that Superman was depicted as a Christ-figure. I let him know that this is nothing new. The first superman film has plenty of the same in it, but they lean heavily into in this version of the film. I think the only way that superman works is if you accept the fact that he’s ultimately good and is willing to sacrifice himself to save the world. This is the story of Christ in a nutshell.
But it’s not just in the story it’s in the details as well. Think about it. Clark’s Kryptonian name is Kal El. “El” is an ancient hebrew word for God. His father sent him from beyond our world to lead the people of earth. At one point in this film Jor El goes as far as to call him a “bridge between two worlds.” He’s the only son sent to lead the Earth. Did you catch that or do I need to pull out a Gospel tract? The scene in the church has the most obvious image. And I almost hate to spoil it for you by pointing it out, but I want to make sure you see it. Just check out the choice of stained glass behind clark when he’s in the church – specifically the scene being depicted. It’s definitely symbolism.
There could be discussions going on forever about how Superman is like Jesus, as well as discussions about places where the similarities break down, but it is the choice to make this an overt part of who superman is that brings strength to the film. In a world that is falling apart, a world that is dark and gritty and all too real, we want a hero, but we question if one this good could ever exist. People question if Superman is trustworthy, if he is really good, if he is on our side. This makes it a fun movie for Christians. We get to say to people, “You do realize who superman really is, don’t you?” and explain all the parallels. I’ll be curious how this is received by the general populace.
There are several departures from classic superman lore that I believe were good choices. The main two that I noticed were: # 1) Lois knows Clark is superman from the beginning. There’s none of this business where Clark is sitting two desks away, wearing glasses and Lois – the greatest investigative journalist on the planet – can’t recognize him. That works fine in the comic and the cartoon, but not in live action. And #2) no Kryptonite. While I’m sure it’ll show up eventually in the sequels, they manage to come up with a plot where Superman has weaknesses beyond the green, glowing meteor rock that feels like a prop out of the original Star Trek series. They also show you that it is entirely possible for Kryptonians to be killed, even on Earth.
Did I love every minute of it? Not at all. I found the amount of rampant destruction to be tedious. My initial review of the movie still stands. After the screening I posted on Facebook that one’s enjoyment of the film is directly corollary to your tolerance for gratuitous amounts of massive destruction. The fights are also filmed in such a way that it can be difficult to keep track of what exactly is happening. If you saw Transformers 2, you’ll know what I’m talking about. (If you haven’t seen Transformers 2, I’m not encouraging you to go see it unless you like lots of twitchy, confusing robots fighting for no discernible reason.) This is just part of the annoying trend in filmmaking to pretend that Stedicams don’t exist. I haven’t met anyone that has ever said “I loved that movie’s hand-held camera work.” I understand that it’s an artistic choice, but that doesn’t make any more pleasant to watch.
The way that Snyder moves along a plot is sometimes frustrating. I would’ve like to have seen him spend more time on plot development and less time on buildings falling over. This is only noticeable a few times in the film, but I found myself feeling like I had just skipped a scene a few times. This detracts from the otherwise high quality of the production and performances that is generally more on par with the Dark Knight Films (which of course were directed by Man of Steel‘s Producer, Christopher Nolan.)
Is this a family film? Not by any means. While it’s not as dark as Nolan’s Batman films, this is definitely not a bouncy, sun-shiney, comic-book movie. It’s pretty violent. Several Characters die. Half a city is leveled. A planet explodes. In addition, there’s a fair amount of foul language. Scenes of young Clark getting bullied are accurate to the experience of getting bullied on the bus – and involves some vulgarities. There’s no sexual content to speak of, though we do get to see Cavill shirtless a couple of times. (That boom you just heard was all the teen girls rushing out to see this movie.) I’d say the PG-13 rating is pretty accurate; kids under 13 might find this one a bit too intense.
Ultimately, I do recommend it. I think it’s an entertaining movie that brings the Superman mythos into the 21st century. It also has some great themes and symbolism that can make for some good post-movie discussion. So check it out this weekend.