Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, if it had to choose its title from among Superman’s many nicknames, should probably have been called The Last Son of Krypton. Of all the elements of Superman’s mythology, this film has a tight thematic focus on Krypton’s legacy, good and bad, how it failed and how it might in the end be redeemed… and of two different paths to that restoration.
CAUTION: MAJOR SPOILER BELOW
It’s a good film, probably Synder’s best. You can give credit to producer and story co-architect Christopher Nolan if you like, although I don’t understand or agree with the hate-on that many geeks feel toward the director. His 300 may have been a pretty but shallow and insipid spectacle, but that’s what Frank Miller’s puerile original comic was as well. Watchmen was an imperfect adaptation of enormously difficult source material that succeeded on many levels and was easily far, far better than anyone had a right to expect from a Hollywood translation of Moore and Gibbons’ baroque classic. Granted, Snyder also game us Sucker Punch, which was creepily misogynistic in exactly the way it didn’t want to be and indeed couldn’t be in order to work the way it was supposed to, but as far as I’m concerned that’s one unquestioned but ambitious misfire and two good to excellent adaptations of prior works executed with impressive visual flair.
Visually, Man of Steel is extremely striking; as special effects extravaganzas go, it’s the most impressive of the last couple of years, explicitly including The Avengers. Its interpretation of the doomed planet Krypton is very different from the sterile, serene crystalline world of 1978’s Christopher Reeve-starring Superman. When we are there in the film’s early moments we feel the weight of Krypton’s history, its wondrous but alien technology and marvelous accomplishments, made real by the outstanding design work. It’s a dying world that still feels alive. Later, as Jor-El’s shade tell us how it went wrong, if it feels a bit trite we still feel the loss and take the cautionary warning to heart, although you’ll see a lot of the projection of Jor-El and of actual Kryptonian survivors in the film; it’s not until the end that the end of Krypton feels truly final… as indeed, it is not.
Man of Steel loads the action into the back half of the film, which is almost non-stop mayhem. The Avengers did more or less this same thing. Both films get away with it, but it’s not a natural pacing choice in either case. Speaking of which, Man of Steel doesn’t just raise the bar on superpowered mayhem; it hits other films in the face with the bar so hard their heads explode, then bends the bar into a pretzel and flings it into orbit. The power level is insane and unlike anything seen on film before.
Nolan and Co. set set out to imagine the Superman mythos as though it were happening in something like the real world, just as was done with Batman. In the Dark Knight trilogy we get a brooding, tortured vigilante and insane, destructive villains; a dark film, but dark wasn’t the goal. Here, with Synder’s help, Nolan tries the same thing, and the result plays a lot more like a science fiction film about a destructive first contact than it does traditional superhero fare. There is “dark” in Man of Steel as well, at least if you count implied offscreen deaths (which feel like they number in the many, many thousands,) but again it’s a result of the approach taken rather than the goal the filmmakers had in mind.
Where The Dark Knight‘s iconic Joker, was a nihilist, Man of Steel‘s General Zod is rational but rigid, dutybound but utterly amoral. Bred and trained to defend Krypton, he rebels when his world’s leaders fail to save it, and is banished to the Phantom Zone in its dying days. On Earth, he seeks to restore Krypton but will do so only on his own terms; there can be no compromise, no new start with his handful of survivors, because that would be a complete abdication of the duty he’s genetically programmed to uphold. The Krypton that he remembers (or thinks he does) must be restored in toto. Terence Stamp’s Zod remains iconic, but Shannon’s is the more interesting and nuanced character.
Man of Steel takes Snyder somewhat outside of his comfort zone, narratively and visually. Gone is Snyder’s characteristic over-reliance on slow motion, bullet time and abstract digital backgrounds. Instead, Synder uses mostly hand-held cameras which, if they are also a camera trick, are here at least used competently, with the camerawork never getting so shaky as to give the audience vertigo. Considerable attention is paid to laying down foundations for the central character of Kal-El; the other characters are given weight by the charisma of well-cast actors with solid, tight dialogue. This works well with, say, Lawrence Fishburne’s Perry White — Fishburne has the kind of gravitas that can embody this kind of character nearly effortlessly and make his own face almost transparent. It also works with Christpher Meloni’s Colonel Hardy, who has a small role with a couple of standout moments. Kevin Costner sells Johnathan Kent completely in one brilliant scene, in which he doesn’t even speak in the key moments. In the case of Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, though, relying on good dialogue and great casting falls flat, even though Adams is a natural choice for the role and the character has a lot to do in the film; there is some part of the presence of Lois Lane that either Adams’ portrayal or the editors left out.
There’s a moment — and here comes your big spolier — late in the film that many fans have vociferously objected to, where Superman kills General Zod. I can understand the anguish over this point — Superman’s code against killing is the textbook example of such in comics — but it’s never been quite as ironclad as a lot of people seem to remember. Indeed, Superman has killed in virtually every incarnation and in every continuity, including, offhand, Superman’s icy execution of General Zod and his two comrades under the John Byrne regime, Clark’s killing of Titan in Smallville Season 6, and the Chris Reeve Superman’s probably fatal dispatch of Zod and company in Superman II into a bottomless pit. It’s usually presented as a rare event, a tortuous decision and cause for anguish on Superman’s part. And it’s usually connected to Zod or other Phantom Zone villains that represent as great a threat as Superman is himself a hope. Man of Steel plays the event in exactly this way, and amply shows us just how much death and destruction even a single villainous Kryptonian can lay down, a level of power that can be controlled only willingly, as Superman himself points out to the American military that has “arrested” him. In the scene, Zod directly threatens nearby innocents, and Superman cannot stop him, except by killing him. It’s set up and developed in exactly the right way, in tune with Zod’s own character as portrayed up to that point, and as he does it Clark — and it’s Clark Kent in that moment rather than Superman — is horrified by what he’s just done. It’s a risky story move that one can debate the merits of, but it’s not an unforgivable scene. And it’s not — remotely — without precedent.
If I missed any part of the Reeve series of films in watching Man of Steel, it was John Williams’ brilliant score. Here Nolan stalwart Hans Zimmer brings a somber, driving, drum-driven soundtrack that seems off-putting or inappropriate until you hear it along with the film’s visuals. It’s nothing like Williams’ brassy marches, just as Snyder and Nolan’s film departs completely from a Donner interpretation so iconic that Bryan Singer felt obliged to slavishly ape it in 2006’s nostalgia-tweaking but otherwise limp Superman Returns. I think it’s Zimmer’s best work since Gladiator.
Man of Steel is by no means a flawless film. The denouement feels slapped-on. Some characters, most notably Lois Lane, simply fail to gel for reasons not entirely evident. The reimagining makes some changes that those welded to a particular prior interpretation — particularly that of the Donner films — might take exception to. But this is a new interpretation of Superman for film just as every new generation of comics writers reimagine him on the printed page. It grounds the characters in humanity without losing sight of the mythic stature or godlike prowess of Superman. It’s a credible reinterpretation in a competently executed film that’s largely well-cast, well-written and visually very compelling. I liked it, and want to see it again.As attached as I am to the 1978 Donner picture — it’s still one of my all time favorite movies — I didn’t object very strongly to anything I saw. But I understand that somewhere down the line the character and his mythology will be reinterpreted again, and more changes will be made, and just like every other time, some of them will stick and some won’t.