The movie Man of Steel has been getting a lot of bad press. It receives a 55 on Metacritic, which at the very least is unimpressive. Three of my friends told me they hated it — one said it gave him a headache — and only one told me he liked it. I deliberately skipped the weekend showing, suggested to Amy that she wouldn’t want to go with me and waited until I could catch it at a seven dollar bargain evening showing in non-IMAX non-3D.
My bad. I loved every freakin’ minute of it.
I’ve been steeped in the Superman mythos since before I was old enough to read. I’ve watched George Reeves play him, Christopher Reeve play him, Dean Cain play him, Tom Welling sort of play him, Brandon Routh play him and now Henry Cavill play him. They all deserve kudos for a job well done. I’ve read about him in Superman Comics, Action Comics, Superboy Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane comics, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen comics, Justice League of America comics and watched him team up with Batman in some godawful stories in World’s Finest comics. (Me, I have the world’s finest memory for useless pop trivia.) I’ve seen every Superman movie since the first Christopher Reeve one except Superman 4, which I’m afraid to see. I thought they steadily went downhill. I guess it’s possible that Superman Returns, the last Superman film before this one, was an improvement on Superman 4, but it’s hard to imagine. Bryan Singer, after two rather bland X-Men films, directed Superman Returns like a man who didn’t even understand how movies work. Its rhythms were wrong, its casting was botched (though Routh was pretty decent even if his career died with it), and scene after scene was completely tone deaf. And it had Kate Bosworth as an ultra-bland Lois Lane. Gag me now!
This movie is better than any of the ones listed above.
It’s hard to be better than the first Christopher Reeve one, I’ll admit. It’s dated now, but it holds a special place in my heart for that charming first night in Metropolis sequence (“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”) and for Christopher Reeve’s revelatory performance, which he never outdid. This one, though, actually manages to be better. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the Krypton sequence is boring and too long and that the climactic battle is exciting and too long. I don’t agree on either count. I remember the same complaint about the Krypton sequence in the first Reeve movie, too, and this one is much better. Yes, overly long climactic battles have been a problem in movies for a while now, because they generally exist only because the producers want audiences to feel they got what they paid their ridiculous ticket prices for and that they, the producers, got what they divvied up the movie’s ridiculous budget for. In this case, though, the movie earns its long climactic battle because the battle is the heart of the movie. It’s not just its climax; it’s what the movie is about.
Director Zack Snyder, who say what else you will about him directs what are probably the most visually stunning popular movies currently being made, along with producer/writer Christopher Nolan and co-writer/comic-book-movie-wizard David Goyer, are going for a true epic here and I can’t think of any other story in all of comic book mythology that deserves the epic treatment more than this one does. Certainly it deserves it more than the second and third Nolan Batman films, which were just bloated rehashes of the pitch-perfect Batman Begins. And even those were modest little art films next to truly fruity epics like DeMille’s technicolor version of The Ten Commandments and William Wyler’s 1959 remake of Ben Hur. Now those were movies that really went over the top, so far over the top that at times you couldn’t see them without binoculars.
I don’t have to tell you the Superman backstory, do I? Just in case, it’s about how the planet Krypton is dying, the visionary scientist Jor-El shoots his baby son Kal-El off in a spaceship toward earth just before his whole world literally falls apart, the baby is adopted by a rural Kansas farming couple with the last name Kent who name him Clark, and somehow earth’s yellow sun (Krypton had a red one) gives the child superpowers, allowing him to grow up to be a superhero who takes the secret identity of a newspaper reporter. (Forgive the run-on sentence, but I really wanted to get that out of the way fast.)
Man of Steel is about how Clark Kent/Kal-El — he’s almost never referred to as Superman in the movie — comes to terms with being a man of earth instead of what he was born to be: a man of Krypton. He feels like he doesn’t belong here, that he’s different, that he’s an alien, probably because he is an alien and he is different. And yet he’s also been raised on earth by a really decent pair of earth parents and earth’s ways are the only ways he knows. The movie is about how he learns to accept himself for what he is, a person who belongs here and has a role to play in our planet’s society, which come to think of it is a struggle that a lot of us who were born here have had to go through too.
In a way, the movie is also a remake of the first two Reeve films, with the Krypton and Smallville sequences from the first one and the battle against the three Kryptonian supervillains, led by General Zod, from the second. This time, though, General Zod isn’t merely an evil twit who wants to conquer earth, have the President of the United States kneel before him and — oh, yeah — kill Kal-El, son of Jor-El. This time he’s a man with an important mission and it’s a mission you kind of understand. You can see why it would mean so much to him. You can even sympathize with it. But you can also see why Super–er, Kal-El absolutely has to stop it!
It’s a meaningful conflict. It’s an incredibly meaningful conflict. And, though I don’t want to spoil anything, on both a literal and symbolic level the climactic battle represents Kal-El’s struggle to finally reject Krypton and fully embrace being a child of earth. That’s what the whole film’s about and why the battle deserves every minute that it gets. It didn’t strike me as being the slightest bit excessive.
And, oh yeah, the movie has what I think may be the most perfect final line I’ve ever heard in a film, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you what it is.
The casting is excellent. Amy Adams makes a terrific Lois Lane who gets to do a lot more than Lois usually does, which is swoon over Superman, write newspaper stories about him and try to figure out his secret identity. This Lois is actually involved in the action and gives significant assistance to Kal-El in his battle against Zod and company. She also doesn’t have to figure out his secret identity because she’s in on it from the beginning. This is a brand new Lois who isn’t just there for Superman to save and smooch with (though he manages to do both of those too).
And then there’s Henry Cavill as Clark/Kal-El. It’s hard to top Christopher Reeve’s performance as Superman. He not only convinced you that Superman could charm both Lois Lane and the entire planet, but he convinced you that, yes, just putting on those Clark Kent glasses and changing the way he combed his hair really did turn him into a completely different person. But Henry Cavill matches him blow for blow. Reeve played Superman with a wink at the audience; Cavill never winks once. His Clark/Kal-El/that other guy manages an even more amazing feat, one just as good as leaping tall buildings in a single bound. He makes the character seem grounded in reality and that’s exactly what this movie needs. Every time Snyder, Nolan and Goyer seem in danger of taking the film over the top all they have to do is cut to Cavill and he manages to do what needs to be done.
He brings the movie, yes, right back down to earth.