Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Man of Steel, soaring to new heights for a franchise whose future had been in doubt after 2006’s disastrous Superman Returns. Director Zack Snyder’s expansive vision is grounded in the science fiction roots of Kal-El’s origins on Krypton as it allows Clark Kent a grittier, somewhat darker growth into the world’s most well-known superhero.
Henry Cavill seems to have been born to don the iconic red cape, and he imbues Superman’s invincibility with a vulnerable tenderness that humanizes the film and gives it an emotional weight often missing from typical summer blockbuster fare.
The Superman story is of course widely known. As Krypton dies, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his beloved infant son Kal to the far-off planet Earth, where he is raised in Smallville, Kansas by Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his wife Martha (Diane Lane). Meanwhile, after a failed coup against Krypton’s government, General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his followers are banished into a black hole for eternity.
This decision, though, proves to be disastrous, once Zod frees himself and vows to travel to the ends of the universe to find the son of Jor-El, whom he believes to be the key to rebuilding the Kryptonian race.
In screenwriter David S. Goyer’s taut script, an adult Clark Kent first appears on a frigate crew in the mid-Atlantic, helping to save a crew from an exploding oil rig. As the legend of the mysterious do-gooder with superhuman abilities spreads through seaside towns across the northeast, his childhood in Smallville is deftly woven through a series of flashbacks that serve to flesh out his unwavering sense of morality and his reluctance to go public with his true identity.
Yet his exploits reach the curious ears of Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) after both are drawn to Alaska to investigate reports of a UFO found buried in a glacier since the Ice Age. Once Clark is able to activate the ship, its signal reaches Zod, who immediately journeys to Earth and promises to destroy humanity unless it turns over this mysterious alien.
This makes for a compelling space opera unseen in any of the film or television adaptations of the Superman story, and Snyder uses his massive budget to create battles on the dying Krypton reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise and earthbound battles with Zod’s forces that are straight out of The Matrix. None of it, however, feels stolen. Rather, Man of Steel forges its own heroic identity on this pastiche of blockbuster sci-fi homages.
Amid all of the big budget explosions, though, the film’s heart is its superbly drawn characters, none more so than Superman himself. In Cavill’s hands, he is a conflicted man, unsure of himself and his power and how to use it properly. Crowe and Costner are both excellent in imparting parental wisdom and shaping the hero’s morality, while Adams is a compelling love interest and gives Lois Lane (who has all too often been relegated to mere “damsel in distress”) a witty edge that allows her to go toe-to-toe with Superman himself.
And this Superman, unlike Brandon Routh’s failed version seven years ago, embraces his all-American image, at one point exclaiming, “I’m from Kansas. That’s about as American as it gets.” The overt patriotism never feels jingoistic, but is instead a refreshing embrace of allegiance to American culture that has been largely missing from superhero movies. Man of Steel’s underlying message of loyalty, morality, and self-determination makes for an invigoratingly upbeat lesson in what being a hero—even one without superhuman strength or x-ray vision—is all about.
The film, however, is not without its kryptonite. Most notably, Superman’s climactic battles with Zod’s forces are overdone and overlong, as if Snyder looked to simply destroy as many buildings as possible without regard for narrative or editorial focus. Moreover, the extended introduction to Krypton and its destruction—which encompasses almost the whole of the film’s first act—makes one wonder when exactly the Man of Steel will make an appearance in Man of Steel. Though technically brilliant, the special effects are almost a detriment to what is otherwise a superbly told story; a sort of crutch that Snyder leans on to “punch up” a tale that he doesn’t seem to realize is already very well told.
This over-reliance on enormous action sequences is naturally understandable for a film destined to be one of the year’s top grossers, but it keeps Man of Steel from soaring to the heights of The Dark Knight or last year’s The Avengers. But make no mistake, Superman has returned to form, and this iteration of truth, justice, and the American way is well worth the wait.
**** (out of 5)