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'Man of Steel' explores darker, more complex side of Superman


I must admit, I was expecting very little when plans were announced to reboot the Superman franchise again. After all, nobody has been able to strike gold with a Superman movie since Superman II. Superman III was an unintentional comedy, Superman IV looks like you could have shot it in your basement, and Superman Returns didn’t quite hit the mark. I truly wondered why the next Superman film would be any different- no matter who was involved with it.


Furthermore, with the uncertainty facing the future of our country on a daily basis, the question could also be raised as to whether Superman’s message is still accepted by the general public without even a hint of cynicism creeping in. 


The result is Man of Steel: the darkest, heaviest, intense depiction of Superman that you will most likely ever watch.  It was a big gamble, but in order to usher the character into a more modernized contemporary era, something drastic had to be done (even Superman’s trademarked red underwear is now gone.)


The film begins on Krypton, whose unstable core will result in the planet's eventual self-destruction. Nobody is more aware of this than Jor-El (Russell Crowe), Superman/Kal-El’s “British” father who is at odds with the non-British General Zod (Michael Shannon), who thinks Krypton is being led to ruin. Sensing the end is near, Jor-El and his wife Lara send their infant son Kal-El to planet earth, which sends Zod into an uncontrollable rage. Zod is subsequently damned to the “black hole” for murder and treason. However, when Krypton explodes, Zod evades eternal damnation, while young Kal-El makes his way towards earth.Photo: www.dccomics.com


Fast forward 33 years later, where reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) starts to follow a trail of real life Ripley’s Believe it or Not-like incidents that leads her to a foreign object that has been discovered in the arctic after centuries. It is here where she realizes the trail leads to Kal-El, now named Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). When Clark saves Lois when she attempts to enter Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, his cover is blown.


Unbeknownst to Clark, his adopted planet is about to come under attack by Zod, who is aware of Kal-El’s presence on earth and plans to build a new Krypton in place of it. The problem is, Clark is in the process of coming to terms with his responsibility in helping others. He's also trying to find his place in the world while becoming the man his stepfather Jonathan always knew he could be. Meanwhile, the fate of the human race is in the hands of a man they don’t even know or necessarily trust.


Director Zack Snyder puts an interesting yet complex spin on Man of Steel in the sense that the film focuses on Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s isolation from humanity while growing up as a small child and how it shaped him up to this particular point in his life. This was briefly touched upon in Superman: The Movie and in Superman II (although Superman’s desire to be human was spurred by his love for Lois Lane more than anything), but not to the extent of the direction taken in Man of Steel.


The film would have just a bit more character if it didn’t carry such a hopeless tone throughout the majority of the movie. The way the ideals of Superman are presented come off a little backwards at times and seem more pretentious than genuine. This isn’t your “Help me Superman. My cat is stuck in a tree!”  kind of movie, and at times you wish it almost was. I initially balked at the absence of John Williams’ classic theme, but it most likely would have felt out of place in Man of Steel.  In saying that, I probably would have preferred it over Hans Zimmer’s unenthusiastic score.


While there are some minor yet successful attempts of humor delivered on behalf of Cavill, this is indeed not your father’s Superman. It was a gutsy decision by director Snyder to take Superman in the direction they did. Truth, justice, and the American way definitely get lost in the mix here. Superman’s got some major identity issues, and he’s coming to terms with earth being his home. At the same time, humans are trying to accept and trust him when he’s faced with the task of saving them from genocide at the hands of Zod. Yeah, I know. Pretty deep.



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As far as Cavill’s performance goes, he’s not as affable as Brandon Routh or Christopher Reeve. And speaking of the latter, it’s pretty obvious that whoever was in charge of casting wanted to keep their distance from anyone closely resembling the late actor- and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It takes some time for the serious Cavill to emerge into true Superman character, but as the movie draws to a close, you get a glimpse of what is to come in future films. I won’t give away why Superman is in handcuffs, but I will say it’s as ridiculous as you think- and Superman agrees.


Cavill does well with the script he was given, but you never really get a feel for what he is truly capable of doing. Man of Steel is so saturated with special effects that there isn’t all that much acting for him to do. You truly can get lost in the final 45 minutes of the film, which turns into a nonstop tour de force of mayhem and destruction that you might find in a disaster movie. At one point, you almost forget exactly what Zod and Superman are fighting over. Nonetheless, be sure to keep an eye out for a small homage to Superman II at the very tail end of their battle when Zod is using his heat vision (hint: it involves a sleeper hold). Overall, I would say Cavill’s more of a hit than a miss and wouldn’t have an issue seeing him in a sequel.


Shannon, one of Hollywood’s most underrated character actors, effectively brings the role of Zod into the new millenium. I would say he could have used some of original Zod Terence Stamp’s campy humor, but if there’s one word that has no place in Man of Steel, it’s campy. Near the end, his schtick is more of the same, but it’s a result of the movie dragging on more than anything. Either way, it’s nice to see a Superman movie featuring another villain besides Lex Luthor.


Crowe does a solid job taking the place of Marlon Brando as the stoic and cerebral Jor-El, and it should be interesting to see where they take his character in the sequel. Adams doesn’t necessarily possess the quirkiness of Margot Kidder or Teri Hatcher, but nonetheless gives Lois Lane a definite upgrade over Kate Bosworth from Superman Returns. While Laurence Fishburne’s role of Perry White is somewhat uneventful, Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent) and Diane Lane (Martha Kent) deliver some of the strongest performances and represent the most humanistic portrayals of the entire film. We don’t need to rehash Superman’s childhood again, and Snyder does a good job of keeping this cognisant through numerous flashbacks that effectively focus on the struggles of young Clark and how these trials and tribulations have shaped him as an adult.


While Man of Steel  lacks the charm of the initial 1978 Reeve film and its sequel, it keeps you entertained and offers some interesting possibilities for a second film.  Bizarro, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Doomsday, Darkseid, or Brainiac would be welcome additions to the Superman franchise, which will hopefully carry just a little bit of a lighter tone the second time around. This will most likely be the case, as it was recently reported that co-writer and producer Christopher Nolan’s (the Batman trilogy) role will be less prominent moving forward.


Is Man of Steel perfect? Not exactly, but it’s a start.


Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

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Article and thumbnail photo: www.dccomics.com