In the underrated coming-of-age comedy Angus, the main character’s grandfather says, “Superman is indestructible, and you can’t be brave if you’re indestructible.” For a while, I bought into his argument: compared to other superheroes, Superman was boring because he was powerful as his creators wanted him to be. It was only recently did I realize that this kind of logic misses the point of the classic comic character. He’s indestructible, sure, but it is difficult to fathom the expectations humanity has for him. A good Superman movie internalizes how difficult it is to choose goodness over the easy path, and Man of Steel is sincere enough to be the best Superman movie yet. It is also suspenseful, and even awe-inspiring.
Unlike Superman Returns, which abandons context in favor of envisioning a world without Superman, Man of Steel provides a lengthy prologue that weaves seamlessly into the present. Krypton is imploding, and scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe, in fine form) fights to preserve the legacy of his people in his infant son, Kal-El. Director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer take their time to develop the impasse between Jor-El and General Zod (Michael Shannon), the planet’s military leader. Zod is a eugenics-loving fascist who thinks the ends always justify the means, and he’s sent to exile for murder (even when Zod is speaking quietly, Shannon never dials down his fury). Betrayed by his leaders, Zod still fights for Krypton, and his devotion has a tragic quality as his search for Kal-El (Henry Cavill) takes him to Earth.
Goyer’s script jumps around through formative episodes in Clark Kent’s (Kal-El’s) life. In his late twenties, Clark drifts from one odd job to another, looking for answers until use of his super powers force him to restart again. It’s a lonely existence, and the flashbacks from childhood show why Clark feels he must live this way. His powers alienate him from his schoolmates, and every emergency is met with a choice of whether to act. Clark’s father (Kevin Costner) encourages him to hide his powers, even if it means the loss of innocent life. In an important scene, Clark realizes that true anonymity requires heartbreaking sacrifice.
Once Clark stumbles upon a Kryptonian ship and learns the secret of his origin, the script strikes a delicate balance between his two fathers. Goyer imagines Clark as halfway between Earth and Krypton, and the best moments are when he’s pushed in one direction or another. Zod threatens Clark’s mother (Diane Lane) shortly after he arrives on Earth, and Clark reacts with red-blooded American fury: he lunges at Zod, and the force careens them through Smallville and into the Kansas plains.
But for all his human impulses, Superman understands he must stand above the fray of humanity. Cavill ably transitions from outsider to force for good in an achingly sincere performance. He finds relief when he can uphold the wishes of Jor-El and Pa Kent, and this serenity continues because doing the right thing is easy when there is no other alternative. The Richard Donner Superman films were almost comic: Christopher Reeve had a wink in his eye when his Superman said he believed in, “Truth, justice, and the American Way.” Snyder and Goyer seriously grapple with this material, and the payoff is a messianic badass with a uniquely American aw-shucks charm. Still, at his most alien moments, Snyder abstracts the cinematography so the visuals match Superman’s force of will. If we’re meant to identify with him, we never do it for too long.
No Superman movie is complete without feats of his strength, and Snyder’s sensibilities serve the action well. As with Watchmen, Snyder’s choreography has a crisp, inorganic quality to it. It looks as if the fights unfold without fatigue or gravity, which is exactly how fights between Kryptonians should look. Superman, Zod, and his minions fly through the air with deliberate speed, and Snyder does not bother to slow down the action since every blow causes his a lengthy reaction: Newton’s laws create destructive paths when there’s so much force. There are two big set-pieces in Man of Steel: one in Smallville and the other in Metropolis, and Snyder is unafraid to show Zod’s massive collateral damage. He is responsible for the deaths of thousands, and the cities ends up husks of themselves.
Man of Steel also includes smaller-scale moments where the stakes are just as deadly. The editor of The Daily Planet (Laurence Fishburne) refuses to leave his employee when she’s trapped under rubble, and his altruism is a mini-example of the potential Clark sees in humanity. Unexpectedly, the consciousness of Jor-El pops up to help Lois Lane (Amy Adams) through a Kryptonian ship. Adams’ Lane is not plucky, nor a damsel in distress, but an intelligent woman who knows not to ask questions when a friendly face tells you to pick up a laser pistol*. And just like the disagreement with Superman’s father, Zod forces our hero into an impossible situation. The climax’s ending is visceral and intimate; its emotional implications for Superman are nearly too much to think about.
The Superman universe can be bloated by its own mythology. The Donner sequels devolved into self-parody, and Seinfeld would routinely invoke the sillier sub-plots from the comics. Man of Steel is brimming with mythology, too, but it does not exist just so Superman can face off against another improbable villain. Devoid of cynicism, Snyder and Goyer restore Superman’s proper status as an inspirational figure. It’s a risky choice, especially when so much tent-pole entertainment is built around cynicism, yet they pull it off through craftsmanship, suspense, and a booming score from Hans Zimmer (timpani are clearly the most intense percussion instrument). Man of Steel tells its ambitious story with relentless confidence, and imagines a hero from the 1930s for our times. And its final lines, delivered with breezy wit, ably suggest there’s more to come, post credit-scene be damned.
* Amy Adams is 38 while Henry Cavill is only 30, making this a rare case where the age difference between hero and love interest skews the other way.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwYatpwrs8s