Without a doubt, Man of Steel is the finest Superman movie ever made. I know, in writing this, that I sound like the Sony guy who turned out to be a company exec. I promise I have no stock in any studio or production company associated with this fine flick. It’s just that when somebody makes a movie this good, it’s a sin not to give credit where credit is due.
This is not a film without its flaws. With a running time of nearly 2 1/2 hours, Man of Steel feels a bit hefty for a comic-book film. The nonlinear narrative can also be a bit jarring as we go back and forward between the backstory, the present and Superman’s flashbacks. In that sense, it feels like we’re sitting at an editing bay – using Avid or Final Cut Pro – and scrubbing the timeline like a tweaker. But if you can handle postmodern storytelling, this is one hellaciously great flick.
If you want a more traditional take on the Superman story, your best bet is still Superman: The Movie, but that 1979 film – despite some great performances by Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman – feels a bit outdated in the special-effects department. It’s a tribute to that film that 2006’s Superman Returns scavenged so much of it, particularly Marlon Brando’s iconic performance. Big on effects but a little small on story, Superman Returns was the slickest Superman film to date – but nothing holds a candle to Man of Steel.
In this installment, we’re going back to Ground Zero, but in a new way. The story, by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, reframes the Superman story by sending us back to Krypton. While Superman: The Movie did that, Man of Steel does it in spades. One reason for this film’s lengthy running time is its insistence on taking us where we haven’t been, at least in terms of the cinematic franchise.
Anyone familiar with the basic Superman story knows that Superman is an orphan sent to Earth by his father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), right before Krypton bit the big one. Raised by the Clarks of Kansas (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), he grew up in Smallville, as the young Clark Kent, before making his way to Metropolis, to work at the Daily Planet, under the tutelage of its editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and its star reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams). We also know that tension existed between Jor-El and General Zod (Michael Shannon) who attempted a coup right before Krypton’s irreversible demise.
What we don’t know – at least from the movies – is exactly why Krypton went the way of the passenger pigeon, or why General Zod attempted his coup. We don’t know much about the relationship between Jor-El and Zod, or about Jor-El’s decision to send his son to Earth. That is about to change. Man of Steel is set up to reboot the franchise in a big, big way. While it spends more of its running time taking us back to Krypton, its focus is clearly on that moment when Clark Kent becomes Superman. This is a movie that isn’t afraid to go back to the farm, but one that doesn’t stay there long. We learn what we need to know, in terms of Kent’s own identity crisis. What does it mean to know you were adopted, not just by your “parents” but by a world that has always considered you just a little bit different?
Despite its Lord of the Rings running time, this is not a film that sees itself as an epic. It takes us back to Krypton, and also to the Kent family farm, but its focus – like that of the Michael Mann biopic, Ali – is on that moment of decision, when the hero – by his decisions – chooses his own identity. This makes for some herky-jerky storytelling, as we zip back and forth through Kent’s memories, but it also makes for a great action-adventure that’s unhinged – or at least less hinged – to an episodic timeline.
Where the Zod story was separated into two films, this one assumes we’ve been there, done that. Some may think it a “Rush to Zod,” but writer David S. Goyer and director Zack Snyder go for broke in putting Superman to work. They’re less interested in talking about young Clark’s realization that he was different and far more interested in the headaches and soul searching of an older Kent, whom we find drifting with the wind. When we catch up to him, he’s working on an oil rig, about as far from Kansas as he can get, but troubled by the contradictions and questions of his past.
I really like the Nolan/Goyer/Snyder approach, which is to go back to this most American of stories and rediscover its essence, while avoiding rote repetition. It’s fresh in just about every way. Besides the fuller peak at Krypton-as-Atlantis and Superman as a young man with an identity crisis, we get a much fuller treatment of some of this story’s best characters. The plot of Jor-El goes beyond his Stoic stature as the father Clark Kent never knew. Crowe is given space to be both a righteous and loving father as well as a kind of action hero.
The character of Zod is also fleshed out, both in terms of his motives for the coup as well as his hatred of Superman. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane isn’t just pretty, smart and successful. She’s offbeat. In addition to giving us the first Perry White who is black (Laurence Fishburne), this tale gives General Zod some minions who don’t belong in a cartoon.
One of the best performances in this film comes from German actress, Antje Traue, who plays Faora-Ul, Zod’s right hand. Faora-Ul is one of the most kickass of female actioners. She’s battle-hardened and a mixture of attitude and speed. The action sequences in this film are a full adrenalin rush, mixing faux realism with video-game intensity. The mayhem isn’t just breathtaking in its destruction. It’s stunning in its eye-popping speed. This is not a film that adores a good slo-mo. Instead, it’s a film that challenges to viewer to follow the action, which is everywhere and at lightning speed. Some of this film’s effects will, in fact, give you whiplash.
Cinematographer Amir Mokri (who was DP for Taking Lives, Bad Boys II, Lord of War, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Fast & Furious, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon) does some amazing things in mixing Americana with a postmodernist edge. Goyer, who also wrote the video scripts for games like Batman Begins and Call of Duty: Black Ops, really shows a flare for writing action sequences that both pop and stun. One of the reasons this film runs long is the sheer number of action sequences – which are clearly excessive – but it’s hard to identify which one I’d cut. There’s an old Woody Allen joke about two old ladies who complain that the food stinks “and the portions are too small.” This film is just the opposite: The action is spectacular but there’s just so much of it.
If it isn’t clear by now, I really enjoyed the film. Action films, particularly of the comic-book kind, tend to be mind-numbing in their stupidity. You have to lose some brain cells not to realize how dumb the story really is. This film is just the opposite, with so much to enjoy that one viewing is probably not enough. I’m glad I got to see it at a sneak preview, but now I’m feeling a little bummed that I’ve already ridden the ride. This is going to be one of the top films of the year, and it deserves every accolade it can get.
– Bill Kilpatrick