Jun 14 2013 10:00am

The “S” Stands For Hope: Man of Steel

Man of Steel, Henry Cavill

The problem with Superman has always been that the ability to lovingly accept him demands a lack of cynicism—something that we have in abundance, more and more every day. Yet fans of DC’s proclaimed “Boy Scout” are typically capable of casting off that mantel of suspicion when they talk about Clark Kent. And Man of Steel’s job, as a film, was to see if it could get the rest of the world to do the same, to remind us what makes him the first superhero who’s name every child learns.

So I’ll spare you the suspense: It succeeds.

The movie lays the foundation for Clark’s story much in the same way Donner’s film did in ’78, but the development of special effects since then has led to a meticulously rendered Krypton that promptly sucks the viewer in. The world and Kal-El’s people are gorgeously realized here, with more respect given to his alien origins than ever seen on film. One can only help thinking that if George Lucas had designed the Star Wars prequels with the same age-old, worn qualities that audiences might have been a bit more forgiving of their flaws. Russell Crowe’s touching portrayal as Jor-El is a stand-out in the film for sure, with all the poise and sageness expected of a Kyptonian, but a lack of coldness that some interpretations cleave to.

There is a dream-like quality to the narrative, particularly in the first half of the movie. Clark’s current journey is interspersed with glimpses of his past, all of them painful and poignant, giving us an understanding of what shaped the character of the adult we see on screen. Henry Cavill is nothing short of enchanting, in ways that many may not have expected. While he has summoned all the boyish charm and goodness of Christopher Reeve (who he was always going to be compared to), he has suffused the character with a tangible sadness that tweaks an empathetic nerve. His fight with General Zod, while seeming perhaps a bit generic at the start is given surprising dimension by the end, particularly by way of understanding the General’s stakes in this tale. The themes of the film all ring true, and director Zack Snyder does an excellent job at juxtaposition in key moments. Particularly places where we see ordinary humans doing extraordinary things at the same time that Superman accomplishes something on our behalf: We are witnessing the many reasons why he wants to protect us as he is working to do so.

In Amy Adams, Lois Lane has finally been awarded a portrayal that is worthy of all the inspiration she has provided over the years. Adams’ Lane is Pulitzer Prize-winning, absolutely no-nonsense, and imbued with all the courage required of her job description. Her decisions throughout the film frequently drive the plot, and her compassion rivals even that of Superman. Through all of this, the match seems a given rather than an awkward, swoony crush on a handsome stranger. Her connection with Clark grows throughout the film so naturally that it’s hardly a wonder they fall for each other. This is a romance that builds first upon trust, and that is a refreshing stance to take in a summer blockbuster, where relationships are often shoehorned in and barely a secondary concern, at least in terms of logical progression.

Man of Steel, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams

It is odd to say that in this era of superhero cinema saturation, a film about the “most American” superhero seems to have the most global consciousness. We see more of how the entire planet gets caught up in Zod’s attack, and while Supes does hail from Kansas (and writer David S. Goyer has said in an interview that future DC movies will not ignore the fallout created by the world’s first super being claiming America as his home), he never spouts any odd jingoist rhetoric about U.S. values.

There are a few unfortunates in the film: the “shaky cam” technique is used to death, to the point of potentially causing nausea, particularly in scenes that do not seem to warrant it. I advise people who are susceptible to motion sickness to sit further back in the theater to prevent focusing issues. More importantly, because Snyder is known for overdrawn action sequences, the film simply has too many of them. They take up too much time, precious minutes that would have been better spent getting to know Clark Kent better. What’s more frustrating is how similar the fights are—by the end they begin to wear on the viewer’s patience in a big way.

Superman’s last fight with Zod, though. Ugh, it hurts. It hurts beautifully.

In many ways the movie reads more like a piece of epic mythology when compared to other superhero romps, which couldn’t be more apt. This is an origin story that is rooted outside the actions of one—Clark Kent is not really even the central figure molding it. As such, we are left wanting more of him than the film gives us, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It simply means that we need another film. Good thing the sequel is already greenlit.

Despite some flaws in the action, Man of Steel is a powerful opener to the DC pantheon of superheroes, and instantly prompts a desire for more. And in an age where it is so easy to be cynical about the red “S,” the insistence that the film makes over its meaning rings truer than ever.

After all, we cannot afford to be cynical about hope.

Emily Asher-Perrin just needs a sequel with Lex Luthor now, please. (There is totally a LexCorp logo in the film, btw.) She was recently on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast talking about Star Trek Into Darkness, and an essay of hers can be found in the newly released Queers Dig Time Lords. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Carol Witt
1. carolwitt
Thank you for the "shaky cam" warning! I wish more reviews contained them. It means I can't see it in the theatre, which I would have liked to do.
Joseph Newton
2. crzydroid
Before I read the rest, I guess I'll be the first to point out the correction that Donner's film came out in '78, not '79.
Joseph Newton
3. crzydroid
Argh! Shaky cam! I hate shaky cam! I don't know why people are so obsessed with it. There are instances where a non-steady cam can look good, such as in National Lampoon's Christmas where all the cops are running up to the house. It works there. But in other places, where people are just talking, for instance...just no. So many people want to employ this as an artistic technique but don't know how to do it. In the first season of the new Battlestar Galactica, it was like they were shaking the cam on purpose (rather than just holding it without steady cam gear or a tripod). I mean, there was a reason those technologies were invented--it's because people don't want to see the image moving around! Often it's cited as being "documentary style" which is just kind of absurd. I guess I'd rather watch a documentary shot with a tripod or steady cam too. It's this notion that film makers have of "feeling like you're there." First of all, I don't want to feel like I'm there! I'd be scared witless if I was there! I want to feel like I'm watching a movie! Second of all, even if I were there, my head wouldn't be bobbing all over the place. I feel like my brain corrects for the minute movements of my head such that what I'm looking at looks like it's standing still. I can only imagine the vomit fest that would ensue from watching shaky cam in Imax 3D, and I'm glad I'd never see anything in Imax 3D anyway. I wonder if the shaky cam will be enough to ruin the movie for me.

You've also confirmed my other fear for this movie: the action sequences being too long and drawn out. Unfortunately, it seems that the modern audience wants (or at least movie makers think modern audiences want) mindless, endless action over character development. I would much prefer to see a movie exploring Clark's journey, like a lot of the stuff we see in the trailer. I was kind of questioning the General Zod invasion in the first place--it seems to me that Superman should be about saving people, not fighting Krypton's war transplanted to Earth. But a lot of the movies coming out just seem to have the really long, drawn out action sequences, with The Avengers being the prime example. Also, there's the muted colors, blue tint thing. My wife and I were having a conversation the other day that it seems like since computers are now so advanced, movie makers are putting in all these battle scenes and special effects just because they can. It's like, "Wow, we could totally make a movie where an entire city is blown apart brick by brick--let's do it!" or "Wow, we can make the entire movie an action scene and not go overbudget (especially since our budget is inflated)--let's do it!" We were both hoping that Hollywood would eventually outgrow this.

Despite my worries about the too much action and modernmovieitis, I was still pretty interested in seeing this movie. I'm really interested to see the Amy Adams Lois Lane too. I wonder if the shaky cam will just be too much for me though.
4. RobinM
Oh good, its sounds like something I'll want to see for my birthday after all. I'll just sit in the middle because to much shacky cam is bad for my popcorn consumption.
5. Jake Shore
I didn't even notice the shaky cam, for what it's worth.

A little baffled by this remark:

"...and while Supes does hail from Kansas, he never spouts any odd jingoist rhetoric about U.S. values."

Why would he? Has he done so in previous films? Or do you think "truth, justice and the American way" is jingoistic?
6. KF
@3 crzydroid: "I would much prefer to see a movie exploring Clark's journey, like a lot of the stuff we see in the trailer."

That's in there as well. The film is about 50% that stuff and 50% the action stuff.
7. wizard clip
"The 'S' stands for hope." Hmm, you'd think Superman would be a better speller, coming from such an advanced civilization and all. As for shaky cam, it--and 3d--should go the way of Krypton. @3: I think there's little doubt that many directors amp up the special effects action simply because they can. Peter Jackson is the king of this (see: King Kong and The Hobbit).
8. xolotl
I could not disagree more.

Way too many stories were told for one movie and with the exception of Russell Crowe's Jor El I didn't believe any of them.

Lois and Clark had no reason at all to happen. Trust? From were? She shows up and he trust her right off the bat, for no reason. It wasn't earned, it wasn't worked on, it just was.

If you are only trying to give old Superman fans a quick refresher on Clark's story, then I can see what you are doing, but if you are trying to bring in any one who doesn't know the story then it was lacking.

IMHO it tried to be Batman Begins but was closer to Superman Returns. It's too bad too as the actor's all did a great job, but the story and direction failed them.
9. Tehanu
crzydroid @3 -- Oh gosh, the blue tint thing! I was beginning to think I was the only one who ever noticed that, let alone grew to hate hate hate it. I want to see sunshine and real color when people in a movie are outdoors. Haven't any of the Hollywood people even noticed that their outdoors scenes all reek of being inside a hangar with lights?
10. Halcyal
Generally agree with xolotl. Too much random space magic whimsy and too much of things happening because they are plotted to happen and not because there's any particularly good reason internal to the story/context driving them to happen. Russell Crowe's Jor El was a pleasure to watch, though, and the acting is mostly fairly solid. There's a scattering of touching moments, too. I just wish that they had been more grounded in a consistent whole.
Mani A
11. sn0wcrash
SPOILERS throughout

Saw this yesterday. It was....really meh. I liked the Clark Kent bits, I liked that Lois got to display some investigative chops (ie, figuring out who this mystery man was early on), and I reeeeeeallly liked the superhuman combat (with one glaring exception).
I really disliked the overblown Jesus allegory. I got the crucifixion pose when he was being bullied, I got it when he went to "save them all", I even got the garden of Gethsemane bit without you putting a GIANT STAINED GLASS JESUS behind him! At some point, Space Jesus wasn't subtext, it was just text.
I also disliked the amount of time spent on the world engine sequence. It was an utter waste of time. Have Superman drop on it from lunar orbit at top speed. Let him at least save a significantly larger portion of Metropolis then what he actually did. The amount of collateral damage on this movie is....astounding. This Supes save people, but levels city blocks doing so.
And the aforementioned glaring exception - the neck snap. Really? Supes is not my favourite character, but even I can tell that's an arse-pull for grim gritty angst.
Entertaining superhero movie. But not exceptional, and not Superman.
12. Erik Dercf
At first I didn't want to see this movie because of what DC and the movie company behind this file did to the original creator and his family. The law aside what has has happened doesn't feel right and I think the ball is DC's court to make it right.
With that said I decided to watch the film because of the actor playing Superman was a favorite to see in the show The Tudor's. I went with a friend as well. I can say that I too liked the performance of the actors and actresses in the film. But I prefer Terrance Stamps Zod to Mr. Shannon's. Shannon's Zod has a clear modivation but is a blunt instrument. Stamps performance seems more refined. I like how this movie showed us Kyrpton but the movies imagery and scripting reminded me of films like Abram's Star Trek, Promethus, and the third Matrix movie. So it was entertaining but a meh. Now on the new stories of summer like Pacific Rim and Elsyium.

Cheers all,
14. LaurenJ
Shaky-cam action scenes always worry me: I have a difficult time interpreting even the well-filmed ones sometimes, so being jolted around too much really makes the viewing difficult.

But aside from that, this sounds really good.
marian moore
15. mariesdaughter
I really enjoyed this. I was glad to see that they dropped some elements of canon and embraced others. I must say that I didn't care much for Kypton. Why do we keep seeing advanced societies that actively use both blasters and swords?(Flying) horses and airships? It was amusing to see the upgrade in technology. Now Superman's father sends him off with a usb drive. I can not recall how Superman activated Brando in the movies of my youth.

Russell Crowe was great as Jor-el. Henry Cavill was much more yummy with a beard, but I liked his protrayal of Superman. I didn't notice the shaky cam, but maybe I am immune.

I noticed the Lex-Corp oil tanker. Were there other references to the Superman universe?
marian moore
18. mariesdaughter
One question -- where was the President? We see Superman interfacing with corporals, captains and the military. Where's the President?
Bruce Arthurs
19. bruce-arthurs
The sheer amount of urban destruction in this movie must have resulted, conservatively, in tens of thousands of deaths. (Anyone else gettng tired of the falling/collapsing/exploding skyscraper trope in sci-fi action movies?) Yet we see very few of those deaths, and most of those are military personnel.

(The Battle of Smallville and Battle of Metropolis both reminded me of Kid Miracleman's rampage thru London in Alan Moore's MIRACLEMAN comic.)
Brian Carlson
20. images8dream
I really like the film. However, like others have said, the amount of urban destruction was overkill. I actually have no problem with Zod and his minions leveling cities, since that is what villains with no regard for humanity and the power of superman would do. And there really isn't much that superman could do to stop them; after you rupture the foundations of a skyscraper, it doesn't matter how strong you are, the thing will fall. I just wish Snyder hadn't shown all of it. It didn't find it boring, but it was exhausting.

Spoilers follow:

People seem to be claiming about the neck snap being too gritty. EW did a whole article about it (which I think completely missed the point). Given the logic of the movie, Superman had no choice, since Zod was not trapped in the phantom zone with the rest of his minions. Either Superman beats him, or Zod destroys the earth. Superman isn't a killer, but sometimes you have to put a rabid dog down (especially with Zod being genetically engineered to only care about Kryptonians). Now, you could argue that they just shouldn't have written the movie that way and Zod should have been trapped in the zone just like his people. But I think they wanted to show a Superman who has to make real moral choices, not just hold to an idealistic moral code that is dogmatic. Almost all moral philosophers (with the exception of Kant) agree that the moral choice is never easy. The execution of Zod showed us that this Superman is willing to think about what the right thing to do is and how it changes in a given situation, not just hold to a rigid dogmatic moral code. If the essence of superaman is his morality, then forcing him to make a hard moral choice where there is no "good" alternative good storytelling.
Nick Hlavacek
22. Nick31
@20 - Huge thank you to images8dream there for hiding the spoilers. It's very much appreciated. Also thanks to Emily Asher-Perrin for the review. I was thinking of passing on the movie due to the mediocre reviews overall, but will probably give it a shot now based on this.
23. sick of being sick
I wish I had known about the shaky camera. About 45 minutes in, I was starting to feel so nauseous I took a Zofran. I am very susceptible to motion sickness and I hoped my pill would be enough. Nope. After keeping my eyes closed and being punished every time I peeked, I finally left the theater and sat in my car for the final 25 minutes or so, waiting for my friends to finish enjoying the movie. I had been looking forward to seeing this move for a long time and I am so very upset that I had to spend most of my time listening to the movie and concentrating on not vomiting all over my lap. Thanks, WB.
Joseph Newton
24. crzydroid
@23: Zofran is an anti-nausea agent, but I don't know enough about medications to know if it would work against motion sickness. Did your doctor recommend Zofran over Dramamine?

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