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.
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.
Emmet 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.