Not long ago, when it was announced that Zack Snyder would be directing the Superman reboot, “Man of Steel,” an epidemic of handwringing gripped fanboys across the Internet. The Art Center grad had wowed them with “300” back in 2006, but subsequent efforts like “Watchmen” drew faint praise and “Sucker Punch” was greeted with downright derision.
Snyder displayed a strong visual sense in those titles but proved to be a mediocre director of actors and a poor judge of material.
Well, rest easy superfans — “Man of Steel” is among the finest superhero movies ever made, thanks not only to Snyder but executive producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer, co-writers of the Dark Knight trilogy.
Efforts by Warner Bros. to reboot the franchise in the ’90s included names like Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, and Nicolas Cage, but still it languished until “Superman Returns,” Bryan Singer’s lackluster imagining in 2006.
At the time, studios were eager to establish superhero franchises mining the twin pantheons of Marvel and DC comics. Sony Pictures had great success with the first two Spider-Man movies, Fox was releasing the third in its lucrative X-men series, and Warner Bros. had only Batman, a franchise that had run itself into the ground in 1997 with an inadvertently hilarious George Clooney as the caped crusader.
“Man of Steel” arrives amid Hollywood’s ongoing obsession with superheroes. And while discerning moviegoers may be experiencing hero fatigue, they should know that in his latest iteration, Superman reemerges in spectacular fashion.
Some fans may be disappointed to hear “Man of Steel” is a retelling of the origin story, but Goyer’s screenplay adroitly lays out backstory and introduces compelling existential themes dealing with alienation, giving this adaptation a depth and intelligence beyond previous tellings.
Once again we see Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), arranging for the flight of their newborn babe, Kal-El, as their home planet, Krypton, caves in around them.
The infant travels through space and crash lands in a Kansas farmyard where he is raised by a kindly couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).
Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) notices at an early age he is not like other kids. Fearing what mankind might do to him if his secret got out, his father taught him to hide his powers and to fit in as best he could.
As an adult, Clark Kent lives on the fringes of society so he can disappear easily after performing superhuman feats, saving lives and restoring order. He learns his real name is Kal-El from his biological father, Jor-El, who brings him a message from his past and a warning for his future — exiled General Zod (Michael Shannon) is targeting Earth as the ideal destination for the Kryptonian diaspora.
The Daily Planet is given little screen time during which Laurence Fishburne as Perry White squabbles with investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who is looking into rumors of an alien capable of superhuman feats.
The first half of “Man of Steel” is its strongest as screenwriter Goyer nimbly walks the line between archetype and caricature, smoothly intercutting between Kal-El’s present life and the childhood events that shaped him as a lone figure on society’s fringe. The movie’s second half face-off between Kal-El and General Zod takes on the more conventional trappings of the genre with a climactic confrontation that goes on a bit too long.
Snyder employs his trademark visual panache in scenes like the destruction of Krypton and the showdown in Metropolis, with Zod and his minions bodily outflying fighter jets and plowing unharmed through skyscrapers. The sense of speed and power is palpable as Kal-El generates a sonic boom when he takes off, soaring with the speed of a guided missile.
Cavill, the English actor best known for his work on Showtime’s “The Tudors,” strikes just the right tone between righteous avenger and lonely outsider as Earth’s only resident star man. When he learns his true nature from Jor-El, his crisis takes on existential dimensions as he grapples with his identity and where he fits in the world. Cavill’s quiet and reserved performance in the movie’s first half deftly counterbalances his explosive physical feats later, as he dons the cape and fights for mankind against his own breed. There is no chest thumping nor patriotic proclamations, no superhero bravado, and best of all no winking at the audience. Cavill traverses Kal-El’s arc through an intense and internal path, shaping him through movement and expression, rather than dialogue. It is a subtle but powerful portrayal that definitively redefines the iconic character.
The all-star supporting cast is equally in tune, helped enormously by Goyer’s skillful handling of the material. When he and Nolan set out to adapt Batman, they named him after Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” series. That choice illustrated a desire to move away from the campy days of Adam West. They astutely grasped how the material was grounded in pulp fiction of the ’40s and ’50s, as well as film noir from the period.
Similarly with “Man of Steel,” the pair has grounded their story in science fiction. The movie isn’t called superman for a reason. Kal-El isn’t a man at all, he is an alien from another planet who lives secretly among us. He is the ultimate outsider, a man born of the heavens, a demigod capable of great deeds or a demon of great destruction. Make no mistake, the superman reboot is not just a money grab by the people at Warner Bros. — it is mythic storytelling on an epic scale.
For many movie lovers, it’s a difficult time to be a fan of studio filmmaking, and for good reason. The only stories they seem to want to tell are digitally animated confections for kids or men-in-capes movies for bigger kids. But discerning viewers willing to put aside their prejudices will find “Man of Steel” is as thought provoking as it is visually stunning.
“Man of Steel” opens nationwide June 14.
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