‘I’ ON CULTURE
The good news is that Man of Steel is the best Superman movie I have ever seen. The bad news is that almost all the movies are terribly flawed. If not for Richard Lester’s Superman II, just about all of them have been pretty bad. But this current film provides a nice way to spend quality time, time that seems to fly by. A nod has to go to writer/producer Chris Nolan and writer David S. Goyer. While the movie does not match the brilliance of their Batman saga, The Dark Knight, it brings a literary and moral presence that makes this movie special.
The real problem for Superman movies is that, well, the lead is super. He can’t really be hurt, he is clearly stronger than anyone else and he has all sorts of special skills. His original creators had to invent a series of villains like Lex Luthor as competition, and Superman won as regularly as Roadrunner does over Wile E. Coyote. Nolan and Goyer focused on the hero’s duality as a son of the doomed planet Krypton and a man of Earth.
The mythology is well-known. The infant Kal-El is shipped from the planet by his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and mother Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer, in a small but beautifully acted role) as it is collapsing. General Zod (Michael Shannon), a genetically created military man, wants the Codex — the genetic program that has created the whole population — so that the race will go on by traveling to the stars. However, Jor-el stole it and sent it off to Earth in the capsule with his son, the first naturally born child on the planet in centuries because Jor-El and Lara believe that chance should play a role in one’s destiny.
As Clark Kent, Superman (Henry Cavill) has to learn to control his skills. While his biological father said that he would seem to be a god and would do brilliantly, his foster parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) want him to blend in, emphasizing how difficult it would be to fit in. Grown up, a wanderer, he finally connects with a spaceship buried in Alaska and learns who he is, meeting Lois Lane (Amy Adams) along the way.
The destruction of Krypton allows Zod and his followers to escape a cosmic prison, and they eventually get to Earth and demand Kal-El. The writers cleverly allow the hero to attempt being peaceful, although very quickly things turn bad. Director Zack Snyder, who does a really great job, sets up for a wild battle in a set piece (or three) that provides a climax to the film.
The cast is excellent. Cavill is good, actually providing a lot of character to his main character. Superman is not a stoic hero; he has a lot of mixed feelings. Shannon is very good as Zod; he clearly believes himself an idealist even while planning to destroy all the humans on Earth. Costner and Lane are really good as the two Kents. I particularly liked Amy Adams, who made Lois Lane more than the usual two-dimensional career woman with a crush on Superman and turns her into a very likable and capable partner. Christopher Meloni as a skeptical Air Force colonel who learns to stop fearing Superman is also a standout. Antje Traue as Faora, Zod’s key lieutenant, who constantly battles the colonel, was also very good. Her quote to the colonel, that a good death is its own reward, comes back to haunt her in a scene that got applause from the audience.
Highest acting honors go to Russell Crowe, first as action hero on Krypton and later as a hologram providing help for both his son and Lois. He might get a mention when Oscar nominations go out. Somehow he manages to turn a character that is usually a cardboard cutout into a fascinating three-dimensional figure.
The action and tension build through the film. It starts off more as a character study than an action movie, and then connects the two. Superman is not shown solely as a superhero but as a very conflicted man, one who wants to always do the right thing even when he knows how difficult it will be. Scenes showing how he learned restraint as a child are strong but help to explain why he is able to handle his superpowers so well.
I enjoyed the movie and thought it was one of the best so far this summer. See it for yourself.