Brows furrowed when Christopher Nolan came on board as a producer and story guy for this long-gestating relaunch of the Superman saga. Sure, Nolan’s dour, revisionist take on Batman put the “dark” in The Dark Knight and turned into a license to print money for Warner Brothers and DC Comics, but nothing suggested that his physically grounded, morally ambiguous “realism” would be remotely appropriate for the last son of Krypton. This is Superman, after all, lantern-jawed embodiment of truth, justice and the American way. These summer tentpole projects keep pushing further into darkness, with even Mister Spock fist-fighting domestic terrorists across the multiplex hall. Do we really need to see a Clark Kent who’s as fucked up as Bruce Wayne?
So, it comes as a great relief to report that Man of Steel is a genuine Superman movie. The desaturated palate and fidgety handheld camera are obvious concessions to the modern blockbuster era, but such tweaks are merely cosmetic (like ditching the red undies in Kal-El’s costume.) Directed by Zack Snyder, Man of Steel is first and foremost wonderfully sincere, defined by the decency of its main character. This is quite unexpected coming from Snyder, whose previous pictures toggled between the perverse (Dawn of the Dead), the fascist (300) and the rapey (Sucker Punch). It’s an honorable effort.
We begin on Krypton, where shoddy environmental protection and short-sighted energy policies have doomed the once-thriving planet to destruction. (Because that doesn’t sound familiar at all.) Russell Crowe’s Jor-El dukes it out with Michael Shannon’s glowering General Zod about how best to preserve their race, and after a lengthy, eye-popping prologue, young Kal-El is rocketed off to Kansas.
If I may take pause for a moment to congratulate myself, it was in these very pages that I referred to Russell Crowe entering his “fat Brando phase” as far back as 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma remake, and now, here he is stepping into one of Marlon’s most iconically marble-mouthed paycheck roles. There’s no overstating how delightful Crowe is in Man of Steel, nimbly handling huge chunks of laborious exposition with a gravitas that’s somehow light on its feet. I was thrilled the movie kept contriving clever ways to bring him back onscreen. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Man of Steel takes on a sometimes clumsy flashback structure, kicking into gear with adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) anonymously drifting from town to town, working dead-end jobs until, inevitably, circumstances cause him to reveal his superpowers, at which point he hits the bricks again. Unfortunately for Clark, he’s got pesky lady reporter Lois Lane on his trail in connection with what appears to be a spacecraft discovered deep within the Arctic.
Working from a screenplay by David S. Goyer, Snyder hits all the expected broad strokes in The Man of Tomorrow’s mythology. There’s the homespun wisdom from his adoptive Pa Kent (a terrific Kevin Costner) and the orphan’s yearning to understand his roots. As characteristic of the nuts-and-bolts-minded Nolan, we learn more than usual about the alien child’s struggle to adapt to Earth’s atmosphere and the discipline required to restrain his unfathomable power.
Clark believes the world isn’t ready to accept that we are not alone in the universe, hence the hobo routine. But when Zod and his Kryptonian cronies arrive looking for a fresh place to start anew, everybody better get ready in a hurry. What I liked here is that it’s not Clark who is being tested here. He’s always his noble, forthright self. The suspense lies in whether or not we’re willing to accept such a stranger among us.
Oh, and of course, there’s also action. Superman’s and Zod’s high-flying rock ‘em-sock ‘em brawls topple so many Metropolis skyscrapers, it’s sometimes difficult not to consider the millions upon millions of innocent bystanders who are presumably being killed. The mass destruction becomes numbing, and yet still, it’s tough to complain about any movie that gives you Michael Shannon throwing a train at somebody.
Truth be told, the quieter moments are what linger afterwards. Cavill wears a tricky role comfortably, and Adams has this saucy way of looking at him like she can’t wait to get under that cape. Diane Lane is all maternal kindness in the Tree of Life-inspired Kansas flashbacks, Laurence Fishburne is an off-beat but inspired choice for Daily Planet editor Perry White, and Crowe and Costner are just the best two dads a superhero could have.
Man of Steel is not without problems. The plot’s sci-fi gobbledygook gets awfully unwieldy, and I wish the colors had popped instead of settling for such drearily realism. But this is a movie with a big heart, just like its hero.