Review: Zack Snyder’s ‘Man Of Steel’ delivers a whole new level of superhero thrills

“Man Of Steel” is the Superman movie I’ve waited my whole life to see.

In the film, the most important struggle that Clark Kent aka Kal-El (Henry Cavill) has to overcome is the tension between his Kryptonian nature and his Earthly nurture. He is the last remnant of a once-vibrant race, and he is also fully human, a nice kid from Kansas. From that small description, this film spins a story so epic, so powerful, that my first viewing of it left me dizzy.

Growing up, I was much more of a Marvel fan overall, and of the DC characters, Batman was the one I really dug. I always thought Superman was okay, but somehow perpetually corny. It occurred to me as I was preparing to write this review that the most fundamental difference between DC’s two flagship heroes comes down to one important detail: Batman is defined by his missing parents, while Superman is defined by his surplus of parents. Batman’s grey moral code and his brutal, cold nature make sense based on his formative experiences, while Superman’s optimism and his belief in the good inside people is completely due to the example given him by Pa and Ma Kent.

The release of “Superman: The Movie” and “Superman II” made the character live and breathe for me in a way that the comics never did, and I loved the way those films made me feel. Revisiting them over the years, I’m amazed at how uneven they are, and how much the seams show from where the Salkinds played their behind-the-scenes games, eventually forcing Richard Donner to walk away from the unfinished second film. I find myself deeply conflicted when I look at the films now. I think the chemistry between Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty is hilarious, and much of their dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. But is that really what I want from a Superman movie?

Snyder’s film, written by David Goyer and starring an impeccably cast ensemble, is remarkable mythmaking, a canny spin on the oft-told details that have defined the character over time. While there is plenty about it that can be be described as new, the bones of it are instantly familiar. Make no mistake; this is Superman. For my own personal sensibilities, this is the most interesting, emotionally-satisfying, richly imagined version of the story. Ever. Comics, TV, animation, live-action… doesn’t matter. Even the novel that l have often mentioned as “the perfect version,” Tom De Haven’s gorgeous “It’s Superman!”, seems to me to be overshadowed now by my excitement about what this movie does, how it does it, and what it means for the character as a whole.

The film opens with the birth of Kal-El. We hear his mother Lara even before the image fades in, crying out in pain, and we hear the heartbeat of the baby being born. It’s a private moment, attended only by Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, Lara’s husband and the proud father of the baby. It has to be private because the birth is a crime, an event that hasn’t happened on Krypton in a thousand years. Babies are engineered, not conceived, and nature births are unheard of. Each person on Krypton is created with a specific purpose in mind, a role in society that they spend their lives fulfilling. Jor-El’s heresy is the idea that a child should be allowed to choose their own destiny.

We spend a surprising amount of time on Krypton at the start of the film, and the way the planet has been realized is breathtaking. Right about the time Jor-El jumps on the back of a giant winged beast and takes to the skies to avoid a group of warships, I realized that Snyder isn’t doing anything by half-measures in this film. There’s more visual imagination on display before the rocket containing the baby is fired into space than we see in other entire films. While the film takes its time on Krypton, it jumps forward immediately to the adult Clark Kent as soon as the rocket touches down on Earth. We see that he’s a drifter, trying to make sense of his powers, never staying in one place for long. There’s a thrilling sequence on an oil rig where Clark acts with no regard for his own safety, and once he’s managed to save as many people as he can, he disappears again. Turns out, this is the life he’s chosen for himself, and while he thinks he’s doing a pretty good job of staying anonymous, there’s someone who has started to put the pieces together.

One of the film’s biggest pieces of revisionism is the way they’ve imagined Lois Lane, and I don’t think I can praise them enough for what they’ve done with her. One of the things that has always driven me slightly crazy about Superman stories is the idea that this investigative reporter who is supposed to be great at her job could work side-by-side with Clark while also spending close-up time with Superman and yet didn’t immediately know they were the same person. In this film, Lois (Amy Adams) is on his trail from the very start of the film. She doesn’t know who she’s looking for, but she’s sure there is someone out there at the center of these mysterious stories. She’s two steps ahead for the entire film, and it makes her so much more appealing as a character.

Clark’s childhood is handled largely in flashback, and it’s used to explain just how difficult his journey has been. Seeing him as a boy struggling to understand his x-ray vision and his super hearing and seeing how it makes him look like a crazy person, you have to feel for this poor kid. He has no idea who he is or why these things are happening to him, and it’s not easy for his father (Kevin Costner) to help him make sense of things. The hardest thing for Pa Kent to explain to him is how to balance his sense of moral obligation with a sense of self-protection. Kent knows that there’s more at stake here than just his son’s happiness. After all, Clark is an alien being, and his very existence both answers certain questions and raises others. I’m guessing that Goyer’s initial pitch hinged on this approach, because it’s something we really haven’t seen in any Superman film so far. Once he reveals himself to the world, nothing can ever be the same afterwards. We know at that point that we are not alone in the universe, but more than that… we know that we are helpless against these things. That’s a terrifying thought.

When Clark finally comes across a long-buried artifact that helps him make sense of his own origin, he begins to evolve into the Superman we know. These are early days for him, though, and before he can get comfortable in the role, he accidentally sets off a beacon that brings General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his troops to Earth, and there is a very specific reason that Zod wants him. While it would be easy to make Zod a simple comic book bad guy, the film doesn’t play it that way. Instead, Zod is what he was made to be, a tireless protector of Krypton, firm in his belief that anything is justified if it will help him bring back some piece of their long-dead home world. This is where the film’s difficult moral terrain becomes most interesting. At no point does “Man Of Steel” make things easy for Clark, and learning who he really is only complicates things further.

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I could spend page after page talking about what I love about this film. First and foremost, I am blown away by the sheer scale of it. Marvel’s biggest film so far, “The Avengers,” looks like a charming episode of the Bill Bixby “Incredible Hulk” by comparison, and while size doesn’t always make something better, if you want to sell the idea that these are godlike beings battling, then the only way to truly sell that idea is to show what they would do to our planet in the process. No one has ever staged superhero action like this. No one. The climax of the film begins about halfway into the movie, and then it just crescendos bigger and bigger, and Snyder more than proves himself to be one of our most ingenious visual stylists. It’s not just the big stuff, either. There are boundless small details that sell all of this as “real,” and I was shaken by just how aggressive and percussive it all is.

I was equally impressed by how moving the film is. Almost from the start, I found myself completely hooked in, and there were several places where it broke me. I’m not surprised that Kevin Costner crushes it in scene after scene, and he features in what may be one of the most painful scenes of the summer. Diane Lane as Ma Kent is equally good, a figure of quiet strength who also lands some of the biggest emotional punches. The movie understands that in order for myth to really work, we have to have a human, emotional stake in what’s going on, and unlike the Donner films, there is a consistency of tone that builds over the course of the film’s running time. There is a sense of urgency that just keeps building and building, and yet even when the film is at its most epic, Snyder keeps bringing the focus back to the personal. The fights, for example, are not just about kinetic motion. Each one has an emotional rhythm, and they mean something. You see Superman and Zod testing each other, and you see Superman slowly starting to realize what he’s capable of, and what that means. Because the fights are all driven by character, it never deteriorates into the random chaos and noise that so many modern action films are guilty of.

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer to Henry Cavill is that I never once thought of Christopher Reeve during the entire running time of the film. One of the things that turned me off completely about “Superman Returns” was the almost slavish devotion to Donner’s films, and while I think Brandon Routh was fine in the role, he was handcuffed because of what Bryan Singer was trying to do. The reason there’s no comparison to be made here is because this imagines a totally different version of the character. The same is true of Amy Adams, who doesn’t seem to be drawing on anyone else’s interpretation of Lois. The chemistry between the two of them is very strong, and it sets up a very promising dynamic that I look forward to seeing play out in future films.

Michael Shannon and Antje Traue also do great work in the film as Zod and Faora-Ul, and I particularly like the way Faora is part of the action and not just relegated to the sidelines. She’s terrifying precisely because of her lack of conventional morality. Anything they have to do to accomplish their goals is allowed, and that distinction gives them the edge. Shannon is the last guy in the world I would have imagined in the role of Zod, but seeing how he approaches the character, I can’t imagine anyone else playing it now. His fanatical devotion to the civilization that banished him before being destroyed doesn’t make sense on a logical level, but when you take into account his genetic programming, Shannon does a great job of playing the damaged soul of this warrior.

The supporting cast is strong across the board. Russell Crowe is very good as Jor-El, and when you see how he’s brought back for the middle of the film, he makes some very interesting choices. Ultimately, the way Kal-El/Clark incorporates the teachings of both of his fathers is what makes him stronger than Zod, and when you see how he wrestles with every choice he makes, and one in particular, it’s apparent that this is not a superhero on cruise control. Everything he does, he’s doing for the first time, and he is still struggling to figure out who he wants to be. The face of the regular humanity impacted by these events is ably represented by Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Laurence Fishburne, Rebecca Buller, and Joseph Cranford, and it’s important that they connect in their relatively brief screen time because it establishes who it is that is ultimately affected by this clash. Yes, there are stakes for Superman and for Zod, but when you see Buller, terrified, about to be destroyed as mere collateral damage, it makes it all feel more real.

Hans Zimmer’s score is an exercise in dynamics, and while there may not be a theme as instantly iconic as the famous John Williams one, it fits this film perfectly. Amir Mokri’s photography is rich and moody, and it serves Alex McDowell’s bold production design quite well. And while I agree that the new Superman suit, designed by James Acheson and Michael Wilkinson, is a departure from what we’re used to, by the time the film was done, I completely bought it. I think that may be the thing that Snyder and his team did best. While there’s nothing inherently more realistic about Batman than Superman, it’s always seemed like there was more you had to accept to buy into the Superman mythology. With this version, Snyder’s done far more than convince me that a man can fly. For the first time, I believe that Superman is the most important hero in the world of this movie, and that we need him, not just as a protector, but as a symbol of what we can be when we are raised by the right people and given a chance to find our way in the world.

Oh… and the last exchange of dialogue in the film? Perfect.

“Man Of Steel” opens Friday. You are not ready.