By Will Ashton
The question of ‘Who is Superman?’ was one that I expected to be answered during Man of Steel. Beyond the fact that the question was blatantly placed on my Man of Steel Diet Coke cup in the theater, it has been at the center of all the advertisements for the film thus far.
But the question that I wasn’t expecting to be answered during the film was ‘What is Superman?’ Now, obviously, we all know that he is a Krypton sent to Earth—that’s easy enough. But, throughout the course of the film, it becomes evident that this movie is more than simply a summer escape at the movies. It is, rather, a statement on the ideology of Superman in a post-9/11 world. In a time where it is said that we are our own true heroes, what does it mean to have a person be more than just a man?
A religious overtone of one of our greatest superheroes was not what I was expecting when I entered the theater last night. Yet, looking back, it should have been obvious that that would be the place to go. And this, I feel, is what separates Man of Steel from being simply a good superhero origin story into becoming, I believe, one of the best superhero movies I have seen in the past couple years. Yes, even better than The Avengers and maybe even The Dark Knight Rises. For not only is the film able to go this extra mile, but it does it in strides. It becomes not just one of the most entertaining films that I have seen at the theater this year, but also one of the most important.
By now, you should all know the story of Superman. Born on the planet Krypton, as a infant child, Kal-El is sent away from his family and everyone on this home planet to the planet Earth. Raised as Clark Kent in Smallville by Jonathan and Martha, he grows up uncertain of his capabilities and how they should and shouldn’t be used. But, over time, he learns how to use his powers for the good of mankind and raises himself up to be the superhero for our people. By now, this is almost common knowledge. Even your average Joe knows about the basics of Superman’s mythology.
For Superman is about as American as you can get, like apple pie and baseball. He embodies everything that America both wishes it could be and strives to be. So, for this, Man of Steel wisely chooses not to completely re-do the whole origin story of Superman over again—unlike some superhero movies these days—but rather chooses to focus on what needs to be told for the sake of Superman’s arc.
As a result, we are given the more grounded and (mildly) realistic take of the superhero that we have been expecting since Christopher Nolan attached his name to the film. But instead of focusing on the story elements important to Superman’s growth this time, director Zack Synder, of all people, focuses on the emotions of the scene, and it works beautifully. Mixed in with Hans Zimmer’s incredible score, Snyder is able to give to Superman a sense of depth that has practically been unseen in the films thus far. Not to criticize some of the others before this, as I have always been a fan of Superman I and II and will defend Superman Returns until the day that I die, but none have truly captured the humanity in Superman until now. II and Returns have gotten close at times, but this is the one that truly does it.
Man of Steel is perhaps the only superhero movie to ever get truly good once the film goes to Earth. By exploring Superman as a Jesus-like symbol, something that is far less pretentious than it sounds here, we are able to explore Kal-El as both a man and a God. Snyder’s film is able to ask questions that many blockbusters would be terrified to even mention in their films, and, because of this, the film is able to solidify itself as more than just popcorn entertainment. Considering that this is the guy who also has Sucker Punch on his resume, that’s quite an accomplishment.
I will always have a special place in my heart for Christopher Reeve’s, and even Brandon Routh’s, personifications of the superhero. Henry Cavill, however, also hits it out of the park here. He gives the character the weight needed emotionally, while also hit all the notes the character needs to hit physically. But the runaway performances of this film, in my opinion, are from Michael Shannon as Zod and even Kevin Costner as Clark Kent’s human father. Just when Zod appears to become too cartoonishy villainous, Shannon is always able to bring a level of intensity to the role that provides the weight that the character needs to provide to stand up against Superman. But as the center of Kal-El’s humanity, Costner’s performance is perhaps the heart of this film.
Snyder has always been known for his visuals, and here he continues to bring his signature talents to the screen. He even does it without his slow-mo shots. But now that he has the power of a strong story on his side, he is also able to provide a one-two punch to his audience that his previous films lacked, even Watchmen. The visual effects here are easily among the best that I have seen, and will see, this year. What truly makes them spectacular, however, is that they don’t look cartoony, something that was a major fear for me, and continue to provide the grounded feel of the film. As a result, they produce some of the best action that I have seen at the theater in year. The climax of this film even tops The Avengers signature showdown.
The film is not flawless, of course. Screenwriter David S. Goyer’s screenplay is chock-full of cheesy and clunky dialogue, primarily from the villains. The fact that this is often mixed with some beautifully written scenes of dialogue makes me believe that the rumors about a third-party, uncredited re-write from Jonathan Nolan may be true. Or perhaps from Christopher Nolan himself, who wrote the story for the film. The film also follows the traditional superhero origin stories that we have, by know, all seen before. But, because the movie packs such an emotionally-driven punch throughout, it earns its merits.
Those worried about my comments on the religious subtexts, or I should say potential religious subtexts, of the film shouldn’t worry about feeling alienated by the movie. No pun intended. Much like The Dark Knight, part of the beauty of this film is that it works as both an engaging piece of entertainment, as well as an interesting psychological study of a superhero’s role in society. Beautiful, both visually and thematically, and bold, I doubt I will see a better blockbuster this summer. For not only is it the most entertaining film I have seen so far this year, it is also my favorite.