Director Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” an engaging no-nonsense superhero origin story, is at once poignantly human for a movie about an alien and as bombastic—probably more so—than anything else in the genre. One moment a young Clark Kent struggles to fit in at school—his fellow classmates label him a freak when he runs out of the classroom because he can’t handle the sensory overload as his super powers begin to emerge—and the next moment an adult Clark saves a few oil workers from an exploding rig in grand fashion. This constant juxtaposition of backstory and spectacle, this non-linear narrative formula is at the heart of what makes “Man of Steel” so successful in terms of pace, despite a third act that is more excessively long, destructive, and action-packed than any recent movie about the end of the world. But such mass chaos is appropriate considering the powerful, God-like nature of the combatants. When Superman fights, his punches send his opponents flying for miles, through skyscrapers and gas stations, and even up into space. Every time he takes flight, it’s like a bomb going off. “You might want to back away,” he suggests to Lois Lane in one scene right before he takes to the sky. He moves so fast that one second he’s there and the next he’s not, so fast that the camera has trouble keeping up with him. Watching Superman fly is an exhilarating experience, and it’s even fun for him. When he finally masters the art of flight, an awe-inspired, almost boyish grin spreads across his face, and on the faces of the audience members. “Man of Steel” is a proper Superman movie, and a remarkable achievement for a director who never really found his voice until now.
The movie opens on Krypton, Superman’s home planet, as his biological father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), struggles to save the dying planet through diplomacy, and then treason according to one Kryptonian. Coming to terms with his planet’s imminent destruction, Jor-El sends his newborn child, Kal-El, to Earth to become a beacon of hope, a bridge between two civilizations, and, most important, “an ideal to strive towards.” Jor-El’s hopes for his son are, on the surface, in contrast with Jonathan Kent’s (Kevin Costner), Kal-El/Clark’s adoptive father. Mr. Kent believes Clark should keep his true identity a secret lest the world isn’t ready for the answer to “Are we alone in the universe?” This movie never lets us forget that Clark Kent is an alien, however human he appears to be in both looks and character. “Man of Steel” is just as much a science-fiction film as it is a comic book adaptation. Krypton is a fully realized world with intricate technology and spacecraft full of its own brand of jargon.
Amidst the tension between his two fathers’ conflicting moralities, Clark finds himself existentially lost before he becomes Superman. He’s a drifter, a man who disappears at the first sign of exposure. Henry Cavill plays Clark with a subtlety that is simultaneously stoic and emotive. Mr. Cavill is also exceptionally handsome, a perfect fit for the role. The rest of the cast is just as good. Some of the most entertaining segments of the movie follow Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the canonically intrepid reporter, as she investigates the identity of a man “who has spent his entire life covering his tracks.” Adams is good in just about every movie she’s done, and here she doesn’t disappoint. Her Lois Lane is not as abrasive as previous interpretations of the character, but instead has a unique warmth about her, and is just as confident and competent as her predecessors. We learn very quickly she is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, though her integrity is put into question by her editor-in-chief when she comes to him with a story supported by anonymous sources about an alien who has a particular knack for saving people and then vanishing suddenly.
Lois is confronted with her own ethical dilemmas, as is every key character in the movie. Though “Man of Steel” is chiefly about Superman and his burden of morality, his very existence puts into question the ethics of the people around him. He may be the only superman in this movie, but he’s not the only hero. The people of Metropolis prove themselves worthy when their lives and the lives of their loved ones are at stake as their beloved city begins to crumble to pieces from the sky. Just like so many blockbusters of late, this movie is overflowing with 9/11 imagery. Aircrafts collide with skyscrapers causing mass destruction and oppressive debris quite often, but the resonance here doesn’t feel as exploitive as it did in “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek Into Darkness.” “Man of Steel” has a moral center that isn’t naive enough about the threats facing the modern world for such carelessness.
And this movie is modern and quite believable, thanks to state-of-the-art special effects, a handheld shaky cam sensibility that gives the feeling of a documentary, and a Superman whose morality in response to foreign threats is both complicated and messy. Superman can’t save everyone, regardless of how fast and strong he is, and we come to learn during the climax that even a man of steel must compromise at some point. It’s a powerful scene that challenges the core of the Superman mythos and will undoubtedly be a springboard for much debate in the days to come. The scene is just another version of the questions: Who is Superman and how far will he go for the greater good?
Sometimes Mr. Snyder appears to be indiscriminate in his visual metaphors to define Superman’s character. Is he Jesus? Moses? A Greek God? An immigrant in search of a home? Mr. Snyder seems to suggest he’s all of those things at once, at first a wanderer and eventually a savior. The sundry, very overt visual associations suggest that Superman embodies the best of all good things, quite a burden in the wake of the practical realities of modern threats to humanity. But to be anything else, to be an uncompromising ideologue, would be to pretend that we aren’t living in a complex world full of foreign and domestic enemies that threaten innocent lives. We need men of steel who can make the hard decisions without losing sight of what is truly good in a world of moral ambivalence where unmanned drones and software have replaced the singular touch of the human spirit. Thus, “Man of Steel” is Mr. Snyder’s most mature movie to date, and achieves greatness in the way it re-imagines a cultural icon for the 21st century.