'Man of Steel': Superman blasts back strong
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
There are few things in contemporary blockbuster moviemaking more mortifying to both audiences and executives than the fizzled franchise reboot. And so it's hardly surprising that "Man of Steel" enters multiplexes in a context that tacitly but nonetheless very directly requests that everyone act as if "Superman Returns" never happened. I myself won't dwell on that 2006 movie, which tried to make hay of the conventional wisdom that origin stories are the least exciting parts of superhero sagas and inadvertently ended up concocting a Superman who was more of a cipher than one might have imagined the squeaky-clean hero to be.
Co-produced by "Dark Knight" auteur Christopher Nolan and directed by admittedly somewhat audacious blockbuster engineer Zack Snyder, "Man of Steel" takes Superman back to square one and recalibrates him as a pure-of-heart hero for a new age of anxiety. It's a risky move, the implications of which are fully realized in the movie's tense climax, in which Superman is compelled to act in a way that none of the other prior screen incarnations of the hero would ever have even considered. Is that a spoiler? Who knows these days? I'll keep the rest of the review relatively free of them.
Nolan co-concocted the story line with expert screenwriter David Goyer, and Goyer battles the origin-stories-are-boring problem with a two-pronged approach. The birth of Kal-El and the end of the planet Krypton narrative gets a juicier backstory involving genetic archiving, internecine struggles between warlike factions, and a more pronounced series of confrontations between wise and saintly Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and the once-noble but increasingly power-mad Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon). These scenes are substantially aided by the fact that Krypton is rendered beautifully as the ultimate sci-fi planet as imagined in the 1950s. It's a razor-sharp 21st-century execution of what's essentially retro design.
Goyer also keeps things moving via a multiple flashback structure that toggles between young Clark Kent's discoveries of his powers, his grappling with his Earth family, his early-adulthood torment and confusion, and the present-day action, in which Gen. Zod's visit to Earth touches off what becomes a two-man planetary war, and Kent discovers his heritage and his purpose, and his costume, and all that stuff. Prior movies emphasized the Norman Rockwell aspects of Clark Kent's childhood, but here we get agony out of the likes of "X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes." Young Kent finds that his enhanced senses can drive him crazy and that his superstrength renders him a freak. Given Nolan's work on the "Dark Knight" movies, the notion of a tormented Superman shouldn't surprise us. But the whole idea of Superman, as conceived by two comic book artists almost a century ago, was rooted in optimism, and to their credit, the creators of the movie don't forget that; they just make optimism a more difficult place for Kal-El to get to.
His Earth family helps, and one of the many reasons "Man of Steel" succeeds as well as it does is due to Kevin Costner's performance as Clark's Earth father, Jonathan Kent, an embodiment of bedrock values whose advice is not, the various determinants of the larger story tell us, always right, but always comes from a place of incredible integrity. Costner is practically Gary Cooper-esque in this incarnation. (Diane Lane as Martha isn't given as much to do but still carries herself well, and flintily.) As Superman's Krypton dad, Russell Crowe does a good quiet job of getting back some of his own credibility. In this iteration of the origin story, intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams, still perky but tough) gets to know a drifting, bearded, do-gooding stranger before she meets the Clark Kent who also works at the Daily Planet. One big digression the movie takes is making Lois privy to Clark's "secret" right from the get-go. At first this seemed to me an attempt to make an end run around the canon, but in contemporary terms the move makes an awful lot of sense and spares us a lot of silliness. There's one thing this movie is allergic to the way that Superman himself is allergic to Kryptonite, and that's silliness. There's no "Can You Read My Mind" song in this movie, to be sure.
Even though some of the attempts at gravitas don't work (the explanation that the "S" on the front of Superman's costume isn't really an "S" but a Kryptonian symbol for hope, yeah, sure, whatever you say), the movie does make you believe that a flying man in tights is a thing of scary awe, and once Zod, played with inspired and genuinely complex menace by Shannon, starts his campaign to repopulate Earth with his own kind, the movie enters the realm of very impressive action spectacle, with relative newcomer Henry Cavill maintaining a stoic, if sometimes colorless, resolve throughout. With a superb all-around supporting cast gasping from the sidelines, "Man of Steel" (easily the best movie directed by "Watchmen" helmer Snyder, in my opinion, by the way) blasts the archetypal American superhero into our uncertain new century in high style, neither selling him out nor making a sap out of him. So, yes, I am excited to see the next Superman movie.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.