So much of the latest Superman epic, Man of Steel, is very good that it’s somewhat disappointing when it turns into a very long series of fight sequences. If you’ve seen one movie building reduced to rubble, you have seen them all.
But before the smashing and punching get too monotonous, there is a marvelous movie at work here, one that deals directly and touchingly with what it really means to have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men — how such powers are not only strange, but frightening to people who neither possess them nor know what to do with someone who does. And the movie filters that idea through the lens of Superman himself. He not only knows the good he can do for others but also that, if people can put aside their fears, they really want and need someone to do that good.
Directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) and written by the Dark Knight team of David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, Man of Steel combines elements of the classic Superman origin story, and scenarios from the first two of Christopher Reeve’s films, but the creators make it their own solemn meditation on heroism.
The planet Krypton is on the verge of destruction. While its leaders ignore the warnings, both Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) see a need for desperate measures to save their people; Zod’s violent approach leads to his imprisonment, while Jor-El’s is simply to send his infant son Kal-El to a safer world, Earth.
On Earth, Kal-El lands in Kansas and becomes Clark Kent, the son of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane), and a special boy whose very specialness is kept hidden. Clark is taught not to fight back when threatened, since he could do too much harm to his opponent; his father believes that Clark is meant for something grander. But now and then, Clark cannot repress his urge to help others, even if it means giving away his secret. So, as an adult, he wanders, settling in out-of-the-way places for a time, until circumstances force his heroic hand — and he moves on.
Only one day, he crosses paths with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a tough reporter who begins to piece together Clark’s whole story. He asks her to keep his secret. But there is no way it can be kept when Zod and his band arrive on Earth, determined to get a secret Jor-El left with Kal-El — and to build a new Krypton.
The movie jumps around a bit in Superman’s timeline, flashing back to the memories of his childhood, various incidents and the lessons he received from Jonathan. But in doing so it works better than the first of the Christopher Reeve films, which was more linear in its narrative; here, the integration of the past and present gives the moments from the past more emotional power. The most touching moment in the movie may be a bus accident when Clark is a boy; he does what is needed but with the knowledge that he may be sacrificing something in his own life.
Indeed, there is a constant sense of sacrifice in what characters do and do not do. Jonathan’s final moments are loaded with it. Zod, in his mad way, has sacrificed much for his people, and the climactic moment in the film puts Superman in a place where he has no choice but to accept horrible consequences for however he acts.
Henry Cavill, as the adult Clark and Superman, fits the role well. He is a courtly sort, filled with the manners and values of a Kent (and a Kansan) even if other people focus on his muscles and his suit. Adams makes a fine match for him, her Lois who sees her story is not so much about what this man has done as about who he is. Crowe is at his muscular, deep-voiced, authoritative peak, while Costner is once again the thoughtful Middle American.
Man of Steel is as good a Superman movie as there has been. As effective as the first two Reeve films could be, they had their flaws, and so does this one. Again, the action sequences capping the movie go on a bit too long, too intent perhaps on making sure that 3D audiences get their premium-priced-ticket’s worth.
Man of Steel does offer a hint for a sequel — a passing acknowledgment that Lex Luthor is also in this Superman’s world. But the reason to see more of this Superman is that he is such a well-drawn character, proof of the ongoing vigor in the creation that Clevelanders Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster put on a page 75 years ago.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.