In Man of Steel, There's Greatness in the Superman Origin Story

You'll believe a man can fly -- and is mostly worth watching

In <I>Man of Steel</I>, There's Greatness in the Superman Origin Story
Photo by Clay Enos – © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a movie event with an actual movie inside, crying to get out. Despite its preposterous self-seriousness, its overblown, CGI’ed-to-death climax, and its desperate efforts to depict the destruction of, well, everything on Earth, there’s greatness in this retelling of the origin of Superman, moments of intimate grandeur, some marvelous, subtle acting, and a superhero costume that’s a feat of mad mod genius. There’s almost a story here. And the actors, including the picture’s quietly dazzling star, Henry Cavill, do their damnedest to draw it out.

But there’s just no stopping what comic-book movies have become, especially those bearing the royal seal of Dark Knight auteur Christopher Nolan. (He’s one of Man of Steel’s producers and also helped develop the story.) These movies are no longer driven by characters, though they feature some of the best-loved figures in the universe (whether it’s Marvel’s, or in this case, DC’s). They’re all about plot mechanics and increasingly elaborate special effects, though they pretend to tangle with the serious, life-and-death issues that end up being these movies’ big bugaboo. In Man of Steel, the titan in the red cape, doing everything in his power to save humanity, is almost a distraction from the movie’s larger mission to impress us with its vague, lofty ideals and attention to detail.

See Also: Superman Movies Matter More Than the Comics

Photo by Clay Enos – © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding
Photo by Clay Enos – © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding


Man of Steel
Directed by Zack Snyder
Warner Brothers
Opens June 14

See Also:
- Superman Movies Matter More Than the Comics: A Film-by-Film Breakdown

The press notes, for instance, tell us that a linguist who uses invented languages like Klingon and Na’vi as a teaching tool helped the filmmakers develop 300 distinct Kryptonian words and phrases. So now we learn that that letter “S” fitted neatly into triangular shield, which little kids since the 1930s have recognized as the international symbol of Superman, is really the Kryptonian glyph for “hope.” Who knew? Superhero movies are now so bogged down in detail they barely need superheroes anymore—much less real people.

Yet Cavill and his co-stars Amy Adams, Diane Lane, and Kevin Costner soldier on, turning Man of Steel into something that’s almost great, even when it’s not very good. The plot goes something like this: Realizing their planet Krypton is dying, and knowing that its bigwig military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon), is up to no good, upstanding citizen Jor-El (a preoccupied-looking Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), blast their diaperless newborn into space. Zod kills Jor-El—though like Hamlet’s ghost, he gets several convenient reappearances—and Lara dies shortly thereafter. When next we see orphaned Baby Kal-El, he’s a grown-up with a beard, a drifter working on a fishing boat. His name is now Clark, and he has superhuman powers, but he also carries much pain. Still, there is hope, or, as we must now properly call it, “S.”

Clark’s adoptive parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent (Lane and Costner) of Smallville, Kansas, have done all they can to prepare their son for the world. But they don’t know that Zod, having nursed a beef with Jor-El for several thousand years (or something like that), is headed to Earth to destroy their son. Meanwhile, Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane travels to the Arctic and suffers a stomach wound. Luckily, she also meets a mysterious hunk who can cauterize said wound with his eyes. “This is going to hurt,” he tells her, and he’s right—she screams as the shot fades.

A little disturbing and intensely erotic, that petite mort is one of the most striking moments in Man of Steel. For an instant, the movie forgets that it’s invented a whole new language and instead uses good, old-fashioned storytelling tools. But mostly, Man of Steel is preoccupied with its own spectacle. There’s so much heaviness here that, ironically, nothing seems to have its own weight. And once Shannon’s Zod shows up on Earth with his dumb little goatee, you know this super-engineered movie experience is just going to get bigger and emptier.

Does the destruction of New York City, or its stand-in, Metropolis, even require a spoiler alert anymore? If you think it does, stop reading here. If you’ve seen it all before—and you have—you won’t be surprised to learn that huge swathes of the city are destroyed, 9/11-style, at the hands of General Zod and his destructo-spaceship. (It hovers menacingly over the skyline, like a malevolent gray lobster with three pincers.) At the end of the ordeal, three survivors climb from the rubble with dusty faces, essentially saying, “Whew! That was a close call.” But we’ve already seen sidewalks and streets buckling and caving, skyscrapers folding in upon themselves, hordes of people running for their lives. Thousands of citizens must have died, and yet the manufactured horror we’ve just witnessed is suddenly rendered weightless. That’s because comic-book movies aren’t real, silly—except when they’re totally serious.

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