Superman has become one of, if not the most recognizable superheroes around, right up there with Batman and Spiderman. He's come a long way in countless comics, even getting a 1950s TV show and ultimately feature films, starring Christopher Reeve, before disappearing for years (of sorts). Then, there was a 2006 reboot that the universe unanimously agreed was really, really bad. Well, it didn't take long for another reboot, 2013's Man of Steel.
The planet Krypton is quickly dying, a father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), saving his infant son by sending him off the planet at the last minute with Krypton's incredible power hidden away in the capsule. The space capsule travels through the galaxy, ultimately crashing on Earth where the infant is cared for and raised by a middle-aged farm couple. He grows up knowing he isn't quite normal, the young boy showing incredible feats of strength as needed. The boy, Clark, grows up and into his 20s and 30s, Clark (Henry Cavill) is still struggling to find himself as an outsider in this similar but ultimately strange world. He drifts from job to job, his strength and powers usually forcing him to leave sooner rather than later. Clark begins to find out who he really is as the years go by, all in time for him to fully embrace his superpowers. A survivor of Krypton, General Zod (Michael Shannon), has finally tracked Clark down after 30-plus years of searching the galaxy. Can Clark embrace his true self and help save Earth in the process?
Growing up, I was a Batman fan above all else. I'm pretty sure as a kid I watched the Christopher Reeve movies with my folks, but it's been years, and I don't have a great recollection of them. When I saw the teaser trailer way back in summer 2012 though for this Superman reboot, I was more than psyched. The talent behind the film was evident, director Zack Snyder (of 300 and Watchmen fame) working with producer Christopher Nolan (of the recent Batman trilogy) and a script from David S. Goyer (who wrote the Batman trilogy) working together to bring this reboot together. And going in, I think a distinction should be made. This is a movie about how Superman came to be, not an established Superman saving the world. It is exactly what a reboot should be, an explanation of how an iconic character that most of the audience knows and how he came to be that icon.
The obvious place to start is with Superman himself, Henry Cavill, the 30-year old British actor cast in the part of Clark Kent. A relative unknown in terms of star power before this role, Cavill is ideal casting. I thought he did a great job putting a new spin on a familiar character. This isn't the jokey, smart-mouthed Superman. Instead, Clark is an introspective, intelligent and even tortured individual trying to find who he is in this strange world. He has some similarities to us, but he also knows there is something very different and potentially dangerous about him, his powers coming to light as he grows up and learns his true identity. Now I should say, I'm a sucker for tortured anti-heroes dealing with their own demons, but I really enjoyed a far more serious, more cerebral superhero movie. It's hard not to compare this film to the Batman trilogy in that sense, a look at a superhero but without that comedy and sense of humor to fall back on. Oh, and as for Cavill? He looks like Superman, like he could pick a skyscraper up, save a bus from sinking in a river. The physical goes a long way.
What surprised me some in the development of the character was the reliance on the father-son dynamic between Clark and his father, Jor-El (Crowe nailing the part, "huge surprise" there), and his adopted father on Earth, Jonathan Kent, similarly played to perfection by Kevin Costner. It's a surprising dynamic that develops, Clark learning through he is through conversations with Jonathan, but also talking with his long-dead father through Krypton technology. It's those little things that bring the movie up a notch or two, Goyer's script providing some emotional, effective moments that ring true, not false as Clark becomes what he must become. In a weird way in terms of that father-son dynamic, 'Man' reminded me some of 2013's The Place Beyond the Pines in how it deals with that tricky relationship. It works though, right from the start, adding a layer to the story. Yeah, we've seen a Dad helping his son out before in movies, but how does a Dad help out his son who also has superpowers that could save or destroy Earth? Surprisingly, it's not that different.
From top to bottom, the cast may not have the instantly recognizable huge names, but I think that works in the movie's favor. Along with Cavill, Crowe and Costner, look for Amy Adams as Lois Lane, intrepid reporter who may be onto Clark's real identity and ability, Diane Lane as Martha, Clark's adopted mother, Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni as Army officers tasked with finding the truth about Superman, Laurence Fishburne as Lois' editor at the Daily Planet, an underused Richard Schiff as a scientist working with the military, and Ayelet Zurer as Lana, Clark's real mother on Krypton who must decide what sacrifice to make with her son. As the villain, General Zod, Shannon is great casting, his huge presence a big positive in this reboot, Antje Traue as his indestructible right-hand officer.
Reading reviews, listening to friends, what caught me off guard was the hate this movie received. I don't know why. If anything, I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe it's because I didn't go into the movie with any preconceived notions of what the movie should be, not being a diehard Superman fan. I came away very impressed from the get-go. The story is non-linear, bouncing around between flashbacks and the current time as Clark moves ever close to fulfilling his destiny. The storytelling device works, simple as that. Composer Hans Zimmer's score is big and booming and appropriate while the visual look of the movie -- polished, but slightly washed out, even faded -- similarly works very well. Even Superman's outfit is a darker, more pale blue, not that bright blue we've come to associate with the character. The action is solid, especially an epic showdown in Smallville, but I found myself more drawn to the story and the characters. Go figure.
In the months since the release of 'Man,' the franchise/series has been in the news because of where it's going. Instead of just continuing the Superman movies, the next movie will be Batman vs. Superman, scheduled for a 2015 release. I'm curious, even intrigued, but I can't say I'm excited. 'Man' leaves the story on such a good jumping off point that it seems almost a gimmick to revive Batman so quick and bring him into this series. That said, I'll probably go see it. If nothing else and not knowing where the franchise will go, 'Man' is a great jumping off point in itself. Lots of dissenters and haters out there, but make up your own mind. I for one, loved it.
Man of Steel (2013): *** 1/2 /****