My most anticipated film of the summer had arrived. After years of waiting for my favorite superhero from childhood to be “refinished,” for the sour taste of Superman Returns to be washed out of my mouth, I engaged Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel on the only day, in the only time slot, available for the first ten days of its release. But could Man of Steel do what no Warner Bros. hero movie (outside of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy) has done, and actually measure up to the tentpoles of the Marvel universe?
To be fair, I’m segmenting this review in two parts. The first half will be spoiler free, and I’ll expect that if you read the second half, that you’ve either read the movie or you hate surprises altogether. But I’ve warned you.
Man of Steel begins with an extended explanation about how Kal-El/Clark (Henry Cavill) ends up on Earth. We literally begin at his childbirth, setting off a whole realm of Christological comparisons that force even the slightest amount of the life and times of Jesus Christ to seem blatantly obvious. Gone is Marlon Brando; in is Russell Crowe. While Brando’s Jor-El was a talking politico, Crowe’s swashbuckling scientist is a forward thinker unafraid to use his fists. But both fathers agree that they are sending Kal-El to Earth where he will be safe and became a rock star, er, godlike entity.
What’s different here is that we see the backstory of Michael Shannon’s General Zod. We’re never compassionate to Zod to the point of wishing he’d win, and the outcome keeps piling on why, but we see that he literally thinks it’s his job to protect Krypton from its destruction, even if the rulers of Krypton are the cause. He wants to save Krypton from itself, by controlling the genesis chamber’s codex, which is where all children (except Kal-El) have been born for thousands of years. But Jor-El is one step ahead of him, and we flash back and forth between different eras of Clark on Earth until Zod-on-Earth matches up with Clark-on-Earth time.
This is ultimately just as much about a sense of family, of community, of belonging, as it is of a man/alien becoming a savior. Sure, Clark is 33 years old when Zod arrives on Earth, the generally accepted year that Jesus was crucified, and there are lots of Christ images throughout. But Snyder’s focus seems to be on the way that Clark is a product of two cultures, of the nature of his Kryptonian parents and their mission for him as well as that of his Earth parents, especially Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent. Both sides want him to rise to the occasion (in Jor-El’s case, maybe even rule) and it’s a constant struggle for the coming-of-age superhero to establish who he is supposed to be and in what time.
We might even suppose that without Zod’s rude entrance, Clark’s timetable might never have accelerated to the point where he’s discovered by Lois Lane (Amy Adams) or shown off to the world, outside of a smattering of strange rescues he performs. We might see that Zod proves to be the “satan” tempting Christ in the desert, with choices about who he could be for himself and for his dreams of belonging and knowing Krypton, versus a sense of service and protection he feels toward Earth. But it still boils down to the question Clark asks over and over: can he trust humanity with who he is?
As a Superman fan (I’ll admit it, I loved Superman more than Batman… as a kid), I find myself asking if Snyder could be “trusted” with the franchise. Sure, he’s got 300 and Suckerpunch under his belt, but he’s got 300 and Suckerpunch under his belt! Neither one is screaming “pure, moralistic super hero,” are they? But that bleeds into my spoiler piece so that will have to wait.
Instead, I’ll say this: Man of Steel was a good start. To a trilogy. If that’s where it ends, I’ll be deeply dissatisfied. But given how “small” Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins started, and where it ended up, this seems set to launch Cavill and company into an orbit that could outshine them all. Maybe we’ll get less CGI the next time, with more of Clark’s Earth relationships, because really, that’s what this movie does best, surprisingly. That’s what makes us feel, and what makes us ask ourselves, “Could we risk it all for the good of the many?” That’s the question asked, and answered, by Superman… everyday.