A lot is made of Superman’s ‘Americaness’ in Man of Steel. His is an alien but he also is raised from an infant in Kansas by one of the most American actors from the past few decades, Kevin Costner. His suit and cape are the colors of the flag, he has the all American name Clark Kent and he loves a girl with the corn-fed name Lois Lane. Imagine for a second that Superman was Russian or Chinese; we would have a completely different view of his powers and strongly suspect his supposed altruistic motives to protect and save mankind.
Beginning in the midst of a violent military coup on Superman’s, nee Kal-El’s, imploding home world of Krypton, father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) spirits his son deep into space towards the remote planet Earth to save his species. Coup leader and supreme Kryptonian military commander, General Zod (Michael Shannon), vows to hunt down Kal-El to recover a codex which stores all future Kryptonian genetic material, or something like that, this is a pretty complex origin story. The battle scenes on Krypton are a garbled mess and extremely difficult to follow. Perhaps this mere mortal human is unable to comprehend the awesome spectacle of such a technologically advanced species.
Jonathan (Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent are the lucky recipients of Jor-El’s special delivery on their remote Kansas farm. Raising ‘Clark’ (Henry Cavill) as their own son is no easy task. His senses are on overload as he discovers his x-ray vision, super hearing, and super strength. Dad is very anxious lest Clark expose his true powers to the local town folk. Each time Clark is in the right place at the right time to save the day, dad wishes he would just let the commoners perish. He correctly guesses that when the world learns they are not alone in the universe and that an alien walks/flies amongst them, they will recoil in fear.
Unfortunately, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is to the art and science of investigative field reporting as Superman is to leaping tall buildings in a single bound. She can sniff out and expose a deeply hidden story even before her morning coffee. Ferreting out the Clark Kent/Superman identify crisis is all in a day’s work for her while it took Margot Kidder’s version of Lois multiple films to figure out who the nerdy guy in glasses was. That is probably the main departure from Man of Steel’s ‘clean break’ from all of previous Superman film baggage.
There is no Lex Luthor, no quick changes in the telephone booth, and no bumbling Lois Lane sidekick. Man of Steel is all about flashback sequences of Kal’s birth, his troublesome adolescence, and eventual discovery of his true self and lineage. These adolescent scenes are the strongest in the movie; Man of Steel actually feels slower and more plodding when the action heats up. Themes of acceptance into human society, mutual trust with the American military, and the bubbling attraction to Lois Lane are all addressed, but kept mostly in the background instead of fully explored.
Cavill as Superman is decent casting; he is British and mostly known as Charles Brandon from Showtime’s The Tudors so credit director Zack Snyder with seeing through the accent and somewhat limited filmography. Once Cavill becomes the true Superman, costumed up and clean-shaven, his sentences and manners become lobotomized. This happened to Christopher Reeve as well. Superman is so pure and good that he becomes the most boring person in the world to have a conversation with. He speaks in simple sentences and trite phrases.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Michael Shannon. He shouts and yells every single line, which I suppose an arch-villain with zero morality is supposed to do. Shannon is outstanding when he is cast in his usual outsider role in films like Revolutionary Road, The Iceman, and Take Shelter. He is quirky, introspective, and holds his emotions in deep reserve before they burst like a volcano when unleashed. General Zod has no leash. It’s about time Shannon gets a roll in a major blockbuster, but Zod is much more of a cartoon caricature than a multi-dimensional character.
Man of Steel is superior to 2006’s reboot Superman Returns and thankfully updates the tired storyline of the Clark Kent/Superman role from the ‘70s-‘80s Superman films. However, compared to the snarky Iron Man with all of his flaws and wit, Superman is a stiff bore. He can save the world a few times over, but I would much rather hang out with Tony Stark then Clark Kent.
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Ayelet Zurer, Laurence Fishburne