This is the central question that struggling writers and skeptical fans have been asking about the original SUPERhero for years (if not decades) now. Does this character, who was created at such a different time in our history, who stood for what many think of as outdated or even corny ideals, who can't feel the pains of the world the way we can, still matter to a modern audience?
This question is also at the forefront of MAN OF STEEL, the rebooted cinematic vision of Superman from the film-makers behind WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT. And overall, I can say yes. Mostly.
I'll get this out of the way first - this is Superman as you've never seen him. Don't confuse this version of our Boy in Blue with the Richard Donner film (or Bryan Singer's reverent revisit), but this is the most visually breathtaking portrayal of the character - or perhaps any comic book character - that I've ever seen. He's still definitely Superman/Clark Kent, exiled from a dying Krypton by his loving parents, adopted by the good-hearted Johnathan and Martha Kent of Kansas, and driven by a desire to help those around him.
But this movie seems to challenge itself to live up to the "Super" part of the title character. This Man of Steel doesn't just fly, he bolts through the air at Mach 7. His heat vision can bring down space ships, his strength can topple buildings just by being near them when hitting someone. The way the filmmakers show Superman's powers in action makes it easily one of the must-see theater experiences of the year. Director Zack Snyder is a ridiculously accomplished visualist who possesses the necessary child-like glee in recreating screen-filling splash images of clashing titans, but also brings a quiet sensitivity to scenes of Clark interacting with his parents about his strange abilities and telling his story to Lois Lane. Cavill owns this movie back to front in the title role, keeping the earnest goodness and idealism of the character while also showing some of the conflict behind the choices such a powerful person would have hanging over them. And when he learns to fly, he has just as much fun with it as any of us would.
The rest of the cast is equal to keeping up with Superman, from potentially throwaway military or scientist types (Richard Schiff!) to Lawrence Fishburne's more active Perry White and Russell Crowe's fatalistic but hopeful Jor-El. Amy Adams' Lois gets a bit of a short shrift here, and she and Cavill don't have as much romantic chemistry as the film seems to desire, but she does get a few key active moments in the story that distinguish this version of what has always been one of comics' more proactive and independent female characters.
However, special mention must be made of General Zod through the mad tragedy of Michael Shannon. Here's a character actor who's been working his butt off in smaller roles but almost visibly hungering to cut loose on the broadest canvas possible, and he gets to here. Not only can he bellow and rage on a suitably larger-than-life scale, there's real pathos for this version of the fallen Krytonian general that makes his clash with Superman feel as weighty as it is inevitable.
And while said clash raises the bar for every single superhero film to come (it's honestly hard to imagine where a sequel would go from here), it also presents what may be the movie's single biggest problem. The smaller issues that rear their heads (uneven pacing, too much "mansplaining" and obtrusive tell-don't-show storytelling, action that starts to feel really repetitive in the second/third act, muddled narrative threads and motivations) aren't exactly deal-breaking, but near its end the film commits what is close to a cardinal sin of drama that ALSO comes off like a massive misunderstanding of Superman as a character. I can't avoid getting a bit spoilery in the "how" but it's not a major plot give-away. Still, if you'd rather not know, just skip the SPOILER SECTION:
So Superman and Zod are fighting, punching each other through satellites and across miles of high-rises, and untold property damage is happening. We even see civilians running around during a couple of their ground bouts, and we've seen other civilians getting slaughtered (yeah, the body count in this is pretty ridiculous) by Zod's troops and machines moments earlier. So we're basically witnessing a super-powered version of 9/11 on an even more horrific scale as huge swaths of the city are reduced to rubble. Then, at the very end of the fight, Zod plays the "I'll kill some helpless bystanders" card that comes pre-packaged with every Evil Villain Playbook. Only. . . why does Superman only just now care about these helpless civilians? He was just (directly and indirectly) responsible for countless more deaths only moments ago. Why does the movie only just now remember that Superman is about SAVING PEOPLE?
Not once did Superman try to move the fight to a more isolated location. Not during the Metropolis Kerfuffle, not even during the Smallville Face-off where he's literally punching craters in his hometown. It comes off as totally tone-deaf, not only considering the film's earnest attempts at optimism and idealism as a whole, but even Jor-El's final words to his son: "You can save them all."
. . . Except all those hundreds of thousands you helped kill. And apparently didn't care about or even acknowledge at the time. Oddly enough, NO ONE gives even a passing mention to the destruction of half of Metropolis and the undoubtedly-staggering death count. Which, given that the movie strives to ground the fantastic in a more realistic Earth and deals directly with "What would happen if gods walked among us?" as a central narrative/thematic hook, comes off as inept at best (robbing death of dramatic impact when it should be at its most affecting) and almost mean-spirited at worst.
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All that isn't quite enough to rob the film of its other triumphs - the ending scene is gangbusters, especially for long-time Superman fans, falling into the "status quo" while also putting a cool new wrinkle in what people expect from Superman stories. And while much of the narrative is overly-convoluted and over-explained in the worst way (Film Crit HULK is damn-near prescient with this one), the film does a great job of setting up and paying off some very key moments that the actors just sell the HELL out of. And again, as a purely sensory experience in the power of film as a visual medium, you'd be hard-pressed to find another movie in the genre that can compete. MAN OF STEEL may not be as good a movie as THE DARK KNIGHT or THE AVENGERS, but its action is, if you'll excuse the term, leaps and bounds ahead.
For all that, I really hope this movie does well. I dig the cast they've assembled, the director certainly has the chops for the material, and I'll admit it's nice to get to see Superman finally physically cut loose on-screen in something other than a cartoon. But I really hope they work out the kinks for the next one and tell a story worthy of their hero.
Because as it stands now, this Man of Steel is still a bit too weighed down to truly soar.