‘Man of Steel’: Soaring

June 14, 2013

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Zack Snyder widens his view as a director with “Man of Steel,” taking a proclivity for creating startling images in the service of storytelling and using it to enlarge and expand the action.

As a result, “Man of Steel” works as a compelling big-screen blockbuster because Snyder doesn’t treat it as a comic-book movie. Instead, he brings a sense of realism – veined with the speculative ideas of science fiction – to this story of a man from another planet and his impact on Earth when it discovers his presence.

Working from a script by David Goyer, Snyder refuses to be encumbered by the linear story-telling of the origin story we all know. Instead of taking it for granted that everyone knows where Superman came from and simply glossing over it – if not making sport of it – he starts his story in the middle, then teases back to fill in the missing pieces.

The prologue, set on the planet Krypton, sticks to the facts but gives them a new spin. Instead of just being a planet that blew up – and which happened to be home to a scientist, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who predicted the planet’s destruction – Krypton is now a planet that has, in essence, destroyed itself by mining its own core for energy.

But even as the planet’s high council rejects Jor-El’s pleas to evacuate Krypton, the planet’s military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon), swoops in to kill the head of the council and proclaim his own leadership. Jor-El escapes and launches his own baby, Kal-El, toward a planet where he should be able to survive – indeed, one whose sun and gravity should give Kal-El super-powers. Zod, meanwhile, is captured, charged with treason and sent into the Phantom Zone.

Instead of giving us the Clark Kent story (found as a baby by Ma and Pa Kent, raised in Smallville, etc.), we find the now-grown Clark (square-jawed Henry Cavill) working on fishing boat in the North Atlantic – until he hears a radio distress call from an oil-drilling platform that’s going up in flames several miles away. He turns up there and rescues men who thought they were goners, using super-strength to hold up a collapsing structure long enough for a helicopter to land and take off before he disappears.

He turns up again in the Antarctic, working on a scientific expedition – which is where he encounters Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a reporter who’s there to see what the Army has discovered that seems to be from another world. Instead, she finds what seems to be a man from another planet who has super-powers. It’s a story her Daily Planet editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), refuses to print because it seems so far-fetched.

Or it does until a spaceship – containing General Zod, who has escaped from the Phantom Zone – appears in the sky, demanding the return of Kal-El. It’s up to Kal – who fashions himself an indestructible costume that becomes what everyone will recognize as the Superman suit – to save his adoptive planet. Because Zod is after a lot more than just Superman; he wants the whole planet.

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A couple things make this film not just a cut above comic-book movies, but a step beyond most sci-fi thrillers these days. For starters, the stakes feel real; this isn’t just a conflict about money or power for its own sake. This is a battle between two civilizations – and it’s a story about how you become the person you know you can be.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” as Voltaire noted (a quote often attributed to Stan Lee and the “Spiderman” movies). That’s the lesson that Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) tries to teach young Clark – that, unless he can prove himself worthy of trust, he will be feared by people because he’s different.

The emotional bases are well-covered, without the kind of either/or approach that most comic-books take. Visually, Snyder also opens things wider visually than he did in the expansiveness of “Sucker Punch,” “Watchmen” and “300.” Where he slowed the action to balletic grace in those films, here he looks at the other side of the equation: characters who move too quickly to be seen clearly.

When Superman battles Zod and his two sidekicks, he’s taking on foes whose powers match his own. Snyder gets just how big those powers are, in terms of the terrain they allow these characters to cover. Superman doesn’t just have a showdown on Smallville’s Main Street – he has it all over Smallville, jumping, flying and bouncing on, over and through its structures.

Similarly, when the battle moves to Metropolis – as Zod tries to terra-form Earth and change its gravity – the action covers more than tall buildings at a single bound. Zod and Superman demolish whole blocks, triggering building collapses as they fling each other about. At times, they are like bugs battling against a distant vista, but their size is in inverse proportion to their strength. The view is like a spectator who happens to be looking out a high window at something happening down the block – something so big that you need that distance for perspective on just how bizarre it is.

Cavill has a quiet strength and an inner life that Christopher Reeve never seemed to have. He’s as emotionally conflicted as Batman but nobler, more concerned with fair play and public safety. Cavill makes that not just real but understandable.

Adams gives Lois Lane a depth that she lacked in previous outings because, again, she’s treated as a real character, rather than a comic-book figure. Similarly, Zod isn’t just an interstellar bully on a power trip; Goyer’s script – and Shannon’s performance – add layers to the character that makes him almost sympathetic. Almost.

Snyder’s “Man of Steel” has something that both of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films lacked: excitement. That’s the crucial ingredient that too many comic-book movies miss, mistaking campy action for actual thrills. “Man of Steel” grabs you viscerally, even while delivering emotionally. It may be the best big movie of the summer.

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