Reviewing ‘Man Of Steel’ (2013)
‘Man Of Steel’ directed by Zack Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan is, by far, the best adaptation of Superman I have ever seen. As an origin story, written by David S. Goyer, a lot of time in the beginning of the film is spent exploring Krypton’s culture which appealed to the anthropologist in me. In past adaptations there were large gaps about the planet. Filling in some information adds more to the seventy-five year old mythology. Although a lot of it is new it still fits nicely into Superman Lore, presented with a beautiful score by Hans Zimmer.
The view of Krypton’s architecture, topography and some of its species is far more interesting then the ice planet depicted in other versions. But what we learn about its culture is disturbing. Krypton is not the advanced utopian society the comics led us to believe, but more of an Orwellian type big brother society where all children were genetically engineered for particular functions for thousands of years by the ‘Codex’, an artifact that contains all the genetic DNA of Krypton’s population. Individual reproductive choice had been outlawed for centuries. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) plays a rebel thinker in true gladiator form who believes in an individual’s right to choose his own destiny. Kal-El was conceived naturally (sexually) and born in secrecy without genetic engineering. Jor-El steals the ‘Codex’, and infuses it’s genetic material into Kal-El’s cells before sending him to Earth.
All of these revelations about Krypton were not previously part of the mythology, especially about the genetic engineering. Somewhere in its history, Krypton became a planet that abused its natural resources, denied spirituality and allowed logic and science to become the dominant force of life. As a result, the moral decay became endemic, then invisible and Krypton passed the point of no return. This was Krypton’s Karma.
Jor-El passionately attempts to convince the ruling council that Krypton’s core was heading for implosion that will destroy the planet. Evacuation, he implores could not be delayed. General Zod, well played by Michael Shannon attempts a coup based on the same disagreement with the ruling council that Jor-El has. But Jor-El is against a Coup. Zod is foiled and is banished to the phantom zone, but not before he kills Jor-El when he learns that Jor-El and Lara plan to launch their only son and the ‘Codex’ from Krypton before it explodes.
Zod is an interesting character, genetically engineered to be a general, his behavior is programmed to protect Krypton in spite of itself. Although Zod appears inherently evil, he is simply acting on the nature he was designed to express even though the council sent him and his army to the Phantom Zone. He could not do otherwise. Here, the lines of good and evil are not as easily drawn and the film masterfully focus’s on free will. Zod wasn’t programmed with a sense of morality and is similar to Khan in Star Trek, also a product of genetic engineering who is bent on protecting his crew, a purpose that is in its purist sense noble. It is interesting to note that in both cases an obsession for science became a sign of decay rather than achievement.
There is no tongue in cheek humor in this film unlike the previous Superman adaptations, for which I am grateful. I always saw Superman through the lens of The Silver Age Of DC Comics. The humor of the previous Superman films were more influenced by the old Batman TV series of the 1960’s. I’m referring here to the villains who were usually over the top and resembled buffoons rather then credible adversaries. On the other hand some people thought Man Of Steel was too serious and dark for Superman. From my perspective, Man Of Steel comes much closer to what the original comic’s portrayal of Superman was meant to be.
Once Kal reaches Earth, the movie shifts to Clark as a adult on a fishing boat with a beard, struggling to find a place to belong. The film uses flashbacks to tell the early years, describing his feelings of emotional deprivation from humanity. He is always under pressure to consider how the world would react to someone like him. “All they will see is proof that we are not alone in the Universe,” says Pa Kent. Henry Cavill as Clark Kent plays this with subtle complexity that makes his pain identifiable and that ultimately helps him relate to mankind, and the audience to him. His brooding nature is far more characteristic of a Marvel character like one of the mutant X-Men or the Silver Surfer, an isolated freak with no one like him to share his thoughts and life. Cavill does a good job expressing the pain and self hatred of this separateness that he must resolve and find peace with in order to become the Man of Steel, protector of Earth.
This is what takes this film way beyond any of the others. His time on Earth makes him part human as he, over time, controls his powers and learns to love the planet he was sent to. But, not without the help, guidance and nurture of his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. It is no accident that they are the ones that found him.
As he continues to struggle with his identity, flashbacks explore the young Clark trying to control his freak powers that he associates more as a curse then a gift. Jonathan Kent is beautifully played by Kevin Costner, a farmer surrounded by corn fields, so reminiscent of his role in Field Of Dreams as he imparts some of the same sensitivity and calm wisdom to Clark. Numerous memories of his childhood and adolescence are well positioned throughout the film and are used as footnotes to underline some of the inner conflicts Clark must resolve to finally become the Man Of Steel. Again, this is all new information about the Superman mythology that made the film far more interesting and fresh and less like the previous versions.
The suit is quite a departure from the original, far more sleek and compliments his stature and musculature. The blue is darker and patterned, the red more maroon and the shorts and belt are omitted. It all fits this contemporary Superman. Once he is forced to confront his fears, he is ready to don the suit and present himself to the world. It sounds like an ongoing human quest to evolve. Some claim this film is revisionism, I call it reinvention.
Redefining the role of Lois Lane by Amy Adams is also another departure from previous interpretations. Here she is a credible Pulitzer Prize investigative reporter, perhaps a female version of Anderson Cooper, who finds Clark on an Arctic ship and eventually becomes caught up in the action as a key player when General Zod and his army who were previously trapped in the Phantom Zone arrive on Earth. They have come for Clark. While Kal is occupied with Zod, Jor-El’s hologram appears to Lois and teaches her how to destroy Zod and entrusts her to convey that information to Kal. After some numerous brawls with great special effects and a final battle scene between Kal and Zod, the Man Of Steel kills Zod and sends his army back into the Phantom Zone. Killing Zod is also a major departure from Superman’s morality. Previously, he vowed never to kill. In this version, he does kill. How will this dilemma effect him in the future? It also provides an opportunity to see Kal in tears on his knees clinging to Lois for emotional support as she tries to console his pain over this moral conflict, pulling him close to her and not letting him go. This is a more emotionally mature compassionate Lois who see’s the humanity in him and is beginning to fall in love with him.
This film brought a new dimension to Clark. His emotional vulnerabilities were exposed and the audience identified with them. The Man Of Steel was human. All his life he was afraid to reveal the truth for fear of rejection, a human emotion. How would humanity feel about having someone with his powers that they couldn’t control. How could we not understand his fears? The strength of Man Of Steel is that it accomplished two things: It added another facet to the mythology of Krypton, and it revealed a side of the Man of Steel not seen in any previous adaptation. He isn’t perfect, and Henry Cavill did a great job conveying the internal conflict. This Superman is Superman.
For a full list of the cast, production crew including writers, producers, composer see the IMDb database.