They’re birds, they’re planes, they’re spoilers for Man of Steel. Read accordingly.
Considering Superman is the original superhero his latest cinematic outing, director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, sure owes a lot to other superheroes. Without Iron Man and its progeny The Avengers, without Christopher Nolan’s colossal Dark Knight Trilogy and without Superman’s own 2006 fumble Superman Returns, Man of Steel doesn’t exist.
It’s a clear and publicly lauded springboard for a potential DC film universe and eventual Justice League film. It’s a darker, grittier take on an iconic hero that’s spent a lot of his time in a more joyful, comparatively care-free spotlight. It’s a movie that tries to redefine an established character, rather than spend time thoughtfully contemplating said character’s past outings with the delicacy of a fan film. And it’s a shit load of other shit too.
The success of The Avengers and all twenty of its various tie-in/spin-off/prequels owe an immense debt of gratitude to Robert Downey Jr. for his character-defining take on Tony Stark. Downey brought enough wit and charm to a movie about an alcoholic and his dad’s friend fighting in robot suits to hoist up not only that film and two sequels, but an entire film universe and one of the most successful movies of all time.
Henry Cavill isn’t Robert Downey Jr.
And that’s okay, because Clark Kent/Kal-El isn’t Tony Stark. Where Stark is relatable because of a cocktail of regret and sardonic smartassery Cavill’s Clark Kent relies on a more traditional coming of age journey to relate to audiences. He’s a directionless wanderer caught somewhere between his adoptive father’s cautious heroism and his birth parents’ being aliens that got shived and blow up a long ass time ago. The 80’s, am I right? Super freaky.
The former is played with an impressive emotional heft by Kevin Costner, whose Jonathan Kent is a man near obsessed with preparing his son for the world he can’t hide him from forever. It’s a more fearful interpretation of Pa Kent than Superman fans might expect, one more concerned with his adoptive son’s safety and freedom then the immense potential for good his son wields. While many fans have cried foul in regards to Costner and writer David S. Goyer’s take on the Kent patriarch Costner performs the hell out of his character and, much like near every actor in Man of Steel’s impressive ensemble, the film is better for his presence in it without a doubt.
Costner finds himself paired with Diane Lane, whose Martha Kent figuratively and literally takes the back seat to the relationship between Clark and his father. But Lane does well with what she’s given, playing a caring mother that just happens to feel like an amalgam of all of your mom’s wackiest mom moments rolled into one. Whether she’s working in the garden in mom jeans or looking through photo albums in mom jeans Diane Lane is utterly believable as a mom in mom jeans for whom having an alien son she cares a great deal for is the norm.
Opposite Costner and Lane’s Kents Clark is equally influence at first by the absence of and later by the demo version of half of his deceased parents. While his mom, somebody-El, is essentially around to have contractions and then get blown the hell up by space lava, Kal-El’s biological father Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, is a major presence through the film, albeit as a fancy Tomagachi rather than an actually dad.
Jonathan Kent fears for his son because of the unknown. What can his son do to the world? What will the world do to his son? Jor-El, on the other hand, knows the answers to both of those questions. Whatever the hell he wants, bitches can’t do jack shit. As such his influence on his son leans less towards caution and more toward turning into the sun and blazing bright glory onto the man-apes whose planet Kal-El calls home.
Watching Cavill’s Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El land on a happy medium between the ideals of his fathers lends Man of Steel a theme of nature v. nurture that goes hand in hand with its examination of eugenics. In the universe of Man of Steel the waning days of Krypton saw the implementation of selective breeding, like that movie Antz. Jor-El is a scientist because he was made in a Matrix baby-sphere to be a scientist and General Zod is a general for the same reason. While Superman is inarguably a product of the influence of his two fathers Zod’s entire being is the product of genetic designation.
If the issue was ever up for debate it’s probably safe to say that Snyder and Goyer are again eugenics. Go figure. And these Jurassic Park sentiments are brought to life by Michael Shannon’s performance as not only a General, but a General bred to uphold the outdated Kryptonian ideals both his planet and he himself fall victim too. Long after the physical and social constructs of Krypton are obliterated Zod remains a slave to the possibility of reviving them. And to fashion. And to scary dub step messages.
Much like Tony Stark’s alcoholism, the internal, existential dilemmas Shannon’s Zod and Cavill’s Kal-El bring to the film are the grounding factors that remind you that a man that can fly and shoot laser eyes and get onto a military installation in dick-hugging tights is still a man.
But in its examination of nature v. nurture and eugenics and dads and dead dads and double dead dads and destiny and shit Man of Steel loses the levity of an Iron Man or a Marvel Universe film, so for better or worse you aren’t going to see Clark Kent joking around with a secretary about jerking it. But that’s not to say that Man of Steel goes as deep into the shadows and grit as The Dark Knight.
Like Nolan’s Batman films, Man of Steel strives to be more than just a comic book movie. Even if it doesn’t strive quite as far. Where The Dark Knight was a crime drama and The Dark Knight Rises was a war epic Man of Steel steeps itself in science fiction. Sure every superhero story is technically science fiction or fantasy, but Man of Steel wears its sci-fi elements on its sleeves. There’s an alien planet, an alien robot and an alien cow. Straight up aliens stare down at Earth from expansive space stations while millennia old dilapidated scout ships lay buried in Artic ice until brought to life by a hyper-advanced artificial intelligence. It’s an alien invasion wrapped in blue tights and a red cape.
While Man of Steel doesn’t quite strike a steadfast balance between Marvel and The Dark Knight it does without a doubt achieve its presumed goal of being not Superman Returns. Where Superman Returns focused on being sad and tricking cuckolds into raising your baby Man of Steel puts its eggs in a more enjoyable basket: punching. Superman punches a lot of stuff, including, in a scene that perfectly captures the over-the-top brawling of a Superman comic book, a robot tentacle monster made of smaller robot monsters.
The film’s climax is pretty much a half an hour slugfest which is either going to be the coolest thing you’ve see all summer or just plain mind-numbing. To detractors, I say the guy has a dead dad, a dead fake dad and a dead fake real dad. Let him punch something, hippy. I’d be hard pressed to deny that watching Zod and Superman fly and breakneck speed around and through buildings wasn’t totally kickass, but I’d be equally hard pressed not to admit I had a probable collateral body count running in my head the entire time and it was well over 9,000.
I enjoyed Man of Steel, ever more so upon a second viewing, and the sheer volume of discussion it has managed to generate amongst admirers and disparagers alike has made me enjoy it all the more. Judging from the numbers coming in from opening weekend Man of Steel will probably serve as the launch pad for a larger DC Universe and so far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing. Because in case you’ve forgotten the role of Aquaman is my birthright.
Does Man of Steel succeed on every level? Nope. But it does successfully reinvigorate a long dormant film franchise that’s last successful outing came out over thirty years ago. Superman is an age old character whose various incarnations throughout the last 75 years read like the pulse of American culture and Man of Steel has injected that character with the sensibilities or here and now. That’s success enough for me.