I will admit (at the risk of losing my credibility as a critic) that I am a Zack Snyder fan; 300 is a brilliant work from a true artist and Watchmen is proof that he is capable of more than most filmmakers. With Man of Steel, Snyder proves he is one of the most talented and visionary directors working today. It is a superior superhero movie that perfectly captures the times in which we are living. We also get the chance to watch a character we have all known since childhood evolve and grow in ways we haven’t seen before.
In this iteration of the Superman mythology, Kal-El (Henry Cavill), who takes the name Clark Kent on his adoptive planet, is as conflicted and vulnerable as any human. Kal was sent to Earth from the planet Krypton by his parents, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), just before it was destroyed. Though he looks like us, Kal is an alien who must try to fit in or risk bringing danger to himself or his Earth-parents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent. As he matures, though, his strength and abilities make it clear he has powers that make him superhuman. Kal, now Clark, spends most of his adolescent and early adult life hiding who he is and doing his best not to draw attention.
His life of anonymity is shattered when, in quick succession, he is first found out by the very tenacious and clever Daily Planet journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and then a survivor from his home planet named General Zod (Michael Shannon) descends on Earth and demands that Kal-El surrender himself. Zod, who was a hero warrior on Krypton, has unfinished business with the last son of Krypton and is willing to put all of Earth’s inhabitants at risk to complete his mission.
There are several key reasons Man of Steel works so well. First, Cavill is an excellent Superman and Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are smart to avoid the bumbling Clark Kent personality. Cavill has the physical presence of a superhero but is able to give the character a sense of realness. He’s not two-dimensional and even has a dry sense of humor, delivered expertly along with Cavill’s sly grin. Superman does not speak in platitudes and has no long-winded monologues; he speaks like a real person.
The film’s other strength is Snyder who clearly challenged himself with Man of Steel. Not since his feature film debut Dawn of the Dead (a remake of George Romero’s zombie classic) has Snyder relied so heavily on practical (meaning non-CGI) sets and location shooting. From Smallville to Metropolis to the Fortress of Solitude, the world of Man of Steel is our world. Naturally, Snyder uses CGI to bring Krypton to life, but for the most part it is for background purposes only. The costumes and sets (all of which are magnificent) were designed and built specifically for this film. The result is a textured world that full of symbols and unique and intricate architecture that, once again, lends itself to the believability of this world.
Goyer developed the Man of Steel story with Christopher Nolan and then wrote the screenplay by himself. Having worked on all three of Nolan’s Dark Knight films, Goyer knows how to throw off the shackles of comic book allegiance in order to find the truth of a story. Like the Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel is a much more serious approach to a comic book adaptation. While not nearly as dark as Nolan’s films, Snyder does place Superman in a world with real problems and conflicts. The conflict with Zod – whether he should align himself with the planet on which he was born or the planet he knows – gives our hero a great deal to consider.
The movie runs a bit long (nearly two and a half hours), but it rarely drags. Shannon is wonderful as Zod and Adams’ Lois Lane works as both comic relief and a perfunctory love interest. Snyder does get too wrapped up in the action sequences letting them carry on for much longer than needed. Overall, though, Man of Steel is a great summer movie and an excellent reboot of a much-loved superhero.