“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!”
Just for the record, I did not copy the words above from any source because they have been indelibly ingrained in my memory by hearing them every week from 1952 to 1958, when the “Adventures of Superman” starring George Reeves ran for 102 episodes. Yes, I admit I am a Superman junkie and have been ever since I could read comic books.
For the uninitiated, Superman was born from the pen of Jerry Siegel and the artwork of Joe Shuster on April 18, 1938, when he made his incipient appearance in Action Comics #1. Certainly it would be only fitting if the character epitomizing all of the iconic superheroes celebrated the year of his 75th birthday by starring in a film worthy of his stature. And “Man of Steel” definitely is that movie because it offers a somewhat fresh take on the very familiar saga.
[Before I go on, allow me a brief pause here to pay tribute to Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in four films spanning the years from 1978 to 1987. Of the six actors who have portrayed the beloved superhero on TV and in films, Reeve will always be my favorite. He really made me believe a man can fly, and his courage in the wake of his paralyzing injury after falling off a horse in 1995 until his untimely death in 2004 defies adequate description. I never knew him, but I will always love and admire him.]
“Man of Steel” begins traditionally enough on the planet Krypton, which is on the verge of self-destruction because of a meltdown in its core. Faced with unavoidable and imminent death, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), place their recently born son, Kal-El, in a spaceship, along with a special genetic codex, and launch him to safety and out of the clutches of General Zod (Michael Shannon), who wants to take over Krypton. After committing a particularly heinous act, Zod and his buddies are sentenced to spend time floating around space in the Phantom Zone.
In the meantime, Kal-El’s space capsule crashes into Earth in Smallville, Kans., where the infant is discovered by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, who raise him as their own son. Unlike the stereotypical Superman films to date, however, this one does not treat Clark’s evolution into adulthood in chronological order. Instead it reveals his childhood and younger years in a series of flashbacks throughout the movie, and this technique works beautifully. Of course, life on Earth is difficult for Clark because as a native of Krypton he has “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.”
Now back to space for a bit. The force of Krypton’s explosion freed Zod and company from their captivity, and when the villain discovers Kal-El’s whereabouts, he heads to Earth because he wants Kal-El to surrender, and he also plans on using the codex to turn Earth into a planet much like Krypton. Of course when Zod arrives, he is a threat to the entire population, and this sets up the major conflict in the film because Clark feels obligated to protect his new homeland from the evil invaders.
When we first encounter Clark after his voyage from Krypton, he is an adult and just wandering around doing odd jobs in an attempt to find himself and his place in life. Among the many things I liked about this film was the way it revealed the facts of Clark’s life by vacillating between the past and the present. When he is young, his father constantly reminds him that he must keep a tight rein on his special gift, or he will end up frightening people. He carries this conflict into adulthood, and in the movie’s production notes director Zack Snyder (“300”) explained why believed this approach to the story would appeal to audiences.
“He’s wondering, ‘What is my purpose?’ We all ask that of ourselves, but it’s harder for Clark because the things that he’s best at are also the things that are most frightening about him to others; knowledge of his existence would call into question everything we know about who we are. So he’s on his own, trying to find out what his place is in the world, where he belongs, what is his destiny. I think the audience will relate because most of us share those same questions and insecurities when we are starting out in life.”
Also in the production notes, Amy Adams, who is simply superb in the key role of Lois Lane, offered some additional insight into Clark’s dilemma.
“Part of Clark’s journey is finding acceptance. He’s running from it, hiding from it, because he hasn’t come to terms with who he is, and that makes for a lonely existence. He’s had to work hard not to expose his abilities, but he’s made some mistakes there, and that has made him extremely intriguing to someone like Lois, whose job, whose very nature, is about uncovering — and exposing — the truth.”
Unlike other films in this series, “Man of Steel” presents us with a more humanized version of Clark in that he carries the burden of the advice from both his real father, Jor-El (“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”) and his foster father, Jonathan (“You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.”)
I freely admit that I walked into the theater filled with apprehension and trepidation about whether this movie would do justice to my favorite superhero, but my fears were almost immediately allayed, and I soon settled in for an incredible adventure. With all due respect to all of the actors who have donned the blue and red costume throughout the years, Cavill looks more the part than any of the other ones. In one scene he appears without a shirt, and he gives new meaning to the term “ripped.” And whether he is playing the conflicted Clark or the confident defender of “truth, justice, and the American way,” Cavill is consistently believable, engaging, and exceptional.
Of course one of the keys to the success of any Superman story is his relationship with Lois Lane, ace reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper. In the earlier films, a certain amount of chemistry existed between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in those respective roles, but the chemistry between Cavill and Adams is nothing short of electric. When they look at each other, no words are necessary to know what they are thinking and feeling.
You really won’t find any weak links in this stellar cast. Crowe’s portrayal of Jor-El is spot on as is Shannon’s performance as Zod. Lane and Costner excel as Clark’s parents, and Laurence Fishburne is outstanding in a rather abbreviated role as Daily Planet editor Perry White.
And what about the special effects? Quite simply they are indescribably magnificent. The pyrotechnics are consistently stunning and a true testament the technical advances in cinema throughout the past few years. As for the scenes in which Superman soars all over the place, I will just say you will believe a man can fly. In fact every frame of this film is a cinematic masterpiece.
Add to all of this an incredibly powerful musical score by Hans Zimmer, and what you have is a film earning a final score of emphatic 10. Because at two hours and 20 minutes, the movie is a bit long, I was thinking of awarding a nine, but the ending is so perfect that the 10 is well deserved.
“Man of Steel” is inarguably a marvelous addition to Superman filmography mainly because Cavill proves himself unquestionably worthy of wearing that famous costume. And somewhere Christopher Reeve is smiling.