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When Christopher Nolan and David Goyer brought us Batman Begins in 2005 they were working with an advantage: no one had ever told a full Batman origin story in a live-action film. While the Dark Knight had made many previous appearances on the big screen, some of which touched on how Bruce Wayne became a superhero, Nolan and Goyer were the first filmmakers to take an entire film to tell the epic tale of an orphan who grew up to become a symbol and strike fear in the hearts of Gotham City’s criminals.
Such an advantage did not exist when the duo began to develop Man of Steel. Audiences seen the origins of Superman in a movie before – Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie from 1978 is a pop culture lexicon - and since its release it has been seen as one of the definitive stories about the legendary comic book character. But with clever story structure, incredible visual style courtesy of director Zack Snyder, and a collection of well-written characters and great performances, the new film is not just able to keep rank with its esteemed predecessor – it’s able in many ways to surpass it.
With the exception of a few small-yet-key elements that I won’t spoil here, Man of Steel tells the same story of the birth of Superman that we are used to – a young alien is sent from the dying planet of Krypton to Earth where he becomes the greatest hero the world has ever seen – but it’s through smart storytelling that Snyder and Goyer (who wrote the screenplay) avoid having it feel like a retread of old material. Similar to Batman Begins, the plot plays out non-linearly, with us first seeing the birth of young Kal-El on Krypton and then flashing-forward to a 30-something Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working on a fishing ship and heroically saving a bunch of workers on a burning oil rig with his impossible strength. Flashbacks to Clark’s life growing up in Smallville, Kansas and growing up with Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane) are used regularly to inform who the character is as an adult, and it’s done with incredible emotional impact. Rather than weighing the film down, making movie-goers impatiently wait for the new elements to kick in, the use of the origin elevates the movie and gives us a better understanding of who Superman is.
The script has some pacing issues and there’s the occasional small plot hole, but Man of Steel is a smart drama that tackles some interesting ideas, perspectives, and philosophies. The heart of the story finds Kal-El/Clark torn between his two dads: the man who raised him, Jonathan Kent, and his biological father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe). The latter sees his son’s potential to be a beacon of hope for the human race – a source of inspiration and goodness. The former, however, realistically recognizes the social terror and fear that would come with his only child revealing himself to the world as an alien. Both make the audience look outwardly at our own world and ask the same questions, while the film fuses both ideas to create the Superman we know.
Man of Steel is one of the most visually stunning films we’ve seen in the superhero genre. Finding and matching the more somber tone of the story, Snyder finds a perfect excuse to once again make grand use of muted colors and high contrast (which also has the effect of making bright white light dazzling). At the same time he also shows surprising stylistic restraint, severely cutting down on the number of slow-motion shots that he has come to be known (and slightly mocked) for.
Action has always been Snyder’s greatest skill, and he certainly doesn't disappoint here. Acknowledging that his hero and villain essentially have the strength of gods, the director goes full tilt in his action sequences and lets us feel the impact of the punches both in the cinematography, and in his shot construction and use of CGI. Your mouth will gape watching Jor-El whiz around Krypton on a giant dragonfly and the devastating destruction done to Metropolis when Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon) go head to head.
An up-and-coming actor who will certainly see his star rise once the film is released, Cavill brings a great energy to the part of Superman and has a fresh-faced charm that allows him to seamlessly melt into the role. While the movie doesn’t really give him a chance to revel in his heroics, the superhero played with a more somber tone of self-discovery, there is an undeniable, charming spark within the English actor that lets him capture the pure essence of goodness in Superman while also communicating his internal struggle with his place in the world.
Surrounding Cavill is a team of actors who likewise find the all-important spirit of their characters. As the most influential figures in Superman’s life, both Costner and Crowe bring a powerful, necessary gravitas to their roles that perfectly illustrate their importance to the story and helps support their beliefs about Kal-El/Clark’s existence on our planet. Shannon provides General Zod with a deeply intimidating presence and brings to light what is really a philosophically fascinating version of the antagonist. The showstopper, though, is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. She effortlessly dials into Lois as a hard-nosed reporter, but also mixes in heart, fortitude, real intelligence and grounded morality.
Man of Steel doesn’t spend a great deal of time directly focusing on the next step for the franchise or giving hints about a long-rumored DC Comics Cinematic Universe (similar to the developments over at Marvel Studios), but it does something perhaps even more valuable: it sets up a fascinating and compelling tonal world that audiences will want to see Superman explore. It’s realistic in approach and honest in emotion, but also wonderfully fantastical and cinematic. The future is bright for the Man of Tomorrow.
(To 3D or not to 3D? Read our review right here!)