“It’s not an ‘S.’ On my world, it stands for hope.”
After the less than critical and financial success of “Superman Returns,” many wondered whether Superman really could return. Warner Brothers didn’t seem anxious to renew the franchise, turning instead to Christopher Nolan’s highly profitable Batman films to fill their comic book quota.
But, as we all know, Superman doesn’t die easily. As a slew of other heroes slugged their way across the screen, many saw it as a supplanting of Superman. In truth, these only created a yearning for the greatest hero of them all. That hope, along with Nolan and David Goyer’s Hollywood clout, paved the way for the Man of Steel to return once again.
And a glorious return “Man of Steel” is. It’s a film loaded with imaginative images, great emotion, rock-’em-sock-’em action, and powerfully resonant themes.
I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.
As you’d expect, we begin on the doomed planet Krypton, where that world’s leading scientist, Jor of the House of El (Russell Crowe), and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), are engaged in an act of treason. They’re bringing a child into their dying world. Baby Kal-El is Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries. Jor-El has big plans for his little one. He plans on sending him to the planet Earth, not just to spare him the same fate as his parents’ but also to bridge the gap between the two worlds.
As envisioned by MOS’s art directors, Krypton is a wondrous place, an ancient world of muted colors, fantastic beasts, and technology more artistic than scientific. Its rooms are expansive, like theatrical stages, yet they seem to have been sculpted out of rock, giving a paradoxical impression—largeness of spirit stunted by lifeless tradition.
Jor-El represents the large spirit, a moral visionary whose enemy, General Zod, represents the old, dying order. Jor places within the body of his son the literal hope of his dying people. Before Zod can thwart her, Lara launches her baby into space. Imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, Zod vows to escape and find the son of the Els.
As compelling as all this is, director Zack Snyder knows Jor-El isn’t the one we paid to see. He jumps ahead 33 years to show the grown son struggling to find his place on Earth. As handsome British actor Henry Cavill, who does the honors, ruefully reported, “They trained me within an inch of my life.” When, eventually, he dons the high-tech mesh super suit, he does indeed fill it in all the right places. But, early on, he gets to show off his physique sans costume, saving a crew of oil rig workers from a fiery death.
Of course, as the actor knows, it’s neither the muscles nor the suit that endear Superman to us. As a drifter working odd jobs, hoping to both hide and find himself, Cavill’s Clark Kent is a quiet study in fear and yearning. His foster father (Kevin Costner) has taught to him keep his abilities a secret because the world isn’t ready to meet an alien of such power. Yet he also encourages him to discover the source of that power, finding his origin and his destiny.
The film cuts back forth between the present and the past, flashing back to scenes wherein the boy flounders in a flood of super-senses and abilities. As Jonathan and Martha Kent, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane splendidly portray patience and love, fear, and hope for a special child with special needs. (Costner deserves an Oscar for his performance.)
Eventually, the Daily Planet’s Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who’s been on the trail of this mysterious guardian angel for months, discovers Clark just as he’s learning who he really is. The two quickly bond. That’s a good thing because he needs all the friends he can get, especially when Zod makes his appearance. The General demands that the Son of El be turned over to him—or else. Now in full regalia, Superman appears above a desert landscape whereon U.S. Army forces are arrayed against him. They consider him one of the invaders, a threat to security. He has to convince them otherwise.
He spends the rest of the movie doing just that. This is where the film kicks into high gear, delivering near nonstop action until the final, shocking resolution of the crisis. Along the way, Cavill gives us a hero worthy of the name. Call it a Kryptonian symbol or call it an “S” on his chest; he shows us the great heart that beats beneath it.
Kudos also go to Michael Shannon, the villain of the piece. His Zod is more complex than the one Terence Stamp was given to play in the Chris Reeve films. His motivation is clear, a cause to which he is fanatically devoted and for which he is willing to take the lives of millions. Though he shouts his share of threats and warnings (“I will find him!” and so forth), he also conveys sadness and ambivalence toward the son of Jor-El. He makes a terrifying menace to the earth and a worthy foe for Superman.
Each player, in fact, does more than justice to his part. Boiling down the performances of Chris Meloni, Laurence Fishburne, Amy Adams, and Russell Crowe to their essence, there’s only one word: heroic.
I could nitpick a number of things: for instance, the writers’ idea of “death” for Jor-El, the ever shakier ground for the concept of a “secret identity,” the amount of damage Metropolis sustains during the Kryptonians’ battle (gonna need a few more screen doors in that town). I would’ve liked a bit more humor, more of a sense of fun. I’ll leave all that for us fanboys for pick apart elsewhere. There are too many powerful moments flowing out of too compelling a vision of Superman for anyone to sweat the small stuff. This a great film.
Many times during MOS, people are shown looking upwards. They see signs and portents, danger and menace, but they also see a being of such majesty and power, they can’t help but feel uplifted. Much has been written on the parallels between the Son of God and the Son of Jor-El. We press them a little too hard sometimes, but they nevertheless remain. This film abounds in those parallels.
But the Superman myth is a poor substitute for the deep truths of the Gospel. Superman wants us to live and go on our way. Jesus bids us come to Him and die. Superman offers himself for our physical rescue; Jesus offered Himself for our spiritual transformation. We can never enter Superman’s story. The Son of God entered ours—and we, through faith, may enter His.
It’s hard to choose any one scene in the film as my favorite, but there’s a wonderful moment when blue-garbed, red-caped Kal-El, no longer fearful of his destiny, appears suspended in the sky. He is serving notice to the world that he is here. General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) dryly remarks, “Well, you’ve got my attention.”
One day, one blessed day, as some awestruck disciples were promised so long ago, we will see One coming “in like manner” as they saw him go.
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