When I was a kid I hated the Adventures of Superman TV show. What bugged me about it was the absence of supervillains. Why was Superman dealing with dumb gangsters all the time? Where was Lex Luthor? Where were enemies Superman could really fight? When would Superman really get to show off his powers? Makes me sound like the target audience for Zack Snyder's new movie, but as the years went on I discovered the old Superman comics and I gained an appreciation of what he stood for back then. I could understand the fantasy Superman still satisfied even in those boring old TV shows. I could see, too, that modern comics sometimes went too far in subjecting Superman to grueling, sometimes lethal slugfests, as if he had to prove something by taking a punch, losing the primal appeal of the man who can't be hurt by our usual oppressors and can do what we only dream of. And as a comic book fan, I bought into the dichotomy DC Comics has asserted for the past quarter-century: if Batman is dark, Superman must be light. With that baggage, I read early reviews of Man of Steel with some trepidation. The shadow of Christopher Nolan had fallen across Superman, and to many people that wasn't right. People whose main point of reference for Superman was the 1978 Richard Donner movie approached the new film expecting it to be the antithesis of Donner's, and as such, wrong. A complaint I've read often in the last few days is that Man of Steel is no fun. Fun is subjective, however. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. Others have called it monotonous, particularly in its more violent moments. Monotony is in the eyes of the impatient or the intolerant. I thought Snyder found fresh ways to portray comic-book violence, more Homeric on the man-to-man (and man-to-woman) level than the dispatching of alien hordes in Marvel's The Avengers. The problem with the scale of action in Man of Steel isn't that it was repetitive, but that Snyder has painted himself into a corner. How do you top this? If this is to be the start (so Time Warner hopes) of a DC movie universe, wouldn't it have been wiser for the long term to start on a slightly smaller scale? Fortunately, we don't have to judge Snyder's movie by its usefulness to his employer.
Man of Steel starts unsteadily by turning the legend of Krypton's destruction into an action movie. Snyder puts himself in the "how do you top this?" hole immediately as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) not only has to get his baby son Kal safely into space before the planet blows up, but also has to defeat a coup d'etat launched by everybody's least-favorite Kryptonian, General Zod (Michael Shannon). After much dragon riding, deep sea diving, etc., Jor-El has sort of saved the planet, in the less meaningful political sense, and Zod's clique are launched into the Phanton Zone. While there was an elegant austerity to the Phantom Zone concept, and to all of Krypton, in the Donner film, here the authorities generously equip the criminals with an easily-weaponized spaceship for when they wake up. When the planet's demise wakes them ahead of schedule, Zod seeks out Jor-El's little rocketship, knowing that his enemy had secreted the Codex, a complete inventory of Kryptonian genetic codes, on board the vessel.
Meanwhile, we see Kal-El's coming of age as an Earthman in a non-linear fashion that is now pretty common in comic books but in movies gets a director compared to Terrence Malick. Snyder clearly owes a debt to Malick for Man of Steel's flashback to life in Smallville, but that's just one of his debts. Perhaps the most obvious is to the second Battlestar Galactica series, shown by Snyder's penchant for zooming in and out during flying scenes. For what it's worth, there are at least two Galactica actors in the cast, but I digress. The Smallville flashbacks are intercut with Clark Kent's wanderings up north, where the bearded drifter (Henry Cavill's facial hair has inspired an ad campaign) does odd jobs, including saving lives during oil rig explosions. He keeps a low profile because his terrestrial father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) warned him against using his powers lest he accidentally harm or terrorize people. Jonathan is coldbloodedly earnest on this point in a way that maybe only Kevin Costner can be, considering seriously the notion that Clark ought to have let a busload of classmates drown rather than call attention to himself. Never let it be said, however, that Pa Kent doesn't remain true to his principles to the bitter end. Despite this, Pa and Ma (Diane Lane) have done their best to raise Clark as a decent person, and it shows. Regrettably, even Superman has to go the reluctant-hero route in our time, but Man of Steel fortunately doesn't go overboard with this motif. Clark is a hero many times over before he dons his costume or learns about his heritage; he just keeps his identity very secret.
Give Lois Lane (Amy Adams) one lead, however, and Clark's identity isn't secret for long. Snyder, Nolan and credited writer David S. Goyer bend over backward to make the archetypal nosy reporter a kind of superwoman in her own right instead of the legendarily clueless ninny she was for much of her history in the comics. Investigating reports of an anomalous object discovered in the Arctic, she penetrates an ancient Kryptonian spaceship at virtually the same time Clark does. Seeing a sample of the stranger's strength, she follows a trail of urban legends straight to Smallville. Clark convinces her to keep her story under wraps, but she'd already shared information with an irresponsible blogger (insultingly named "Woodbern") who fingers Lois once the world learns that visitors from Krypton are looking for one of their own in our midst. The government quickly grabs her, but that's a good thing, since it'll keep her in proximity to the main action for the rest of the picture. The Kryptonians prove helpful as well, taking her with Kal-El onto their spaceship, though they'll have cause to regret their hospitality.
I think we all know the rest. Zod and friends want to conquer the earth and make a good try at it. Smallville, Metropolis (where Lois, as usual, works for the Daily Planet) and someplace in the Indian Ocean get devastated. Superman (a military tag for our hero, though Lois has the idea first) gets a workout, but it's a relatively modest feat of strength that gets the biggest gasp from the audience. Ironic, isn't it?
Superman emerges from Man of Steel still a far "lighter" character than Batman. He earns acceptance, even though the government inevitably remains wary. His anxiety over whether people will accept and trust him is resolved in part, and neatly, when a priest suggests that he trust people -- make a leap of faith -- first. However alienated he still feels, he decisively rejects his alien-ness in favor of his humanity. While some may deplore at least one thing he does, he remains far from "dark." The essential Superman is still with us, and ideally will be back someday. Henry Cavill will definitely be welcome. As Superman he is more inhibited than tormented, more principled than defensive, but his integrity is unquestionable -- and the actor, as everyone has observed, definitely looks the part, especially from the neck down. Cavill had failed to impress me in Immortals, and I've never seen The Tudors, but now I can say with confidence that he's no Brandon Routh, and I may go further than that. Snyder's ensemble is strong across the board. Michael Shannon gives a jarring performance as the villain mostly by underplaying. Compared to other Kryptonians, Zod has a flat, very American voice, and Shannon tends to bark out his lines in the manner of a singleminded, soulless man. He's disappointed people who love Terrence Stamp's Zod as a camp icon, as well as people who expect the villain to have the best lines. But I appreciate a villain who is just plain mean, and Shannon's Zod definitely meets that standard. By comparison, Russell Crowe is actually overused, his AI presence in later scenes serving too much as a deus ex machina -- or in English, an info dump for both Clark and Lois. Meanwhile, the sleeper of the picture, the unexpected scene-stealer, is Christopher Meloni of Law and Order fame as an Army guy who starts out suspicious of Superman but finally recognizes him as an ally. Meloni gets mega-badass points for his showdown with a Kryptonian warrior woman (Antje Traue). After emptying his firearms into her superhuman and armored form to no effect, he decides to draw his combat knife. She respects the gesture, mirrors it, and tells him "A good death is its own reward." Later, he gets to throw that back in her face. Dunk-dunk. Man of Steel has quite a few little grace notes like that, along with the properly overblown mayhem. More so than in Watchmen, Snyder directs comic-book action with virtuoso assurance and dramatic momentum. People who claim that they lost interest in the movie because of the supposedly repetitive violence have it backwards: the violence seems repetitive because they've already lost interest, or lacked interest in the first place. I get that some people are sick of superhero movies, but that distaste has biased some observers against Man of Steel. If you're not sick of superhero movies yet, Man of Steel will prove that the genre has life to spare. And while it may not be saying too much, it's easily Zack Snyder's best film to date. It's enough of a stand-alone picture that there doesn't really need to be a sequel. But after asking what Snyder can do to top this, I wouldn't mind seeing his answer someday.