OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front. Superman is 80 years old. (Not the character, the franchise.) That means there are 80 years of history and tradition surrounding the character, spanning multiple mediums (comics, radio, TV, movies) and any filmmaker who wants to take on Superman must find a way to deal with all that history. Zack Snyder, director of “Man of Steel,” has chosen to mostly just ignore it. Aside from a few basics – the emblematic “S,” names of characters, that sort of thing — this film has almost nothing to do with any other iteration of Superman that has come before. Since I am not an expert on comic books, and even when I do read comics, I rarely read Superman, I’m going to leave the analyzation of the ways “Man of Steel” doesn’t measure up to the Superman mythology to other, more knowledgable sources. (If you want to read an expert’s opinion, you can’t do better than “Superman:Birthright” writer Mark Waid’s review at http://thrillbent.com/blog/man-of-steel-since-you-asked/) In order to set all that aside, for the rest of this review, I’m going to refer to people by the actor’s name, not the character’s name. I doubt you’d need to know much about Superman to figure out who’s who.
On a faraway planet, an advanced civilization breeds its citizens in test tubes, genetically programmed for specific castes and specific jobs. This civilization has exploited their planet to death, and Russell Crowe is a rebel scientist trying to convince his government that they need to do something to save their race from extinction. The government refuses to listen to him, but he does convince one person: military leader Michael Shannon, who stages an unsuccessful coup right before the planet blows up. In the midst of the coup, Crowe refuses to yield a MacGuffin to Shannon, instead putting it in a spacecraft alongside his infant son and shooting both off into space. Shannon kills Crowe for his defiance, but then gets shot into space himself, just before the planet blows up.
The infant with the MacGuffin crash-lands in the Kansas backyard of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, who raise him to be an all-American kid. As he slowly discovers that he has some really odd abilities, his dad convinces him that it’s best to keep them a secret from everyone, and as a result, he grows up a rather sullen, introspective kid who has a hard time trusting anyone.
In perhaps the films biggest misstep, Costner and his son have a typical teenager/father fight that culminates in the youngster telling him “you’re not my real dad!” right before a violent tornado strikes and takes the life of his father. This scene is straight out of “Spider-man,” except that the kid could’ve saved his father, but chooses not to as a way of honoring Costner’s desire that he keep his abilities a secret.
That doesn’t stop him from helping a lot of other people, though. When he gets older and becomes Henry Cavill, he finds it hard to keep his strange abilities a secret for long — either his temper or his impulse to help people in danger keep outing him, and so he becomes a Wolverine-like drifter, wandering from small town to small town and working lots of blue-collar jobs. In his search to figure out who he is and where he came from, he stumbles across an ancient vessel buried in the arctic ice for 20,000 years which also, somehow, contains a walking, talking, question-answering hologram of Russel Crowe, his real father. (How his father’s consciousness got onto a ship that old when, ostensibly, he only died 30 years before is a question the film never answers.)
But, while talking to his dead father (who doesn’t seem very dead – one wonders if there are any ways this projection of Crowe’s consciousness is any different than Crowe actually being alive) Cavill accidentally sets off a distress beacon aboard the ancient ship. Shannon, who was released from his weird icy prison when his planet destructed, has been looking for the MacGuffin ever since, and now he knows where it is. “You don’t know how long I’ve been searching for you,” Shannon tells Cavill when he finds him. And I muttered to myself “Um, about thirty years?” Since Cavill was born, basically. Why does the timeline of these things seem so hard to grasp?
In an awesomely chilling scene, Shannon and his cronies orbit Earth and take over all electronic devices everywhere (including iPods and ancient TVs in Mongolia) and inform the Earthlings that there’s a fugitive alien among them, and if they turn him over to Shannon now, he won’t have to start destroying cities. Of course the earthlings know nothing about Cavill’s existence, since he’s been hiding all these years, so it’s up to him to turn himself in and save the planet. Which he does, of course. But then he finds out about Shannon’s real plan, which is to turn Earth into New Krypton by terraforming the crap out of it, destroying all human life in the process. (I assume that means it would destroy all other forms of life on the planet as well, making one wonder just exactly what Shannon wants with the barren rock that would be left once he’s done, and why he doesn’t just go find another barren rock somewhere else in the universe to make New Krypton. But again — not answered by the movie.)
And so the battle is on, between Cavill, who thinks that, while earthlings might not be the brightest or strongest or most trustworthy beings in the universe, they don’t deserve to become collateral damage of Shannon’s new development project, and Shannon, who, frankly, is just doing what he was genetically programmed to do: protect the interests of his race. In the process, they destroy an awful lot of buildings, including the house Cavill grew up in. I’ll leave it up to you to guess who wins, and how, because hey, I don’t want to spoil the movie for you.
As a science fiction action thriller, “Man of Steel” is pretty good stuff. The action scenes are exciting executions of disaster porn. Lots of things blow up and/or get broken up. Director Zack Snyder has scaled back a bit on his Gee Wiz! visual style that I found so annoying in “The Watchmen” and “300” — there are no orgasmic explosions or open fractures. It’s a nice touch that Cavill and Shannon (and his cronies) move frighteningly fast, not just when they’re flying, but also when they’re fighting – they really do seem like creatures not from around here. The cinematography manages to be both dark and gritty and to pop off the screen. It’s a thrilling, action-packed adventure, with real stakes, decently delineated characters, and did I mention lots of action?
Go see it. Go ahead and forget that it’s supposed to be a Superman movie, and just enjoy it for what it is. It’s not nearly as stupid and pointless and repetitive as a lot of things playing at the multiplex this summer. That’s worth something, in my book.