For all his flaws, I tend to be, if not a Zach Snyder supporter, then at least Snyder neutral. I found his Dawn of the Dead remake to be largely unneeded but not insulting (and the one film he’s done that actually had a good selection of songs.) 300 was entertaining and certainly gave us a lot of eye candy. I will defend Watchmen as having surface problems (like the mostly terrible soundtrack), but being near as good as anyone could have made it into a feature film. It certainly was more ‘extreme’ than the comic, but that in itself almost seems like a commentary on Watchmen’s effect on the comic industry. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was not what I would consider a great film, but as a children’s film it was, once again, not insulting. It also was one of the better films at incorporating 3D. Plus, I respect any director willing to make the leap to a new type of media, the way Brad Bird, Wes Anderson, Spielberg, etc. have started to do, slipping from animation to live action and vice versa. The one absolute turd in the punch bowl of his career is Sucker Punch and on that one I will admit he made an abomination so bad that it is probably one of the worst films I have ever seen, even if parts of it were fun to look at.
To add further context, I’m one of the rare individuals out there that isn’t just a Superman fan (love the big, blue boy scout), but one that hates the Donner movies. And by extension, Superman Returns, which took all the flaws of the Donner films and multiplied them exponentially while cutting out all the redeeming qualities. I have never seen a more radical misstep than the storyline involving his illegitimate son. It’s not like I haven’t enjoyed Superman on film, but for some reason the interpretations I respected and admired were all on TV. The animated series would have to be top of the heap, along with it’s parlance into Justice League, but also the George Reeves series, Lois and Clark and even Smallville because they all were smart enough to respect the character of Clark Kent, unlike the bumbling fool that he became under Christopher Reeves.
So it was with understandable trepidation I approached Man of Steel.
Somehow, against all odds and beyond all reason, I finally found a Superman film I can embrace. Is it perfect? No. As I was dissecting things with a friend afterwards, more and more things started to come out to nitpick. To name a few things that came up, it was too serious, it was a little long, it effs with the mythology in ways that I was not happy with. And while he may be the Man of Steel, he apparently has a suit of dodgeball material. Seriously, that thing is terrible. Can we put the guy back in his proper uniform instead of this New 52 garbage? Yet in the most important ways, it was the Superman movie I have been waiting for.
Apparently, the over-the-top visual style of Zach Snyder and the gloomy story stylings of Christopher Nolan, for all the oddness of the pairing, resulted in them meeting in the middle. The best way I can describe the result is with an oxymoron: it is like an intelligent Michael Bay film. While a great deal of the beginning of the film moves slowly and focuses on character while detailing the life of Clark as he prepares to assume the mantle of Superman (Snyder’s restraint is admirable at this point), once the last third of the film kicks in, the action is nearly non-stop and features a kind of overkill in the destruction I have never before seen. It finally captures, someplace other than animation, the power of these characters engaged in combat. The military is featured in the film as a positive force (for the most part.) And where Superman Returns sought to eliminate it, Man of Steel embraces the character’s deep American symbolism. (It also embraces his Kansas roots in several ways, not running from the rural beginnings of the character.) Destruction, long action sequences and military rah-rah show up in Bay’s films all the time. The differences here are, a) someone seems to have given a crap about the script and b) Snyder is much better at actually putting together sequences that make a logical sense, or he has a much better editor.
Then there is the subtext; the religious nature of the Superman mythos has always been present. His origin is, after all, a cosmic retelling of the story of Moses. But Steel manages to inject the film with, if not a more subtle allegory, than certainly a more palatable presentation than we got from Bryan Singer.
My biggest problems with the film were the ways in which it messed with the mythology the most. There have obviously been changes when it comes to Superman’s mythos over the years. Hell, Kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White all came from the radio show in the 40s and were adopted into the larger Superman universe. But at this point, some things are sacrosanct. The film flirts wildly with violating that… and yet, it seems to have been done from a respectful place. Most of the largest changes make sense within the story they’re telling, so I was able to put aside my bile and muscle through, much to my benefit.
So far as the performances go, Henry Cavill makes a splendid Man of Tomorrow, even if he needs a spit curl. His Clark is just plain good, with emotions simmering below the surface. Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne as Lois Lane and Perry White are serviceable, if generic and subdued. The standouts here are Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner as Clark’s two dads from different worlds. Both do a hell of a lot with what they are given. Michael Shannon’s Zod manages to completely break with Terrance Stamp’s iconic portrayal, much to his gain. He manages to project genuine menace.
I’m not sure how I’ll feel towards this film with a second viewing or years down the road. All I know is, for the time being I finally like a Superman movie and it feels good.
(Four damns out of five)