|Henry Cavill plays Superman in "Man of Steel." Photo: Handout
MANILA, Philippines - Finally, Warner Bros got it right.
After an aborted attempt to revive the Superman franchise via the emo “Superman Returns” movie by Bryan Singer, Warner ditches the Richard Donner version for the Christopher Nolan approach. The blue-eyed, near fairy-tale like optimism of the '70s Superman version is not here.
This Man of Steel is grittier and more real world; Superman causes damage every time he takes off. Humor and romance take a backseat to grim narrative, and optimism is replaced with an orphan’s dogged determination against perceived xenophobia.
There is hope, though, in this Superman and it can be seen through the eyes of his two sets of parents, the family El and the Kents. Superman is no longer just about truth, justice and the American way. Here, he is the embodiment of every parent’s firm belief in the infinite value of their children, and how they can strive to be the best version of themselves with or without the red cape.
The movie’s plot mixes story beats from the first two Superman movies: Jor-el sends his infant son to Earth before Krypton is destroyed. The young Clark/Kal-el grows up with adoptive parents, Ma and Pa Kent, and discovers he is not of this world. He then uses his powers for good without revealing his existence to the world. A group of Kryptonian refugees then discover his whereabouts on Earth and demands his surrender. Cue the fisticuffs, much wanton destruction, etc.
Let’s get this out of the way: the action scenes in this movie are very, very good. Every single fight between Superman and the Kryptonian Faora is brutal and that final fight with Zod is so intense it might grow hair on your chest. The level of destruction in this movie is unbelievable and the last 15 minutes or so is pure mayhem. They also finally get to answer the question: “Why can’t people see that Clark Kent is Superman when he’s wearing glasses?”
Henry Cavill plays Superman as a conflicted superhero -- one traumatized by an event that reinforces his decision to hide his identity even as he continues to do good anonymously. He’s a rougher version of the last son of Krypton, one who does not suffer bullies. There’s not much Clark Kent in this movie but it does lead to a payoff at the Daily Planet that sets up the next movie.
In contrast, Michael Shannon’s Zod is the embodiment of cold, unhinged menace, which is a complete departure from Terence Stamp’s portrayal of an aloof, emperor-like Zod.
Amy Adams is good as Lois Lane, better than Kate Bosworth, except that the love story angle with Clark feels hurried and forced. Director Zack Snyder stumbles badly on the romance angle and some of his dramatic scenes involving the Kents border on melodrama.
Superman’s origin story is given greater depth by showing that he is an anomaly, a natural birth instead of a test tube baby, which allows him to be any person he wants to be instead of the pre-encoded purpose of other Kryptonians. It also leads to the central conflict of Superman and Zod: Superman strives for goodness because it is in his nature to save and because he was taught that way. A scientist’s son raised by farmers, this Superman’s greatest conflict is how he will honor his birth race without sacrificing his adoptive race. Zod’s concept of goodness is narrower and more supremacist: the greater good he strives for is only for his people without consideration for another. Superman’s solution to the problem of Zod’s invasion is shocking and effective: the violence of the past cannot infect the hope of the future.
This is also a movie about fathers. Superman has two fathers: Jor-el (Russell Crowe) and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner). Jor-el saves his son by putting him, Moses-like, in a ship bound for earth. He also encodes Kal-el with the power to become the father of a future Krypton, like a biblical Abraham seeding the stars.
While Jor-el gave Kal-El life, it is Pa Kent that shows the young Clark how to live. Costner plays Superman’s dad as a flawed father, one willing to let a bus full of kids die in order to hide his son’s true abilities. It is also this father who sees with hope what bright future is in store for Clark, and pushes him to sacrifice everything for his son.
With a father like that, any child can be, well, super.