Superman has a pretty checkered cinematic history. Let’s ignore the older fare like the original animated series or Atom Man vs. Superman from 1950. Just sticking with the more well-known movies, it’s been very hit-and-miss. Superman I was a good (not great) movie but ground-breaking for the stuff it did in 1978. Superman II was an utter train-wreck in its production but still managed to be an entertaining effort, and even outstanding at points. Then came the dark times of Superman III and IV, which are best left buried in the same abyss as the Star Wars prequels and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The redemption of the Superman film franchise was supposed to be back in 2006 with Superman Returns. As a sequel to Superman II, it attempted to jump in on the burgeoning super-hero film market with a ponderously bland product that was really only a rehash of the real estate scheme in Superman I, except with flashier special effects and a Super-son. I’m setting this backdrop because I feel it’s necessary to understand how low my expectations were for Man of Steel. Three consecutive failures are a trend. Why shouldn’t it continue? Zack Snyder is directing, after all.
Man of Steel is a total reboot for the franchise. This is significant. Do not go into this movie with preconceived notions of Superman’s origins, even if you’re a comic book fan. Superman has multiple origin stories anyway, and David Goyer’s screenplay pulls from several of them while adding many original elements of his own. If you let fanboy impulses get in the way, that’s your own fault. As usual, I’m leaving the plot vague so as to avoid the inevitable gripes about spoilers.
The general intro sounds familiar. Superman (Henry Cavill) is born on Krypton, a dying world. Ah, but why is it dying? It’s dying because (a) the Kryptonians have de-stabilized their planet’s core and, more importantly, (b) they have destroyed their race by reproducing solely through genetic engineering and manipulation, totally eschewing natural family relations. In other words, they destroyed themselves with contraception and eugenics. General Zod (Michael Shannon) tries to lead a coup, claiming that Krypton’s real problem is that “inferior bloodlines” have taken over and ruined everything. Jor-El, Superman’s father and very well played by Russell Crowe, resists Zod’s power play and launches his only son towards Earth to save his life. On Earth, he’ll have powers and abilities far beyond mortal men and so on and so forth. All these powers make growing up a pain, and the child wanders for most of his adult life until he discovers the truth behind how he came to Earth which, of course, will also include a confrontation with Zod, who has also survived Krypton’s destruction.
Let’s talk casting. Cavill is outstanding as Superman/Clark Kent. The impressive thing about him is that he has a strikingly small amount of dialogue, yet he is still able to convey the proper range of emotions to make the character work. It “fits” with the character that he is silent. He wants to do good, but he doesn’t want anyone to know who he is or think of him as anything remarkable. The supporting group falls short, unfortunately. Lois Lane is still supposed to be a tough and almost cutthroat reporter. Amy Adams struggles trying to pull that off. Listening to her curse in an effort to be taken seriously is uncomfortable and awkward. I had to warm up to Shannon’s Zod. He starts out overly stiff and flat in his delivery, but by the end of the movie, when he’s in a constant mode of spittle-flecked rage and psychosis, he’s exactly what the role calls for. Russell Crowe steals the show as Jor-El, though. This isn’t Marlon Brando showing up to lend a superhero movie some gravitas. He’s a real part of the cast and essentially fills in the exposition for a lot of Cavill’s acting. It works, and I was shocked at how well.
I doubt anyone thought that Zack Snyder could pull this off. Every time I saw a trailer for Man of Steel and saw “From the Director of 300 and Watchmen,” I burst out laughing. However, as bad as those movies were, they had moments of brilliance (eg- the opening credits for Watchmen). Snyder rose to the challenge for Man of Steel and delivers nicely. I was especially impressed with the stylistic shifts he used in the flashbacks to Kal-El’s life growing up vs. his time as and adult/ Superman. Having Christopher Nolan and David Goyer looking over his shoulder probably helped.
Let me also give Snyder & Co. major, major praise for not succumbing to the never-ending calls for a “darker, edgier” Superman. Superman isn’t supposed to be dark and any attempt to make him that way is, frankly, repulsive. There is a failing in all this, though. One of the major criticisms of Superman Returns was that there wasn’t enough action. The team behind Man of Steel clearly remembered that. Holy smokes. There are more explosions in this film than in every Michael Bay movie combined. It was too much. Yes, too much stuff was blowed up real good. Understand that I don’t have a problem with the violence. It was largely bloodless. However, so much stuff was destroyed that it is almost inconceivable that Superman would even be allowed to stay on the planet afterwards. You could have nuked Metropolis, and it probably would have been better off.
Is there any Catholic content? First, let’s all acknowledge that Superman is Arian Jesus. Sent to Earth by his father above with amazing powers for the salvation of the world. Sure, there isn’t any consubstantiality, but you get my point. One of the big deals with Superman Returns was the Christ imagery that is featured throughout. Man of Steel picks up that ball and runs with it. Whether it’s the general story, Cavill’s poses while flying, his “miraculous” birth, or his “descent and resurrection,” the movie is pushing Kal-El as a Jesus-figure. Not only that, but I daresay there is more than a tinge of traditional demonology when Zod mentions his disgust at Kal-El’s preference to live as a human rather than as a “higher being.” On a side note, I’m still holding on to the dream that we’ll see a movie about Chalcedonian Jesus (Captain Marvel).
The film does far more than that. Who would think that such a pro-life, pro-family message would be in the biggest movie of the year? The anti-contraception and eugenics message is overt and in your face. Before making a major decision, Superman goes to consult a priest. A priest! The themes of sacrifice in love and the honor due to one’s homeland are also cast to the forefront. One disappointment would be a moment with Johnathan Kent, where he chastises Clark for saving some classmates. This is disgraceful but doesn’t sully the remainder of the movie. This movie could be shown to potential converts and kids in Catechism. I’m dead serious when I say that.
As any Superman movie should be, Man of Steel is clean. There is some minor profanity, but nothing above a PG level. The birth scene might be a bit much for some younger kids, but this is in the first 3 minutes, so if you’re nervous about it, just come to the theater late or fast forward. The PG-13 here comes from the intense fight scenes and awesome destruction that goes along with them. As stated earlier, blood and gore aren’t a problem. Whole cities being wiped out is.
Every Catholic should see this movie. The weaker performances and stray moments of flimsy dialogue are easily forgotten in the breakneck pace and overall depth of the themes involved. I can’t express how happy I was that the trend of horrific Superman films was broken and that there is now hope for a legitimate franchise for the character. 3 tiaras.
Review by Throwback