Superman returned in 2006, but now seven years later, it feels like he is truly back in Man of Steel -- an exciting series reboot that pays homage to the past without becoming a slave to it, successfully paving the way for a new franchise with its solid script, strong cast, and next-level action. Indeed, you can almost hear director Zack Snyder straining to atone for Bryan Singer’s shortcomings in the last hour or so of godlike grappling, but while that kinetic stretch is almost physically straining to watch (perhaps best viewed at half-speed on Blu-ray at a later date), there’s enough innovation in David S. Goyer’s screenplay to make one of the comic world’s most iconic figures feel fresh and colorful.
As the planet of Krypton crumbles, General Zod (Michael Shannon) stages a coup as concerned leader Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife send their infant son Kal-El to a distant world called Earth. While the young child travels through space with an object containing the DNA of his home planet, General Zod and his cohorts are sentenced to an eternity in a black-hole prison. Named Clark and raised by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), young Kal-El lives in fear of what might happen should his neighbors learn about his extraterrestrial origins, eventually exploring the world in search of himself. In time, Clark’s travels take him to a frozen tundra, where the American government has discovered an 18,000-year-old anomaly buried deep in the ice. Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has just come to investigate when, after venturing out with her camera, she has a profound encounter with Clark. Convinced that his presence on Earth is proof of life on other planets, Lois finds her attempt to publish the story thwarted by her boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), who rejects it outright. Later, the airwaves are hijacked by General Zod, who threatens to obliterate the human race if they fail to hand over Kal-El within 24 hours. Forced to embrace his otherworldly origins for the first time in his life, Clark Kent dons the special suit from Krypton and prepares to take a stand against an enemy far more powerful than any he’s ever known.
When Man of Steel co-producer Christopher Nolan lit the fuse on his Batman trilogy in Batman Begins, one of the smartest moves he made was to give moviegoers a memorable origin story combined with a thrilling first adventure. In many ways, it felt like two great films crammed into one, and the same can be said for Man of Steel. Though Goyer has the sole screenwriting credit on this movie, he worked alongside Nolan to develop the story just as they did in The Dark Knight trilogy. In some ways, it can be said that Nolan brings out the best in the man responsible for directing Blade: Trinity and penning Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, but it’s Goyer’s creativity in creating a time-hopping collage of Clark Kent’s turbulent early youth and soul-searching young adulthood -- as well as occasional liberties taken with the source material -- that make Man of Steel feel like a reinvention, rather than just another obligatory rehash. From offering a detailed picture of Krypton’s downfall to following young Clark as he struggles to reconcile his role on Earth, Goyer’s script (at times literally) allows us to see the world through the eyes of a benevolent alien who’s destined for greatness, occasionally dropping in such anomalies as a new story behind the suit and a new family history to separate itself from the 1978 Richard Donner film. Later, when General Zod comes to planet Earth searching for Kal-El, the origin-story threads converge into a conflict that allow Goyer and Snyder to really cut free.
Yes, for anyone who may have begun to feel as if the director known for his visual excess had been holding back while we watched young Clark save a busload of kids or bond with wise old Pa Kent, it can be said that once Zod crosses the line, Snyder spares no expense to make his action sequences as innovative and involved as his fans expect. Like that memorable first moment when Sam Raimi let us swing through the streets of Manhattan with Spider-Man, the feeling we get when Superman is soaring through the streets of Metropolis at full speed, with danger lurking around every corner, is one of sheer cinematic exhilaration. Under Snyder’s direction, each punch landed by Superman and his foes has the impact of a speeding semi, and though his continual zooming can feel gimmicky at times, his joy in showing the impossible radiates from the screen. Likewise, as Goyer slyly serves up a mechanical secondary villain that’s a by-product of the first, Snyder takes the opportunity to indulge in some joyously over-the-top hero-versus-machine conflict that would have been difficult to accomplish back when Christopher Reeve donned the suit. When tankers are launched like javelins, we’re treated to precisely the kind of outlandish comic-book action that Singer’s version so sorely lacked.
With his sturdy jaw and solid frame, Henry Cavill wears the cape well. More importantly, he succeeds in making this rambling version of Clark Kent his own not only because he sports a beard, but because he completely personifies the character whose true father saw him as a bridge between two worlds. Yet his terrestrial father’s influence is equally important here: Cavill reflects Pa Kent’s wisdom in Clark’s measured character and actions, allowing us to see just how the character develops the faith in humanity that’s central to Superman’s motivations. Amy Adams strikes the perfect balance between tough and vulnerable as Lois; Diane Lane and Kevin Costner make Ma and Pa Kent as earnest and likeable as ever; Russell Crowe perfectly embodies the hope and principles that guide his son’s path in life; and Michael Shannon’s Zod is a compelling monster whose lack of free will makes him all the more terrifying (especially when sporting his striking, vaguely H.R. Giger-esque body armor).The only main player who feels wasted onscreen is Laurence Fishburne as Perry White. Though White does get a few character beats here, save for one impressive speech, Fishburne doesn’t have much to work with.
Perhaps one of the most brave and unusual aspects of Man of Steel is the fact that by the time the credits roll, there seems to be a world of possibilities for the future. Unlike the final scene of Batman Begins, in which we see the Joker card and know what’s coming next, Man of Steel ends with Lois Lane welcoming Clark Kent to the Daily Planet with a sly play on words. Sure, we may still see the familiar shine of Lex Luthor’s bald head in the inevitable sequel, but for just that one moment, when Clark dons his glasses and flashes Lois that confident smile, it feels like the future is wide open. If the trio of Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder are a part of the franchise going forward, perhaps this incarnation of the character will soar to even greater cinematic heights than the one played by the late, great Christopher Reeve, whose legacy was ultimately marred by some seriously shoddy sequels