Arts movie review

Superman: the man, the hero — and the genre

Steel yourself for a retelling of the familiar story

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Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel.
Clay Enos
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Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) with the infant Kal-El (Superman).
Clay Enos
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Nine-year-old Clark Kent (Cooper Timberline) in Man of Steel.
Clay Enos


Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder

Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon

Rated PG-13

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Man of Steel is a Superman movie. I don’t mean just with regards to its subject, but as a definition of the genre. And, even though it is a good movie, the self-imposed constraints it followed to fall square within that genre make it a good-enough movie, when it could have been — or at least I was hoping it would be — a great movie. The plot of the movie suffices to keep it afloat, although I do think the city-wrecking fighting went on for too long. The special effects are well-executed, even if the shaky-camera trick may have been overused.

The familiar story of Kal-El is told using effective narrative resources: his birth and its circumstances serve to open the movie and establishes the anchoring points for the rest of the story. Then we are brought to the present, where an adult Clark Kent is trying to figure out his place in the world. Flashbacks are used to give us glimpses of his childhood in Kansas and his youth as a wandering Samaritan. When Clark finally discovers his true nature and origins, he inadvertently starts a chain of events that will bring him face to face with his father’s killer, and the threat of annihilation for everything he has come to love: a girl, the human race, and the whole planet.

The movie showcases a fantastic cast: a buffed Henry Cavill makes for a handsome and compelling Superman, who manages to be as serene as a zen master in his quest for self-discovery, and then as fierce as a gladiator when facing his enemies; the lovely Amy Adams renders a smart and courageous Lois Lane; and Russell Crowe gives life to a strong and wise Jor-El, who continues to guide his son even after his own death. The antagonists are also very well cast: Michael Shannon incarnates with aplomb and nuance a disgruntled and bellicose General Zod, who leads the attack on Earth to rescue his own race. Yet the character that stole my heart was Zod’s smoking-hot sidekick, Faora-Ul (played by the breathtaking Antje Traue), who displays more superpowers in her fighting skills than any other character on the screen, bar none.

Many worn-out or absurd features of the first big-screen Superman were removed from this movie to good avail: John William’s fanfare is gone, the red Speedo is nowhere to be seen, and there is no reference to kryptonite. Others remained, to my chagrin: the S in the chest, reinvented as the “El” family crest and/or a symbol for “hope,” was as ubiquitous as it was unavoidable, and Clark’s glasses remain miraculous in hiding his identity as Superman as soon as he puts them on to go work at the Daily Planet. Some other features of Superman do get a nice overhaul and work very nicely: his X-ray vision is very convincing, as are his Cyclops-like eye-rays. His ballistic takeoff and supersonic flying abilities are astounding.

The movie loses a few points with me due to an overt reference to Superman as a savior of humanity with a stained-glass of Jesus Christ in the background, and also due to a totally gratuitous and unwarranted jab at evolution. It seems to me that this movie was made to cater for the taste of God-fearin’ ‘muricans more than any other audience. These few complaints notwithstanding, it is as good a reboot of Superman as we are likely to see any time soon, because — as this movie has made evident — the scope of the genre is rather narrow, especially when the creatives play it safe and restrict themselves to the limits of what they know we have learned to love.