Man of Steel certainly had some high expectations to meet, following up on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s masterful Batman trilogy, and featuring Nolan himself in the writing and producing role, with Zack Snyder helming in the director’s chair. The reboot had to face the daunting tasks of bringing Superman back to life in a more serious and weighty fashion while also satisfying the Superman mythos and tradition both in film and comic-lore. Though I do not pretend to be an expert on the finer details of the Superman character, from my knowledge the film succeeds at both. Man of Steel is a rousing success because it takes utterly seriously Superman’s role as a shining beacon of hope, a man unlike us, a man far more powerful than us, but a good man, a moral man unshakable in his resolve, an example that we can look up to.
Man of Steel opens up on Krypton’s final moments, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife oppose General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) military coup against the ruling council (which has foolishly doomed Krypton by mining the planet’s core for energy) while also secretly having the first natural child born on Krypton in years (Krypton has instated intense population and genetic controls). In the midst of both military and natural disaster, Jor-El sends Kal-El, his son, to Earth, with the codex of the Kryptonian race infused within his genes.
The story then moves on to tell the story of Jor-El’s son, now known as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), on Earth. Clark is introduced as a man, thirty-three years old, as he discovers the truth behind his past and mysterious powers and abilities on a wrecked Kryptonian spaceship, while the story of his childhood on the farm of the Kents is told in flashback form. Not long after Clark puts all the pieces together and accepts his role Zod shows up, desiring to raise the Kryptonian race to supremacy once again, needing both Earth and Kal-El’s genes to do so, and a showdown for the ages is set.
The execution of this storyline is by no means flawless. Unfortunately, the scenes of Clark’s childhood feel as if they could have been fleshed out more, a situation made unfortunate because those childhood scenes that do appear are done so well. Kevin Costner does an excellent job as Clark’s earthly father, and the inner conflicts within Clark as to his freakish nature, and also his remarkable ability to absorb and take abuse and mockery without retaliation, is fascinating and touching. The flashback style of telling the story also interrupts some of the narrative flow at times. Also, some of the action sequences towards the end of the film go on for just a bit too long. The god-fights between Superman and his Kryptonian enemies are a stunning sight to behold, but one can only take so much.
However, these are small flaws amongst a larger and grander overall picture. The opening sequences on Krypton are some of the most stunning science fiction scenes in recent memory, rivaling even this year’s Oblivion. Breathtaking images of a world in its death throes, accompanied by the powerful choral undertones of Hans Zimmer’s pounding score, captivate the viewer and will thrill any fan of sci-fi. General Zod is an extremely well-thought out and menacing villain, presenting a fantastic opponent to everything Superman stands for and represents, traveling through space and sky in menacing Kryptonian craft (do not even get me started on the body armor he and his fellow defectors wear; some of the scariest stuff I have ever seen). Throw in Zod and company’s drive to preserve their species at all cost, a “survival of the fittest” neo-Darwinian philosophy, and they provide the perfect foil for the morally idealistic Christ-like protector of the weak manifest in Superman.
As a matter of fact, these similarities to Jesus Christ are played up in the film to a remarkable degree, so much so that the film at times feels like a very cleverly disguised allegory. I will not go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that the fact that Clark is thirty-three years old when the events of the film transpire, and that a critical scene in his character progression takes place in a church with the image of a praying Savior prominently featured alongside Clark, suggests strongly that such parallels were intentionally played up. In fact, Snyder has acknowledged that the Christ parallels are a natural part of the Superman mythos, and “rather than be snarky and say that doesn’t exist, we thought it would be fun to allow that mythology to be woven through”. This adds extra weight to Superman’s role and purpose, while also making a few of Zod’s actions and demands echo the Biblical Satan in some intriguing ways.
Ultimately, Man of Steel is a triumph, proving that it is in fact possible to seriously present deep and morally weighty ideas while still holding onto the more thrilling, adventurous and optimistic side of comic book heroes. Snyder walks a fine line in his direction of the film between the oppressive seriousness and gravity of The Dark Knight on the one hand, and the light whiz-bang action of The Avengers on the other. Man of Steel presents a shining moral hero as an example for the audience, a frighteningly understandable villain, a stunningly imagined science fiction backstory, soaring action, and a few spiritual allegories and philosophical concepts to stimulate the mind long after the movie is over. Now that is something worth getting excited about.