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Josh Kneels Before Man of Steel

I love Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie from 1978, and for much of my life I thought Superman II was even better.  (My preference has swung back slightly, in recent years, towards the original film.)  Those two movies were a huge part of my childhood, and more than any Superman comic book I have ever read (and I have read a lot), they shaped in my mind the quintessential depiction of Superman.  I stand by my love of Bryan Singer’s homage to the Donner films, 2006’s Superman Returns (has it been that long since Superman Returns came out???  Crazy!!), and I remain bitterly disappointed that we never saw a sequel to that film.

I was excited, though, by the news that Zack Snyder would be directing a new Superman film, working with the Batman Begins team of Christopher Nolan (serving as producer) and writer David S. Goyer.  I love both 300 and Watchmen (particularly the super-long Ultimate Cut of Watchmen) — I think they’re both terrific adaptations of very difficult-to-adapt comic books — and so I was eager to see what Mr. Snyder could do when playing in the bigger sandbox of the Superman mythos.  I suspected he could bring a new energy to  the depiction of Superman on film, and his involvement certainly promised an increase in the action quotient (something that even I admit was sorely lacking in Superman Returns).  

My enthusiasm for the Superman reboot dipped when I heard that they were planning on re-telling Superman’s origin.  That seemed silly to me, as Superman has probably the most famous origin of any comic book character ever.  Why waste time re-telling, yet again, an origin story that everyone on the planet already knows?  Just cut to the chase and tell a great Superman story!  My enthusiasm grew again when the first trailers for Man of Steel began to surface.  I was dazzled by the visual spectacle, and really started to get excited for what seemed to be a very different depiction of Superman on film.

I just left an IMAX screening of Man of Steel, and I am delighted to report that Mr. Snyder and his team have delivered on that promise.  They have threaded the difficult needle of delivering a dramatic reinterpretation of the character and his origin, while at the same time presenting us with a depiction that is, without question, iconically Superman.

The film opens with Jor-El on Krypton, and we spend a lot more time on Krypton than I would have expected.  I loved every second, and almost wish we had a whole film set on Krypton, chronicling the breaking of the friendship between Jor-El and Zod.  (The idea that Jor-El and Zod were friends on Krypton was seized upon, to great effect, by Geoff Johns in his run on Action Comics a few years back, and I love that the suggestion of a past friendship, or at least a working relationship, between the two men made it into the film.)  More than any version of Krypton that I ever read in the comics, the crystalline technology of Krypton from the Donner films has always been the definitive version of Krypton to me.  And yet within seconds of this film’s opening, I forgot any previous version of Krypton and saw swept along in the crazy sci-fi fantasy that Mr. Snyder has created.  I loved this version of Krypton, with it’s weird technology, funky costumes, flying monsters, and everything.  Most of all, I loved getting to see Jor-El kick some ass.  I was not expecting that!  Russell Crowe is fantastic in the role.

Once the rocket with baby Kal-El launches, the filmmakers make the wise decision to skip showing his childhood on the farm in Kansas and cut right to thirty-something Clark Kent, now a wanderer traveling around and helping people before vanishing and moving on to a new location and a new identity, Bill Bixby style.  We do get to see a lot of Clark’s youth in Smallville, through a series of flashbacks staggered through the first half of the film.  As with the Krypton scenes, I was stunned by how much I enjoyed the Smallville flashbacks.  Yes, some of it felt familiar (particularly since I watched almost a decade of Smallville), but Kevin Costner kills it as Pa Kent, delivering some of the best moments in the film.  The moment when he tells young Clark “you ARE my son” knocked me flat in all the trailers, and it’s still one of the highlights of the movie.

This is an interesting depiction of Pa Kent.  If you think about it, this is actually one of the biggest changes made to the Superman mythos, as this Pa Kent is extremely cautious and fearful about Clark sharing his abilities with the world.  After Clark saves a bus full of his school-mates, Pa Kent suggests that perhaps he should have let them die.  That seems a little out of character for the noble Pa Kent, but it works in the film, mostly because Kevin Costner sells the hell out of the scene, conveying to us that his love for his adopted son is the main thing that is driving him.  An even bigger change to the mythos comes with an entirely different version of Pa Kent’s death.  I was very surprised by how things go down in this new version, and while at first blush I was thrown by the change, I have to admit that the moment really works.  It’s a very emotional beat in the film, and it throws weight behind Clark’s choice, later, to reveal himself to the world.  (I do wish, though, that it had been a human being and not a damn dog that Pa went back to save…)

Amy Adams is great as Lois Lane, and Lois is another character who has been quite dramatically re-thought for the film.  As with Pa Kent, I thought this new version of Lois really worked.  I love the idea that Lois has been pursuing the mystery good samaritan for a while.  I love that we really see her as an investigative reporter, rather than the idiot working next to Superman every day but not knowing it.  Even better, I love that she actually succeeds in finding Clark pretty early in the film.  It’s great to see Lois as smart and successful.  She’s one step ahead of Clark Kent for most of the film, rather than one step behind.  And though she does have to get caught by Superman several times in the film, it’s not because she’s acting like a moron.

Much has been made of the absence of Lex Luthor from Man of Steel.  Though we see a few Lexcorp signs in Metropolis, Lex is indeed a no-show in the film.  Frankly, I don’t miss him.  While I look forward to seeing the Man of Steel version of Lex in future films, Zod and his fellow Kryptonians provide enough of a villainous threat for Superman.

Michael Shannon is terrific as Zod, and while he doesn’t quite erase the memory of Terrence Stamp as Zod from Superman II, he is pretty spectacular.  I love that Zod has a goal other than just evil-for-evil’s-sake, or even revenge on the House of El (which was Zod’s main motivation in Superman II).  Michael Shannon can roar and chew the scenery with the best of them, but he’s at his best when Zod is quiet.  You can always see the crazy intensity behind his eyes.  This is a man who just breathes danger.  He’s a great heavy for the film.

And because Zod and his soldiers have the strength of Superman, finally, for the first time since Superman II, we get to see a real super-powered slugfest in a Superman film.  And what a slugfest it is!!  The whole second half of the film is pretty much one huge fight after another, from a crazy smackdown that pretty much demolishes Smallville to a devastating battle in the ruins of the center of Metropolis, Man of Steel boasts some of the best, most brutal super-hero/super-villain fights I have ever seen on film.  It’s great fun to see Superman involved in intense physical action, and the realization of these city-shattering super-powered showdowns is extraordinary.  Zack Snyder had a mission, and that was to create a kick-ass version of Superman, and boy is it fun to see Superman really kick some ass.

I respect how focused Man of Steel is.  Many super-hero films these days feel obliged to thrown in a ton of characters, particularly multiple super-villains.  But I am happy that there’s no Lex Luthor in this film.  It’s also an interesting choice that many other familiar faces are absent.  We see Perry White (well played by Laurence Fishburne), but there’s no Jimmy Olsen.  We do see a few other Daily Planet co-workers, but I don’t recall ever learning their names.  We don’t ever see the Daily Planet globe, which I did miss.  (We couldn’t get one shot in the skyline of Metropolis??  Come one!)  On the other hand, there’s no Kryptonite in this film, thank goodness.  That overused plot device can stay on the shelf for a while.  We don’t actually hear the name Metropolis mentioned until very late in the film, and I actually think the name Superman is only used once.  I think those were all the correct decisions.  They help keep the story grounded in the reality of our world, rather than a comic book one.

Also absent from this film?  Clark Kent!  Well, of course we see Clark, but I mean the familiar version of bumbling reporter Clark Kent is almost completely absent from the film.  I was fine with that!  Even more interestingly?  The familiar Clark-Lois relationship, in which the two work side by side without Lois’ knowing who Clark really is, does not exist in this film.  I LOVED THAT.  I have not been convinced by any of the prior attempts to portray that relationship on screen (in the films or in the various Superman TV shows).  Lois always comes off looking like an idiot, and Clark comes off as either mean (for lying all the time) or at least manipulative.  Man of Steel presents a totally different spin on the Lois and Clark relationship, one that felt far more real and satisfying to me.  I love Clark and Lois’ final scene in the film — particularly Lois’ last line to Clark — and that scene (much like the last scene in Batman Begins, and the last scene in Skyfall) positioned the characters for what I hope will be exciting future adventures in future films.

Man of Steel does have a few short-comings.  I wasn’t wild about all the macguffin mumbo-jumbo about the “codex.”  I thought it added an overly-complicated wrinkle into what was an otherwise spectacular prologue on Krypton, and ultimately I thought Zod’s antagonistic relationship with Kal-El worked without having to worry about exactly what the Codex did, where it was hidden, etc.  Similarly, while I enjoyed hearing of the Phantom Zone, I didn’t at all understand what the Phantom Zone had to do with faster-than-light space-ship engines, or how the good guys used those Phantom Zone engines to destroy Zod’s ship.  A little too much gobbledy-gook sci-fi plot silliness, where perhaps a more straightforward solution would have been more effective.

I also don’t think the film quite sold the moment when Clark first steps into the Superman suit.  I loved this version of the Fortress of Solitude, and I loved the way Jor-El was brought back into the story.  I loved Russell Crowe’s scenes with Henry Cavill, but the moment when Jor-El shows Clark the suit seemed just a hair away from laughable.  I just didn’t buy, at that moment, that this young man who had spent his entire life hiding who he was and what he can do would step into that brightly-colored red and blue suit.  It would have been far better, I think, to have held off Clark’s first moment in the suit until he first reveals himself to the people of the world.

Speaking of the people of the world, I was a little surprised that we didn’t get a few more scenes of Superman publicly trying to defend the people of Smallville and later Metropolis against Zod and his soldiers.  Yes, Superman saves some of the American soldiers in Smallville, convincing them that he’s on their side, but I left the film wondering what the rest of the people of Earth thought of him.  The way the big fights have been staged, it seems to me that the average Metropolis citizen would have no idea that Superman was any different or better than Zod.  The death toll of Zod’s attacks must be in the thousands.  I wish we saw Superman being more aware of that, more concerned about that.  Except for that one family at the very end, we never really see Superman acting to save any civilians from Zod.  We never see Superman trying to take the fight away from the city.  (And my wife and I were both confused as to whether or not Zod killed that family at the end.  Was it their murder that led Superman to take the frankly quite startling action he takes at the end?  Or just their attempted murder?  It’s weird that such an important plot point was left muddled, at least it seemed that way to us.)

I wish we had a few more scenes at the end of the film seeing the emotional repercussions of that brutal action that Clark is forced to take.  I wish we had a few scenes seeing the world’s reactions to Zod’s devastating attack and the revelation of Superman. Is Superman beloved?  Is he feared?  Will he help rebuild Metropolis (which is left pretty much completely demolished at the end of the film)?  It feels like a mis-step to me that the only real epilogue we got at the end of the film, after the battle was over, was a scene in which Superman asks the army to stop trying to figure out where he lives.  That comic scene felt like the wrong note to strike after everything that we’d seen before.  It seemed like a minor logistical detail to address (does the army know where Superman lives?) when I had far bigger questions on my mind after the chaos I had just witnessed.  Weird.  (I did, though, absolutely love the film’s final scene, as I have mentioned above.  It’s a great moment to end on.)

I also really, really wanted to hear Michael Shannon tell Superman to “kneel before Zod.”  Does that make me small??  I thought there was a perfect moment for that, too.  Late in the Zod-Superman fight, when Zod strips off his battle-armor and we just see him in the black version of the Superman suit, as he slowly floats into the air above Superman’s head.  That would have been the PERFECT moment for a “Kneel before Zod”!!  Oh well.  Sigh.

Even without any kneeling before Zod, Man of Steel is a terrific ride and a bold, confident reinvention of a seventy-year-old comic book character.  This version of Superman feels alive and dynamic and very much of the present day.  I’m extremely impressed by what Mr. Snyder and his team have created, and I hope to see many future adventures.  (And I look forward to watching this one again, hopefully in the near future!)

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