Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Best: Top 25 Super Hero Movies of All Time #4 - Man of Steel

My appreciation of this movie only grows with time.

I know that this movie has many detractors.  The chief criticism I hear is that Superman should be bright and fun, not serious and dark.  I can appreciate this point of view, but I also think that this misses much of the movie's point.

Since Superman's introduction into popular culture, the world has descended deeper into modernism and nihilism.  Superman is meant to be a symbol of hope to stand above and against the raging cynicism.  But Zack Snyder is showing us in Man of Steel how someone raised in this morally ambiguous culture can rise up.  That isn't to say that there wasn't a good deal of pessimism when the original movies were introduced.  But as time goes on, it is Superman's innate goodness, not his Kryptonian origins, that make him seem more and more alien to the human race.

Watch how Snyder uses the visuals to sell the grounded reality of the movie.  His constant use of hand-held cameras and very hard lighting take away the glossy, artificial feel that many of these films have. 

Snyder's Superman is in many ways the Christ-figure.  But it is not meant to be a mere allegory.  The analogy is not perfect.  Instead, this Superman is as fallen as any of us.  This movie (and its sequel) are about the heroes becoming who they are, along with all of the errors along the way.  That is why this movie is not called "Superman," because while he was always a "Man of Steel" he has not yet truly become Superman.

From my original review:

Man of Steel is the retelling of the Superman origin.  Because we've seen this before in previous films, some of the story beats feel familiar.  But Zack Snyder, unlike Bryan Singer [director of the lackluster Superman Returns], makes a complete break from the Richard Donner aesthetic.  Everything looks new and different.  This version of Superman's father, Jor-El (played by the wonderfully understated Russell Crowe) is a dynamic man of action and conscience, unlike the stiff, stoic Brando version.  He is at odds with his Kryptonian culture and its leaders, particularly General Zod (Michael Shannon).  But in the midst of the chaos, Jor-El steals something called "the codex" and places it with his son Kal in his rocket to Earth.

The first half of the movie is very similar to the structure of Batman Begins, which is no surprise since it was written by the same man, David S. Goyer.  In both films, the hero is seen wandering, trying to find himself and his place in this world.  Clark (Henry Cavill) travels from one odd job to the next encountering what humanity has to offer (often not very nice).  All the while he reflects on his time growing up in Smallville, being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). His journey eventually takes him to a government research station in the north where they are investigating an extra-terrestrial object.  This also happens to be at the same time that investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) comes snooping in to get the real scoop.  Needless to say, this sets off a series of events that bring Clark to the attention of the world as a hero and creates a confrontation with Zod and his fellow insurgents who survived Krypton's explosion.


Man of Steel is a true spectacle.  This is where Snyder is the strongest.  I spent much of the movie drinking in the visuals.  When Zod and Superman first exchange blows, I got my money's worth from the film.  I remember watching The Matrix Revolutions fight between Neo and Smith thinking that this would be cool if it was between Superman and Zod.  Well, that fight has nothing on the climatic battle in Man of Steel.  If you just want to see spectacular scenes of super people punching each other, this movie rocks.  In the IMAX, you could feel each punch resonate through your chest.

I loved the performances in this film.  Cavill has to carry a lot of this film with his looks.  When Superman first appears, the American government believe he is a threat.  What I noticed was that he had to use his body to convey strength and power, but his face always displayed a kind of gentleness to elicit trust.  This kinesthetic schizophrenia is not easy to pull off.  That is not to say he constantly has an "aw-shucks" face.  He brings about amazing levels of intensity in the action sequences. 

And, to my mind, Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane I have seen on screen.  This Lois is not, naive or gullible.  She is brave, smart, and conscientious.  Because of this, Man of Steel throws out the old ways her relationship to Superman has been defined and forges a new path. 

But the two best performances come from Michael Shannon and Kevin Costner.  Shannon's Zod could be dismissed as over-the-top bordering on cartoonish, except for his complete commitment to the character with a fiery intensity that never abates.  When he shouts "I WILL FIND HIM," it feels like the seething anger under his mind finally explodes.  Someone pointed out the me that he has a stare of constant malice similar to Malcolm McDowell's in A Clockwork Orange.  And unlike Terrence Stamps' Zod, Shannon's is oriented solely for the good of Kryptonian society. 

Costner, though, is the emotional heart of the movie.  In the few scenes he is in he breaks the heart.  Not since Viggo Mortenson's performance in The Road have I seen such a worn down, burdened father on screen.  He knows, like all fathers, that his words and actions will shape his child's soul.  But he also knows that because Clark is a god among men, those choices will have resonances to the entire world.  He looks both confident and lost.  He conveys the sureness of a father, but underneath his eyes and in the quiver of his voice, you hear his fear at making the wrong choice.  After Clark displays his power to save some people, Jonathan scolds him.  When asked by Clark if he should have just let them die, Jonathan responds "Maybe."  This could have been perceived as a a cold calculation.  But Costner shows, very subtly, how much that horrible answer weighs on him and what it implies.

Thematically, the movie is very rich.  Much has been made of the Christian imagery throughout the film, and it is there in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  As a devout Catholic, I LOVE the fact that before making a life-changing decision, Clark goes to Church and seeks the advice of priest.  And the priest is not supernaturally wise or specially, but he gives the best advice he can in a very human way that resonates through the rest of the film.  And I also got a little thrill to see that in a scene where some school bullies try to goad Clark into a fight, that he is reading the complete works of Plato!  When was the last time you so Plato in a summer blockbuster?  The movie also deals with issues of nature vs. nurture, free-will vs. determinism, fear vs. trust, etc. 

Hans Zimmer's score is also fantastic.  Nothing can touch the iconic John Williams work, but Zimmer makes the wise decision to follow none of the Williams' musical motifs and forges a path of his own.  It is the best score I've heard all year, alternately sad and tender and then big and bellicose. 


Man of Steel stands above most of the other superhero films because it delivers emboldening themes and ideas while also giving us one of the most visually thrilling superhero spectacles.  

That is why it is the #4 superhero film of all time.

Only 3 left.

Can you guess what they are? And in what order?

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