Superman is invincible, unless you have some spare krypontie, but wears his crown of superiority with loving humility.
Superman is unbeatable, yet uses his power to advance goodness, selflessness, and justice to all he meets.
He does not brood. He does not waver. He always does the right thing, usually at his own expense.
At a time when our national values from basic morality to the Bill of Rights seem under attack and debatable, we need a Superman who knows dark times and yet does not falter in his convictions.
How did those convictions grow? Where did they come from? What inspired the man we know to become the embodiment of truth, justice and the American way?
And so from director Zach Snyder with help from Christopher Nolan (who helped conceive and produced the movie), we have Man of Steel, a darker and more introspective Superman movie than we have yet seen.
Russell Crowe plays Jor-El, a crusader on the dying planet of Krypton. Bred by genetic planning to be excellent, the Kryptonites are little gods in whatever field has been selected for them: perfect warriors, perfect leaders, perfect scientists, and even perfect laborers. But Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) hope their son is destined for something higher, something nobler than a predetermined life on a planet literally sucked dry by the greed of its people. Their great act of love and sacrifice is to send him away.
The backstory on Krypton takes up a good portion of this film and the world Snyder creates is gripping with bug-like machines and cool, blobby computers. But even when the story leaves the planet, Krypton is never far away from Kal-El. Also known as Clark Kent, the young alien grows up with his adoptive parents on earth where his strange and somewhat uncontrolled powers make him an outcast.
The story does not cover the Superman we know: The mild mannered blogger (ok, reporter) working for the Daily Planet alongside the sharp-witted but blurry-eyed Lois Lane by day, superhero by night.
No, this hero travels the world in anonymity, moving on every time a dangerous situation forces him into revealing his powers. But when he discovers clues from Krypton, he starts to move into making peace with his identity, even as forces from Krypton threaten earth.
Henry Cavill plays this Superman as quiet, unsure, even tormented, but unwilling to give up the core values that live deep in him. These values are enforced not only by Jor-El but by his earthly, corn-bred parents Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane).
The story of Kal-El is a fundamental story of adoption and that bittersweet mixture of loss and love, dislocation and grounding make up much of the heart of this movie. As Deborah Snyder, wife of Zach and a producer on this film, told me, the couple adopted children while working on this movie. The adoption story feels rich and deep and lovely.
Also rich and deep are questions of self-determination, of the ends justifying the means, and of strength through turning the other cheek. Not as dark as Nolan’s Dark Knight series, this film still bears the stamp of Nolan’s deep, probably obsessive, dwelling on morality as revealed in superheroes.
Zach Snyder directed 300 and Watchmen, among other movies, and his over the top style is fully on display here. The action is pounding and thrilling, from the first conflict on Krypton, to a drag-down knock-out fight through the fields of Kansas, to a very bad day for Metropolis. Snyder seems determined to not allow a single building to survive, like a little boy with a Lego city and a toy tank.
The film is only mildly humorous, without Iron Man‘s quips or a snappy sidekick, but Amy Adams as Lois Lane brings sass and some levity to the proceedings.
Rated PG-13 for action, the movie has no sexual content and only mild language. It’s perfectly appropriate for kids who can stand some exciting action. However, be aware that there is a fairly suspenseful part that begins to feel a little like a horror flick (Snyder made his name making Dawn of the Dead and knows the territory) and a few jump-inducing shocks of mummified bodies and/or skeletons. It’s not intense but if your kid is afraid of that kind of thing, it will shock him.
Mostly, however, the film is a non-ironic tribute to a man who is good through and through, with no winks or apologies or wise-cracks to soften the sincerity. Many critics very much dislike this film, which leaves me wondering if we watched the same movie. I suspect, as I often say, their Bluestate need for irony sunk it for them.
I, frankly, loved it. I recommend it highly.
*This review has been corrected to reflect that Aylet Zurer plays Lara, Kal-El’s mother on Krypton.