Review: ‘Man of Steel’ a Much-Needed Superman for 2013

No superhero represents America and American values as much as Superman. Even Captain America is not as meta in his mythology as the man who can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

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.

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  • m_sethisuwan

    What’s it with this Bluestate/Redstate thing? Can’t you leave a movie alone without having to bring politics into it? Or are you that desperate?

  • Janice

    Great review.Thanks. I am taking my kids tonight and was second guessing myself after what some other reviews said. But my kiddos love action and aren’t scared of it. As long as there is no heaving cussing and security we are in! Thanks.

  • I’m so glad! Have a great time. If you think of it, let me know what you think.

  • Well…I *AM* pretty desperate. But maybe you’d better watch the video before being outraged.

  • m_sethisuwan

    I watched it.

    The entire RedState BlueState conversation is just plain stupid, and both of you look stupid (and a bit dumb) discussing it. I don’t know if this is a thing you do “RedState BlueState” blog or discussion series or something, but its just riddled with inconsistencies and is simply just pointless.

    a) I loved the movie.
    b) I’m BlueState.
    c) I happened to read a Republican reviewer who hated the movie (via Rotten Tomatoes).
    d) I happened to read a Tea Partier’s blog reviewer who hated the movie.

    You can’t simply categorize a movie, especially a complex movie like this one and divide it into a RedState BlueState thing. Heck it isn’t even a UnitedStates thing, apart from one dialog in the end.

    a) Gone is the 80s Justice, Liberty and the American Way Superman. This Man of Steel isn’t a poster-boy anymore. He doesn’t become an American Icon (not yet), not in this movie. Superman is more guarded, more weary here. (And a lot of critics hated this movie for that).
    b) There’s no more ‘our subways are the safest and best in the world’, or ‘flying is the best way to travel’. There is no more star-and-stripes background photographs. There’s no more saving Air Force One. There’s just one line at the end where he says he grew up in Kansas.
    c) Forget about America, Superman doesn’t even trust humans yet, (not at least until the end).
    d) I’m on your side, Washington, but it has to be on my terms. He destroys a 12-million dollar drone, but it was the Republican reviewer who got mad about it (its our tax money). A reviewer said he hated this ‘Its my way or the highway attitude’.
    e) It was a month of 9/11s, buildings falling down, thousands of people dying (people were upset about that).
    f) Superman lets his father die. People were upset about that, where were his morals and his ideals to save people there? people asked.
    g) Superman killed Zod. Superman never kills, people were upset about that.
    h) A lot of people saw references to Christ, such as the scenes were Superman was floating in the water, floating in space with his arms stretched, and yet he let thousands of people die, he killed Zod himself, people were outraged at this. Christ never killed anyone, they asked.
    i) The kids that bullied Superman as a kid in his school in Kansas, in the school bus. The truck driver and the military vets in the bar. Are they BlueState or RedState? The general that orders his solders to fire at all aliens, including Superman, is he BlueState or RedState?

    Tell me, in e), f), g), h) are these people RedState or BlueState? How many folks are you going to discuss that with? Aren’t a), b) and c) American, strong conservative values? Americana, Justice, Liberty, the American Way? There is none of that here in this movie, not yet in this one anyways. He is a Superman that the world isn’t ready for yet, let alone America.

    But I’m BlueState, and I LOVED this movie. I loved how that if you put Superman in a real-world, 21st-century context, this is what you get. I loved the fact that Superman wasn’t the problem, that humans were. You need to give a Superman something to protect. You need to show him some decency, some nobility, some good worth protecting, worth watching over for.

    This isn’t a 80s rose-tinted Americana world where Superman was born to protect the American Dream as if this were Gospel, (not in this movie), but this is a 21-st century, real-world Superman who is skeptical, doubtful and unsure of humans at first, but he grows to trust them, believe in their capacity for good and then becomes the Icon that we all know him to be (in the second movie).

    I loved the movie for what it is, what it could be, and didn’t force it through a PRISM of politics. If you ask me, Superman isn’t American (not yet), he’s Krpytonian, for the moment.

  • Ok. Thanks for watching. Tell all your friends how much you hate it. Please.

  • m_sethisuwan

    Hate the movie or hated the discussion about the RedState/BlueState thing?

    I didn’t hate the movie, I loved it. I hated the discussion (the Youtube Google hangout video) about the RedState/BlueState thing.

    But you didn’t say what you were desperate about?

    I felt the desperation was with regards to wanting people to read and discuss this movie as RedState/BlueState thing. And you didn’t debate the points I made in the comment too, my claims as to why a RedState/BlueState discussion was folly.

  • Adil Ali

    Nice movie… guys…

  • Chris Greenwood

    I just wrote a blog entry about this myself. I saw the movie last night and thought it was fantastic. Thanks for this review. I would caution a bit more about some of the language though…but for 13+ year olds it is a good movie.

  • Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you liked it. Honestly, I didn’t think the language was bad at ll. I would, and probably will, take my upper elementary school kid. I just don’t remember there being anything that I wouldn’t want him seeing or hearing. What was it that you’re cautioning about?

  • Chris Greenwood

    probably the strongest moment was towards the beginning when Louis and Stabler (sorry I’m an SVU fan!) were chatting at the artic site and she said, Now that we are done comparing D***’s…” There were a few others but that is the one the audience reacted the most to.

  • Chris Greenwood
  • rvs

    I loved the scene between Superman and the Catholic priest. I felt as if the scene recuperated on a massive scale Catholicism vis-a-vis American popular culture, Catholicism as channeled through Kierkegaard’s Protestant leap of faith. Wonderfully complex. Beautiful! A daring scene.

  • jcon526

    Good review, loved the movie as well. No serious offense, but I did find the “Bluestate need for irony” comment a little unnecessary though, and I’m moderate.

  • I loved that scene too.

  • Black belt

    Movie was horrible. Overrated like all the super hero movies that keep coming out.

  • Kevin C Carroll

    Wonderfully written review. Thank you…

  • AL

    Nice review. Jor-El’s wifes name is Lara. Faora is one of Zod’s sub commanders.

  • You are absolutely correct. Thanks for the correction. Hard to keep those Kryptonites straight!

  • Thank you!

  • This is one of my theories. Most critics are (white, middle aged, male) liberals. There are underlying assumptions and points of view that affect how they see films. I think bluestaters in general want high levels of irony and complexity in films. It’s not pejorative. Sometimes a great film has that. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing to point out underlying and unrecognized bias in the critical group-think.

    Jen Chaney and I explore this in our video about Redstate and Bluestate movies.

    I think it’s worth talking about, but I think people are reflexively defensive. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing to talk about and it’s easy to talk about our points of view in film without getting too upset at the other side.

    Movies…bringing us together.

  • Travis Tarrant

    SERIOUSLY?!?! A red state/blue state issue? It was just a good ol’ Popcorn Escapist fun movie.