To much fanfare and, eventually, must divisiveness, Zack Snyder’s retelling of the Superman story finally flew into theaters. It was big and bold and loud and bombastic; it was quiet and solemn and tragic; it was epic and intimate; and, in the end, it was the greatest superhero movie I have ever seen.
A young itinerant worker is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.
The above is the official film synopsis and just might be the most understated slice of English prose ever written; Superman, with all of his great mythology and iconic affectations and pop culture impact, distilled to an ambivalent plot capsule that could have been culled from the synopsis of an ’80s sci-fi film starring the Barbarian Brothers.
But within this Spartan wordplay lies a signpost to what Snyder is getting at with his take on the Boy in Blue: at the core of the Superman story is an outsider with a big shiny red boot in two worlds, but a native of neither. That sense of belonging, of purpose, is one of the biggest selling points of Superman to me, and it is the driving force behind Snyder’s interpretation.
Before we get too deep and spoilery, a few notes about Snyder’s approach to Supes’ origin story. First, and most unique, is the time spent on Krypton. If all you knew of Superman’s home planet originated from the movies, then there’s not much to go on; some dark sound stages, a trippy shot featuring Marlon Brando, Terrence Stamp talking trash to a group of stiffs in flowing robes.
Here, we get a legit civilization, bolstered by Russell Crowe’s Jor-el, augmented by an alien production design and rich with creatures, artifacts and tech. Zod (Michael Shannon, Premium Rush) is given ample screen time to establish his intentions and what ultimately drives him to get his genocide on. Back on Earth, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, Immortals) shows up as a 33-year-old (wink wink), drifting through adulthood as a commercial fisherman and a waiter and a hitchhiker.
Various experiences trigger his upbringing, all of which are told in flashbacks, a narrative style of which I’m a big fan. It frees the film from strict linearity, and Snyder is able to contextualize what Clark is going through. The leanness of the background exposition is refreshing, especially as such due diligence in origin narratives typically slows superhero movies down to a crawl.
Some more stuff happens, including the introduction of a non-oblivious Lois Lane (Amy Adams, The Fighter), who actually does some investigating and gets to the bottom of the Case of the Mysterious Guy Who Can Fold Log Trucks Into Origami. Even more refreshing: she isn’t mind-wiped by Superman’s roofy kiss.
The endgame kicks in with the re-appearance of Zod and his Zodlings and as much as I enjoyed the run-up, this is the pay-off is where Man of Steel separates itself from the rest of the caped also-rans.
Reactions to the film’s home stretch have been mixed and white-hot. It’s either “This is an affront to the Superman I know and love!” or “This is the Superman I’ve waited my whole life to see!” with relatively little ambivalence in between. I’m in the latter category, transfixed by Snyder’s derring-do. In fact, I’ll take it a step further: this is a Superman I hadn’t waited for because it was an interpretation I hadn’t expected.
Why did it all click so well for me? Look no further than the two most controversial segments of the film (spoilers ahead):
Metropolis gets flattened
In a recent Yahoo! Movies special, Zack Snyder estimated that around 5,000 people lost their lives during the Kryptonian invasion and subsequent Zod/Superman face-off. Just watch the World Engine do its work: hundreds of bystanders get tossed into the air then squashed like bugs or incinerated. Buildings topple, city blocks are pulverized and death is everywhere. “It’s not just fun to crash around in the city,” Snyder said. “There’s a human price.”
Bingo. There is a cost in Man of Steel. There are consequences when superpowered beings fight. And Superman — a rookie mind you — is doing what he can to prevent Zod from slaughtering millions. This is not Marvel’s The Avengers, where the entirety of New York City is demolished and as far as I can tell there are apparently no human casualties.
I’m not trying to dump on The Avengers, a movie I enjoyed immensely. But it is safe. Amazing, wondrous, terrible things happen in films like these and innocents don’t pay the price. Man of Steel is not safe. Superman does change the world and, presumably, as he masters his omnipotence, the collateral damage may subside, but for now there is danger. There is consequence.
Zod gets iced
Here’s the biggie. Faced with an impossible situation, Superman performs an act that shocked many. As Zod, fully off the Kryptonian equivalent of a gourd, threatens to blast a family to cinders with eye blasts, Superman cements his immigration status by snapping his neck. What follows? A melodramatic pan around, as Superman slowly rises, fists clenched, biceps bulging, teeth gritted? Does Lois run over to him, ask what happened, and Superman dryly notes “I stopped him in the neck of time”?
Nah. Superman drops to his knees and bellows a scream of despair, knowing that the final vestiges of his race lie dead at his feet. It is a ballsy choice, but the action is earned and in these final moments, more is revealed about character than any amount of spoken exposition can deliver.
There is no Michael Bay bad-ass-cam, no smarmy one-liner. There is only Lois and Kal-el and the final image we have of Superman is of him, his head buried in the arms of a human woman, weeping.
(Of course this isn’t the first time Superman waxed Zod in a movie; in Superman II he broke Zod’s hand and tossed him into a glacier. Then Lois murdered Ursa. And Superman laughed and laughed!)
Warner Bros. has put together a worthy Blu-ray for its tentpole summer film. The 2.40:1/1080p transfer is gorgeous and benefited the intense (slo-mo free!) action sequences in a big way. On the big screen, I sometimes had a difficult time tracking the super fights, but in the comfort of my own home I was able to keep up nicely. The muscular 7.1 DTD-HD Master Audio track will shake your walls, driving Hans Zimmer’s terrific score amidst the punching and exploding.
Extras are spread across two discs. Riding shotgun with the feature film: “Strong Characters, Legendary Roles,” a thirty-minute documentary on Superman’s cultural impact; “All Out Action,” a look at the training regimens of the characters and the plotting and execution of the action sequences; “Krypton Decoded,” a brief featurette on Krypton’s imagining; “New Zealand: Home to Middle Earth,” The Hobbit-themed extra about New Zealand that has literally nothing to do with Superman. A Superman animated short caps it all off. The second disc is highlighted by a full-length interactive movie experience, featuring Snyder, the cast and the crew popping in to shed some light on the making of the film. Finally, “Planet Krypton” is a faux-documentary on Krypton and the invaders. It’s a good suite, but deleted scenes and an audio commentary would have been cool.