Well, of course “Man of Steel” is beating expectations, setting a June box office record, and flying high despite pinched-sphincter reviews from a handful of sourpuss critics. In addition to its dazzling special effects and joyous beating heart, his is one of the greatest Father’s Day movies ever made.
Superman’s got two fathers, and they’re both awesome. Russell Crowe’s Jor-El could have been the star of his own film series. He’s a brilliant scientist, a man of action (he’s got his own pet dragon! He’s an expert in Kryptonian karate!), a lover of freedom who would fit right in at a Fourth of July picnic, and a father whose love transcends both the end of his world and the death of his civilization.
Once baby Kal-El arrives on Earth, he has the great good fortune to be found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who bring him small-town American wisdom and humility, coupled with some big ideas about sacrifice and moral choice. Pa Kent is an amazing man. It might not be obvious on first viewing, but he has precisely the same concerns about the health and morality of his civilization as Jor-El. Jor-El gets a few scenes on modern-day Earth thanks to Kryptonian holographic technology, but it’s a real pity he never gets to talk with Jonathan Kent. A conversation between the two of them would have been fascinating.
More than any other Superman film, this one is about Clark sorting out his human and alien heritage, and finding his place in his adopted world. He’s not even referred to as “Superman” until fairly late in the film. His youth is spent bouncing around between the kind of tough, dirty, dangerous jobs that get their own shows on cable-TV, which puts him in position to perform rescues with his amazing powers, and then drift off into the twilight… becoming a figure of myth that attracts the attention of a certain reporter for the Daily Planet. Lois Lane has never seemed more like a real reporter, and one of the biggest changes in this “reboot” of the Superman legend is a top-down revision of her relationship with the Man of Steel. No longer will we have to watch the world’s greatest investigative reporter failing to notice that her closest co-worker is Superman wearing glasses and a tie.
No sooner does Clark discover the full extent of his alien heritage than it comes looking for him, in the form of General Zod and his band of interstellar conquerors. Zod is a lot different than he was in “Superman II.” Like everyone else on Krypton, prior to the heretical natural birth of Jor-El and Lara’s kid, Zod was genetically engineered for his role in society. He was built to serve as a soldier and protect his people. Moral choice has not been fully stripped from this stunningly re-imagined Krypton – which is very fond of liquid metal, much as the last round of Superman films had the Kryptonians building everything out of ice – but moral choice is limited by genetic engineering, which has left them stagnant.
It turns out that investing centuries in the selective breeding of a warrior caste willing to protect its culture By Any Means Necessary wasn’t such a great idea. Nobody’s ever going to eclipse the deliciously arrogant scenery-chewing villainy Terence Stamp brought to the role, but Michael Shannon’s Zod is very effective, a disturbingly sympathetic monster. He is what he was made to be. His failure to exercise the measure of moral choice left to him is what makes him evil; like many other monsters, he winds up his knees howling that he was just trying to do his job, and it’s just a little bit heartbreaking.
It’s too bad Zod didn’t have a father like Jor-El, or Jonathan Kent, to guide him. Time and again, Kal-El / Clark Kent uses the wisdom his fathers gave him to choose kindness, humility, and restraint, despite his enormous powers. He spends his life letting a succession of bullies pound on him without lifting a finger (although he’s not above a bit of highly amusing revenge vandalism in his later years.) He can’t boast of the amazing things he’s done to help people; Pa Kent worried that the human race might not be ready to learn he walks among them. But as a helpful priest reminds Clark in a memorable scene, love is always a leap of faith, and trust comes later. That’s not an easy lesson to learn, especially when your leaps of faith carry you into orbit.
Maybe “Man of Steel” is a little too long, a bit too loud, a tad excessive in a finale that just keeps getting bigger until skyscrapers are dropping left and right. But this is the sort of movie that only really works when it abandons all restraint. There’s been a lot of talk about the parallels between Superman and Jesus, but really the “sacrifice” phase of Superman’s relationship with the human race is over pretty quick, and then it’s time to start cleaning out cornfields with the faces of super-villains, and throwing down with giant tentacle robots. The decision Clark makes is not to die for humanity, but to fight for them… to fight for truth, justice, and you better believe the American Way. (“I grew up in Kansas, Colonel. It doesn’t get much more American than that.”) He gets the living crap kicked out of him, but he’s ever bit as determined as Zod. You’ll gasp, and maybe feel a tear in the corner of your eye, when he proves it. This isn’t a “gritty” movie in the same sense as the recent Batman films, but it’s realistic in the sense that even Superman can’t guarantee sweetheart endings with minimal collateral damage.
Henry Cavill handles the role extremely well. He’s not playing exactly the same character Christopher Reeve did, and he’s in a different sort of movie. A lot of guys are going to be hitting the gym after hearing the feedback from their Significant Others on the beefiest Superman ever. As for the older gentlemen in the audience, well, Dad will be glad to know his favorite superhero is back, and better than ever.