WARNING - SPOILERS for MAN OF STEEL
Man of Steel doesn't quite live up to the promise of its thrilling trailers, but considering the lackluster track record of its director and the sharply divided critical response, I was pleasantly surprised by what turns out to be pretty decent science fiction film wrapped up in the primary colours of a superhero movie.
As with the disappointing Star Trek Into Darkness, this film is well-served by a wonderful cast, from leads Henry Cavill and Amy Adams right down to supporting players like Chris Meloni and Laurence Fishburne. Thankfully the players of Man of Steel have a stronger story to work with: this isn't just the old story of baby Kal-El's flight to Earth from doomed planet Krypton, but a first contact story that shows just how unprepared humans are to deal with a civilization far in advance of our own.
Indeed, though we only see Krypton during the film's opening sequence, Superman's home world is more richly realized than in any other film or television treatment. This is a complex civilization with contentious politics shaped by a long, interesting history and technological leaps that have profoundly impacted Kryptonian values. The film's central villain, General Zod, is a Kryptonian revolutionary whose only goal is to preserve something of his planet's doomed civilization. Jor-El, Superman's father, stands in opposition to Zod - not because he wants to see Krypton die, but because he feels Zod's vision has been corrupted by the decadence of a society in decline. Jor-El and his wife Lara have conspired to share the first natural birth in centuries, giving their son Kal-El the freedom to choose his own destiny - a choice in sharp opposition to the Kryptonian tradition of tightly controlled population growth, with people genetically engineered into various castes.
While I've never been terribly impressed with the work of director Zack Snyder, I do admit that he chooses an ambitious structure to tell his story: a series of flashbacks thematically tied to present-day action. It doesn't work perfectly, seeming to compress years of time into the space of a lazy summer afternoon, but it's an interesting change of pace and a way for the film to differentiate itself from the strictly linear Superman films of the past.
The film's central theme is acceptance. Once he arrives on Earth, baby Kal-El is raised, of course, by the Kents, Kansas farmers who, as in the comics, try to raise their adopted son Clark as a decent man - or Superman, as the case may be. But because of his alien heritage, Clark lives as a freak and loner, unable to allow himself the release of loss of temper even in the face of outrageous provocation. To slip for an instant would mean someone's death. It's a heavy burden for Clark to bear.
Throughout the film Clark searches for his true identity and people, and when he finally learns the truth, the consequences for humanity are cataclysmic. Hunted by Zod and mistrusted by humanity, Clark (he's only called Superman once in the film) has to prove to the people of Earth that he's not a threat. "Are they ready for me?" he asks Lois Lane, but Lois can't answer the question.
When General Zod and his revolutionaries finally reach Earth (they survived the destruction of Krypton thanks to their imprisonment off-planet), the stage is set for what has become for me, quite frankly, the least interesting portion of modern movies: the big battle sequence. Don't get me wrong - the action is well-staged, intense and the stakes are high. It's interesting to see the US military treat all of the Kryptonians as targets at first and only come around to Superman's side midway through the battle. The film is full of good people trying to do the right thing under harrowing circumstances.
Unfortunately, the scale of the destruction is so vast and terrifying that in the real world it would take literally decades for the affected areas to recover. This destruction is, of course, glossed over, which somewhat dilutes what's supposed to be a feel-good coda setting up the film's sequels.
There are other nice touches. I loved the steel-themed Kryptonian technology, which looks like nothing so much as ball bearings reconfiguring themselves to whatever purpose is necessary. A hologram of Jor-El walks Clark through the history of his people using this technology, and the result is an art-deco slideshow that wouldn't seem out of place in a 1930s Fleischer cartoon.
Long-time Superman fans will be troubled by one critical moment in the film. I won't spoil it here, but I will say that while the screenwriter and director make a controversial choice, in the context of the film I think it works.
It does trouble me that for a film that's supposed to be about hope and acceptance there's so much darkness. It seems that there's little room for joy left in our big summer entertainments, and while Man of Steel tries to be uplifting, there's a steel-grey hint of doom that permeates the proceedings. I would have preferred more humour and a somewhat lighter tone, but the filmmakers chose a different direction. Maybe this wasn't my perfect Superman movie, but it certainly isn't bad, and I'll be happy to revisit this version of the mythos again.