By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Dear reader, before I tell you how much I enjoyed director Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” let me save you a few bucks. Skip the 3-D version. Virtually ineffectual, I suspect whatever afterthought process they employed proved a Kryptonite to the film’s color quality. That noted, be aware that I have never been so sure that Superman indeed exists.
Embodied in appearance and moral stature by handsome Henry Cavill, the origins and lore of the title character are entertainingly retold, thrillingly reminding us why we’ve become so enamored of the famous American legend in the first place. He showcases it with aplomb: X-ray vision, great feats of strength and, oh my, the flying was never better.
It may be a bit of an oxymoron, but the comic book hero created in 1933 by high school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster now gets his most realistic interpretation, and yet happily doesn’t relinquish the great fantasy and hope that shape the core of his essence. Most of all, he is good, a beacon of honesty and compassion that can sure comfort a kid.
As this latest exploit unfolded, I joyfully remembered poring over the avalanche of back issue D.C. Comics in Norman Ginsberg’s basement, surely the greatest such repository in the Western World. Doubtless, today its contents would rival civilization’s great fortunes. We’d read and read, occasionally interjecting with supposition, inquiry and pontification.
Of greater ecstasy, though, which this film permutation reminds of most, was getting the very latest issue of Superman when it arrived at Krupman’s candy store (Krupmans large and small lived in the back). It was a dime. You could get two Hershey bars for that. And it felt thin, not yet transformed to the eternally thumbed-through heft of its predecessors.
Nonetheless, this early acquaintance with extravagance was exhilarating. I rubbed my palm across the sleek cover, held it up to smell its freshness before imbibing, and then hesitated yet another moment, as if saving a special morsel on my dinner plate for last…knowing that the sooner I started, the sooner all this great preciousness would end.
Thus, I posit, director Snyder and Mr. Cavill’s newest Superman manage to tell not only the glory of one who could give all the world’s evildoers a good what for, but also make that personal connection to us. There is an extra touch of class behooving the superhero emeritus, the one who would instate the genre and pave the way for all other superheroes.
Moving to and fro across the time continuum, from Superman’s birth on the dying planet of Krypton, where scientist dad Jor-El (Russell Crowe) launches baby Kal-El to his date with destiny on Earth, to his current exploits, Mr. Snyder weaves his tale well. Metaphors
and references smartly set up the flashbacks and fast forwards, and populate the scenario.
But, just to be sure it also pleases those who couldn’t care less about any of that legacy stuff, “Man of Steel” doesn’t take a backseat to any FX extravaganza on the big screen today. Krypton exile General Zod, as worthy a villain as Superman is a savior, isn’t very happy about Kal-El’s smuggled departure. This makes for galactic battle scenes galore.
Played by Michael Shannon, the Machiavellian general, a colleague of Jor-El’s before Krypton’s sad fate caused a difference of opinion, is into the super stuff, too, as in super race and Krypton über alles. For complex DNA reasons having to do with a MacGuffin known as the Codex, his imperialistic aims require Superman be extricated from Earth.
Hence, though the screenplay nicely iterates all the trials and tribulations of growing up with and learning to handle one’s extraordinary powers—which I’m sure we can all relate to—Zod’s incursion represents Superman’s trial by fire. Exhilarating, it smartly mixes with heady polemical ruminations about the eternal war between democracy and fascism.
And, lest we forget many an American adolescent’s earliest encounter with romance, Amy Adams’s winsome yet gutsy Lois Lane vibrantly enters stage right. Nicely woven into the fabric of what is essentially an allegory about immigration and attitudes thereof, she’ll ensure that the super refugee is familiarized with our real national pastime.
Among other personae vital to Superman’s education, Russell Crowe is strong as his biological dad; Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are touching as Smallville’s Ma and Pa Kent, respectively; and, teaching our man that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, alluring Antje Traue is a force to be contended with as Zod’s henchwoman, Faora-Ul.
This all makes for a fine time at the Bijou, but not just because of the adventure or clever scripting. It’s the iconically American subtext. While we have no equivalent of the Iliad to extol our ethos save for patriot Joel Barlow’s (1754-1812) never popularly embraced “Vision of Columbus,” “Man of Steel” gloriously and intelligently celebrates our mettle.
“Man of Steel,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Zack Snyder and stars Henry Cavill, Amy Adams and Michael Shannon. Running time: 143 minutes
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