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‘Man of Steel’ the Superman we need

Posted: June 28, 2013 8:15 a.m.
Updated: July 1, 2013 5:00 a.m.

A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed a nice outing with one of my sisters and my two sons. We went to a Columbia theater -- only to make it easier on my sister -- to see “Man of Steel,” the new Superman movie starring British actor Henry Cavill in the titular role. I’m here to highly recommend it and not just because it’s a superhero film, a genre everyone knows I like. I’m recommending it because it’s a really great movie.

As always, I will try to write as much of this without too many spoilers so as to not to ruin it for those of you who haven’t gone to see it.

There are some things you probably should know about the movie going in. Despite Superman’s 75th anniversary this year -- an amazing milestone that means most people already know his story -- “Man of Steel” is an origin film.

It opens, as you would expect, on Krypton, Superman’s home planet. Krypton explodes (other things happen, too, but that would be spoilers) right after his parents, Jor-El and Lara, send him in a spaceship to Earth. It arrives here, found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, beautifully played by, respectively, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. As Clark Kent, he grows up, gains his powers, discovers his heritage, meets Lois Lane, goes to Metropolis and fights the bad guys.

What was known to fans early on, but might surprise those who don’t follow these things is that the bad guys are some of his own people. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but -- as with Christopher Reeves’ second Superman movie back in 1980 -- some Kryptonians survived and they have a beef with the son of Jor-El.

Indeed, much of the Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) directed film owes several beats to the original Reeves films as well as the “Smallville” TV series.

Having a British actor play Superman may sound like having an American play James Bond, but Cavill is quite good, actually. His version of Clark Kent is based on being raised by Jonathan and Martha rather than an affectation of meekness. Mind you, with a sequel on the way -- yes, already -- Snyder and the writers may have Cavill play up fake differences between Clark Kent and Superman, but that’s barely present in this film. For these reasons, Cavill’s equally good in the “Superman” persona. There’s really no separation yet except in that he doesn’t tell the powers that be who he is.

The interplay between his Clark/Superman and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is very nice. In fact, I would say it’s likely going to turn out to be the most equitable Lois and Clark relationship in the history of the franchise.

As I mentioned, other Kryptonians play into the end game. One of those is General Zod, a character used in “Superman II” with Reeves, played by Terrence Stamp. Here, it is Michael Shannon who does a great job for the new millennium in crafting a villain who actually sees himself as Krypton’s savior. That’s as much as I’ll tell you plot-wise, but it is that ideological split between him and Superman that sets up the entire last third to half of the movie.

And that’s where any controversy comes in. A large number of reviewers have commented on the fight between Superman and Zod with his followers. For fans of “Superman II,” “Man of Steel” outstrips those 1980 sequences by leaps and bounds. Some reviews criticized the movie for how much damage is inflicted on the city of Metropolis and, most especially, for a choice Superman must make near the film’s end.

As I said on Facebook and Google+ after seeing the movie, the last half to third of the film is pretty bombastic but it’s a morality play turned physical between Superman and Zod. There’s also this “choice” I mentioned, if you call have having no choice a “choice” at all. It’s controversial from a screenwriting aspect, but fits the overall theme.

Some critics say this is a gloomy movie. Certainly, things happen that are not good, but what do you expect when super-villains decide wanton destruction is the only answer. But “Man of Steel” is not a depressing movie. It is very hopeful, in my opinion, despite what happens.

In fact, I believe “Man of Steel” may be the best Superman story told on film. The first two Reeves films are classics, and the new movie doesn’t take anything away from them. I do think, however, that “Man of Steel” is going to become a classic in its own right.

What I’m trying to say is that -- just as Christopher Nolan (who worked on “Man of Steel” as a writer and producer) gave us a new and gritty Batman -- Snyder has given us the Superman we need for the 21st century.

Cavill as Superman is extremely powerful. That can be scary to us mere mortals. But Cavill’s Superman reminds us that Clark Kent is, despite not being human, the real man under the red cape.

When “Superman” came out in 1978, we were told “You’ll believe a man can fly.” And we did.

There’s no similar tagline to “Man of Steel,” but if there is one speech that sums up this movie it is this, uttered by Jor-El as played by Russell Crowe:

“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fail. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

It turns out the “S” symbol on Clark’s uniform means “hope” in Kryptonian. The best Superman stories aren’t about how he can push a planet out of the way. The best stories are about inspiring us to be better than we are.

In that, “Man of Steel” succeeds by any measure.


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