Man of Steel is not a Superman movie. The Clark Kent on the screen might seem familiar: he leaves his home planet for Kansas as an infant, he knows how to fly, and he wears the classic cape and tights. Played by the preternaturally handsome Henry Cavill, he certainly looks the part. But this is not the hero you may know and love: this Clark Kent steals, doubts, and lets civilians die. The name “Superman” is bandied about once or twice, but it’s more of an obligatory homage than an unreserved embrace. Man of Steel borrows freely from the preexisting mythos, but it blazes its own path to create a surprisingly thoughtful big budget sci-fi flick.
Under Zach Snyder’s visually audacious direction, Steel takes no shortcuts. It opens with an elaborate set piece on the crumbling planet Krypton, combining standard high-tech sci-fi gear with a stunningly rendered topography reminiscent of James Cameron’s Avatar (there’s even a giant bird-like creature that would fit right in on Pandora). Because the Kryptonians used all of their natural resources and the ruling class moved too slowly to save the planet, Krypton’s core is imploding. The movie’s political opening is not exactly subtle, but nor does it try to be.
Amidst this general panic, General Zod (an enthusiastic Michael Shannon) tries to overthrow the government while Jor-El (a confident Russell Crowe) makes arrangements to send his son Kal-El (Superman’s real name, for the uninitiated, here portrayed effortlessly by four different real-life infants) to safety on a distant planet you and I know as Earth. There is fighting, explosions, and loud music. Typically such multi-sensory bombast is wearying, but here one feels as if this is precisely the point. We get the sense that what’s happening on screen is of a scale much bigger than our own puny lives, and thus we feel like the events matter.
The same is true of the movie’s last act, essentially one long drawn-out slugfest between Kal and Zod. It is customary for these superhero extravaganzas to devolve into mindless action in the end, but for once, Steel’s mindless action serves a purpose. Nobody wants to see Superman stop a standard bank robber—there’s no drama in that. We need the scope of the story to match the scope of the hero’s powers; we want our protagonist to struggle, to find himself powerless but still persevere. And for all of this to happen, we ordinary humans (both the endangered onscreen bystander and the wide-eyed audience member) must be overwhelmed.
Of course, no amount of fancy action spectacle can save a film if we don’t care about the lead. Luckily Man of Steel does not suffer this problem. The movie’s middle takes the time to make us care by showing Clark Kent as not just a super-powered alien but also a farmer’s son trying to find his place in a large, impersonal world. Snyder smartly follows the Clark of the present, a drifter driven to help people but always feeling an outsider, while flashing back to a younger Clark who, it turns out, is much the same way.
A scene in which an elementary school-aged Clark loses control of his finely tuned hearing is particularly potent; the cacophony of existence sends his fragile mind into overload. Panicked, young Clark runs out of class and locks himself in a broom closet: “the world is too big, Mom.” (I’ve been there too, brother.) “Then make it smaller,” she tells him. “Focus on my voice. Pretend it’s an island out in the ocean. Can you see it?” We can see it, and in the expanse of the film we have something to hold onto.
It is Clark’s parents (imbued with a tender mix of warmth, love, and uncertainty by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) who keep him sane throughout childhood, but as an adult he needs Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams, likable as always). All I have to say is: girl’s got mad spunk. The script is a little over-the-top in, well, everything, but specifically in asserting Lane as a no-nonsense, take-charge woman. It’s worth it, however, because one imagines she’d need all that strength and more to romance a Superman.
I don’t mean to come up with excuses for all of screenwriter David S. Goyer’s mistakes. Much of the dialogue is contrived, and the details of Zod’s plan (explained in a bizarre pseudo-dream sequence involving two poorly-thought-out pieces of Kryptonian technology called a “Codex” and a “World Engine”) don’t withstand close scrutiny. But you have to respect this movie’s ambition; the script is bold enough to question what a godlike extra-terrestrial might actually mean for humanity, and humble enough to admit that the bad often comes with the good. Even when you find yourself wishing for a more intelligent hand guiding these philosophical explorations, the film gets points for making you think, too rare a feat for a summer blockbuster.
As Hans Zimmer’s haunting but inspirational score reverberates through the theater, the rise and fall of the music invites us to strive for an ideal, for perfection. It also tells us that we’ll never get there—not even Kal-El can be a perfect Superman—and that’s okay. At times Man of Steel might be big, dumb, and messy, but then again, so is its hero. So is life. Clark’s journey is not without missteps, but you love him because his heart is in the right place. The same goes for the movie.
Dayton Martindale is a junior in the astrophysics department.