A not so mini-review to help you choose

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Man of Steel (Grade: A)

Usually I try to hit up a couple of flicks in this ‘column’ but this is a special one folks so it gets a review all to its own  And it is a big one, have no doubt, cause we’re talking about The Big Blue Boy Scout and he & I go way back.  So, indulge me if you will as I share some back-story and insight with you before diving into the review proper.

First things first, I love the Christopher Reeve Superman.  He was my introduction to the character.  I saw all of his films in the theater, the first few with my Dad who was a big Supes fan and had grown up reading the comics.  I was just getting into the four-color funnies at the time and was more into the New Teen Titans and the Legion of Super-Heroes.  But I sure as hell wasn’t going to pass up a chance to catch the most iconic superhero of all time in live and living color.  The third and fourth in the series have their fans (or at least the Richard Pryor-infused third does.  I can’t imagine anyone defending The Quest for Peace) but Superman:  The Movie and Superman II really bring the goods.

They are a product of their time, reverential of the source material, and while they’ve aged well they are still a bit long in the tooth.  That said Christopher Reeve is still the perfect Man from Krypton.  He perfectly embodied the aw-shucks Midwest Clark Kent charm AND the eternal, choir boy perfection of Superman.  He will always be my favorite Kal-El though this new guy comes awfully close and may get there yet.

The movie franchise lay dormant for a couple of decades before DC Comics and parent company Warner Brothers, emboldened by the success of the Caped Crusader reboot Batman Begins, attempted to revive their flagship hero.  They went with a different strategy though by continuing the series, ignoring the continuity of the last two flicks, and setting Superman Returns five years after the events of the Kryptonian packed second movie.  Brandon Routh did an admirable job of filling the red boots and was particularly effective at evoking Reeve’s Clark Kent.  There’s some absolutely beautiful moments in the film and some thrilling set pieces but the action scenes are few and far between and it is almost too slavishly devoted to the Reeve movies.  I rather liked the movie.  But I am a fan of those it chose to honor.

The movie was well received by critics but fell flat with audiences.  The studio was trying to play to an audience that either hadn’t seen the originals or just didn’t care to see them continued.  There was no sequel and the character went away for another 7 years.

So, here we are today.  A new vision of The Man of Tomorrow has been unleashed upon a world seemingly desperate for heroes.  Directed by Zack Snyder (a notorious punching bag for critics) and shepherded by Christopher Nolan, the architect of the insanely successful Dark Knight series, this is NOT my daddy’s Superman.  They have eschewed all previous versions of the character and have given us a Clark Kent, portrayed by relatively unknown British actor Henry Cavill, who at this point in his life is not yet Super and still very much a Man.

They have also given us all of the classic elements required in a Superman origin story.

There’s a visually spectacular extended opening segment on the doomed planet Krypton where we meet Kal-El’s birth father Jor-El played by Russell Crowe, more alive in this film then any I’ve seen him in since Gladiator.  We are also introduced to General Zod, played by Michael Shannon, leader of a seditious army and literally bred and genetically designed to protect his planet and his people at all cost.  He and his followers are condemned for their crimes to the Phantom Zone.  We all know what happens from here.  The child of El is sent into deep space to escape the fate of the doomed planet, the hopes, dreams and legacy of his entire people with him.

At this point, the movie makes a big narrative jump as we find the man we know to be Clark Kent in his early-30’s, living a life of solitude jumping from job to job and town to town.  Whenever he is forced to use his powers to save a desperate soul, he moves on fearful of exposure.  These scenes are interspersed with vignettes from his days in Smallville where he is raised by his human parents, Ma & Pa Kent played to perfection by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner.  They know he is special, that he is not of them, yet love his as their own.  Costner is especially effective in the scenes where he stresses how important it is that Clark keep his special abilities hidden until he can know the world is ready for him.  Because when he does come forward, everything will change.  They instill in the alien child a crucial humanity.

Clark eventually discovers a probe ship sent from Krypton thousands of years earlier when the planet was colonizing the universe.  Here he discovers his origins and it is at this point he first comes to the attention of a canny Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter named Lois Lane, sharply portrayed by Amy Adams.  There isn’t a fully blown romance this early in the story though the attraction is certainly there with one brief moment of action on that.  Lois is set up as more of a confidante, privy to some of Superman’s biggest secrets.  I liked this change a lot.

Now this is a superhero movie which requires conflict and a villain, ably appearing in orbit over Earth in the form of a returned Zod, freed from his imprisonment by the destruction of Krypton.  He forces Clark into the open by threat on the planet’s safety.  And to say much more would be to venture into spoilerly material far greater than any I might have already touched on.  Suffice it to say that Zod doesn’t keep deals and he has his own designs for the Last Son of Krypton and his adopted home.

It is here, in a third act filled with more action, destruction and even death, than all the other Superman movies combined, where all the fan boys, Supes purists, and Donner/Reeve disciples have taken the greatest issue.  I don’t mean those terms as insults.  You could probably say they all apply to me to some degree.  But this isn’t a movie for the fan boys.  This isn’t a movie for the purists.  And this isn’t a movie for the disciples.  This is something new.  This is a film about a man thrust unto the world’s stage unsure if he is ready.  This is a tale of a rookie who doesn’t know how to fight dealing with an army as strong as he is and hellbent on devastation.  This is a story about a man of two worlds desperate to honor both and forced to make an almost impossible choice.  This is how the man learns to be a hero

In the end, I was left with the image of that man having the full weight of those two worlds on his shoulder.  He knows that he was culpable in causing great damage and loss of life and that he can never allow this to happen again.  He knows that to rise one must fall and that he fell harder than anyone possibly could.  He will move forward attempting to provide that ideal example that humanity can strive towards.  It is an awesome and overwhelming responsibility that can’t be taken lightly.  He is a hero and he does this not just because he is Super.  He is a Man.  He is a Superman.

This is a great movie with a stellar cast who provide good to great performances across the board.  It looks spectacular and has an excellent musical score by Hans Zimmer.  It is at times a dark and challenging tale.  It will make you question what it means to be hero.  It is ultimately a great springboard for what I hope is a very long-lived franchise.

I adore Superman.  I always have.  I always will.  The beauty of the character is that after 75 years of existence there can still be fresh, new and exciting interpretations of him.  Nothing this film does invalidates the previous films or the work of countless comics creators.  They all still exist and are readily available.  If you want recommendations, I’ll be happy to provide some. That said, if you have any interest in the character, I suggest you check out this movie and judge for yourself.  It’s certainly not without fault.  It is by no means perfect.  But you won’t be able to judge that based solely on my, as it turns out, glowing review or the damning words of someone else.

Go with an open mind and no preconceptions or ideas of what you think it should be.  Judge it for what it is and what it’s trying to say.

I loved it.

Your mileage may vary.

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