Fanboy Meets World is a biweekly column about the intersection between cinema and comic book culture. It runs on alternating Mondays.
This article contains spoilers for "Man of Steel."
My mother liked the Christopher Reeve "Superman" films. I'm basing this mostly on the fact that when he fell off that horse and busted his spine then appeared on the Oscars telecast she said "Awww, poor Superman. I like him."
My mother will not like Henry Cavill. No, she's not going to wish him any debilitating injury, but there's no way in hell she'll make it past the first few minutes of "Man of Steel" when she stumbles upon it on Starz. That's because the opening of "Man of Steel" is hardcore nerdass sci-fi of the sort I spent most of my childhood defending as she beat me about the face and neck with a leather-bound copy of the full seven volumes of "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu," bellowing "is this what we send you to private school for?!? 'Crisis on Infinite Earths?!?!?'"
I'm exaggerating slightly (she was always #TeamBalzac over #TeamProust) but the point is that most of Superman's Hollywood screentime thus far has somewhat played down the sci-fi. We devoted DC Comics fans know all about the Bottle City of Kandor, Braniac 5, Boom Tubes to Apokolips, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Cyborg-Superman and, that most whacked-out science fiction concept, a being from a dimension far different from ours called Grant Morrison. Mom may remember mild mannered reporter Clark Kent, but we know he's secretly Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton.
"Man of Steel" may be a multi-million dollar pop culture juggernaut with a massive co-branded Gillette campaign, but for a solid fifteen minutes or so at the top, all the moms and Norms will be forced to deal with a Krypton prologue that is, with all likelihood, the best bit of geek cinema we're likely to see all year.
We open with Jor-El calming Lara in the final stages of labor, as she delivers us the Man of Tomorrow, Kal-El. In their spacious, unadorned home (living room? lab? studio? lanai? hard to say) they are surrounded by floating, buzzing kidney shaped interactive monitor/robots that can manipulate silvery grains into blobs and, ultimately, shapes. It's a strangely tactile version of the now ubiquitous 3D imaging in sci-fi films (think J.A.R.V.I.S. meets an etch-a-sketch.)
When Kal-El makes his first post-natal cry we smash-cut to outdoors, where, on a platform somewhere in this city in the sky, a giant tortoise-like, saddled beast wildly brays. From that close-up we pull back to see a busy landscape of creatures and high-tech vehicles. Before you can shout "what are THOSE guys??!" we cut to the inside of a council chamber.
The Elders of Krypton are wearing crazy-ass metal crowns with chains dangling over their faces and Russell Crowe is wearing a rubber muscle suit and yelling. It's the greatest thing ever. Just as you get your bearings there's some smoke at the entrance and suddenly someone is shooting a laser gun.
I don't mean a thin red beam, I mean big bursts of blue blaster fire with loud, "zwap-zwap-zwap" sound effects. The intended aural evocation is Darth Vader entering Princess Leia's transport ship at the beginning of "A New Hope" and while it is folly to set yourself up for that sort of comparison, "Man of Steel" has the goods. Enter Zod. While I mean no disrespect to Terence Stamp, Michael Shannon as Zod quickly secures himself the title of greatest Superman movie villain in the history of this or any other Multiverse. (It's in the eyes, it's in the mush-mouth, it's in the DNA, as we'll later understand.)
There's fighting there's shooting there's killing and then there's Russell Crowe flying a winged beast that he calls H'Raka. He swoops and zooms as Zod follows him in a beetle-looking ship going Blam! Blam! Blam! and the movie's only been going for five minutes or so and some in the audience are wondering when Lois Lane is gonna' show up.
But that's not the best part. Jor-El parks H'Raka over something called the Genesis Chamber (!) so he can retrieve something called The Codex (!!). With that he dives hundreds of feet into some kind of liquid (his rubber suit making him suddenly look like Aquaman) and swims past dozens of VINES OF HUMANOID EMBRYOS. Finally he gets what he's looking for, a rock that kinda looks like a skull and kinda looks like a key. Later he's got to fire Kal-El into hyperspace but first he has to fight mano-a-mano against General Zod, which means putting on a ridiculous suit of form-fitting metal armor (featuring the S-shaped crest of the House of El, naturally.)
After Jor-El falls, but before Krypton implodes, Zod and his cabal will be sent to this film's version of the Phantom Zone. This involves standing still but contorting your face as some sort of fast-freezing ooze rises up from your feet and over your head. Then your body transforms into a humongous phallus and shoots up into a flowery ship with wobbly eyelash-like tendrils which then ports into subspace. No, I'm really not making any of this up.
Well, repeatedly hitting the pleasure center of the brain can only lead to one thing - planetary destruction. Krypton and most of its inhabitants die, and while "Man of Steel" continues to be a terrific movie, it never quite maintains this level of insanity. Jor-El returns as a downloaded consciousness and Shannon's Zod gets the T-shirt ready line "release the World Engine!" but there's also lame stuff in there like feelings and parents mixed in with the heat vision and bashing up buildings. (I'm just joking. I love you Kevin Costner. I'm so ready to sweep "The Postman" under the rug.)
The big win for all of us comes when "Man of Steel" makes a bazillion dollars despite these scenes knee-deep in Nerd. It will prove, once again, that Hollywood can pump the equivalent to many small nations' gross domestic product into goofy-ass sci-fi and call that corporate responsibility. If you don't think that's a good thing go to Russia. I'm ready to start the letter writing campaign to Warner Bros. to get the Krypton prequel going if you are.