Review: 'Man of Steel'

Wondering why he's been stricken with painful x-ray vision, deafening enhanced hearing, and a super strength he must hide to look normal, a young Clark Kent asks his father, "Did God do this to me?" To which Pa Kent solemnly answers "no," before revealing a giant spaceship hidden beneath the family barn. As his father explains, there's no God to blame for the way Clark's abormalities. He is the God.

From his early days, Superman has been a comic book proxy for the symbolic cast of the Bible. But working from the "Batman Begins" textbook, director Zack Snyder ("300," "Sucker Punch"), writer David Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan drill to the core of the metaphor to find an emotional entrance and an excuse to explode the screen with jaw-dropping set pieces. "Man of Steel" is a blockbuster of titanic proportions that swings back and forth between human existentialism and clobbering action deserving of the biggest screen imaginable. If the word "epic" has lost its meaning in the throes of recent summers, "Man of Steel" forcefully redefines it.

There's an unexpected diversity in the textures of "Man of Steel" that gives purpose to the retracing of Superman's origins. For the first 20 minutes we're zipped around the alien landscapes, following Jor-El (Russell Crowe) as he races to ship his son off to Earth with the genetic code that could one day resurrect the Kryptonian people after the destruction of their planet. The prologue is every bit as dense as "Avatar," and Snyder wisely utilizes his spectacle for visual exposition. Crowe never misses a beat, even when "Man of Steel" introduces us to man-carrying dragonflies and MacGuffin concepts like the "Genesis Chamber." And it's during the opening escapades we first meet General Zod (Michael Shannon), whose oppressive plans for the Kryptonian DNA make him both Jor-El's ally and adversary. In an operatic endeavor like "Man of Steel," a dash of fuzzy morals goes a long way.

When Superman aka Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) takes the spotlight, Goyer's script flies faster than a speeding bullet, leaping tall plot points in a single bound. Donner's 1978 "Superman" and its 2006 semi-sequel "Superman Returns" took a methodical approach to building Clark's evolution. "Man of Steel" cuts to the chase, intertwining the life-defining moments from Clark's past with his heroic quest of the present. The discovery of Kryptonian vessel under the arctic ice sends twenty-something Clark — comfortable with his super powers — looking for answers to his otherworldly origins. All the while, slices of his upbringing with Earth couple Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) are organically slipped in. Snyder does away with his rigid style of the past, opting to shoot in real locations and allow his camera to float around his actors. Similarities to Terrence Malick's fluid approach to examining Sean Penn's memories in "Tree of Life" feel too close to be coincidence — but it works in the favor of "Man of Steel," a surprisingly poignant treatment of past and present conflict.

Impressively, "Man of Steel" gets away with its restraint and thoughtfulness by peppering the film with tender performances and the right amount of comic book panache. Cavill avoids emulating the bumbling alter ego originally crafted by Christopher Reeve by turning Clark into a struggling observer. Sometimes he can't resist — despite his mantra never to interfere, Clark's such a hero he just has to save the crew of a burning oil rig — but more often than not, he's holding himself back. Cavill conveys how painful that is. Amy Adams is the right kind of snappy for Lois Lane, a go-getter who finds a kindred spirit in Clark. Years of work have turned Costner into a cinematic sage, capable of delivering the dialogue in "Man of Steel" (which often sounds like it was written by a 13-year-old comic book nut) like it was penned by Keats. Goyer also finds a way to keep Crowe in the picture. A smart choice — he's basically the O blood type equivalent of on-screen chemistry.

There's a lot of super serious meat on the bones of "Man of Steel," but it doesn't skimp in the action department either. After Superman dons his iconic costume — a thrilling discovery that rivals Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" in its introduction of a hero's new powers — Zod and his cast of cronies make their way back to Earth, looking for the head of Jor-El's son. Parading through Zod's cartoonish entrance and the film's slowest moments, Snyder fully delivers the promise of the titular character's full potential. The final hour of "Man of Steel" is an all-out brawl that takes Superman from Smallville to Metropolis, throwing punches, slamming Zod's goons through buildings, slamming train cabooses into adversaries, and causing mass destruction along the way. Amazingly, Snyder's newfound style remains consistent throughout the action. Every frame of chaos feels perfectly composed, but never manufactured. Unlike "300" and "Watchmen" which were painfully dedicated to the source material, "Man of Steel" evokes the panels of a comic book with tangibility. The hits hurt, the flying is kinetic, and the explosions feel hot as hell. "Man of Steel" doesn't need the 3D treatment because it's already immersive.

"Man of Steel" has the potential to be too on the nose for some. At one point, Clark falls out of a spaceship in a blatantly crucificial position only ten minutes after he's confessed to a priest with a stained glass window of Jesus behind him. But that's all part of the film's audacity. In the wake of the Marvel Comics films, insistent on making their movies "entries" into a cinematic climax, "Man of Steel" takes a "go big or go home" that's refreshing in its stand-alone mentality. The choices aren't always right, but they're compelling — late in the game, Snyder focuses on Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his Daily Planet reporters, in peril during the Metropolis battle. Why? So he can trap them in a terrifying jail of debris — a bit cheap move that's forgivable at movie's ambitious scale. Same with composer Hans Zimmer goes full-on Philip Glass with his score, who abuses his Superman theme to the point of nausea, but still manages to make it work when the Man of Steel is grappling with Zod in the film's final moments.

As Nolan's Batman trilogy functioned to tell a realistic story of a human superhero, "Man of Steel" does so for an inhuman one. With that mantra, "The Dark Knight" could only go so big and relied on the bravdo of actors to enliven the screen. "Man of Steel" has its fair share of talent, but with a potential to tell a truly epic tale, Snyder shoots for the heavens. He gets there.

SCORE: 8.7 / 10