Zack Snyder has a lot riding on this reboot of Superman. The success of reintroducing Batman to modern issues and themes served that character wonderfully but putting Superman through that grinder was not as successful. It resulted in Superman Returns, a dour and mean-spirited film featuring the mopiest rendition of the character ever produced. Putting the greatest American comic hero in Snyder's hands also carries with it another danger.
After Snyder's five earlier films it has become clear that he has no need for heroes. Even his kids film centered around the idea that lies are more comforting than the truth because you stand little chance of changing the world. So, in a moment that could have been supreme lunacy or absolute brilliance, the executives at Warner Bros. put the cape of the most invincible and pure of heroes in the hands of a man who seems to want to tear them down. The result of that conflict is not only Zack Snyder's best film, but one of the most gorgeous and difficult films of the year.
Man of Steel remembers that Superman is Clark Kent, and not the other way around. A lavish introductory act shows how close he was to being the reverse though. On the planet Krypton his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have welcomed their first son into the world just as it is dying. Jor-El predicts that the planet is going to collapse due to the Kryptonians overuse of its natural resources and General Zod (Michael Shannon) decided to help hasten the decline of the ruling class by rebelling and trying to take a chosen few blood lines off planet. Zod's rebellion fails, but not before he watches Jor-El place the knowledge of the Kryptonians on a craft with his infant and blast off into the unknown.
This bit of straightforward storytelling eases us into the fragmented time-line that Snyder uses the rest of the film. Right when the spacecraft is about to crash into the planet the story shifts forward three decades to an anonymous young man working on a fishing boat. This man is Clark (Henry Cavill) and he has wandered the planet looking for clues to his past while helping strangers with nothing asked for in return. I love this idea of Superman, almost to the point of disappointment when he inevitably dons the cape, because he exists in a state of total empathy. He helps because he wants to and at odds with the way his adoptive father taught him. As Clark progresses on toward his destiny we flash back to key moments in his childhood that form the man he has become.
His Earth parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) are not paragons of virtue. In fact, there are many decisions that Jonathan makes in regards to Clark that are bad ideas but wrapped in a parent's wish to protect their children. But they are still good parents. Two moments had me in tears because of how perfect they were and deal with the otherness we feel growing up and feeling different. One involved Martha calming young Clark as he cries alone in a closet because he does not understand what's happening to his body, the other is a father's simple assurance to his son that he will love him no matter what he does. Clark wears the effects of these and many moments so clearly in his decisions as an adult that when he finally becomes Superman we see how hard it is for him to ignore the pain of so many.
What further complicates this is still the mass destruction that Clark is involved with when General Zod breaks free from his prison and comes to claim Clark. Man of Steel does not shy away from the devastation that would surely come from the fallout of these two titans fighting one another. But the film follows a tricky balancing act, it does not go into too much of a cartoon superhero land, but it does not also allow the results of these actions to mire the world in two much darkness. Only one moment, very late in the film, where the ghost of 9/11 is present yet again in our superhero films goes a bit too far. The movie is about the difficult choices that he makes when choosing to protect other people. It's a testament to the movie's complexity that Superman makes two choices at the end that seal the fate of many. One I agree with, the other I do not, but both are born from the same complex storm of emotion, responsibility, and power that he emerged from.
Snyder beautifully conveys this sense of isolation and joy that Clark's responsibility hoists upon him. Moments like snow gently drifting around the wandering Clark's head as he wanders alone, a child Clark stands in front of his adoring dog pretending to be a superhero, and a terrified teenage Clark saving the lives of his classmates knowing that he will forever be different. That last moment - Clark wet but not shivering, scared but doing what he needs to - is one of the best the Superman mythos has ever produced.
Speaking of important aspects of the Superman story, this film has the best presentation of Lois Lane, star reporter and love interest of Clark, ever (with all respect to the charming Margot Kidder). I was reluctant with the idea of Amy Adams in the role but am happy to be proven flat wrong. The movie takes her seriously both as a reporter and a strong character in her own right, able to help Clark when he needs it the most. Adams is funny, strong, quick to think on her feet, and in one shot shows how she and Clark are perfect for each other in her willingness to disregard heights if nothing else. The economy of her investigation into the mysterious superman traveling the world saving people is one of the best decisions this film makes.
Then there's Henry Cavill, who assumes the mantle of Clark Kent perfectly. I enjoy Christopher Reeves performances but always found him a bit too smug and Brandon Routh spoke with such depressed weight on every syllable that I couldn't see him as a hero. But Cavill speaks with reassurance and poise, he can joke when times are serious without undermining the gravity of what is going on around him. The simple fact that the man looks good in the cape and suit does not hurt either. Cavill's Clark is a leader who knows that he has to make decisions and can only help to the extent he is capable of but will always strive for more. Even the child renditions of Clark, played by Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline, recognize their humanity and that they are a bit more.
Man of Steel showcases an empathy and weight that I did not think possible in big budget films anymore. You will definitely get your spectacle and plenty of things go boom in the big fight scenes, but rarely do we see a character wrestle with the choices he makes as much as Clark does in Man of Steel. It's a beautiful, hopeful experience.