Comic book films generally fall into two categories: dark, pensive and colored in with moral grey areas, or straight-laced and lighthearted, but generic. Man of Steel leans closer to the latter of the categories, but what makes this story work is the identity theme.
The silver screen fades in from black with Lara-El giving birth to the title character. The opening scene is beautiful, but strange – a tone the film keeps for every reveal of the hero and his purpose. The opening scene is strange because Kal-El is borne at home in a world advanced far beyond our own in every way. Later in the story, it is divulged that Kryptonians have used genetic engineering for centuries, incorporating birthing matrices that would make Agent Smith giggle with glee.
Kal-El’s parents had cautioned their people about the dangers of overextending their species and their planet in the name of evolution; drying up natural resources and harvesting offspring like crops. Their wise warnings go unheeded, Krypton inevitably succumbs to its inhabitants’ zeal and is physically destroyed. Kal-El, still an infant and the only naturally-born member of his race, escapes the destruction of Krypton in a pod, along with the DNA coding of his ancestors.
A vengeful General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his 90’s fashion-statement cronies have escaped as well, after a failed coups d’etat, and they’re looking for a new planet and ancient DNA to re-start their race.
The critics’ concensus for the latest comic book blockbuster is that it’s all shiny effects on the outside, hollow on the inside. The usual reasoning behind this critique is that the superhero epic is too large to shoulder a real dramatic, engaging story with millions of dollars worth of special effects.
Man of Steel darts back and forth between a linear story and flashbacks, a discovery of the hero’s origins and escalating tensions to give action to the current setting. I like all that popcorn action stuff with oil rigs ablaze and spectacular alien-vs-A10 battles. But really, the dramatic tone of the movie is with Kal-El’s relationship to his biological father, Jor-El paralleled with Clark Kent’s relationship to his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent.
This is where the Man of Steel finds his heart. Like so many children, Clark (Henry Cavill) is overwhelmed with finding a sense of belonging among his peers. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), is not the perfect father, but he is a good mentor. Jor-El’s (Russel Crow) consciousness (think interactive holograph/entity) also mentors the young man, telling him to push himself to his limits, telling him he can save both the world he came from and the one he calls home. But it’s Jonathan’s working-man’s wisdom that resonates best.
It’s different to think of a Superman who grew up being bullied, with the written works of ancient philosophers being kicked in his face; but Jonathan encourages his son to restrain himself: “You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world. ”
This movie might not be dark and edgy, it might be straight-laced. And the comic relief could have used better lines than, “Well, Mr. Kent, welcome to the [Daily] Planet.” All this, and the plot holes can be forgiven for the relationships we see play out. Fatherhood is as much a part of the story as Clark Kent is a part of Superman.
My overall rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language