by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 56% (damn…haters gonna hate)

PLOT: The last son of a dead planet finds a home on Earth and, thanks to enhanced senses and powers, becomes its mightiest defender when an ancient enemy attacks.

I never tire of repeating this: the majority of my enjoyment of a movie is derived from how it affects me on an emotional level.  And, brother, in my case, Man of Steel knows exactly which buttons to push to make the hairs on my arm stand on end.

I can still remember the first time I saw the very first teaser trailer, back in 2012.  It fired my imagination almost as much as the first trailers for The Phantom Menace did.  “At last,” I thought, “someone is going to make a SERIOUS Superman movie!  It worked for The Dark Knight, why not Superman?”

And in my humble opinion, it did work.  But before I get into the debate between different Superman versions, let me talk about this movie first.

Man of Steel is ambitious, audacious, and visually spectacular.  Its one major fault lies in the finale, in which a human family is threatened by a heat ray, and it seems all they have to do is just…run the other way.  But a point is being made (a good one, I might add), so I can forgive it after the fact.  On first viewing, though, I will admit the mildly absurd situation took me a little bit out of the moment.

But I’m picking nits.  The rest of Man of Steel is just a great experience at the movies.

Right from the get-go, we know we’re in for something different when, for the first time since Superman II [1980], we get a glimpse of Kal-El’s homeworld, Krypton.  But this is not your father’s Krypton.  This is a lush, red-sky world, with stunning vistas, flying creatures, and hyper-advanced technology.

The familiar story is all there: a dying race and a loving mother and father who send their infant son to the stars for one last chance of survival, for him and for their race.  In flashback, we see Kal-El’s childhood in Kansas, as he struggles to adapt to his enhanced senses.  This is one of the great concepts I’m glad the movie took the time to show.  We see him trying to cope with seeing and hearing EVERYTHING, all at once, and learning to focus his powers so he can function in this new world.  That was a nice touch.  The school bus scene was handled especially well.

We see him as a grown man (played by Henry Cavill) before he dons the familiar suit, a drifter, only reluctantly playing the hero from time to time.  I liked the beats in this section because they echoed some of the good deeds we saw in “Superman” [1978], but everything was done from a standpoint of genuine awe and astonishment.

Then an alien ship is discovered buried under the ice in northern Canada, Clark investigates, and so does ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and things start to snowball from there.  But in “Man of Steel”, everything is handled in a way that makes the far-fetched story seem more real and relatable, more so than its predecessors.  And that appeals to some part of me that is hard to quantify or put into words.

Ever since I was a kid, I was drawn to the darker, grittier aspects of comic books.  My favorite Batman comic?  “The Dark Knight Returns,” Frank Miller’s magnum opus in which Bruce Wayne is an old man, the Joker winds up getting killed, and Batman and Superman fight to the death.  My favorite Marvel comic?  “Identity Crisis,” in which a superhero’s wife is murdered and the Justice League bands together to find her killer.  My other favorite comics?  “Preacher”, “Y: The Last Man”, “Saga”, “Watchmen”, “V for Vendetta”, and “Ronin.”  I was always, and still am, a fan of how the medium of comics can be used for telling mature stories that don’t always depend on happy endings, or heroes swooping from the skies to catch falling helicopters.

So when a movie DOES come along that, by default, has swooping heroes and a happy ending, but can ALSO make things a little darker or grittier than usual, I am thrilled, because it means the filmmakers are not confining themselves to ancient stereotypes.  They’re trying to surprise me.  They’re making a movie for ME.  …at least, that’s how I feel, because it’s right up my alley.  For example, one of the heaviest criticisms involves the overblown battle scenes.  But, man, I was TOTALLY okay with it.  No flying sheets of cellophane or creepy identical twins here.  These guys are playing for KEEPS.

Does this mean I am somehow in favor of comic book movies removing all traces of fun?  Of course not.  One of my favorite DC movies is “Shazam!” which was WAY more fun than I anticipated.  It’s pretty much a straight up comedy.  Would I prefer a grittier “Shazam” movie drained of fun, with dark skies and a darker ending?  No.  For “Shazam”, the fun approach worked.

When it comes to Superman, I think it’s a mark of the character’s versatility and endurance that it’s even possible for the “fun” Superman (yes, including “Superman Returns [2006]) to exist alongside the darker Superman.  It’s not like “Man of Steel” or its sequels somehow erased or replaced previously existing versions.  They’re still there.  If the comic book industry has taught us anything, it’s that the market for reboots and “remixes” is almost inexhaustible, as long as you stay true to the core principles of the character you’re working with.  In my opinion, “Man of Steel” does exactly that.  It keeps Clark Kent’s innate principles and values in place while dressing up the story to give us one of the best reboots of a character since “The Dark Knight” [2005].

There is, perhaps, one glaring exception, and it comes at the finale of “Man of Steel”, so SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER.

SPOILER ALERT.  You have been warned.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about: Superman is forced to kill General Zod (Michael Shannon) when it becomes clear that Zod will never stop his war on humanity, when he vows to kill everyone on Earth to avenge his lost civilization.  In the comic book, it’s a given that Superman himself does not kill anyone.  (There may be exceptions, but give me a break, I don’t read comic books religiously.)  So why this egregious contradiction?

Since “Man of Steel” is a reboot, I choose to think of it this way:

This is Kal-El’s first test as a hero, his first battle with an enemy as strong as he is in every physical way possible.  He is faced with an impossible choice: kill Zod, or allow countless more humans to die in who-knows-how-many-more battles.  He may be more powerful than a locomotive, but he is just plain inexperienced when it comes to this kind of decision.  So he does what he feels is necessary to preserve life.  He is definitely NOT okay with it.  Watch the movie, and you’ll see his howl of anguish and regret after the deed is done.

But he makes his choice.  He is the son of two worlds, but he chooses Earth.  “Krypton had its chance,” he yells at one point.  It’s time for him to move on.

I know, movies are subjective, and there are no doubt many excellent arguments against my interpretation.  Maybe that’s what makes “Man of Steel” and the Superman character so durable: the fact that there are so many vastly differing interpretations, and that they all apply equally.  Superman can be many things to many people, but no matter how many years go by, he’ll still be what he’s always been: a symbol of hope.

(Got a little mushy there at the end, hope you don’t mind.)

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