Review of Man of Steel, Directed by Zack Snyder
It’s been said that every hero is a type of Christ, so meet the newest one as he introduces himself to America’s generals:
“You’re scared of me because you don’t control me. You can’t, and you never will. But that doesn’t make me your enemy.”
Man of Steel, the latest Superman reboot, begins on the otherworldly realm of the planet Krypton, which is on the verge of destruction thanks to the corruption and abuses of its own people. In a world where all children are artificially conceived and bred to fill specific social roles, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife give birth naturally to a baby, Kal (Henry Cavill), an un-immaculate inversion of the virgin birth of Christ. They then send their son to earth, where he grows up as Clark Kent in the heart of rural America—Smallville, Kansas under human parents of humble occupation–not unlike growing up as a carpenter’s son in the little town of Nazareth in the ancient near east.
Before Jor-El sends his son to earth, he encrypts the entire Kryptonian genetic codex in his son’s blood cells, giving him the power to create a new people of his own kind. The film’s most poignant moment comes at the clearest proclamation of Kal-El’s messiahship, as his father tells him, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun.”
Some have criticized Man of Steel for being too heavy-handed with the Christ-allusions, but I found that such strong messianic typology made Man of Steel a joy to watch. Superheroes are the mythology of modern man. Just like the myths of old, they’re born out of an alienation from God and express our longing both for a savior and a more abundant life. Infusing these elements into a character without the story becoming preachy or cliché is no small feat.
I remember thinking as the trailers for the film came out that “Man of Steel” went from selling itself on substantial, thoughtful themes like ideals, purpose, and identity to a series of face-melting action sequences on par with a “Transformers” flick. Unfortunately, the film itself follows the same trajectory, and here I must disagree with Dr. Neal’s earlier review. To put it simply, the first half the film feels like the work of producer Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy, the Prestige), and the second half the work of director Zack Snyder (300, Sucker Punch, Dawn of the Dead). The last 40 minutes drag compared to the first 40 because Clark Kent’s most powerful character-shaping moments happen during his childhood, which the film unpacks in a series of beautifully timed flashbacks as Clark traverses the north. Here we see him come to grips with his uniqueness and search for his identity and purpose while developing an absurdly steadfast moral character.
I say “absurdly” because no human with powers like Clark would ever grow up to be so gentle and tender. Of course, that’s the point with Superman. He’s the most idealistic superhero of them all, and he’s on our side. It also subtly hints at our need for a savior – someone better than mortal, sinful man to lead us into the light.
Most of this takes part in the first (and much better) half of the film. The moment Superman decides to save earth rather than join General Zod (Michael Shannon) in destroying it (a no brainer for him once he discovers Zod’s true intentions) his character flatlines. Sure, in his first battle with two members of Zod’s army, he manages to convince the US military that he’s on their side, but from there he accomplishes the rest of the challenges set before him by sheer force of will. The film devolves into about an hour-long destruction derby as Snyder sends the man of steel crashing through skyscrapers and smashing craters in the streets at a million miles an hour. Clearly, for a director with an affinity for face-melting action sequences, he couldn’t resist the opportunity for spectacle presented by an indestructible protagonist.
I must say, though, to his credit, he avoided any slow-motion Spartanesque shots.
Now that a sequel already has a green light, it’s only fair to reserve some judgment until the next chapter of the story. Already we can see parallels to Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Both films thrive during the origin story as the hero comes into his own by facing his past and determining how he ought to use his powers. General Zod proved a worthy foe of Superman, but he was defeated by a simple contest of strength, just like Batman defeated Ra’s al Gul. Both are effective in filling the role of antagonist but not exceptionally interesting as villains.
As it stands now, Man of Steel joins most of Marvel’s recent projects in the annals of good, but not great, superhero films – a worthy reboot. It gives me hope that much better may follow.