For better of worse, director Zack Snyder has made quite the career out of dizzying action sequences and direct, easily consumable tales that, at their best, thrill and delight large swaths of nerd-dom. Subtlety ain't his thang, and in the case of the oft-languishing Superman franchise that's a positive.
Snyder's Superman reboot Man of Steel breathes deep gusts of forward momentum into the sails of an iconic comic book property that has oddly lagged behind its counterparts in this, the golden age of the cinematic superhero. Christopher Nolan, the director of the recently completed Dark Knight trilogy, helped produce Man of Steel, and it's hard to ignore his influence. As with Nolan's vision of Batman, Snyder has scrubbed every last bit of camp out of this iteration of Superman, opting for a hardcore examination of his mythology in its place.
It's high time for that, I say. I've always found myself especially bored with Superman, and I think that's because almost all of my past brushes with him have never taken a good, hard look at just why the hell he's engaging in all of these heroics in the first place. Snyder, with all the delicateness of a stampeding herd of cattle, uses Clark Kent's origin story to drive home that he's an alien from a dying planet. He's not merely an orphaned child, as far as he knows he's also the lone survivor of an entire race of people.
Not only is he all alone in the universe, he's fearful of showcasing his tremendous powers, realizing that they have as much potential to inspire fear and hatred among his adopted people as they do to win him plaudits. I'm not sure this all has to be so heavy, but then again I'm also not sure Snyder could do it differently; either way, it is a refreshing take on a superhero I found to be stale and dated previously.
This is a good time to mention that the religious imagery comes hot and heavy, especially during the film's first half. It's overt enough to have had a marketing campaign directed at Christian audiences built around it. Henry Cavill's Clark Kent is 33 years old and a nomadic miracle worker before he fully embraces his considerable power. His father, Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner, tells him during a flashback sequence that he's "the answer to whether we're alone in the universe." In another scene, when he is still grappling with his grand purpose, he visits a priest and bares his soul. Just over his shoulder is a stained glass window with Jesus Christ smack dab in the middle of it. I suppose you could miss this stuff, but you'd almost have to try.
Though I am an atheist, none of that bothered me. Superman, like many religious figures, has a dense mythology that is worth unpacking, and I'm fond of the angle Snyder and company took. (It's not as if I don't like religious movies either; I count Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments among my favorites.)
Actually, what really bothered me about the film was everything after Superman has his come-to-Jesus moment. The threat to humanity that he must handle comes from Michael Shannon's General Zod and his cohorts, the only other survivors from his home planet who set their sights on Earth as the place where they can start anew, at the expense of its current inhabitants alas. Zod, though he killed Superman's father, Russell Crowe's Jor-El, is a reluctant villain, seeing the extinction of humanity as his only play.
You would think that that would soften the showdowns between he and Superman, or at least I would. Instead, Snyder serves up some of the grimmest, unrelenting and destructive battles I've seen in a comic book movie. By the time the climax had come and gone, I had had enough of the carnage. That's a small complaint, especially when most films in this genre aren't serious enough, and this is a fine restart for a franchise desperate for new life.