“Man of Steel”: the Greatest Zack Snyder Film of All Time

Henry Cavill, Superman, Man of SteelAfter seeing Man of Steel today, that sweeping statement occurred to me and required two minutes’ worth of thought to confirm. It helps that I’ve seen all six of director Zack Snyder’s feature films to date, even the animated ones.

Of the other five: Dawn of the Dead was not bad for what it was — arguably his second-best, but not quite essential. 300 broke visual ground and set new standards for faithfulness in graphic-novel-to-movie adaptations, but makes me snicker in a few extraordinarily hammy spots. I’m glad someone finally adapted Watchmen so we could all say it’s been done and move on with our lives, but its brazen attempt to do for super-hero movies what the original miniseries did for super-hero comics didn’t have nearly the same intellectual impact or coherence. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole admirably demonstrated the visual techniques of 300 for an all-ages audience, but was incomprehensible unless you’d read the entire book series beforehand and could spot the dozens of pages’ worth of vital backstory that was excised for the big screen. (Thankfully my son was a fan and explained the crucial omissions.) And Sucker Punch was a skeevy, disjointed orphanage for outlandish sci-fi skirmishes that had apparently wandered away from the nonexistent movies that spawned them.

In comparison to the rest of the Snyder oeuvre, Man of Steel stands tall as his boldest achievement yet.

That’s not to say I’d give it an A-plus-plus-plus-plus. Its high and low points numbered so many per each side that they managed a fair and balanced game of tug-of-war in my head. In the final analysis, good won out in a certain sense, but not without a struggle or numerous qualifiers.

In the interest of trying something different here, this entry will concern itself only with the pros. Call this the shiny, happy side of my Man of Steel opinions. As luck would have it, this side contains minimal descriptions of the film’s content, no serious spoilers of any major plot points.

What I liked best about Man of Steel:

* Henry Cavill. He had the jaw, the confidence, the physique, the proper age, and such a solid moral grounding that even when he struggled with doubt and worry, somehow you knew he’d come out the other side just fine. Though the shadow of Christopher Reeve will loom large over any live-action Supes for the next seventy years, I thought Cavill held his own.

* We weren’t forced to endure two hours of Superbaby and Superboy. As of two years ago, I officially swore off buying new comics renditions of Superman’s origin for the rest of my life. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to watch a baby rocketed from an exploding Krypton again and again and again and again and again. I skipped both Grant Morrison’s New 52 reboot and J. Michael Straczynski’s bestselling Superman: Earth One hardcover on exactly these grounds. I’m elated that the elaborate Krypton sequence isn’t dragged out, and that the tales of young Clark are doled out as succinct flashbacks interspersed between events in the present. Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan, and screenwriter David S. Goyer accomplished in maybe forty minutes what Smallville decompressed into 220 hours of frequently frustrating television.

* Krypton: alien and furnished. Speaking of which: at last, Krypton is allowed a few details beyond empty, echoing chambers where men in gowns debate legal cases and the endtimes. Not that that’s missing here, but a few shots of Kryptonian warfare, starships, wildlife, and weaponry expand the tapestry of Kal-El’s home planet as some comics stories have in the past but the previous films never could afford or be bothered to try.

* Michael Shannon’s Zod. A scenery-devouring performance made of unblinking rage. I was scared.

* The entire film isn’t Superman vs. the U.S. military. My least favorite aspect of Marvel’s films is how every Avengers character has to work through or for S.H.I.E.L.D. I tend to nod off when super-hero movies become more about hero-vs.-government than about hero-vs.-villain. That conflict is certainly present at first, but handled in an efficient, generally mature manner. I will spoil that the film does not end with a Daily Planet article entitled “Superman: Threat or Menace?” For that, I’m grateful.

* Learning to fly has never been so joyous. Clark’s first flight is the giddiest scene of them all. I like to think they borrowed a page from Chronicle, but that’s just me.

* Kevin Costner as Pa Kent. The Dances with Wolves auteur was an easy punchline during my early internet years. Suffice it to say I was never a fan. Here, he tugged at my heart with both his words of wisdom and his honesty about his own shortcomings. I haven’t seen the Clark/Pa Kent relationship handled this tenderly in a long time.

* Superhuman mega-brawling. For me, Superman Returns was an underwhelming display of super-bench-pressing, super-aimless floating, super-stalking, super-deadbeat-parenting, and non-super James Marsden inexplicably winning the film. Super-hero movies without super-hero battles are like romantic flicks in which no one ever kisses. That being said: every fight scene here is comprised of atomic-level punches, supersonic chases, split-second turnovers, and teeth-rattling, eardrum-pounding, hand-to-hand catastrophe in the classic Big Two comics tradition. For any extra-strength super-hero, their volume knob should reach at least halfway to this level. Near as I could tell, Snyder’s sound-effects team built a bigger knob.

* Minimal homages. I may be the only viewer who secretly hoped the film would contain zero homages to Richard Donner’s 1978 classic. I think my wish was granted. With the exception of one odd line of dialogue near the end that sounded familiar but not well-known, Man of Steel avoided pandering to the audience’s Christopher Reeve nostalgia. No one says, “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” No one reruns the same speech about air travel safety. The filmmakers even avoided the tired in-joke practice of naming everything after longtime comics creators. I dreaded the prospect of a scene where characters would be told there’s a fire at the old Siegel & Schuster Bookstore on the corner of Swan Avenue and Byrne Boulevard, next door to Schaffenberger Auto Repair and across the street from the law firm of Ordway Loeb Millar Maggin O’Neil McDuffie & Perez. Never happened. I appreciated them giving it a rest and letting the film stand on its own merits, given the chance to forge a new legacy of its own without the constant winking that bugs me in other comic-book movies.

* The most blatant Christian imagery ever seen in a DC Comics movie. I can see how this might bother others. Me, not so much.

To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Man of Steel end credits, though I was amused at the credit for a Canadian animal-handling company called Beyond Just Bears Inc. I had to wonder if they share a bitter rivalry with some other Hollywood animal tamers called Big Screen Bears or Ursine Understudies Unlimited.

Next time: the cons of Man of Steel

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