There is no kryptonite. No bright red underpants. No distinctive hair curl. Lois Lane is a strawberry blonde. Perry White is black. Jimmy Olsen is a woman. The Fortress of Solitude is an alien spaceship frozen beneath the ice. There is no Lex Luthor (that we’ve seen). There’s no John Williams score (which is fine. Hans Zimmer’s is brilliant). And instead of jumping right into the Daily Planet, this Clark Kent is a nomad, picking up odd-job after odd-job under the guise of a fake name while on a spiritual journey. No, this is not your grandpa’s Superman. Despite the fact he’s lived on Earth for over two decades, this Superman is still alien to us, not only physically but emotionally. He’s detached, the only strong relationship with other people seeming to be his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. This Superman has a choice. His destiny is not set in stone, and he can either grow to be a force for good…or bad. It’s this uncertainty that is this Superman’s kryptonite. For all his strength, he’s still not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be used for. He just knows he has a purpose. This makes him vulnerable. But when he finally dons the suit with the S-shield proudly across his chest making him a symbol of hope, this is when Superman overcomes that vulnerability.
It’s this kind of thinking that makes director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan’s Superman much different from past interpretations. Superman has always been portrayed as the ultimate embodiment of good. There was no choice. Kal-El was always destined to be a savior and, while they always knew to keep his identity hidden from the rest of the world, the Kents raised him to use his powers for good. In this rebooted, bold incarnation of the character, he has the choice to go in the opposite direction than that of which we know. Kal-El/Clark Kent was obviously meant for great, heroic things. We all know he’ll don the blue suit and red cape and be that symbol of hope. But the fact that his path is so uncertain here makes the journey that much more interesting. Jonathan Kent, played respectably by Kevin Coster, is a stern fellow, more stern than we’ve ever really seen the character. He guides Clark, but not in the way you’d expect. He believes Clark was sent there for a reason, but he doesn’t pretend he knows the answer. He’s willing to let people die to hide Clark’s secret, not because he’s a dishonorable man, but because he has so much faith in the destiny of his adoptive son, and so much belief that the world isn’t ready for him yet.
This Superman is still trying to find his place in this world and by the end of the film I think he’s found it. Telling the origin story could have been a gamble that didn’t pay off, such as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which was pretty much the same origin tale with different actors. But it hasn’t been portrayed on the big screen since Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie.” While many aspects of the origin story are similar, a modern retelling still proved to be a gamble that paid off. This is the perfect set-up film, one that establishes Superman in a different way for a different generation. The film opens on Krypton. It’s an introduction that reminds me of Star Wars or Star Trek. This retelling is much more sci-fi than what we’re usually accustomed to seeing. Krypton is brought to life in a brave, albeit CGI-ed heavy, way. Russell Crowe leads the first twenty minutes with a Jor-El that does its best to step away from the Marlon Brando character we all associate with Superman’s biological father, diving and fighting his way through a mob of soldiers in order to save his newly born son from the decaying planet. We see Michael Shannon’s Zod in full-force, leading a military coupe as their world dies around them. It’s a chaotic opening that sets the tone for both the more somber moments and the high-flying action of the rest of the film.
Just as Superman’s destiny is not set in stone in the film, neither should his character. Many reviewers are calling this Superman, played by the square-jawed, soon-to-be-rising-star Henry Cavill, too gloomy. He’s never able to crack a smile, apparently. One shouldn’t expect Tony Stark-like charm from an alien being still searching for his purpose. There isn’t a predetermined set of rules that say Superman should be a lighthearted ray of sunshine. Yes, Superman in essence is not a “dark” character. His symbol after all does mean hope and he gets his powers from the bright rays of Earth’s sun. But for years people have been clamoring for a Superman that steps away from the boy-scout routine. Cavill’s Superman is more serious and, like Costner’s Pa Kent, more stern. He gets angry. He shows emotion. He doesn’t put up with bullshit-he throws down hard with Zod and takes down a spy drone plane. And most importantly, he’s willing to make the hard choices. That’s a Superman that needed to be seen on the big screen. But just because he’s a little more edgy, doesn’t mean he can’t crack a smile. Cavill doesn’t get to show off his pearly whites all that often, but when he does we ‘re reminded that there is something indeed human about this alien after all.
As for the rest of the cast, Amy Adams is a Lois Lane that can hold her own as she should be. I was very bothered by Kate Bosworth’s Lois in “Superman Returns.” She felt like a victim, waiting for Superman to save the day. This Lois seems much more willing to take charge. Laurence Fishburne and Diane Lane don’t get much to do as Perry White and Ma Kent, respectively. Zod is a worthy villain to kick-off this resurrected franchise. Not to be compared to Terrence Stamp’s original performance, Shannon’s Zod is an angry, obsessive individual and while we’ve seen the villain on the big screen before, he’s still able to give Superman a run for his money in the power field, which Snyder uses to great advantage. While the fight scenes can often be dizzying, it’s nice to see Superman actually throw down with another on his level of strength. The property damage is undoubtedly through the roof, but one crater in the middle of a city is nothing compared to all of humankind being eradicated. Snyder impressively strips the movie of his signature slo-mo routine in favor of quick zoom ins-and-outs. The action feels heightened in a sense-maybe this is how Superman feels all the time.
All this praise, where are the flaws? The film is not perfect by any means. Richard Schiff and Christopher Meloni play throw-away characters as your average scientist and army colonel. Because every super hero movie needs a specific scientist and army person to help save the day. The military takes to Superman’s arrival a little easier than maybe they should have. A huge part of the film is about how the world would react to Superman if he revealed himself, and yet there isn’t much focus on the reaction in the midst of all the building-toppling madness. But this is what I’d like to see in a sequel. Now that Superman has established himself, lets see some fallout from it. Like the Dark Knight trilogy in a way pokes at the economic crisis, lets see this new Man of Steel franchise take on modern social politics. Snyder and Nolan have crafted a very different take on Superman, but the character needed different. He needed “cool.” If people give it a chance, this Superman can accomplish wonders. It can be an ideal to strive towards.