Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” might be a miracle, and I know I’m treading on the thin ice of hyperbole with that statement. The director, who graduated to feature films with his successful “Dawn of the Dead” remake nearly a decade ago, has often been a whipping post for critics (including this one) who failed to differentiate between the subjects of his films (including, but not limited to, zombies, mutants, omnipotent beings and scantily-clad warrior women) and their subversive themes, often commenting on, if not decimating altogether, the cultural values being approximated. 2011’s “Sucker Punch” was the zenith of Snyder’s auto-critique, employing the sexism of a fanboy culture as a pro-feminist tool in the action movie mold, so brazenly biting the proverbial hand that feeds that the generally reviled attitude toward it should itself count as high praise.
While genuine arguments might yet be had on the merits of Snyder’s earlier films (“300,” in particular, suffers from some of the source material’s unchecked fascism), anyone who fails to recognize his artistry after “Man of Steel” is either blind or unrepentantly biased. His intuitive understanding of genre in form and content made him ideal for this reboot, which, under the guidance of producer Christopher Nolan, hews towards the realism employed in his recent Batman films, but remains firmly indebted to Snyder’s distinct flair, here able to roam freely within the Superman universe (one that gets a few changes that might upset purists), best exemplified in the film’s extended opening on Krypton. At once a greatest hits of science fiction influences (the production designs of “The Matrix,” “Alien,” and “Blade Runner,” amongst others, are all echoed) and an incredible act of world-building, the alien homeworld of Clark Kent is both creepy and beautiful, and the apocalyptic destruction of the planet is but one of many indelible images to follow.
Where “Man of Steel” proves miraculous is in its balance of so many seemingly incompatible elements. Viewers have compared the film’s style to that of both Michael Bay (citywide destruction, a cacophony of chaos, rapid editing) and Terrence Malick (“artsy” compositions, fuzzy foregrounds against focused backgrounds, etc.), but the reality is more than just a fusion of two otherwise opposing styles. Snyder’s approach eschews camp and lends Superman a genuinely fantastic, spiritual heft (the Christ pose is brief but potent in a stunning aerial shot, and the number 33 is relevant herein, too), one that grounds the ruthless destruction to come and elevates it above mere popcorn spectacle. Closer in tone to Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” than this summer’s “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Man of Steel” earns its portentousness, which is not to say the film is without its fun (a favorite gag: an early test of Superman’s power of flight misfiring and destroying the top of a mountain).
The cast, then, rises to the occasion, selling these larger-than-life characters with an approach that suggests behaving more than simply acting. The surrounding circumstances don’t allow much time for romance but the immediate chemistry between Henry Cavill (Clark Kent/Superman) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is palpable. As the tragic antagonist General Zod, Michael Shannon lends significant complexity to suggest the good intentions of his motivations, and brings his expert lunacy without disengaging from the film’s rough-hewn realism. Arguably best, though, is Kevin Costner as Clark’s earthly father, Jonathan Kent, evoking the classic nobility of Gary Cooper or John Wayne as he guides his unlikely son through a tumultuous adolescence. There isn’t a weak link herein, and “Man of Steel” rests high on the short list of great superhero films.
Robert Humanick is a contributing writer for Slant Magazine.