Furrier than a speeding bullet, more chiseled than a locomotive, and able to drop the boxer-briefs of millions with a single smile: Gentlemen, our new matinee idol has arrived, and his ride ain’t half bad.
Part Superman, part Superman II, part Thor and part Dieux du Stade calendar shoot, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a sense-assaulting action epic, a melancholy meditation on identity and outsiderness, and a heaping helping of the summer’s tastiest beefcake. In between setpieces of operatic disaster, this balls-to-the-wall superhero flick manages to balance the aw-shucks idealism of the classic comic books with the brooding gravitas of the modern caped hero.
From the beginning, it is clear that this is not your father’s Superman movie. In an extended prologue that tells the story of the fate of the planet Krypton and its inhabitants, Jor-El (Russell Crowe, thankfully back in his wheelhouse after his recent Les Mizstep) and General
Neil Zod (Michael Shannon) argue military tactics and huff at each other enough to fill a season’s worth of Game of Thrones. Their planet is dying, and Jor-El and his wife have defied centuries of genetically-predetermined tradition by conceiving and giving birth to a son the old fashioned way. (Centuries without boot-knocking might explain why everyone on the planet is in such a bad mood all the time.)
Daring escapes, flying lizard-horses and a full-scale military coup ensue – instead of Marlon Brando wandering around in a white robe reading cue cards (which has its own charms, of course), Snyder opts to deliver a fully-realized, hyper-detailed alien civilization. Thankfully, it’s not the one from 2011’s Green Lantern. Soon enough wee Kal-El is hurtling toward earth in the universe’s most tricked-out intergalactic pram.
We then jump ahead thirty years, for one reason and one reason only: so that the first good look we get of Clark Kent can be stripped to the waist, both wet AND on fire, and heaving his impressive bosom as he saves a bunch of men from a burning oil rig. That, my friends, is an entrance worthy of a true superman.
And a true superman has been found in Henry Cavill. For starters, he is an utterly breathtaking specimen of whatever the hell planet he – the actor – really came from. The very definition of tall, dark and handsome, Cavill’s physical presence is the film’s greatest special effect, and it’s one that Snyder – who essentially resurrected the bodybuilder matinee idol for a new millennium in 300 – wisely exploits for all it’s worth. Superman walks around shirtless. Superman does farm chores and washes dishes at a roadhouse in henleys stretched so tight you can hear their fibers screaming for mercy. Superman sports a sexy scruff. And yes, Superman does full-frontal – though unfortunately he’s approximately 3 hours old at the time.
With all this blatant fetishization of his beleaguered hero, Snyder’s message to his fanboy audience clearly seems to be that any dude would be gay for Superman. I’d bet even Gene Shalit could spend his entire review discussing the patch of chest hair that they allow to peek out of the top of Supe’s neckline.
And aside from the physical demands, it’s not an easy part to play. Cavill needs to embody the purest hope in in a world far more cynical and savvy than when Richard Donner reinvented the comic book movie template back in the seventies. And while he leaves the spit curl and apple-pie goody-two-shoes approach behind in favor of a more introverted, brooding hero, he never gets close to the Dark Knight levels of angst that many of us were afraid we would see. No, Superman’s heart is just where it should be – and if anything, with all his steely stares and pensive moments, Cavill dances closer to Derek Zoolander’s territory than to Bruce Wayne’s. (Thankfully, the Man of Steel never goes full Blue Steel.)
While our Superman may be familiar at his core, this take on his story is decidedly fresh. Our Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is a savvy whistleblower with a Pulitzer under her belt and no interest in taking shit from the boys’ club. And by switching up the nature of her relationship with the Man of Steel, the story wisely avoids the looming question of how an ace reporter could be so stupid as to continually not recognize her own love interest because of a pair of fake glasses.
Likewise, Ma and Pa Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) serve a slightly different purpose here (than I’m familiar with, at least). While they still represent the down-home American heartland and the values that shape Clark’s understanding of humanity, Pa Kent adds another slightly more troubling layer. As he guides Kent along a path to being a good man, he is also crippled by fear that his son’s identity will be discovered. This over-arching theme of hiding what makes you different is a common one in superhero mythologies and one that gay audiences in particular can relate to: Clark’s dilemma is whether to remain in the closet for his own safety, or to come out despite the fear that he will be attacked for being misunderstood. When Clark tells a human, “You can’t control me, and that scares you – but it doesn’t make me your enemy” could be the tagline for any number of equal rights campaigns. And that the story moves toward a message of accepting one another’s differences gives an emotional foundation for all the explosions and intergalactic bitch-slapping.
And of bitch-slapping there is plenty. If anything, the film could have trimmed out about 20 minutes of Superman and Zod throwing one another through 7-11s and IHOPS. Sure, the effects are great and it’s fun to finally see a fully-realized vision of what beings with super strength and super speed could really do to one another and earth’s rickety cities, but a little goes a long way.
There are a few other stumbling points: the blatant Christ imagery is a bit ham-fisted (Clark is 33 and receives a sermon about sacrifice and faith while literally sitting in front of a stained-glass likeness of Jesus), Pa Kent makes an uncharacteristically stupid choice in a moment of crisis as an obvious means of furthering the story, and whoever designed the dildo-shaped transport pods that take Zod and his cohorts to prison at the beginning of the film really needs to get out more. But for a two-and-a-half hour epic packed with emotionally weighty flashbacks, bone-shaking action blitzes, and scenes of Henry Cavill and Christopher Meloni staring at one another, the missteps are few and mostly forgivable. (Meloni is great, by the way.)
But the film also boasts its share of clever twists and innovations. Zod’s initial message to Earth is a bit of deliciously creepy old school sci-fi. Clark’s struggles to adapt to his budding powers as a boy are illustrated by his ghoulish sudden ability to see through the skin and flesh of his teachers and classmates. And the means by which Zod’s city-destroying ship doles out its damage calls for equal parts drama and Dramamine.
Man of Steel might be the perfect Superman movie for our time. In a world where irony rules the airwaves, it wears its heart on it sleeve without a hint of camp. In a time where the antihero is king, this Superman remains a force of hope. And in an age where gay geekdom has come out of the closet full force, it proudly celebrates masculine beauty without a whiff of gay panic or macho posturing. In one of the film’s few comic moments, an awestruck earthling who just met Superman is asked if she’s okay. Her response is, “I just think he’s really hot.” And while that isn’t all Man of Steel has going for it, it sure as hell doesn’t hurt.