Superman is a complex character, as superheroes go, too complicated to reduce into hero stereotypes and character-bio shorthands. He is Clark Kent, farm boy from Kansas; he is Superman, hero of Metropolis and symbol of Freedom, Justice, and The American Way; and he is Kal-El, alien from Krypton, his parents killed and homeland destroyed. And the most interesting, human moments experienced by Superman always show up in the interplay between his coexistent identities.
But in Zach Snyder's Man Of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill, best known for his work on The Tudors) is there mostly to satiate that part of the American psyche that wants their messiahs to punch things, too. It's understandable why Snyder, director of stylish, brooding action movies like 300 and Watchmen, chose to go this route: the film is packed densely with information and plot, covering the death of planet Krypton, Clark Kent's upbringing in Kansas, his antagonists and their objectives, and the myriad twists and turns that result.
The hand of Christopher Nolan (who shares a story credit) is clear here—anyone who sat through The Dark Knight or Inception will recognize Nolan's proclivity for stories with climaxes that go on for half an hour. So amid all the action scenes, flashbacks, and cutaways that follow around Lois Lane (a precedent-breaking redhead, Amy Adams) as she investigates into who exactly this superhuman person is, there simply wasn't room to earnestly explore Superman's identity issues.
Unfortunately, the movie's climax still depends on Superman feeling torn between his respective roles, human/alien/messiah, all of them in some way true and all of them impossible to entirely fulfill. But we almost never have a good handle on why Clark does the things that he does, on how his identity motivates his actions. And when we are given reasons, they aren't very believable.
Clark returns to Kansas after discovering the details of his origins and says to his mother, "I know where I'm from, and who I am." It's a moment that takes the true-if-overwrought moments— a young Clark pleading with his father, "Can't I just be your son?"—and radically simplifies them. What at first seemed to hint that there's a burgeoning tension in Clark's psyche are now just moments of weakness, and Superman's strength within the movie isn't found in embracing his inherent personality pastiche, but in rejecting it.
"I'm an American through and through," announces Superman at the end of the movie, but he didn't have to go very far to get there. Superman's father, Jor-El (or more accurately a holographic program of his personality, portrayed by Russell Crowe) explicitly rejects the plans for earth harbored by evil general Zod (played to cold militaristic perfection by the always-terrifying Michael Shannon), and that turns Zod's character from a genuine moral threat for Superman into a Balkanesque nationalist who will sacrifice anything for the sake of his homeland—and thus, into someone we have no fear of Superman coming to resemble.
Superman's test is never a moral one. It isn't based on how closely he holds his human identity to heart. Instead, the challenge is based on punching things hard, or flying quickly, or even punching things hard while flying quickly.
This is fun to watch, of course, but the problem is that we, as an audience, are as capable of questioning our own allegiances and backgrounds as we are incapable of punching things while flying. So in simplifying Superman thus, the movie sacrifices the only point on which Superman is genuinely relatable for the sake of spectacle.
But if Zach Snyder is badly suited to making a movie that humanizes Superman, he is perfect for one that showcases the hero's raw power—and this is one of the most spectacular things to make it to the big screen in years. The fight scenes are immaculate: Snyder stylizes the action not by having the fight scenes resemble normal fighting sped-up, as most superhero movies do, but by giving the alien characters a pure kinetic gravity we never see in the superhero-movie genre. They move with a simultaneous speed and weight that violates the laws of physics, and yet there it is, happening on screen—and rather than taking you out of the movie, the effect draws you in, reminding you that these human-looking aliens are not like us.
So Man of Steel is a good movie because of its action, and because of its actors—Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne give otherwise stock and uninteresting characters a depth that simply can't hold up to retrospective scrutiny, and the action scenes are some of the most thrilling to occur in a superhero film possibly ever, easily trouncing the best The Avengers had to offer—and on that front, the film is pure spectacle, amazing, an unqualified success.
It's only in memory that things start to fall apart: characters fade into their stereotypes without the charisma of their actors to bolster them, and the plot fades into a series of escalating fights born out of uncertain motivations, and you realize that, whatever that incredible space opera/spectacle/drama/action was, it certainly wasn't human.
In stark contrast, the independent coming-of-age film The Kings Of Summer (nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) rings true in a way most films either can't or don't have the guts to. Three boys, all from radically different homes, are sick of their lives. Joe (Nick Robinson) hates his overbearing, authoritarian father Frank (Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman), especially since the death of his mother left them alone together. Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is so tired of his relentlessly annoying, patronizing, hyper-protective, accidentally emasculating parents that he is literally breaking out in hives.
Together, the boys decide to flee to the woods and build a house together—live off the land! Make our own food! Kill our own meat! Et cetera. Along the way they pick up the strange and small Biaggio (Moises Arias), who, while undergoing character growth of his own, is too silly to be considered a focal character in his own right, and is incidental to the central story of Joe and Patrick's growth together.
What makes The Kings of Summer function so well is the way in which it cares for its characters as people, rather than as 2-D cutouts around which writer Chris Galletta can construct jokes.
A prime example is when Frank, after being serenaded a cappella by his daughter's boyfriend (Eugene Cordero), makes a comment that would be par for the course in an average summer comedy, about how emasculating of an experience it was to be serenaded. And the audience laughs. But then Cordero's character is actually hurt, and Frank's daughter (Allison Brie) is upset with her father, and that prompts Frank to ask a her question that's been a whole movie in the making, pleadingly: "Am I a bastard?" It's a moment of depth and frankness that'd be out of place in almost any other movie, but works perfectly with Summer's dedication to emotional realism.
However, Summer is a movie that is above all other things about manhood, and what it means to the adolescent Patrick and Joe. In case the viewer misses this fact, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes it explicit via long panning shots of bare trees, slow motion shots of Joe pounding nails into a birdhouse, the boys' decision to grow out their terrible, patchy facial hair in the wild (in what is one of the best running gags of the film), and a scene where—during a tense game of monopoly after the reveal of a love triangle—Joe relentlessly fingers, sniffs, and gestures with a cinematically flagrant cigar, and that's not even delving into the host of serpentine imagery on display. So the directorial style can be heavy-handed; Vogt-Roberts is a relative newcomer, having mostly done sketches for the web series Funny or Die, and sometimes it seems like he can't decide if he's making a Malick homage (long shots of boys running through color-filtered fields juxtaposed with close-ups of the token girl's dress and skin) or a Snyder one (slow-motion hyper-vivid examinations of movement and physicality).
But that aside, the movie feels familiar to me, familiar and right and true. It is an almost universally relatable portrayal of adolescent men, of dorky high school sophomores who dream of something greater, of wanting personal responsibility without being willing to suffer for it.
In one scene, Joe is caught red-handed with a haul of rotisserie chickens from Boston Market—chickens he said he'd killed and cooked on his own—and it is not just one of the funniest scenes of the movie, but says something very profound about what it means to be a boy growing into a man: someone whose responsibilities and entitlements interact in weird and uncomfortable ways, who is simultaneously pressured to engage and be responsible while at the same time spending most of his life receiving the message, "You're not responsible enough." The film captures perfectly what it is to be a developing boy trapped in the seemingly worst possible overlap of "not yet" and "already."
That the film so perfectly evokes this particular experience means it might not play well to all audiences. It is much better at evoking an experience than it is explaining it, or reformatting it so that the unfamiliar could understand. And without the feeling of "me too" (had I been viewing the film as a woman who never struggled with establishing a masculine identity), the visual glitz, effects, and heavy emphasis on cinematic style might distract.
What I do know is that—having been through the kind of experience Vogt-Roberts and Galletta are trying to capture (me, along with roughly half the world)—it's true, and real, real about what it means to be an awkward and insecure human being, maybe real in the sense that an expressionist painting is real, with all the outlines of fact bent and distorted just enough to make the truth behind it ever-so-slightly more visible.
The Family Corner
Man Of Steel is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language; characters use mild language in fear, but it's so close to the action that it's barely noticeable. The movie's violence is bloodless and cartoonish-feeling, and while intense, is not disturbing. Also, flashbacks to Superman's youth include some quick shots of baby nudity. The Kings Of Summer is rated R for language and teen drinking. Characters frequently swear, including f- and s-words, as well as swearing to and around their parents disrespectfully. There are also a few crude jokes about bodily functions (but none about sex specifically). There is a brief scene involving alcohol at a party, but none of the characters get drunk.