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Man of Steel is simultaneously bigger and smaller than you are expecting. What’s bigger? The action. Super-sizing even The Avengers, Man of Steel has more action set pieces and devastating destruction than you’ve probably ever imagined. It’s jaw-dropping, heart-pumping stuff. What’s smaller? The story. Most of the film takes places in a very condensed, focused timeline, giving it an urgency and immediacy lacking in other superhero films. A smaller narrative raises the stakes as well as the emotional complexity.

Zack Snyder has made an epic and heartfelt adventure that successfully reboots the Superman character in a realistic, and humanistic way.

From the very beginning of Man of Steel, David Goyer‘s script defies expectations. It starts on Krypton with a huge, table-setting opening in the mold of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. From there, unlike most traditional tellings of this story, we meet Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) fully grown and out on his own. He’s struggling with his place in the world and trying to hide the true abilities he doesn’t quite understand. As more questions are raised for Clark, the film cuts back to his childhood in Smallville with Ma and Pa Kent, played Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. These scenes ground the movie and provide essential character-building context.

However, in a movie this ambitious and steeped in tradition, the non-linear structure takes some getting used to. The audience is so used to one version of Superman that watching the story told in a different way feels a bit off. The presentation of Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, is similar. She’s part of Clark’s life right from the story’s opening, which is a deviation from what audiences are used to. And while these two tweaks to the Superman story might feel awkward at first, the reasons become clear — and exceedingly rewarding — as the film moves on.

Any small issues with structure and tone soon go away once the story gets into gear. Man of Steel moves fast, constantly keeping the audience on the edge of their seat once Kal-El learns the truth of his existence and General Zod (Michael Shannon) comes calling. This rapid introduction of the villain into the story, while also dealing with his origins, places Man of Steel into a very specific moment in Superman’s personal history. We’re dealing squarely with the moment Earth realizes aliens exist, yet Snyder doesn’t watch the planet absorbing that idea. There are no extended sequences of man on the street reactions. No outlandish newspaper headlines zipping around on the screen. There’s only the safety of humanity and Kal-El’s decision to help humanity, or not. Anything else could come later.

Instead of a visual representation of humanity’s reaction to Superman, Snyder and Goyer present the issue as a moral dilemma. Can the humans trust an alien to save the Earth? And why would someone who isn’t of this world risk everything to save it? The characters represent multiple points of view to examine these arguments.

The thematic back and forth, while ultimately rewarding, does make for a slightly challenging experience. Normal blockbusters don’t engage us like this. They definitely don’t make us consider, on some level, that a character as hopeful as Superman could be unwanted. Subtextual threads such as these give the film a bit of weight to balance the fantastic action.

And that action is simply incredible. It’s as huge as huge can be. These are Gods, at war with each other, and Earth is their sandbox. Nothing is safe, from vehicles to storefronts to massive skyscrapers. Snyder ups the ante for the kind of scale we expect from a superhero blockbuster.

Then, at the center of it all, is Henry Cavill. This is a true leading man in a role that’s guaranteed to make him a superstar. He doesn’t yet possess the charm of Christopher Reeve, but Reeve’s Clark Kent was a more mature character. Cavill’s Superman is literally right at the beginning of what’s sure to be a long reign as the leader of DC’s heroes. He plays that origin with confidence and a physical presence that’s second to none.

Yes, folks, Man of Steel delivers. It’s a phenomenal film and an even better set up for what we hope is a huge, DC Universe.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

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