We learn in the new Superman movie that the big symbol on the front of his outfit was never what we always thought it was.
“It’s not an S,” explains Kal-el, the super-powered alien-among-us from the planet Krypton who grows up on Earth and comes to be called Superman. “In my world, it means hope.”
Hope is a recurring theme in “Man of Steel,” the rousing, rollicking reinvention of the Superman saga, in more ways than one. In the movie, Superman represents humanity’s hope against annihilation. For fans, the latest big-screen incarnation is their hope that pop culture’s original, most iconic superhero of all will finally, after years of movie misfires, get one that has the right tone, the right look and right feel — and move the 75-year-old character to the rightful head of the superhero class.
Not only does the new movie feel like a renewal of all-around, long-overdue Man of Steel movie mojo, expertly pitched to modern times and modern movie tastes, it also seems like summer’s big dog telling the little dogs to move it on over.
Buzz has been building about “the new Superman movie” for over a year, ever since it was announced that its creative team would be two filmmakers with impeccable cred bridging the worlds of comic books and cinema. Director Zack Snyder’s resumé includes “300” and “Watchman,” and producer/writer Christopher Nolan directed the hugely successful Batman “Dark Knight” trilogy.
In rebuilding the Super-story from its foundation, “Man of Steel” keeps true to the essential DC comics mythology of the tale but jettisons much of the corn, camp and other heavy baggage that 75 years of movies, television and cartoons attached to the character.
Synder and Nolan start with the birth of infant Kal-el on Krypton, where his parents Jor-el and Lara (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) ship him off to safety on Earth to escape their dying planet — and the clutches of the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), whose mad plans would mean doom for their son.
That sets the stage for the epic showdown that follows, as Kal-el grows up to become the strapping young adult Clark Kent (British actor Henry Cavill, from TV’s “The Tudors”), questioning his loving, patient adopted Kansas parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) about where he’s from, why he’s always been different from other kids and, eventually, what his mission on Earth might be.
And then there’s feisty “Daily Planet” reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who comes across a story she can’t ignore — and one her newspaper boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) can’t quite believe.
“Man of Steel” is a movie that slam-bangs hard with action when it’s time to bring the hammer down, but it also spends quality time with its characters and its themes, especially the conflict, loneliness and loss that make up the superhuman “man of two worlds” who ends up in a spectacular computer-generated smackdown to save his adopted home. The scenes with Costner are especially touching, as Jonathan Kent struggles with knowing his son is destined for something Earth-changing, but wants to protect him from exposing his secret — and himself — as long as possible.
Superman has always been ripe with topics for discussion for fans, scholars and even theologians, and “Man of Steel” offers plenty food for thought beyond simply a tub of popcorn. At one point Superman’s human-bred morality is noted as his weakness. It’s impossible to miss the moments when the movie’s imagery suggests his messianic overtones. “He’ll be a god to them,” his Krypton father, Jor-El, tells his mother, as they prepare to send their “only son” to Earth as the living embodiment of their “hopes and dreams.”
And hope is certainly a seed the movie seems to be planting in a couple of scenes that hints Superman might be coming back to the screen, perhaps with some pointy-eared bat-company from his DC Comics stable.
Which just reinforces the movie’s point: For a lot of super fans, hope is spelled with a big red “S.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Man of Steel”
STARRING: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe
DIRECTED BY: Zac Synder
RUNNING TIME: 143 minutes