“Man of Steel” is Super (Thanks for Asking)

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Henry Cavill as Superman

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.

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Michael Shannon as General Zod

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.

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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.)

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