Note: As always, this will be as spoiler-free as I can make it. If the need arises, I will warn of spoilers before they are given.
Superman is not my favorite character. I have never much cared for the character, whether it was just a lack of interest or a disdain for the character’s so few weaknesses. Admittedly, I am not entirely familiar with the comics, having only read the original Shuster/Siegel Superman comic from Action Comics vol. 1 #1 from 1939 and Grant Morrison’s Action Comics vol. 2 #1 for DC’s New 52 revamp. I have seen one or two of the older Christopher Reeve Superman films, but, aside from the few flashes of those films that I remember, Superman Returns (2005), and the two comics I have read, I just don’t know much about the character. All that goes to say that you should take my opinion of Superman as a character with a grain of salt. Anyway, despite all of this, I was anxious to see Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel because it is the first live-action reboot of the character in film since Christopher Reeve donned the suit in 1978’s Superman, and I hoped that it would change my opinion – or, at least, my interest – in Superman. Having seen the film, I can definitely say that I am now interested.
As I mentioned, Man of Steel is a complete reboot of the character in live-action film, so this film acts as an origin story for the character. We are introduced to his parents, Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer, respectively), and we witness Kal-El (Superman’s birth name) escape with the aid of his parents while General Zod (Michael Shannon) leads a coup against the Kryptonian government in anticipation of the looming demise of the planet due to its unstable core. Kal-El escapes to Earth, where he is found and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), and Zod and his followers are banished to something called the Phantom Zone (according to this Wikipedia page, it is “a fictional prison dimension featured in the Superman comic books”) before the planet’s destruction. The rest of the film follows Kal-El/Clark Kent’s (played by Henry Cavill) quest to discover who he is meant to be. He comes across familiar faces such as Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), and he must decide who he is going to be in order to save the people of Earth from the wrath of Zod, who has come to take his revenge.
This movie avoids the convention of most superhero origin stories by interspersing Superman’s childhood with the present-day, only flashing back to those important moments that featured a moral decision that helped to make him the man he is today; in other words, the origin story is told in the same way that Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins (my review) is told, which makes sense because Nolan produced this film while the screenwriter, David S. Goyer, wrote the scripts for both this and Batman Begins. That being said, this in no way feels like a rehash of Nolan’s earlier work, and the feel of the two films are completely different. This Superman movie is not by any stretch of the imagination a “gritty” reboot, a term which has often been used to describe Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Rather, it is a more grounded interpretation of the world’s first superhero…with “grounded” being a figurative term since we see quite a bit of flying to be enjoyed. The universe is more optimistic, the character is not haunted by his past in the same way that Bruce Wayne is, and the film as a whole is much more fun.
The first three-quarters or so of this film are much more of a character study than anything else. We don’t see Superman flying around in his suit saving the world, but we see a suit-less Clark Kent travelling the world, helping people however he can, trying to find his purpose on Earth. He is faced with moments of anger and must decide whether to throw a punch or walk away, and he is confronted with the imminent death of innocent people and must decide whether to save them and reveal his powers or let them die and keep his secret. These moments always feel very honest and quite intimate. Henry Cavill does at great job at playing Superman; not only does he look the part, but he plays the character with the proper innocence, conviction, and nobility. Amy Adams as Lois Lane brings an interesting spin to the character, as she’s no longer the damsel-in-distress type, but rather the type who will travel the nation on a scoop and will be a part of the action instead of a simple observer of it. Lane has a palpable confidence in herself, and her relationship with Superman feels genuine. Michael Shannon as Zod is fantastically maniacal, though he plays so much more than a madman; as the character explains later in the film, he is a man who has had all purpose in his life stripped away, an argument that brings a compelling moral perspective to the discussion of right versus wrong or, rather, good versus evil. Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent is an admirable father figure, helping Clark to make sense of his powers and what he is meant to be. In short, the entire cast does a fine job, including the lesser-known cast that makes up the military personnel and Zod’s followers.
The last quarter of the film has me conflicted. Basically, it turns into an all-out superhuman boxing match, with Metropolis as the ring. Sounds awesome, right? Well, parts of it are, but parts of it are just entirely gratuitous. I mean, I’m talking more buildings destroyed by two Kryptonians than were destroyed in New York by the six Avengers and an entire army of hostile aliens in 2012’s The Avengers (my review)! I understand the need for an all-out super-battle for these characters, but leveling a city seems like the wrong way to go about it…I just don’t see what it accomplishes. I have also heard of controversy over Superman’s decision at the end of this battle (if you’ve seen the film, you know what I am talking about), but here’s my opinion: it was led up to appropriately and seemed like a realistic outcome to an impossible situation. Whether the decision is out-of-character for the comics version of Superman or not is irrelevant because this is a new movie version of Superman, not the comics. The entire film is about him making moral decisions and having to choose to preserve Earth or to preserve Krypton, and this final decision seemed to me to be an appropriate climax.
One final aspect of note is the Christian allegory present in the film. Superman has always been seen as a Messianic figure; like Jesus, he was sent to Earth by his father to eventually become a sort of savior for mankind, though, of course, this is a different sort of savior. There are all sorts of references to the story of Christ, from Jor-El’s statement at the start of the film (“He will be a god to them”) to Jonathan Kent’s statement later (“You have another father who gave you another name. He sent you here for a reason”). At one point, Clark asks his Earth-father why God set him apart and gave him powers, and at another point he asks a priest for advice on how to approach the situation at hand. These parallels are well-done and give us Christians at least another reason to admire Superman as a character.
Overall, this movie is quite a bit of fun and is largely what I was hoping for. The ending fight may be a bit over the top for me, but the slower parts of the film are just along the lines of what I wanted: a Superman who isn’t absolutely sure of himself or his abilities, a Superman who is still trying to find his place in the world. There is no gimmicky kryptonite to weaken our hero, but he is instead given a worthy opponent who can match him punch for punch and make him question his sense of right and wrong. Nothing feels like a rehash of what has already been done, bringing a new breath of life to a franchise that really needed it. Henry Cavill is a wonderful Superman, and, with Hans Zimmer’s incredible score accompanying him, Man of Steel gives us (or at least me) the Superman film we’ve been waiting for.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language
P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by Hans Zimmer, here!