Superman is an icon of comic books. Superhero comics, and arguably comics in general, are what they are today partly because of him. Had he not come along, comics as we know them would be something altogether different. What they would be exactly and how different they would have been can’t be determined. But they would be different. Superman is significant for that alone.
I didn’t want to be Superman as a kid. Oh, I wished I could fly, and I certainly would have liked to beat up the people who picked on me, but I never wished to be Superman. I thought it would be cooler to be Iron Man. As a kid I was never able to put my finger on why, exactly, but as an adult I understand the reason.
Superman is something no human being can ever actually be.
Past Superman filmed have lightly brushed this topic, but Zack Snyder’s ambitious new film Man of Steel tackles it head-on, directly addressing Kal-El’s feelings of isolation and loneliness that stem from his realization that he is not of this world. It is a new beginning for our hero. One we have seen before, yes, but presented in a bold new way.
Christopher Nolan, the man behind the successful recent Batman films (including the top-tier The Dark Knight), and his partner in crime David S. Goyer have put together a film that tries to fit Superman into the same grittier, more realistic DC Universe that fellow DC Comics heavyweight Batman was given in his eye-opening trilogy. Not an easy task, since Batman is a regular human being in a suit and Superman is a super-powered being from another planet. So, do Nolan, Goyer and Snyder succeed?
Well… sort of.
The film treats everything that happens with real seriousness and conviction, stating in no uncertain terms that what you see before you is really happening. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the talented folks at WETA Digital are behind the amazing special effects. Superman’s flight hasn’t looked this good since Christopher Reeve first wore the cape. Still, a humanoid being from another planet is a pretty fantastic idea, since we have yet to meet any extra-terrestrial life in the real world, to say nothing of extra-terrestrial life that looks so much like us. (The film never addressed how Kryptonians speak English the same as we inferior Eatrh folk, but in this day and age, when such a thing is so commonplace, who really cares about that anymore?) Everything looks realistic enough… but this film asks a little more of its audience than the Batman films did. But hey, the Marvel films have been doing a good job convincing us that guys like Iron Man and Captain America can exist in the real world, and Avengers was a damn good movie, so why can’t Superman share that?
I think I would have had a slightly easier time buying it were it not for the fact that too many of the Earth characters treated it as though alien invasions happen all the time. Something like this occurring in real life would be met with far more skepticism and disbelief than what these guys exhibit. I was expecting them to go through a much stronger stage of denial, and the only person I really saw any such denial in was Daily Planet editor Perry White (the excellent Laurence Fishburne), and even he seemed strangely accepting of it after a rather short amount of time.
To say this film hits the ground running is an understatement. You blink and already the chaos of an action scene is before you. I complained about the use of far-too-quick editing and Queasy-Cam™ in Batman Begins, and Man of Steel suffers their effects too in the early action scenes. Interestingly, this becomes less prominent as the film progresses, allowing us a much better view of the action in the later scenes. The big climactic fights at the end benefit from the audience actually being able to discern what is happening in spite of the faster-than-you-can-blink speed of the Kryptonian characters, and this is great! The film doesn’t completely suffer in that regard.
But the storytelling… I don’t know. It wasn’t what I was expecting. The film is rather non-linear, with flashbacks filling in some of the gaps in Kal-El (Clark Kent)’s early years. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think I would have placed some of them in a different order. The impression I got was that the filmmakers wanted the dead characters to still have a presence later on, and I suppose that’s fine, but for me it kind of lessens the impact their deaths had. There are ways for their presences to linger and have significance that wouldn’t rely so heavily on the approach Goyer and Snyder used. Obviously it worked for some people, but… somehow I felt it interfered with the build we were supposed to be getting. Clark Kent drifts from job to job, gets picked on by people who underestimate him because of his introversion, then—BAM! Superman flies! I don’t know. I guess maybe I’m too old-school for a movie like this. But then… Batman Begins did so well with its building Bruce Wayne into Batman… I guess I was expecting the same thing here, and I didn’t get it.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with the acting. Henry Cavill is actually a great Superman, and Amy Adams has a nice down-to-Earth (har har) charm as Lois Lane, the Daily Planet reporter who wins Superman’s trust early on. Fishburne is perfect as Perry White. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are superb choices as Martha and Jonathan Kent (Superman’s foster parents); it’s easily Costner’s best role in years. And the main villain: General Zod of Krypton, played to the hilt by Michael Shannon.
I like General Zod. He is very well-realized here, and is actually one of the best things about this movie. He’s a villain, but a developed one. He believes what he is doing is right. He’s trying hard to fulfill the purpose he was given when he was born (something all Kryptonians have, with Kal-El being the only exception as he was the first natural-born Kryptonian in centuries. Long story). He is utterly convinced that his actions are for the greater good. He’s such a great villain not because he’s evil, but because he’s misguided and far too certain about his mission to be persuaded otherwise. When desperation sets in and he goes whole-hog after Superman in a duel to the death, it’s actually hard to not feel sorry for him, because he’s the product of a corroded society (which even he realized had gone off the rails) from a destroyed planet and he only wants to preserve his race. I gotta hand it to the guy. From one perspective, in his own way, he was a hero.
But Zod’s plan had too many consequences. Thus, Kal-El’s father, Krypton’s Head Scientist Jor-El (another solid performance, this time from Russell Crowe), does what he does to ensure the future of the Kryptonian race… but his way. As expected, he guides his son from beyond the grave, giving him just enough of what he needs to fight Zod and his army without being a deus ex machina. I enjoyed Crowe as Jor-El, and I like how even he got some nifty action scenes (though they might have been niftier were it not for the aforementioned Queasy-Cam™) prior to his inevitable doom. We get to see more of Krypton in this film than what was perhaps possible in times past, and it’s a treat, especially when there’s solid acting there to make it feel like so much more than just nice scenery.
But what is a movie without visuals, and Man of Steel is never lacking. Whether the scene is rural Kansas or the skies over Krypton, every shot looks marvelous. The massive destruction caused by all the fighting in downtown Metropolis looked every bit as good as the city battle in Avengers, helping sell that real-world feel, while the scenes on Krypton reminded me of everything I love so much about Star Wars: the exotic strange worlds, the lifelike creatures, the astounding technology, the ornate costumes… Man of Steel, if nothing else, can be praised for its looks alone. That it has a solid story and acting to go with its solid looks sets it above what it could have been. What holds it back is the camerawork, the editing and the flow of the story, or the lack thereof.
There were moments when Lois Lane herself provided some narration, something that was dropped almost as quickly as it was introduced. I actually really hate it when movies do that. I’m not big on narration in the first place, but either narrate it or don’t. I don’t care too much which one you pick, but pick one.
So, how do we rate this one? Definitely worth seeing, especially if you’re a Superman fan, or you just like superhero films in general. I give it an 8/10, and rank it alongside Richard Donner’s first Superman film as one of the best depictions of our hero on celluloid.
I’ll share something with you: the thing that made me feel the best was when, during the closing credits, the screen read in big, bold letters, “Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.” Make of that what you will.