Before we get to the meat of this film, we need to talk about Superman for a minute. Let’s not shout at each other. Let’s not hurl comic book trades across the room like animals. Let’s all just take a deep breath and talk about the Big Blue Boy Scout for a second, because there’s something I think we all need to come to terms with. I thought about it a lot in the lead-up to seeing Man of Steel, and I’ve thought about it even more in the day or so since I left the theater. I thought about it more because I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. There were a lot of things I liked, and a scant few things I outright loved. I think this is a good movie, but before I explain why, I have to say this, not because I’m trying to get you to cut Zack Snyder some slack or because I’m trying to get you to change your minds about things, but because it’s a conclusion I’ve come to after years of watching and waiting: I don’t think the idea we all have in our heads of a “great” Superman movie will ever really exist.
OK, so that’s not exactly a fair statement, if only because I can’t possibly know exactly what every single Superman fan’s idea of a great movie is. There’s probably some guy out there somewhere who thinks Superman Returns was a work of staggering genius (and in fairness, I do think we’re a little hard on that film, despite its many, many flaws), and another guy who really wants a movie where Superman rocks that ’90s mullet. Hell, a movie where Superman would have never been seen flying and would have fought a giant spider at the end almost actually happened (if you don’t know about Superman Lives already, go Google it…I’ll wait). For me, the ideal would be to make a movie with the same spirit of something like Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s seminal All-Star Superman, a film that carries the important themes of the Man of Tomorrow in its heart, but isn’t afraid to make with the Silver Age whimsy and is even daring enough to combine the two into something complex and strange and oddly theological. I don’t think I’ll ever see something like that outside of animation, but I digress. The point is, Superman’s a tough nut to crack, and though everyone has an idea of how to do it, I don’t know that anyone ever will, and I think it’s time we make peace with that.
Having said all that, it should come as no surprise to you that I don’t think Man of Steel did right by Superman in every possible way. It is not a great Superman film, and it will draw no small amount of thematic and canonical and even just plain story complaints from all corners of fandom. But even with all that, even with some deep flaws running through its polished and measured delivery, Man of Steel is a better Superman film than I ever expected it to be.
Note: I’m going to do my best to get through this spoiler-free, using only plot information that can be found in trailers and synopses. If you want to go in completely blind, you might want to stay away, but if you already have a basic idea of what you’re about to see, everything’s fine. I’m not going to give away that Darth Vader is Superman’s father (oops!).
We all know Superman’s origin story, right? Well, apart from a few tweaks (which I’ll leave to you to find out), we’re largely looking at the same thing. The planet Krypton is dying, so Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the planet’s top scientist, opts to send his infant son out into space, on a course for a faraway planet called Earth, in the hopes that he will somehow survive. While this is going on, though, the defiant General Zod (Michael Shannon) is taking his own drastic measures, attempting to overthrow the Kryptonian government and somehow save the planet himself. While the baby Kal-El blasts off for Earth, Zod and his compatriots are captured and sentenced to the Phantom Zone. Shortly thereafter the planet is destroyed, and we move this party to Earth.
Much of the movie is concerned with the business of how the Kryptonian Kal-El (Henry Cavill), now living on Earth as Clark Kent, becomes Superman. We see him as an adult, living a life of anonymity as a fisherman and breaking out his powers only when absolutely necessary. We see flashes of him as a boy, learning from his Earth parents Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) who he really is, how to control his powers, how to hide them, and why it’s important that he must someday make a choice about his identity. But the choice might not be up to him much longer. Ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the hunt for a mysterious anomaly that could be extraterrestrial, and soon the world will know that they are not alone in the universe.
And yes that anomaly has something to do with Zod and yes he fights Superman. You knew that already.
Screenwriter David Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan (who also has a story credit) put a lot of work into this origin story, and it shows. It flows generally well, it has a reasonable sense of internal logic and sometimes even the changes they make can prove satisfying. But it’s not without its problems. Setting aside the simple fact that I’m tired of Superman origin stories at this point in my life, the whole thing feels at times like it was crafted a bit too much to serve this one story and not enough to serve Superman as a whole. All the pieces fit together here, with very few seams, and that’s fine, but wasn’t the point to reboot the franchise in a way that made it, you know, a franchise? I’m not saying the origin story going forward won’t fit into new Superman movies. It can, and it will with the right writers (there are even some obvious hints about what they might try next), but it doesn’t have the timeless feel that I wanted. It feels a bit too engineered, a bit too specialized, and that worries me both for this film and for future ones.
Man of Steel‘s greatest strength, though, is its action. That sounds like a weird thing to say, but for me it was the first time I actually saw real, Kryptonian-level destruction on the big screen. It was the first time a director really took Superman’s incredible strength and speed and resilience seriously and put it to large-scale use, and given that he’s fighting other Kryptonians for a big chunk of the flick, that makes for some absolutely stunning megadestruction. That part felt honest to me. It felt like I was actually watching Superman fight for the first time, and that made me happy. Sure, by the end things start to get a little Michael Bay-ish, but still, I had fun.
And then there’s the cast. Cavill does fine, though he doesn’t get too many chances to really be Superman. He fights a lot as Superman. He flies a lot as Superman. He’s got the cape and the boots and the hair, but very rarely does the film slow down enough to give us an idea of who Superman is. Sometimes that problem is fixed by his actions, but other times it’s frustrating. I do, however, give both Cavill and the filmmakers credit for hitting quite a few of the key character beats that come with turning Clark into Superman (learning to control his power, learning about sacrifice and responsibility, etc.) right on the nose. Shannon is terrifically maniacal as Zod, and though he almost never gets a moment to reach down into the heart of the character, when he finally does it produces the film’s most emotionally satisfying scene. The best new version of any character, though, is Adams’ Lois. Don’t get hung up on the red hair. She gets it right. She’s got the toughness and the brains and, when things get really heavy and destructive, she actually gets something to do. Throw in Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Richard Schiff as a government scientist and Ayelet Zurer as Lara Lor-Van, Superman’s mother, and you’ve got a very solid cast.
If you go into this movie without any expectations for how they treat Superman, or if you don’t care how they treat Superman, you’ll find Man of Steel to be a polished, epic and exhilarating action blockbuster packed with fun setpieces, and that’s fine. If you care a bit more about the character at is heart, you’ll walk out with a few (or more than a few, depending on how you like your Superman) complaints. Me, I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of this incarnation of Superman. This was a good movie. It had heart, it had a sense of well thought-out (though not always perfectly executed) storytelling, it had beautiful visuals and it had a strong cast. It wasn’t a great movie, nor did it present me with a big screen version of Superman that I could completely and unreservedly get behind. But even with all that, I wouldn’t mind visiting this world again, and with all that we’ll end up saying is wrong about Man of Steel, as far as I’m concerned that’s an achievement.