The short review: The filmmakers manage to deliver a fresh and new take on the very well-worn Superman origin story, but it does devolve a bit into repeated action and demolishing cities.
The long review: Though I’ve always been a DC Comics fan, I’ve never really been much of a Superman guy, except in that brief period in the ‘90s when the Bruce Timm animated series was on Kids’ WB and everything was awesome. Usually, I just think he’s too powerful and not a particularly interesting character. Still, it’d have been hard for me not to be excited by the prospect of a new Superman film, called Man of Steel, produced by Christopher Nolan, written by David S. Goyer, and directed by Zack Snyder. Would they be able to make him a more complex and compelling character? Would they manage to give a real-world context for his abilities, as they promised? Would they find a new way of telling the origin story every person in the entire known universe already knows? Would they make it more than just super-powered people punching each other? The answer to many, but not all, of these questions is: Yes.
Origin stories are always the easiest to tell, but they can become tiresome over and over again. This hasn’t stopped comic books from rebooting or tinkering with the beginnings of various heroes over the years, nor has it stopped studios from making these stories again. If the next Batman movie is just the origin story again, I’m probably going to be upset. But, Superman’s start hadn’t been seen on the big screen since 1978, so, no matter how familiar, the decision was justified. That, of course, means we start on the planet Krypton, an advanced but arrogant and pompous civilization that refuses to believe when Jor-El (Russell Crowe) warns them about the planet’s impending doom. They have more things to worry about, as General Zod (Michael Shannon) is preparing a coup, because evil. This leads to Jor-El sending his only son, the first naturally-born Kryptonian in centuries (everybody’s farmed nowadays), somewhere out into space, to be hailed as a god, probably.
The Krypton sequence goes on much longer here, and with more flying creatures, than we’ve seen previously. In fact, Jor-El is much more of a character than he’d ever been before, sort of a bigger character than Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) even. This is fine, because the design of Krypton and all the Kryptonians was among my favorite stuff in the movie. It looked fantastic, and the reason behind the various symbols and costuming makes perfect sense within the world established. Why do they all seem to have different Earth accents? Who knows? The bad guys even have a good reason for being bad, even if they are misguided and unwilling to listen to reason. More about them later.
What we’d expect to be a series of scenes of Kal-El’s ship crashing through to when he’s an adult Clark Kent is not what we get. Next we see grown up, bearded Clark working aboard a fishing boat and performing an act of superheroism that forces him to leave, lest he be found out. I like this aspect of the movie a whole lot. Clark knows he’s special, but he’s trying to find out why and how to be a part of it. We do see scenes of him as a child and finding things out, but we only see them when they become important to the current narrative, and they jump around in time periods depending on what works best thematically. They’re more like Clark’s memories than his backstory. Because the Superman origin is so in the zeitgeist, they only need to touch on pieces, how Clark had to learn not to let his anger get the best of him, how he had to try to be the bigger man because he could easily tear anybody apart if he wanted. It’s these things that give the character a lot more depth and make him more than just a do-gooder Boy Scout, but it also never gets too navel-gazey. Sure, there’s a bit of Space-Jesus talk in there, but only just a bit. It threads that needle very nicely.
Clark learning about his past, and at the same time, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) trying to piece together his life based on eyewitness accounts, is great. She meets him before the suit, so to her, he’s just a guy, and that’s fantastic. And she’s not a dummy. She’s actually a smart reporter who figures things out. They spark a friendship and he, as always, is there to catch her the thousands of times she gets thrown off of things. Not in a stupid or eye-rolling way, but because she’s in the thick of things a lot. I liked that.
The performances are quite good, especially from Henry Cavill as Clark/Kal/Super. He’s impossibly handsome and incredibly ripped but he plays the character as he should be played, as a good guy who doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s aware of his abilities and willing to use them, but he’s not cocky or even very confident in them yet. In contrast, Michael Shannon is frothing with anger, bitterness, and hate and does a really terrific job of it. Adams, Crowe, and Costner are pretty great in their roles and the less flashy characters like Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White, Richard Schiff’s Dr. Emil Hamilton, and Christopher Meloni’s Colonel Hardy do a bang-up job. The only casting misstep is Diane Lane as Martha Kent, who just seems to be trying to evoke an eccentric old biddy the whole time; really no idea why.
The direction is really where I am of two minds. On the one hand, a lot of it looks utterly gorgeous. Landscapes, be they real or computer-generated, look terrific, especially with Superman flying over and around them. Man of Steel lacks the glossy sheen of something like The Avengers, but that’s only because it’s closer in tone (though not nearly as dour) to Nolan’s Dark Knight movies. Seeing the guy in the cape jumping and flying around is something every kid, even a 29-year-old not-Superman fan like me, can get excited about. In this way, and in the overall look and composition of the scenes, Snyder does a truly bang-up job.
But “bang-ups” are at the crux of what I think the film didn’t do so well. The action scenes are at times hard to watch, because they’re trying to make them frenetic and “realistic,” and you just lose track of what’s happening. The camera isn’t fast enough to keep up with the speed at which things are happening, which is a bit absurd. There’s also the problem that, at a certain point, you’re just watching one super-powered person punching another super-powered person through buildings and across landscapes and accruing an incalculable amount of collateral damage in the process. Poor Smallville barely has anything in it, yet it’s on the main street that Superman and some U.S. military helicopters decide to battle two Kryptonians. Metropolis has it even worse. Sure, there’s the mayhem and destruction caused by the plot of the villains, but why should there then be an even more destructive battle between Superman and Zod. How can you claim to have the best interest of the people of Earth in mind when you wantonly level whole blocks of a major city while attempting to “save” it? It made the New York destruction in The Avengers look like some fireworks hit it. Maybe make Zod fly to the middle of nowhere to battle? That work for anyone else?
Those complaints (and a few weird plot conveniences I won’t get into) aside, Man of Steel is the best version of Superman on the big screen possibly ever. It’s not anywhere near perfect, but it’s a whole lot of fun and explores some interesting themes. If they’re setting up a series where he goes into outer space and fights huge aliens, I’ll be all for it, although if it’s just a bunch of invasions or mad scientists trying to take over Earth, it might get a bit old. With the exception of Dawn of the Dead, which will always rank at number one for me, I think this is Zack Snyder’s best film. And me, a dyed-in-the-wool Batman fan, would totally go see another Superman movie with these same creative people involved. But, maybe, leave the skylines intact.
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