Superman’s latest film adaptation is the most controversial superhero film ever made. Man of Steel (directed by Zack Snyder) is a film with staunch division. There are those who absolutely despise this film and wish it never existed, and there are those who love this film and will defend it at every turn. You either love this movie, or you hate it; there’s no in between. It’s been nearly three full years since its release and people still argue about how the movie was executed and if it’s in fact a good movie. Seeing how it’s the kick off point for the DC Cinematic Universe, and the predecessor to Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice its important to look at the movie and examine it’s triumphs and faults. And to finally answer why this movie resonates with so many fans in both negative and positive ways.
The movie is a retelling of the destruction of Krypton and General Zod’s invasion of Earth, while also being an origin story for Superman. The film opens in a cool reinterpretation of Krypton; it’s a little over the top, but it’s fun and unique to see. There we see Kal-El’s birth, and then Jor-El’s warnings of the destruction of Krypton, and then Zod’s attempted coup, and then Jor-El and his wife Lara sending Kal off of Krypton to Earth. It’s an intense opening and it sets up pretty much everything about the story we need to know, but it’s done so hastily. Everything mentioned happens in fifteen minutes. I bring it up though, because this is where the biggest problem of the movie comes from, the script. David Goyer’s script isn’t the worst thing ever, but it feels like it was rushed; there needed to be a second set of eyes on it to go back and see where they could have reworked the pacing. Instead though, the film moves at rapid speed when it should have slowed down.
However, this film brings two unique aspects to the table that we haven’t seen in other Superman adaptations that makes this movie stand out. The first is Clark Kent’s uncertainty in discovering his powers. During Clark’s searching for who he is and his flashbacks, we don’t see the stereotypical Superman emerging. He’s not overly confident and trying to be the most wholesome character, nor is he a total doofus. Henry Cavill plays the role of Clark Kent with a lot of subtlety, and focuses on the nuances of a young man discovering his true past, and what his future can hold. He tries to keep the ideals of his fathers from different planets real, but he’s also trying to grow as an individual. Some people didn’t like Cavill’s performance and felt that he was too quiet to be Superman, but the movie doesn’t start with him already as Superman, it’s about how he grows into that role. This is unique as most Superman adaptations (say for Smallville) never dwell on the difficulties of Clark Kent becoming the Man of Steel. It usually starts off with him discovering that he has super powers, and then boom, he’s the Man of Tomorrow! Man of Steel does examine a growth as Clark Kent.
The second aspect that makes this film unique is the action. Superman now has to actually fight, and the action scenes are pretty impressive. They give a lot of weight to the stakes of the movie, and the threat of Zod seems less goofy. Michael Shannon’s portrayal is truly menacing, and disturbing, yet he has a true purpose for his actions that makes him genuinely terrifying and slightly sympathetic. His goal to try to save the Kryptonian people is better than Superman II‘s General Zod who basically wants to take over because he’s got nothing better to do. It’s also a more interesting conflict, because Superman has to fight his heritage to save his adopted home. Plus, it’s also fun to see Superman actually punch someone.
The visuals of this film are classic Zack Snyder (though there is a significant lack of slow motion), but the movie looks beautiful. Snyder has a much stronger mastery of CGI than Singer did, so he makes the flying scenes look fantastic. People constantly complain about a lack of color, but that’s only in the last action scene, most of the movie has a lot of color. The film does chose to be in a more sepia tone look, which makes it stand out from other films, though I will admit that the look could have been brighter. The darker look works for Batman, but it doesn’t really work for Superman.
That’s the second biggest problem with the movie, and this comes back to the script, Goyer and Nolan were banking on the success of The Dark Knight trilogy to influence their Superman film. And while it makes sense to try and make it like that (Nolan’s Batman films were a huge success), it doesn’t really work for Superman. The grounded realistic setting can let Batman thrive, but for Superman it just makes the film feel bleak. I think that it’s interesting to see a darker Superman, and liked how they actually did make him a more dynamic character than in his previous versions. And we see this Superman evolve into the more confident well-known Superman.
The supporting cast does well also. Michael Shannon plays a devastating, and traumatic Zod. Kevin Costner is a thoughtful and patient Johnathan Kent (though some of his advice is a little questionable, leave the kids on the bus to die? Really?). Laurence Fishburne is the most realistic editor for a major metropolitan newspaper ever played. Diane Lane as Martha Kent is wonderfully motherly, but also tough and endearing. Russel Crowe was a great Jor-El, and really puts in a lot of effort for this role. But, the stand out performance for me will always be Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Mainly because, she’s not an idiot! She’s able to find out who Superman is, acts like a real journalist, is smart enough to know how to defend herself, and actually has a more realistic personality than most other people who play Lois Lane.
But, the biggest thing about this film is the climax, and this is where everybody has their issues with the movie. The amount of destruction is so high and violent that it just made people feel very depressed about seeing the first Superhero on the big screen again. And yeah, it seems a little odd that there’s an emphasis on so much destruction when Clark Kent is claiming to value their well-being. It goes back to the idea of realism, and excessive realism just doesn’t work for a character that is an alien coming down to save us from other aliens. So, when we see the monochromatic gray look of the devastated city blocks of Metropolis it just doesn’t feel as triumphant as a Superman film should be. And I do agree with the general consensus that Superman should have saved more people. However, I like that the military is involved with fighting Zod too. It makes this fight everyone’s fight, and not just the superhero’s problem. This is an issue that everyone is reacting to and trying to help with.
There’s also that Superman killed Zod. Ignoring the fact that Zod pledged to kill every human on Earth after Superman stopped him, and that there is no prison to put him in, his killing is not something Superman does with joy. He’s very upset about it. Unlike how Superman just killed Zod by throwing him in a pit in the North Pole and left him to die after taking away his powers. And before any of you say anything, deleted scenes don’t count, Superman killed Zod in Superman II. This decision for Superman to be the last Kryptonian is heavy and really sad for him. But, for some reason this decision pissed everyone off, and I’m not sure why, Superman has killed in the comics before. Perhaps the public consciousness of Superman is the “boy scout” interpretation. The happy-go-lucky Supes that most people know about isn’t as prominent in this movie as the other ones.
However, it’s a different interpretation of the character. Superman has been popular enough to go through many interpretations, and this is one take on it. Personally I love this view-point of Superman as it brings something new to the table, and actually creates unique stakes for him. We finally see him getting pushed to the ultimate brink as he has to fight a horrifying entity that represents his past and heritage. It’s an interesting choice for the film to make. But, this film could have been a bit more Superman like, more of Clark Kent as a reporter, more saving people, and a brighter tone. While it’s a rocky start for the DC Cinematic Universe, it’s certainly an interesting start and deserves to be looked at. I probably haven’t swayed anyone’s opinion, but I love this film, and feel that it definitely needs to be looked at again. There are some great treasures in the film.
Next time we go back to Batman, and look at the last Nolan Dark Knight film with The Dark Knight Rises. Another superhero movie that everyone has a strong opinion about. It’s going to be another long one guys.