Be warned, this review drops major spoilers for "Man of Steel."
For many audiences, Man of Steel might feel like a significant departure from the Superman mythos. Indeed, a cursory glance at some of the negative reviews suggests that the shadows of Christopher Reeve and original Superman director Richard Donner loom large over any adaptation of the 75 year-old comic book. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any live-action incarnation of Superman in the last 30 years that didn’t either pay direct homage to the Reeve films or feel like they could comfortably exist alongside them. (Even though Lois & Clark went somewhat afield, there was little likely to shock casual fans.)
It’s appropriate that the film is entitled Man of Steel, as that was also the name of a 1986 comic book mini-series by John Byrne that reinvented the Superman legend to a similar degree. Though the revamp made the then-48 year-old character more accessible to modern readers (including yours truly), it also alienated some longtime fans who held a more rigid view of how the character should be depicted. Among those fans was future comic book writer Mark Waid, who teased Byrne at one convention “Okay John, when can we get the real Superman back?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Waid is not a fan of this new film. There is a certain irony in this, as much of the film feels inspired by SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT, a 2004 miniseries that afforded Waid his own opportunity to reinvent the hero’s origins. (Full disclosure: I’m not a terribly big fan of this mini, particularly the art.)
The film opens on Krypton, where we explore a great deal more about the culture and society of the planet as it reaches its final days. There’s a greater sense of scope here than in Donner’s version, even as the film hits the same bullet points (Kal-El launched away in a rocket, Zod and his followers condemned to the Phantom Zone for treason.) Unlike the delightfully evil megalomaniac played by Terrance Stamp in the original two Reeve films, Michael Shannon’s Zod is given more backstory and complexity.
On this Krypton, everyone is bred genetically, not born, and grown to fulfill a specific role in society. Zod – as we learn – was created to preserve and defend the sanctity of his race. Kal-El is an aberration because his parents conceived him naturally so that he would have the freedom to choose his own path. To Zod, this is a perversion.
After the prologue where Kal-El is rocketed away seemingly moments before Krypton explodes, we leap forward some 33 years to find Clark living the life of a drifter. Circumstance often puts him in a position to save others in peril, essentially turning him into an urban legend that reporter Lois Lane comes to investigate following a later encounter when Clark saves her life.
Much like Batman Begins, the film leaps back and forth through Clark’s life at will, filling in his childhood years even as we see his adult self step closer to his inevitable destiny. Though Kevin Costner shines as Jonathan Kent in all of these scenes, the non-linear structure isn’t quite as impactful here as it was in Nolan’s first Batman film. Many of Costner’s scenes are good enough to make this a minor issue at worst.
The film’s depiction of Jonathan Kent is likely to be one of the bigger points of dissention between those who love the film and those who hate it. Throughout all the incarnations, one constant has been that Jonathan Kent provides Clark with his moral compass. That’s essentially true here, though in this version, Jonathan is fearful for what would happen if Clark were to make his existence known. Cleverly, this isn’t couched only as a father’s protective (or selfish) desire to keep his son safe. No, in one scene Jonathan ruminates on what it would mean for the world to know for certain that they aren’t alone in the universe. He believes – rightly or wrongly – that the greater good of humanity is better served by preserving that secret, even in the face of saving lives.
And he dies for that belief.
In virtually every other version, Jonathan Kent is felled by a fatal heart attack. It’s the absolute embodiment of Superman’s limitations. As the famous line from the Donner film goes, “All those things I could do - all those powers – and I couldn’t even save him!” Man of Steel might be the only instance where Jonathan Kent’s death that was 100% preventable by Clark. The only catch is that in order for Clark to save his father, he’d have to expose his powers. It’s clear from Clark’s reactions that he’s fully prepared to do this – to damn the consequences to humanity and rescue his dad.
But that’s not what Jonathan wants. Pa Kent’s last act on Earth is to die for his convictions, to accept a fate he demanded his son leave others to, so as to not risk exposure. And Clark honors it.
In Clark’s shoes, I don’t think I’d be able to do the same. In the context of this film, it’s a heroic act and a noble death for Jonathan. I respect that this will be a sticking point for many. My own gut reaction was to reject this scene, but the more I let it sink in, the more I’m okay with it.
The action picks up in the second half of the film, as Zod and his armies come to Earth and demand Kal-El turn himself into them. This has the effect of casting Superman’s public debut quite differently from the other films. He doesn’t get the heroic coming out of saving a helicopter, a space shuttle or a 777. Instead, his presence is outed by Zod. From Earth’s point of view, they’re caught in the crossfire between one alien infiltrator and a very powerful alien armada. This means that when things go to hell for Smallville and Metropolis, one would expect the world would blame Superman for the catastrophe as much as they might credit him with save.
And make no mistake, this is pure destruction porn for the last 45 minutes or so in the film. Remember the battles in the western small town and later in Metropolis in Superman II? Man of Steel takes both of those and turns the devastation up beyond Transformers levels. It’s at once more violent and less moving than similar scenes in The Avengers, actually. As thrilling as it is to see Kryptonians kick the shit out of each other (and make no mistake, it is AWESOME to see these titans finally cut loose) the human scale is almost completely lost when buildings start tumbling left and right in Metropolis.
The main failing here is that we’ve barely spent enough time in Metropolis to have an emotional connection to it. The few minutes of screentime doled out to Perry White and the rest of the Daily Planet staff aren’t enough to compensate for this. Even though we’re watching a citywide catastrophe that’s on the order of 9/11 times 20, I felt nothing for the poor inhabitants of the city who were watching everything crumble to dust around them. For all we care, Metropolis might as well be a city of a half-dozen people.
After 9/11, we wondered when – if ever – it would be acceptable for Hollywood to depict such wanton destruction again. If The Avengers didn’t answer that, this film surely did. It’s odd – it’s treated too solemnly to be entirely escapist in nature, but there’s also little regard for the casualties of the siege. At least if they’d exploited 9/11, the audience might have felt something more. Larger issues aside, the effects are glorious and effectively raise the stakes for any future superhero battle.
The final resolution of the battle is another moment likely to be debated by comic book geeks. After a battle with Zod that lays waste to most of downtown Metropolis, Superman finally manages to get Zod in a sleeper hold. Still unwavering, Zod reaches out with his heat vision, ready to fry a group of civilians.
So Superman snaps his neck.
Comic book purists argue “Superman does NOT kill.” If one looks at the earlier films, they might be forced to conclude that we’ve long since dispensed with that rigidity.
Superman II: Superman kills Zod, stands by and watches as Non and Ursa fall to their deaths in either a bottomless pit or hypothermic Arctic waters below.
Superman III: Superman strangles his evil twin to death.
Superman IV: Superman throws the unconscious Nuclear Man into a nuclear reaction, which siphons off all his lifeforce.
And the simple truth is that a non-killing code might be all well and good in an ethics debate, but when you’re faced with an incredibly powerful madman who cannot be subdued by any means and is a persistent and violent threat, killing him IS the only answer. Zod was a rabid dog who needed to be put down. (There’s some tragedy in the fact that on some level he was bred to be that, but still, killing him was the only option.)
My mother emailed me to take exception to that scene. She felt the final battles went on for far too long and asked why Superman didn’t just snap Zod’s neck sooner? I’d argue that Superman needed to beat Zod enough so he had the physical leverage to perform that action. (It ain’t exactly easy to snap a neck.) Frankly, given that Zod’s neck should be indestructible, it’s amazing that even Superman could snap it.
Cavill is fantastic in the Clark/Superman role. There's just something about the way he carries himself that makes you say "That IS Superman," even when only shown in silhouette. His interpretation is different enough from Reeve's that it avoids inviting direct comparison. That in itself is a superhuman achievement. There's not a moment of this film where you're likely to be tempted to compare him and Reeve to each other. Amy Adams makes a wonderful Lois and she has some great chemistry with Cavill. I bought her as a reporter, but my one issue with her might be her voice. It’s a little too soft and whispery for a reporter who we usually associate with bold, assertive tones.
I haven’t yet touched on the Codex, the MacGuffin that Zod is pursuing. It’s boils down to some sci-fi mumbo jumbo about how Superman’s DNA is coded with all the children who were to be bred on Krypton. I buy a lot in sci-fi, but I hate what some critics have termed “fun with DNA.” As much as I don’t like the mechanics of it, I approve of the drama that it leads to. Zod wants to use Superman’s blood to create a new Krypton. It could be the salvation of a long-dead society. Superman’s quandary is made perhaps too easy when Zod reveals that in order to save Krypton, it will require destroying Earth.
But it forces a clear choice from Superman and he chooses his adoptive home over his genetic one. “Krypton had it’s chance!” he tells Zod in the throes of one of their battles. Kal-El may be Kryptonian by birth, but his heart is human. In a film where the humans characters are shown (rightly, for the most part) to be paranoid and mistrustful of the outsiders, it’s a moment that’s needed.
But these issues aren’t totally wrapped up in a tidy way and I’d expect them to be covered in further depth in the sequel. If nothing else, the fallout from the Battle of Metropolis must be addressed. I’d love a smaller-scaled sequel that finds a way to address what it must be like for the survivors. Perhaps if the film features more of Clark Kent’s work as a reporter for the Daily Planet, that can be an inroad to exploring Metropolis as a city.
The earlier Superman films position the character as a savior. Though he saves the day here, the way it unfolds makes it possible the world would not welcome their “strange visitor” with open arms. It would be a very different path for any Superman film to take, but after the events of this one, possibly the most logical.
For those who didn't walk out of Man of Steel terribly thrilled with the film, take heart. There is a vast universe of Superman adaptations, and I'm sure that you'll find something more to your liking. Goyer and Nolan made some bold choices with this version and I'd hope that even if I didn't appreciate the film, I'd salute their moxie.