The last time Superman was on a movie screen was in 2006, when Bryan Singer’s ode to the Christopher Reeve series hit the screen. Superman Returns has been both defended and decried, but fans and time have not been kind to it even if it was there at the onset of the superhero movie craze. From the waves of Marvel’s superheroes to adaptations of major graphic novels to Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of Batman, not a summer goes by where a major release featuring a hero from the comics page isn’t making its way to screens around the world. Whereas before the superhero movies were the province of B-movie directors and actors, now these are major productions that feature top name actors, directors, special effects and marketing pushes.
No surprise then that Warner Brothers sought to bring back the biggest superhero name of them all. Hiring Christopher Nolan to oversee and produce allowed them to bring in the team that rejuvenated Batman, including producer Emma Thomas, writer David S. Goyer and composer Hans Zimmer. But to direct the movie, Nolan opted to bring in Zack Snyder, who had experience in adapting famous comic book franchises in 300 and Watchmen. Snyder’s visual flair and dynamic eye would hopefully combine with the more mature sensibilities that Nolan and Goyer displayed in making the “Dark Knight” trilogy. The results? Well, let’s wait a few moments first before getting to that.
The movie starts with Kal-El’s birth on Krypton. The Kryptonians were once a powerful, space-faring race, but have fallen from their lofty perch and are in their decline. Their desperation to remain so advanced have doomed the planet Krypton itself, which is on the verge of dying. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) recognizes this and pleads with the Supreme Council for a desperate plan to save their race. At a similar time, General Zod (Michael Shannon), has come to the same conclusion that Jor-El has, but concluded that, in order to save Krypton, he will have to seize power. He stages a coup d’etat during which Jor-El steals an important piece of Kryptonian technology, the Codex, which he sends alongside his infant son to his new home: Earth. Zod’s coup fails and he’s banished to the Phantom Zone – which ends when Krypton finally dies, taking everyone out with it.
Kal-El, meanwhile, grows up as an Earthling, raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). The renamed Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) struggles with his different biology, unable to accept or understand what is happening to him and incapable of not using his growing abilities to help others. So he wanders the world, taking on odd jobs and helping where and how he can and looking to stay as anonymous as he can. In his travels, he encounters Lois Lane (Amy Adams) as she researches into a found alien ship. This action will put Lane on the path of uncovering him while also bringing him to the attention of Zod, who’s still hunting for him and the Codex. Kal-El will be forced to reveal himself to a world held hostage by Zod while he’s still unsure of his place on Earth and what he is meant to be.
The biggest thing to keep in mind while assessing this movie is to remember that they have gone back to square one and tried to determine just who Kal-El/Clark Kent is. This isn’t a Superman story, per se. In fact, the name “Superman” is only uttered once – and he’s not even in the room when it’s said. This is an origin story through and through and that starts with Krypton. I don’t think Krypton has ever been shown as weird and as alien as it is here. Even the Donner version of an ice world had a certain element of humanity to it. This Krypton is lush and colorful, but clearly not like Earth. There are odd creatures. There is unique science. Most of all, the Kryptonians are a people very different from humans. Their race has evolved, reached for the stars, failed and is slowly dying.
It is this dichotomy within Kal-El – a son of Krypton who is not raised in Krypton – that is at the heart of the movie. Unlike other versions, where the clear path from Krypton to Smallville to Superman is quickly breezed through to get us to big blue Boy Scout, this movie focuses on the choices Kal-El must make. There is no clear path for him to follow. He’s unsure of his powers. He doesn’t know what his purpose is. He knows he’s not of Earth and that he can do great things, but whether he should do them is another matter altogether. And even if he should, there’s the question of how he can without sacrificing the Clark Kent side of him. To reveal himself to the world is to draw a line of demarcation between the humanity he grew up around and his Kryptonian self. No Superman movie has made so great a point to emphasize that Superman is not a human being. As I said the movie never says “Superman” but once, with most characters referring to him as “the alien.”
The good news there is that Henry Cavill rises up to the challenge of being Superman while portraying the struggle within him. He manages to present Clark Kent, the human unsure of himself, just as well as he does Kal-El, the Kryptonian who uncovers his past and his power. And he does it without ever calling back to any of the previous versions of the character. I can’t think of another instance where Superman was ever imposing, even out of the blue suit, but Cavill’s Clark is. Dude is a physical specimen. He’s also a likeable character and, while the movie does not give him much in the way of humor, you can tell he can comfortably slip in a joke or two if required. Also, a quick shout out to Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry, who each portray Clark at 9 and 13 respectively and manage to make the young alien’s struggles to understand himself real.
However, the standout performances occur around Cavill. Russell Crowe has been compared for years to Marlon Brando and it’s interesting that he’s now playing a role that Brando also did. That said, his Jor-El is a far warmer character. He’s also more involved in both his son’s escape from Krypton – engaging in his own action sequence – and in coaching Kal-El during his own fight. Likewise, Kevin Costner steps up and brings a warm strength to Jonathan Kent, in a bigger performance than that of Glenn Ford. Jonathan Kent is, this time, a worried parent for the child he’s raised as his own. While he tries to instill in Clark the values of a good man, he also fears for this son who came from the stars. It is Costner who enunciates the dilemma at the heart of the movie: should Clark remain hidden and free or embrace the power he has and be exposed to the world?
At the same time, Michael Shannon gets to chew scenery and spit out threats as General Zod. His quest for the Codex and his reasons for wanting to bring back Krypton are tied into one of the story’s new twists. So I won’t go into too much detail in this part, but it’s not necessary to say it. He’s not as preening and cocky as Zod as Terrence Stamp was in his portrayal. He’s far more menacing however. Likewise, I have to highlight Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul, Zod’s lieutenant. She is equal to Zod in ferocity and snarls through the movie at anyone in her path. Her fight with Kal-El in Smallville is one of the film’s highlights.
That said, parts of the movie feel shoehorned in as placeholders for the natural sequels – none bigger than Metropolis and The Daily Planet. Sure, Lois Lane is an integral part of the story here. She searches for her mysterious savior until the path leads back to Smallville. She then becomes an ally to Clark before the military that seeks to hand him over to Zod and a part of the plan to defeat the Kryptonian villains. However, besides a few moments on screen, Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White and Rebecca Buller’s Jenny (Olsen) are not a part of this story. Obviously, they’ll each play a larger role in the upcoming movies, but don’t have much to do here besides run for their lives. Furthermore, Metropolis is the setting for the big climax but if you don’t get a title card with its name, it could have been any other large human city. This is by virtue of the movie’s story line keeping Clark Kent far away from Metropolis until the end, when the pieces fall into place and he is Superman as we know him.
Around Snyder, the crew delivers. The score by Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight, Crimson Tide) is his most inspired in a long time. It manages to strike the right balance between sadness, hope and action – without being a sledgehammer all the time. The cinematography by Amir Mokri (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Lord of War) manages to capture the stark beauty of the cold North just as well as it does the verdant greens of Kansas farm fields. The set decoration by Anne Kuljian (Minority Report) as well as the costume design by James Acheson (Spider-Man) and Michael Wilkinson (300) fill the various worlds the story takes place and manage to make each setting unique and different – most notably the other-worldly weirdness of Krypton.
But in terms of flaws, I will highlight three in this part of the review and leave any others for the spoilers-filled Part II. The first flaw is that, in seeking to create a more real-based Superman, they have also created a very uninspiring Superman. Now, I get that he’s not yet Superman; that this is the story of Kal-El accepting himself as an outsider to humanity. But if you’re going in this expecting the big blue boy scout, well, he’s not in this. Cavill’s Kal-El is full of doubt. He’s unsure of himself. Again, the story is at fault here: whereas Donner had his Superman spend twelve years in the Fortress of Solitude learning who he was and how to be, Snyder and Nolan barely give their Kal-El a week or so before he’s forced to confront Zod. This creates a situation where Kal-El is forced to rely far more on his human upbringing than before – and that upbringing, while good, never had the answers to his questions.
The second flaw is the one that everyone has been parroting over and over: there’s no humor in this. I find this charge ironic given that no one leveled it against Nolan’s Batman films. So why do I bring it up? Because but for a few chuckles here and there, this is true. And it highlights the greatest doubt I’ve had over Nolan’s involvement in Superman. Look, Nolan gets morally-conflicted, psychologically-scarred protagonists. It’s why his Batman was so great. But Superman isn’t that. A Batman story should be dark and tough. Superman’s story, on the other hand, cannot be brought down by shadows. That’s kind of the allegorical point of him: he has the ability to fly above the darkness and shine the light. So when everyone highlights the lack of humor, what they’re saying is: this is a really dark tale and that’s not what we’re used to with this character. And they’re not wrong to bring it up. That’s how you end up with Emo Superman!
Finally, while the special effects work by Weta is amazing to stare at, let’s just say that there were times when the shots were just too full of stuff. I saw this in a standard digital release. I cannot imagine how this would look on IMAX or IMAX 3D. And that’s something I can lay at the feet of Zack Snyder. He reins in his super slow-mo techniques – and he should be commended for it – but at times he can’t just have one thing happening – say Faora fighting Kal-El – he’s gotta have five things happening all at once – Faora fighting Kal-El, another Kryptonian in the background hurling a jet, two explosions happening and debris flying everywhere. That’s a lot for people to take in and I can imagine that people will come out exhausted from their viewings. I know I was.
Let me end this part of the review here. If you don’t want to be spoiled, let me say that it is a really good movie. I had a blast watching it and I cannot help but have the highest of hopes for what will come next. Man of Steel is a great reshuffling of the board that allows for a new take and new adaptations to be seen. It sheds the baggage of the past and allows for a fresh look at Superman and his world. Is it the best Superman movie ever? I don’t know yet. I don’t think it supplants Superman: The Movie, but then again, I don’t think Superman: The Movie is a better film than Man of Steel. Each one got what they were going for right, but they obviously have flaws and elements missing. That series got it right with Superman II. Will this one? I sure hope so.
It was fun watching the blue boy scout soar once more. It was even better to see all those comic book fights brought to life like never before. For all its flaws, I can’t wait to see it again.