The superhero movie as we know it was born in 1978 with Superman, starring Christopher Reeve. The posters claimed “You’ll believe a man can fly” and we were given a movie that seems very dated by today’s standards. Reeve, clad in spandex, soared on wires in front of a blue screen in many ways seems silly to modern audiences. Clark Kent was the squeaky-clean all-American, still standing up for “truth, justice and the American way” 40 years after his introduction in the comics. It was undeniably goofy, but timeless in a way. It gave us a modern yet dated world, where reporters dressed like they were in the 1930s yet boarded helicopters from the roof of the Daily Planet.
Of course, superhero films have gone through many incarnations since then. Tim Burton gave us a Batman that was dark and gritty while still being colorful and interesting. X-Men and Spider-man updated things to a modern setting, with quicker and wittier dialogue and even a dash of social commentary. And then came the Batman Begins saga from Christopher Nolan, which gave us a hyper-realistic take on the superhero in a post 9/11 world, dealing with things like terrorism in a way that meshed with 21st century morality. The new Batman trilogy was defined by its dark aesthetic and worldview, and Man of Steel, also brought to us by Nolan, is an attempt to fit Superman into the Nolan style.
As such, this latest incarnation of Superman finds himself at the center of a science fiction story, about an alien being raised as human and learning to deal with his differences, all while struggling to have faith in humanity to support him should he reveal himself. All of which is fitting with the Superman origin story, but has never been explored in such a way. It’s an interesting direction to take things, and allows Nolan and director Zack Snyder to bring a fresh perspective to a well-known origin story. The planet Krypton is dying, a result of overuse of resources, and Jor-El and his wife decide to send their son, Kal-El, to Earth, along with a codex containing the hope of Krypton. Kal-El is found and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who help the boy, renamed Clark, deal with his emerging powers. As his super hearing and x-ray vision develop, young Clark is overwhelmed, unable to shut off his abilities. And when his school bus crashes and he rescues his fellow students, his adoptive father admonishes him for the display of his powers, wishing Clark would hide who he is in order to protect himself from a world which would reject him.
So Clark grows up afraid of his powers, staying off the grid yet unable to restrain himself from intervening to save people when the opportunity presents itself. This is the part of Man of Steel that works the best. The film is filled with flashbacks, and the nonlinear storytelling method helps keep the lessons from Clark’s youth applicable to the situations he faces as an adult. Henry Cavill gives a solid performance through the first half of the movie, balancing the heroic with a sense of fear and shame.
It’s the 2nd half of the film where things unfortunately start to fall apart. General Zod, the military leader of Krypton who was exiled with his followers after a failed coup, finds his way to Earth. He’s been searching for Kal-El and the codex, hoping to rebuild Krypton on Earth at the cost of the complete destruction of the human race. He “outs” Clark to humanity, demanding that he surrender in order to save Earth. We’re then treated to seemingly endless sequences of invulnerable Superman fighting invulnerable Zod and his minions.
Superman, to me, was not a fighter so much as a rescuer. That cliche moment of him rescuing a kitten from a tree from the 1978 film always seemed very representative of the character to me. Watching an hour of punching explosions could not be less interesting to me. It’s a shame that the film gets moderately stupid in the 2nd half. The cast of the Man of Steel is uniformly good. Cavill makes a convincing Superman, and he certainly has the chiseled body of a god. He doesn’t have Reeve’s charm or comedic timing, but this moody film doesn’t exactly call for it either. Russell Crowe makes a solid Jor-El, while Kevin Costner and Diane Lane shine as the Kents. The opposite points of view of Clark’s fathers provide the emotional crux of the story, where Jor-El hopes Kal-El will shine as a beacon of hope for humanity, Jonathan wants Clark to keep his secret, even going so far as to sacrifice himself in order for Clark to have a chance at normalcy. Amy Adams is enjoyable as Lois Lane, the reporter who unearths Clark’s secret and as a result gets drawn into a world bigger than she had imagined.
But I just can’t get past the mindless CG explosion-o-rama that fills the final third of the film. I imagine it was trying to take a page from The Avengers, which also featured a effects driven, city based disaster of combat. But where Joss Whedon handled the action with a light touch, using it to enhance the characters, Snyder instead merely dazzles the eyes without giving the clash of the titans any substance. It feels a lot like the finale of Star Trek Into Darkness, all mindless and mindless destruction. (It doesn’t help that some of the effects look no better than those of the sequels to The Matrix from almost a decade ago.)
In the end, I enjoyed half of Man of Steel, especially considering how much of the classic Superman tropes were missing. Clark’s job at the Daily Planet plays no part in the story and Lex Luthor is nowhere to be seen. As an origin story, Man of Steel works very well, giving us something that feels new and realistic without completely sacrificing what we love about Superman. But Man of Steel fails as an action film, full of plot holes, mindless effects and some completely out of character moments. I imagine the filmmakers thought the ending would be tragic and character building, but instead it just felt hollow. I see definite room for improvement with sequels, but I hope the writing takes a leap (the size of a tall building) before we get there.