Let’s face it, the Superman reboot was bound to happen sooner rather than later. After the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as well as last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Superman seemed like the natural path to go in as far as DC Comic superhero adaptations. DC Comic adaptations are traditionally much more serious-minded than their Marvel counterparts, treating their superheroes as flawed men just trying to do their best to do good. That’s what Nolan did with his vision of Batman, presenting his caped crusader as a man haunted by his dark past. Then again, Batman never had superpowers, so it made sense to tell a more human story. With Man of Steel, it’s clear that director Zack Snyder worked with Nolan, who served as a producer on the film. The film is deeply rooted in drama from start to finish, treating almost everything with such deliberate seriousness that you almost forget that this is about an alien who was shipped to Earth and subsequently flies around in a cape and fitted suit. This isn’t to say that the film’s style and substance are incongruous, but it’s interesting to see after films like Iron Man 3 and The Avengers, which could almost pass as action-comedies in comparison.
The film begins on Krypton, the alien planet on which our hero is born. It’s fitting that he is born among ruin, as chaos rains down around him due to the planet’s unstable core. Krypton seems more technologically advanced than Earth, but the planet used so many natural resources that it begins to implode. I was impressed by the visuals on Krypton, which were advanced enough to be drastically different from our own but not too out there, as they often are in many sci-fi/fantasy films. Born to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer), the boy we come to know as Superman is shipped off to Earth, implanted with a Kryptonic codex to help preserve their species. After a straightforward battle sequence on Krypton, I assumed the film would be presenting itself in a similarly straightforward manner, free from post-modern editing style or unneeded tangents. When we next see our hero, he is fully grown, working with fishermen in the middle of nowhere. It is our first introduction to Henry Cavill, the film’s leading man with rugged good looks and commanding strength. We grow with Cavill as Clark Kent, so named by his adoptive parents Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). Flashing back between different points in his life, we follow Clark through his awkward childhood stages, when he first discovers that he’s different from everyone else. Over time, he cannot help but instinctively save people, whether it be his classmates on the bus or a waitress from an aggressive customer. It’s good that we have these moments, since it allows the audience to grow with Clark and love him before he becomes Superman. It’s easy to be cynical about superheroes in goofy costumes but there’s an earnest quality to the way Man of Steel presents him as a guy trying to find his place in the world first and foremost. You can’t help but love his fish-out-of-water story.
If Man of Steel presented itself as purely about Superman discovering and honing his powers, I think this could have been a masterful film. However, this is a big-budget studio production that requires epic fight scenes and a densely-packed plot, so the film unfortunately becomes bloated. I would have been okay with reporter Lois Lane showing up at the end or in bits and pieces throughout the film, but she ends up having an unfortunate amount of screentime. I think Amy Adams is a wonderful actress, who definitely deserved her four Oscar nominations over the past decade, but she is woefully miscast here. She has virtually no chemistry with Cavill and does very little to prove that she’s Lois Lane instead of just Amy Adams as Amy Adams. Lois stumbles upon Clark Kent in a discovered Krypton spaceship and gradually falls in love with him for reasons the film doesn’t earn. She eventually goes to her editor at the Daily Planet, played by Laurence Fishburne for some reason, who tells her that no one would take her seriously if she reported on a “superhuman.” Lois becomes intricately involved in Clark’s plot, which takes away from his journey, in my opinion. General Zod (Michael Shannon), a rebel leader who we are first introduced to on Krypton, comes to Earth on the hunt for Clark’s codex. Somehow, Shannon seems to have more chemistry with Cavill than Adams and their scenes together, though few and far between, are evenly matched. Most importantly, I understood General Zod’s motivations as a man just trying to preserve his species and why he would be so furious with Clark for preventing that. It is unfortunate that their conflict soon becomes weighed down with one incoherent action sequence after another until the film reaches its dramatic conclusion.
At 143 minutes, Man of Steel fills the standard requirement of feeling “epic”, as superhero films are meant to feel. However, the film excels when it strips away the conventions of the standard Hollywood blockbuster and simply tells the story of a man who’s different from everyone else and how the world responds to him. Clark’s relationship with his adoptive parents is organic and their scenes on the farm feel refreshingly natural. Cavill brings reverence to the role without losing the soul of Superman. He is the reluctant hero, and though he becomes what the world needs, he has to earn that role. The military is not presented as EVIL KILLING MACHINES as they so often are; instead, they contemplate whether or not they can use Superman or if he’s a threat to the world. When the film addresses these concepts it is one of the best superhero movies in years, but its faults prevent it from being a classic. It gets bogged down by relentlessly tossing in action sequences with predictably pulse-pounding music and forgets the human moments that led up to it. The ending of the film, which provides a shockingly out-of-character moment for Superman, feels so far removed from the two hours that came before that it almost worries me for the series going forward. I felt similarly about the Star Trek reboot in 2009 and its sequel earlier this year, which took a fascinatingly human fantasy epic and turned it into soulless action noise. I worry that the planned sequel will take the Superman we grew to love and turn him into every other stoic action star. Having said that, Man of Steel is a more entertaining origin story than most superhero films out there, despite its flaws.
MVP: Henry Cavill
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictres