This will be my first-ever film review, and it’s going to be a doozy. And just so you know, this review discusses every big spoiler in the film, so if you haven’t seen it yet and prefer to be left in the dark, click away from this review right now (or save it to Instapaper, etc) and come back when you’re ready. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Still here? Great. From this point on, I’m assuming you’ve either seen the film or don’t care about spoilers. Either way, let’s get started!
Before I talk about the film, I have a confession to make: ever since I was a little kid, Superman has been one of my least favorite comic book characters. There, I said it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely wished for his powers many times in my life (especially flight, oh my), but it’s honestly a little hard to feel very concerned about an omnipotent alien god who is nigh-indestructible. In fact, it gets boring rather quickly, which is why the best Superman tales tend to be the ones that focus on his inner demons rather than physical foes.
Man of Steel tries to go that route, but fails to fully deliver on the premise. More on that later.
It’s Lonely at the Top
While this film certainly doesn’t skimp on flashy action sequences, it spends the majority of its time reinforcing the fact that Clark Kent is an exceptional being, destined for something far greater than us normal humans. This is especially stressed during the flashback scenes with Pa Kent — actually, it’s the only thing he ever seems to talk about.
Rather than really instilling any sense of heroism in the young man, Pa advises him to stay incognito for as long as possible, even if it means allowing people to get hurt. This is one of many departures from typical Superman canon, where Pa Kent is typically shown to be Clark’s moral compass. It’s certainly one of the more interesting portrayals I’ve seen.
By the time we first meet up with Clark Kent as an adult (age 33), he’s been traveling around the world for years, quietly taking up odd jobs in remote locations under forged identities. Unfortunately for him, he seems unable to avoid his calling, somehow always ending up in situations that force him to reveal his abilities, which in turn forces him to disappear again before anyone can ask questions.
We learn fairly quickly that this isn’t the purely wholesome Superman we’re used to seeing in other iterations he starts out as more of a scruffy wanderer who isn’t above stealing clothes from the back of someone’s car after his are burned off during an oil rig incident. Die-hard fans might question this portrayal, but I thought it gave more depth to the character and pulled me further into the story.
Every step of the way, Man of Steel tries to differentiate itself from most other tellings of Superman’s story. The darkness and grittiness of this film stand in stark contrast to the comparative campiness of Bryan Singer’s 2006 film, Superman Returns. While the latter movie clearly wanted to honor the spirit of the old Christopher Reeve films, Man of Steel aims for something else, something more intense and cerebral. I mostly love it for that, but there are still problems here and there.
For example, one of the biggest sticking points for me was how forced the dialogue felt at times, such as Lois Lane’s “Now if we’re done measuring dicks…” introduction. To the cast’s credit though, they were often able to deliver even the worst lines in a convincing way (except “It’s coming in over the RSS feeds!”, that one is just…blech). It’s a shame that such an amazing group of actors was given such a shoddy script to work with.
With Great Power…
The scene where Pa Kent dies (well, where Clark allows Pa to die) also seemed contrived. The tornado comes out of nowhere and with absolutely no warning, which might not seem weird to anyone except people like me who live in the middle of Tornado Alley and deal with these sorts of things all the time. Even putting that aside though, why was it necessary for Pa to go back for the dog anyway? Oh, just so the writers can kill him off for the sake of The Big Lesson, la Spider-Man and Uncle Ben? And you’re telling me Clark would allow this horrible thing to happen just to keep his powers secret a bit longer? They didn’t sell me very well on that one.
Speaking of parents, one thing I didn’t expect was how much I would be affected by the Krypton sequence at the beginning. I’ve seen Superman’s origin story portrayed a hundred different ways, but this time it hit closer to home now that I’ve got a baby boy of my own. The film spent a surprisingly long amount of time on Krypton (not necessarily a bad thing), and you got a real sense of the politics and interpersonal relationships going on there.
By the time Jor-El and Lara are forced to say goodbye to Clark forever, I had formed a connection with these characters and felt their loss more greatly because of it. I almost wish the Krypton scenes would have been extended into a full-length movie.
Man of Controversy
One of the single largest criticisms I’ve seen made against Man of Steel has been Clark’s seemingly nonchalant attitude about an entire city being leveled around him. Mark Waid, whose review I linked to the other day, had this to say on the matter:
Superman showed not the slightest split-second of concern for the people around them. Particularly in this last sequence, his utter disregard for the collateral damage was just jaw-dropping as they just kept crashing through buildings full of survivors. Im not suggesting he stop in the middle of a super-powered brawl to save a kitten from a tree, but even Brandon Routh thought to use his heat vision on the fly to disintegrate deadly falling debris after a sonic boom.
I get where Mark is coming from, but that last sentence is kind of an unfair comparison to make. Brandon Routh’s character wasn’t having to fend off multiple beings who were not only as powerful as he, but had been genetically engineered for warfare.
I also didn’t get the sense that Superman wouldn’t have moved the fight to the nearby field if he could. They showed that he was essentially powerless to escape the Kryptonian solders or divert them anywhere else. It didn’t matter whether he tried to fly away or fight them head-on they always pulled him right back down or tossed him around like a ragdoll.
That being said, I agree how odd it is that Superman seemed not to care in the slightest, or show any remorse, that his fist-fight with Zod had essentially nuked a portion of Metropolis out of existence. Maybe there was no time to be concerned while he was being pummeled by another super-being, but he could have at least acknowledged that he had a hand in the destruction of nearly an entire city. Unfortunately, the filmmakers just sweep that little fact under the rug and never mention it.
What’s more, this horribly destructive brawl didn’t even really seem to have a point for Superman and Zod. Despite all the punches being thrown, neither of the characters gained so much as a bruise or scratch; meanwhile, as the characters fail to harm one another in any way, the city just keeps toppling to the ground around them, apparently beneath their notice.
Unlike others, I’m not going to complain that it resembled 9/11 or whatever, but…I dunno, can’t Superman at least feel sorry for all that destruction? Or apologize? Or do something, anything, to help repair the damage? The way this scene ended was unsatisfying.
This leads us to the other event that has touched a nerve with Superman fans everywhere: the ending of the final climactic battle where Superman breaks Zod’s neck and kills him.
Here’s Mark Waid again:
I realized that it wasnt so much my uncompromising vision of Superman that made this a total-fail moment for me; it was the failed lead-up TO the moment. As Supermans having his final one-on-one battle with Zod, show me that hes going out of his way to save people from getting caught in the middle. SHOW ME that trying to simultaneously protect humans and beat Zod is achingly, achingly costing Superman the fight. Build to that moment of the hard choiceshow me, without doubt, that Superman has no other out and do a better job of convincing me that its a hard decision to make, and maybe Ill give it to you.
I’ll grant that the lead-up wasn’t quite as dramatic as it probably should have been, but I think it was made clear that Zod had completely snapped at this point, and he even explicitly said that he would never end his campaign against humanity until either he or Superman were dead. What else was Superman supposed to do in that situation? He can’t really just lock the guy up in an asylum somewhere look how far that’s ever gotten Batman.
Also, don’t forget that this isn’t the wizened, perfectly virtuous Superman we’re used to seeing in the comics, but a young man still struggling to come to terms with his gifts and the burden that accompanies them. They showed us the multiple run-ins he’s had with bullies throughout his life, but his ethics had never been tested this hard. He clearly didn’t want to end Zod’s life but the decision was forced upon him.
This is where somebody might jump in and declare that it doesn’t matter, Superman would never kill, no matter what. And that’s exactly what naysayers have been doing all over the internet since the film’s release.
Let’s set the record straight: the character of Superman has been around for 75 years now, and he’s been portrayed in just about every way imaginable, including a killer (albeit rarely). There is no singular vision for how he should act across all media and literature, nor should there be. Why would anyone want the character to be portrayed exactly the same way until the end of time, with no revisions ever? What’s the point of that?
The problem here isn’t that they’ve tried something new, it’s that they just didn’t do the best job of it.
For someone to say that the film isn’t “being true” to the character is just choosing their favorite parts of the canon and discarding the rest. Besides, it’s not like Zod’s death was taken lightly in the film. The way Superman bellows in anguish about what he had just done before clinging to Lois for emotional support…now that felt very true to the character for me.
It’s just a shame that he didn’t feel the same anguish about obliterating a million innocent bystanders only moments earlier.
On the subject of powers, it’s nice that there were apparent limits to Superman’s abilities in this film. Unlike in the comics, he can’t travel across interstellar distances at the speed of light, nor does he appear to be strong enough to push the Moon out of its orbit. In fact, at one point he actually passes out from the strain of holding up a collapsing structure that his comic book counterpart would have had no trouble with. He’s still far stronger than any normal person of course, but not to the point of extreme ridiculousness.
Interestingly, he also has to deal with a number of strange side effects due to his other powers. He can easily become overloaded by environmental stimuli unless he focuses his supersenses, which leads to one of the best childhood flashback scenes in the film. He also seems to experience a mild disorientation after using his heat vision, the strain of which shows veins forming around his eyes.
Clearly, his powers aren’t completely effortless to use, and at times they seem more burden than gift. Combined, these facts served to ground Superman a little bit more more in reality, at least to the extent possible for such a character. I liked that the villains were also susceptible to these side effects, although the main antagonist, General Zod, was able to overcome them in an extremely short amount of time compared to Clark’s entire lifetime of sense-training.
I found this Zod to be…not quite a sympathetic character, but at least an understandable one. His actions are undoubtedly brutal and terrible, but his motivations for doing these things rang true within the confines of the story. He’s not necessarily evil per se, more like misguided by circumstances and events outside of his control.
It’s only near the end of the film that Clark Kent finally decides to assume his canonical secret identity as a meek reporter for the Daily Planet. Thankfully, they didn’t make Lois out to be some kind of moron who can’t tell who Clark is behind the glasses, but this only makes me wonder if the rest of the Daily Planet staff will follow suit. Surely they can’t all be suffering from prosopagnosia, right?
From a technical standpoint, the entire production crew deserves a whole lot of kudos, especially for managing to capture the high-speed fight sequences so perfectly. Although the camera was frequently very shaky (a pet peeve of mine) and the super-powered characters often moved around the screen almost as if by teleportation, I never felt like I couldn’t tell what was happening. The cinematography and fight choreography are both top-notch, far surpassing Superman Returns in every way.
I think the new Superman costume is fantastic. It felt suitably (heh) alien but never awkward, and Cavill managed not to look like a weirdo in it. I also loved that it was shown to be a revision of the jumpsuits worn by other Kryptonians, rather than the usual story of Ma Kent fashioning a costume out of Krytptonian swaddling blankets found in Clark’s spaceship.
Despite a handful of faults, I really enjoyed this movie and it’s easily one of my favorite portrayals of the Superman story. I’m anxious to see what the next film in the (presumed) series holds in store.
If you also enjoyed this film, you’ll probaby enjoy reading the Superman: Secret Identity graphic novel. It also deviates from typical canon, but in a very different way.
Superman has only three physical vulnerabilities: red sun radiation, magic, and the old trope of Kryptonite, none of which are explored in Man of Steel. There are a couple scenes where Superman becomes weakened in a similar manner, but they’re handled pretty well. ↩
Seriously, I wish he would’ve changed the subject once in a while. Clark’s childhood must’ve been such a drag with this guy around. ↩
It reminded me a lot of the first half of Batman Begins, where Bruce Wayne was shown stealing food in order to survive. Not surprising, given Christopher Nolan’s involvement in both films. ↩
I’m not saying this was the best way for the filmmakers to construct the battle, but at least it’s explainable. ↩
Actually, given all the Biblical imagery in the film, I suppose this really might be the most fitting thing to do. Heeey, I’m only kidding. Mostly. ↩