I love Superman. I have all the Fleischer/Famous cartoon serials from 1941-1943. I collected countless issues of the Death and Return saga of 1992-1993, all twelve issues of the 2003-04 Birthright miniseries, and the first prints of 2011’s Action Comics #1 and Superman #1, to name just a few. I also have all three seasons of Superman: TAS, all four seasons of Lois & Clark, and all ten seasons of Smallville on DVD, as well as every version of Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh’s Superman movies on Blu-Ray. All that to say, I’m a fairly big Superman fan, so that’s the perspective this review is coming from. YMMV.
Also, there are spoilers ahead.
I had to watch Man of Steel twice. Not because I loved it, but because I didn’t really know what to make of it. I walked out the first time feeling like I’d been hit by a locomotive (and no matter how many times I wore that red cape as a kid, I was not more powerful than a locomotive).
I’m not sure if I liked it after that first viewing. I certainly didn’t love it. Don’t get me wrong, it was quite the ride, and there were a ton of elements that I loved, but as a whole the movie left me feeling a bit empty.
After my second viewing, I think I enjoyed it more, but that could be simply because I was prepared for the ordeal that this movie is.
Man of Steel is a 2.5-hour spectacle. It starts as a massive explosion and doesn’t stop exploding until the very last minute. It’s exhausting. But before I dive into what I didn’t like, let me list what I did enjoy.
Superman is back. The mere fact that he’s on the big screen again is enough to thrill me. From the moment I saw the new look for Krypton (which was admittedly a bit too reminiscent of Avatar for my tastes, but no big gripes there) to the excitement I felt as Kal El discovers his ability to fly, I couldn’t help but be overjoyed that the Last Son of Krypton was once again making his way into pop culture.
The cinematography is breathtaking. Each frame is painstakingly built as a set piece designed to showcase the majesty of the source material. It was almost like seeing one of Alex Ross’ paintings come to life. Each individual scene more than did Superman justice.
There’s a really good story in there too. Despite the weak and painfully transparent dialogue, the narrative was strong. Conceptually, it really works. We’re given an answer to the question that has, at one time or another, burned on every Superman fan’s mind: how would the world react to the discovery of an alien with immense power living among us?
Man of Steel is less a comic-book film and more an epic science-fiction opus magnum, and I really think that works incredibly well. The majesty of Superman really shines through in this film. I loved how the sci-fi elements were played up. The paranoia surrounding Zod’s appearance in our solar system, his insanely creepy message to Earth, and the descent of his ship upon the city of Metropolis—all of these elements work in tandem to create one hell of a sci-fi adventure.
The film is well cast as well. Russell Crowe surprisingly delivers an outstanding performance as Jor El and is easily one of the more compelling characters of the movie. Michael Shannon’s Zod is far and away the most confounding and intriguing characters, and Shannon does an incredible job of selling him to the audience.
At first I was a little confused by the character. Gone was the purely evil Zod that Terence Stamp made popular (so popular that his use of the word “kneel” became an established part of Superman culture). Even the vengeful Zod from the Smallville television series (played by Callum Blue) was not to be found. Rather, this incarnation of Zod was driven by a desire to protect Krypton and its people. It’s hard to disagree with the character, and while I don’t think the audience can sympathize with him, he’s actually somewhat relatable.
While I don’t find Amy Adams to be totally convincing as Lois Lane, I appreciate her take on the character, and I love the fact that she doesn’t fall for Clark’s “disguise”—which he doesn’t come up with until after Lois discovers that he’s an alien. This Lois actually lives up to her status as a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter. Adams plays Lois as an intelligent, “no-nonsense” reporter, and I enjoyed that. If she had infused a bit of spunk and charm, her rendition would have been spot-on.
Henry Cavill really sells his part. It’s unfortunate that he isn’t given a whole lot of opportunity to shine as the titular character, but he has moments of profound connection as Kal El. Sadly, that’s not enough to make him completely relatable. He’s worth cheering for, and for any other superhero that might be enough, but this is Superman we’re talking about.
He looks the part. More so than any other version of Superman before him. There were flashes of some of my favorite renditions of the character that surfaced throughout his performance. He was commanding like Christopher Reeve and gives off the same gravitas that Reeve did in some of the more serious moments in Superman II (which were admittedly few). His smile (though terribly rare in this movie) was reminiscent of Tom Welling who is the embodiment of Superman for pretty much everyone in the generation immediately following my own.
Now on to the stuff I didn’t like.
It’s dark. I know, that’s what they were going for, and at some level I like that Man of Steel takes itself much more seriously than any other cinematic interpretation of Superman. But it’s too dark. It’s too somber. Rarely does Clark crack a smile. He finds very little joy in rescuing people, as if it’s simply his duty and nothing more. Some of my favorite moments in Superman film history are those when he’s just having fun doing the kinds of good deeds that humans are completely incapable of doing. I’m not saying that Cavill’s Superman needs to rescue cats out of trees like Christopher Reeve did, but would it have killed Goyer and Nolan to write a scene or two where Superman rescues a plane or stops a mugging? I mean, even Brandon Routh’s Superman foils a bank robbery!
While Batman Begins really works by going heavily dark, Man of Steel doesn’t. The Batman universe is inherently dark and can only benefit from exploring that darkness. The world of Superman isn’t, and by not allowing the lightheartedness to shine through, Snyder lost the humanity that makes Superman, well, super.
This next one is probably everyone’s complaint, but I’ll voice it anyway. The film is overbearing. Just a few minutes into the film we’re thrust into a massive civil war with explosions, ships, and lots of action filling the screen. Shortly after that we witness an oil rig burn up. And then a school bus drives off a bridge into a river. And then Smallville is leveled. And then a near-F5 tornado rips a highway apart. And then Metropolis is all but destroyed. And then more of Metropolis is destroyed.The film goes overboard withshowcasing disaster. Even Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, the kings of over-the-top disaster scenes, know to avoid that many crumbling skyscrapers. It was just too much.
By the time we get to the final battle (which was an epic clash between two super-powered beings), I’m exhausted and more than ready for the denouement. Instead, I have to watch another 20 minutes of Superman and Zod destroying more buildings by throwing each other into them.
One skyscraper after another falls apart as Superman does battle with Zod and his Kryptonian insurgents. Millions upon millions of people died, and not once did Superman pause to rescue anyone in Metropolis or prevent the deaths of the thousands of people working or living in the buildings that were crashing down around him. It seemed he couldn’t even be bothered to take the battle outside the city either. Instead, he just kept leveling Metropolis.
When the massive terraforming ship is destroyed, and nearly all of Metropolis is in ruins, a survivor says, “He saved us.” Really? Maybe he saved Earth from being turned into a blank-slate planet incapable of sustaining human life, but “us”? Who’s “us”? The citizens of Metropolis? Half the city is in ruins, and you have to wonder how millions of people aren’t dead after all this.
Those battles were just too much.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the action sequences in Man of Steel. After Superman Returns turned out to be little more than a brooding drama about unrequited love, it was incredibly fulfilling to see Superman delivering a good, old-
fashioned beatdown. If you have the desire, go watch Superman Returns and count out how many punches he throws throughout the movie. It’s unacceptable.
But again, the battles in Man of Steel were just too much.
Now, the final battle wouldn’t have been so terrible to watch had there been some level of escalation throughout the movie. I should have anticipated this battle. I should have been dying to see this clash. I should have cheered when Zod met Kal El in that crater. Instead, I was so tired from having witnessed one epic battle after another that my senses couldn’t take anymore.
Then there was that final moment when an out-of-control Zod is puts innocent human lives in danger. For the first time since the burning oil rig at the beginning of the movie, Superman cares about the earthlings. But how does he stop Zod? He kills him. What bothers me isn’t that Superman kills when he shouldn’t. After all, he screams out afterwards, clearly showing remorse over having to take a life. What bothers me is that I’m not really convinced he would have killed Zod. Superman showed no desire to go out of his way to save human lives (with the exception of that oil rig) throughout the movie. Sure, he grabs a guy out ofmidair here, prevents a villain from killing someone there, but at the end of the day, he doesn’t show any willingness to really protect people. So in that moment where he’s forced to kill Zod, I never felt like he truly cared about those people, making his murder of Zod that much less plausible.
I really wanted to love this movie. It’s a marvelous, spectacular film that does justice to the majesty of the Superman universe. But it lacks the humanity that makes the character so poignant. The film lacks joy. The tagline for 1978’s Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly,” and that film succeeded in making its audience believe. If Man of Steel had a tagline, it’d be “You’ll believe flying is no fun at all,” and I can’t truly believe in a Superman who finds little or no joy in what he does.
One of my favorite interpretations of Superman is a short film made several months ago called “One on One: a Superman Story.” In it, Clark exhibits his unique ability to listen, empathize, and care for people. (You can watch it below.)
Ultimately, I believe that is what makes him a super man. Flight, strength, speed, x-ray vision, heat vision, freezing breath, invulnerability—these make him powerful. It’s his humanity that makes him super.
That’s what’s lost in Man of Steel. Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Superman is a jaw-dropping marvel, but it’s far from a good time. Did I like the movie? Yeah, I liked it a lot. But I most certainly didn’t love it. And the more I think about it, the more disappointed I feel.