Once upon a time there was an actor named Christopher Reeve, an actress named Margot Kidder and two directors, Richard Donner and Richard Lester. Together and apart, over the course of nearly three years, they filmed and released two super Superman films, starting with Superman in 1978 and ending with Superman II in 1980. Lightening had struck not once, but twice. Since then, for whatever reason or reasons, be it storytelling challenges, budget concerns or a lack of an understanding of the character and his place in the DC comics universe, no one has been able to recapture such magic in any subsequent Superman film.
Man of Steel’s premise is as follows. After his ship crash lands on Earth at a Smallville, Kansas farm, hastily launched from a destructing Krypton by his father, Jor-El(Russel Crowe) and mother, Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), baby Kal-El, having been injected with a Kryptonian race genetic codex by Jor-El moments before he, Jor-El, was killed by the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), is then taken in by Earthlings Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) as their son. He is renamed Clark Kent. As the Last Son of Krypton grows older he gradually discovers the superpowers he possesses but Jonathan strongly discourages exposing such abilities to the world, fearing the consequences. In his later years, after leaving Smallville, an older Clark (Henry Cavill) becomes a transient. During this time, he learns of a Kryptonian ship discovered in the Arctic under investigation by the U.S. military and it is there he meets assertive journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), writer for the Daily Planet, who is covering the story. But, soon General Zod, who was exiled to the Phantom Zone following his killing of Jor-El, but was freed quickly after by Krypton’s destruction, discovers Kal-El’s location is on Earth. Believing Kal-El possesses the codex, accompanied by his crew, General Zod arrives on the planet to demand that Superman surrender himself or he will use his “world engine” to obliterate Earth.
Let us begin with the acting, one of Man of Steel's two dominant strengths. They include but are not necessarily limited to Henry Cavill as Clark Kent a.k.a. Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, the Editor in Chief of the Daily Planet. Cavill certainly looks the part, acts the part, and dons the cape with effortlessness. He’s extremely well built, appears intimidating and yet, at times he conveys a sense of modesty and sincere warmth. He’s by far the most engaging Superman since Christopher Reeve, as far as performance is concerned. Adams as Lois is arguably, the best part about Man of Steel. Her approach to the character is original. Lois is educated, successful, aggressive, ballsy, but still a little wimpy at times with just enough stupidity to leave room for Superman to save her. Fishburne, as White, despite having only a handful of scenes, is quite good and his nicely authoritative handling of the part gives his interpretation distinction.
Hans Zimmer’s score is Man of Steel’s other strongpoint. It’s lush in parts, booming in others, gentle on occasion and downright gorgeous in other spots. It gives the film a degree of profundity and emotion that the screenplay by David S. Goyer is never able to. It’s another one of those scores that deserves a better film.
Now comes the bulk of the bad, which begins with the beginning. Much to our delight we’re given the umpteenth cinematic superhero origin story of the twenty-first century, consisting of material already covered in the original 1978 film. Of course, the filmmakers’ intentions are to set this apart from the Reeve films. They’ve said so publicly and the film does its damnedest to make that point clear. That doesn’t make the origin tale any more necessary. When is Hollywood going to get it? Origin stories are hardly ever interesting and by hardly ever, I mean usually never. After the barrage of comic books films we’ve had in the past fifteen years, they likely won’t be again. It would one thing if Snyder and company took the time to pump some creativity into the opening scene involving the destruction of Krypton. But, nope, we get virtually the same exact story from Donner’s first Superman film albeit with stronger, more expensive effects and Russell Crowe in Spandex. It would be understandable if this film were about a hero audiences knew little about. Iron Man was just that and it required an origin story to give us meaning to Tony Stark’s goals. Superman, perhaps one of the most popular comic book superheroes in the world, did not need another backstory. As far as major, well-known characters go for this century, Batman Begins and 2002’s Spider-Man are the only other movies to tell their backstories efficiently, practically and with depth.
Jonathan Kent’s death scene is another hot problem. Oh boy, is this scene ridiculous. A young Clark Kent sits in the car as his earth father, Jonathan Kent drives along a road in Smallville, with Martha Kent and their dog in the backseat. Suddenly, a tornado comes out of nowhere and proceeds to destroy. Upon seeing the tornado, the Kents flee from the vehicle and head to an overpass close by for shelter. Clark and Martha get their quickly, but Jonathan decides to go back to save the family’s dog. Jonathan reaches the dog in time for it to get to safety and in the process, gets his own foot caught. He breaks free quickly but is injured and after leaping from the car, Clark realizes his father is unable to get to shelter before the tornado reaches him. Clark attempts to take action to save him, but Jonathan signals him not to, for it will expose Clark’s superhuman abilities to the world which Jonathan has already insisted he is not ready to reveal. Some seconds later, the tornado kills Jonathan.
The moment feels like an excuse to kill off Jonathan in a dramatic way and elicit sympathy for a character undeserving of it. The film is attempting to convey Jonathan’s sincere love for Clark. But the setup of this death is terribly contrived to the point of being ludicrous and Jonathan standing in the middle of the road waiting for the tornado to take him looks silly, almost laughable. Heck, Jonathan Kent could have at least tried to limp to safety in the seconds it took for the tornado to reach him while he stood directly in its path. Zimmerman’s music is awfully pretty at this moment though, and it does help to offset the scene's goofiness a smidge.
Then there’s that polarizing grand finale, the one that many people have felt is far too destructive, has no regard for human life and bears a little resemblance to the September 11th terrorist attacks seemingly without realizing it, and points to how desensitized as an audience we’ve become to mass destruction on-screen. You’ll get no argument against that in this review. One scene in the last act involves Jenny, an employee of the Daily Planet, who may or may not be related or tied to Jimmy Olsen. She could also be the female version of the character. Throughout the majority of Man of Steel, Jenny gets about two minutes of screen time, if that. During Zod’s destruction of Metropolis, Jenny gets trapped under some rubble and Perry White is forced to save her. Then, when it looks as if Zod’s “world engine” is about to go for another round on the city, Perry must work quickly to get Jenny free. Suddenly, there are tears and faces of fear and we’re supposed to care for this character, someone we barely know, and really want her to live. Never mind the thousands of innocent people who must have perished in the buildings and streets that were just killed mere moments before.We’re supposed to fixate on one life and forget about everyone else. It is a puzzling and insensitive move.
By this point, this Superman himself doesn’t seem too interested in trying to save the majority of Metropolis’ population. Because, hey, what are a few thousand lives, in a world full of billions of people, right? Plus, you get to know how cool it is to see several buildings collapse, one after the other and Superman even gets to contribute to the devastation in his battle with General Zod. This is the sort of mentality Man of Steel is working from. This is the moment it shows its true colors. Certainly, you can chalk Superman’s inability to prevent such tragedy up to the fact that Clark Kent is still learning to become a true superhero. This being his origin film, he does not fully understand the scope of his powers or know how to harness them yet. Indeed, that argument might work. But, isn’t this also the same Clark Kent who, after talking to a projection of his deceased father, grabbed his new red and blue suit and cape and without hesitation, seemingly within just a few minutes, learns to fly sky high? So, it appears Man of Steel’s Superman can learn to soar across the earth in no time flat, but coming up with a stronger strategy to thwart Zod’s attacks on Metropolis was too time consuming for him.
Indeed this review is weeks late and Man of Steel has already made gobs of money both domestically and worldwide. Yet, when you look at ticket prices and the production budget it hasn’t made that much profit. It looks as if the film's studio is attempting to make Man of Steel appear more financially successful than it is. As of this writing, the movie has grossed almost $650 million dollars worldwide. Granted, those numbers surpass Superman Returns, which had a somewhat smaller price tag at of $204 million. That film was released in 2006 and made a little over $392 million worldwide. But, ticket prices were somewhat cheaper seven years ago and when you compare Man of Steel’s numbers to either of the most recent Batman films or even 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, it’s a little a frown-inducing. The last two Batman films have each grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. The last Spider-Man film has made over a hundred million dollars more than Man of Steel, as of this writing. The reality is: popularity for Superman, the comic book character in comic book form is alive and well, the mass popularity for big-budget movies about him, not so much. Man of Steel also makes the mistake of emphasizing Superman’s godliness and how he could steer our unstable world in the right direction. Effectively, rather than placing Superman in a position for the people, he is placed in a position above the people. The bottom line: the character isn’t nearly as relatable as Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Bruce Wayne are. He never will be. Those aforementioned characters can die, very easily in fact. This isn’t an attempt to bash the Superman character. Though there’s no denying the viewing public relates more to a fragile human than to a virtually indestructible force.
It should be made clear, the feelings expressed about Man of Steel have nothing to do with its actors. The core cast is remarkable. Only they’re confined to a film too obsessed with grey and black, clearly riding on the coattails of The Dark Knight trilogy’s massive success and the assumption that Christopher Nolan’s name in the credits will get the butts in the seats. These actors are in a film that tries desperately to be gritty and raw, instead of being inspiring, colorful and trimmed with passion. The Reeve movies worked hard to make Superman relatable or at least as human as possible. In more capable hands, Superman may someday have another glorious cinematic outing. Regrettably, Man of Steel is not it all. Even with all that cash at the filmmakers' disposal, a high quality product was not made.
Adjusted for inflation, over half a billion dollars has been poured into what now totals to six major theatrical films about the Last Son of Krypton, and yet Superman and Superman II remain unequaled in their confidence, charm and overall direct approach to the material. Despite some outdated effects, they’ve withstood the test of time considerably. Perhaps those are the only two great Superman studio productions we’ll ever get and that is something we should try to come to terms with. Maybe it is time to move on.
Despite the above ranting and raving, Man of Steel is by no means trash. While it can be said a first viewing of it is easier to get through than a first viewing of Superman Returns, it doesn’t make the film any less disappointing and it bears a script that is horribly uneven in quality. The finale, the last forty minutes of the show, are downright aggravating and borderline offensive. Man of Steel is not a total waste of time; it merely helps to pass it. But, a Superman film, a story about one of the most beloved superheroes in comic book history, priced at over a whopping $225 million, should be doing much more than that.