A new Superman inherits the cape in an epic, dark, angst-filled drama.
I struggled with the somber tone of “Man of Steel”, but have to concede that it’s a potent, action packed film.
On the dying planet of Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares an escape pod for his infant son. Prior to launching it, however, he witnesses a violent coup d’état perpetrated by military leader General Zod. In response, Jor-El infiltrates the planetary archives and takes the codex holding the genetic information of all yet-unborn Kryptonians, and places it aboard his son’s escape pod before launching it off to a far away planet. For his violent uprising, Zod is captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to suspended animation in a prison ship orbiting the doomed planet, but his conviction only serves to get him off-world when the planet explodes.
Young Kal-El (Henry Cavill), meanwhile, lands on Earth and is adopted and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) as their own. The differences between the suns of Earth and Krypton empower the (now renamed) young Clark with numerous special abilities that he struggles to keep secret, in part because his father insists that revealing his abilities to the world too soon would have disastrous consequences. As he grows into a man, Clark sets out on his own, seeking to help people without betraying his identity or powers.
Things change, however, when an ancient Kryptonian probe ship is discovered by the military frozen in polar ice. Reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) catches Clark exploring the ship and witnesses his superpowers. Unfortunately for Clark, the ship also sends out a beacon that is picked up by Zod in space. So, soon, while Lois Lane is reporting to the world that a “Superman” lives amongst us, Zod is heading towards earth seeking revenge on Kal-El and looking to obtain the codex that will help him restart the Kryptonian race… on Earth.
Will Superman be able to fend off the Kryptonian invaders? Will the revelation of his existence turn the planet against him?
“Man of Steel” is certainly not the Superman movie that I’ve always wanted, but I’ll grant that it was a pretty good movie.
There’s a great deal of set up and character establishment, but once the action starts it’s a nonstop barrage. The flight sequences are powerful; audiences can feel the hypersonic speeds involved. With modern CGI, Superman is finally afforded the sky-scraper pulverizing aerial fist fights that he so rightfully deserves. Surrounding areas are the recipients of a good deal of demolition work as Superman throws down with Kryptonian powered equals. The action has a couple of hokey segments, admittedly. I’m not certain that we needed Jor-El on a flying dinosaur or Superman against the tentacle machine, but for the most part the brawls that Superman gets into against the other Kryptonians are the kind of super-powered slugfests that previous Superman movies have sorely lacked.
The tone, unfortunately, is smotheringly serious. This is “Superman dark”, without a doubt. There was literally only one or two attempts at humor in the entire film, and although much lip service is paid to the fact that Superman is supposedly a symbol of hope, it certainly doesn’t make him a happy person here. He may smile a mere handful of times the entire film. The film is also shot with a darkened palette. The Kryptonian design work is reminiscent of “Dark City”, with everyone in black leather aboard dimly lit ships. 3D printer effects abound, dark and dreary. Those looking for this Superman to counterbalance the trend of angsty superheroes in dark movies will be sorely disappointed.
Henry Cavill is an excellent Superman, however. If sequels ensue, and things like the long rumored Justice League movie finally occur, we’re in good hands with him wearing the cape. He’s good-looking and charismatic, and for once we have a Superman actor who looks like he put in the requisite hours at the gym. Kevin Costner also shines as Pa Kent… he’s the emotional core of the film. Diane Lane was fine as a still young Ma Kent, but she wasn’t given the heavy lifting of the Kent parents. Amy Adams was passable as Lois Lane, though she may have been hindered by the film’s insistence on constantly shoehorning her character into illogical places for her to be. Frankly, I don’t think this production team knew WHAT to do with the Daily Planet, as Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White was an afterthought as well. Russell Crowe is fine as Jor-El, though I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of the opening sequence featuring Krypton’s demise. Finally, I have to confess to being disappointed at Michael Shannon’s General Zod. Shannon is a normally a force to be reckoned with, but he gave a constrained performance for the most part here. I’m certain that that’s a directorial choice, but I missed the bellowing, frightening Shannon that I expected.
I’ll touch on a couple of specific disappointments in a spoiler section. Please highlight below ONLY IF YOU’VE SEEN THE MOVIE. DISCUSSION OF THE END FOLLOWS!
I rolled my eyes at “Man of Steel” having Clark forego rescuing his father from certain death in order to protect his secret superpowers. It didn’t add up to me, and felt much too “Batman”. Did Superman need that level of parental angst?
Also, as a fan of the character of Superman, I was greatly disappointed by the film’s decision to have Superman ultimately defeat Zod by snapping his neck. It makes the film far too dark for children, betrays the nobility of the character, and contributes greatly to the “dark tone” I was discussing earlier. There have to have been other ways to choose to resolve the conflict. In spite of the immediacy of the situation, the Superman I know would not play executioner to someone. This isn’t your father’s Superman, boys and girls, and I for one, am sad about it.
With all of that said, “Man of Steel” is an epic, dramatic superhero film with great special effects, powerful action scenes, and a new iteration of one of the greatest superheroes of all time. As a comic-book fan and a fan of the character, I’m not 100% on board with the tone and some of the decisions they made for the character, but they definitely created the kind of heavily serious, new mythos film that Hollywood feels audiences crave.