Warning: The following contains spoilers.
My Superman experience has largely been confined to the small screen. I grew up in the ’90s on Dean Cain’s romantic portrayal of Clark Kent who was occasionally Superman in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997). Then, with the start of Smallville (2001-2011), Tom Welling became my “Superman” with his young, angst-filled Clark Kent.
Certainly, I have a great affection for Christopher Reeve’s endearing, soft and genuine interpretation of Superman in 1978’s massive hit Superman: The Movie and subsequent sequels. However, he was never my “Superman.” I didn’t have that strong emotional connection to him others had partly due to it being before my time and partly because I had already grown up on Cain and Welling. Since Brandon Routh, who played Superman in 2006’s Superman Returns, was essentially a duplication of Reeve’s interpretation, I didn’t have a connection with that Superman either.
As such, going into Man of Steel, I was looking for a new “Superman” as it were; a new interpretation unlike anything prior. I wanted to see the Superman character done justice. That is, I see Superman as being bad-ass and cool while also upholding those virtues known to Superman: truth, justice, loyalty, goodness, etc. I wanted to see a modern interpretation of that role, which would enable others to see Superman beyond his perceived Boy Scout image. This is in contrast to the Reeve portrayal that’s a bit cheesier, wholesome and the like. And don’t get me wrong: that worked for that film in that time.
If Man of Steel was going to be successful though, it needed to set itself apart from the past films. There are three things the director, Zack Snyder, writer David S. Goyer, and producers did prior to my seeing the film aimed at achieving this: 1.) They eliminated the plot device of using Kryptonite as Superman’s weakness, which goes a long way. Many people find it absurd that the indestructible and all-powerful Superman can be stopped with a mere rock from his home planet. 2.) They were not going to use John Williams’ classic Superman theme. To his credit, Hans Zimmer, the brilliant composer, took on the daunting task of creating something great to fill that void. 3.) Lex Luthor would not be the villain. Lex had been the main villain in most of the live-action Superman films to date. Thankfully, they went a different direction with General Zod played by the always-creepy, Michael Shannon, instead.
From the get-go, Man of Steel shows itself to be a wholly unique, modern and contrasting interpretation of the Superman character and mythos in a live-action format. Much of the beginning deals with Superman’s father, Jor-El and General Zod quarreling on Krypton. Never before had we seen such insight into the history of Krypton, as well as the aesthetic appeal, which showcases Krypton on a grand scale.
Crowe was perfectly cast as Jor-El, as he conveys a father’s desire to see his son become something great on earth. Likewise, Shannon, with a markedly different tone to his voice, has a heart-thumping intensity about him.
After Krypton, the film unfolds in a nonlinear narrative structure. Intermixed with action sequences and present dialogue are flashbacks to Superman’s days as a child, teen and young man with his father, Jonathan, played by the heartwarming, Kevin Costner, and Martha, as played by Diane Lane with a subtle potency.
In the present, Clark, as a man, wanders from town to town without really any direction. He’s searching for his place in the world. Yet, even during this inner turmoil, he’s saving people, which is also the reason for his nomadic status (to protect his identity). The flashbacks provide the thematic foundation for which Superman will become, well, Superman, as his father provides many words of wisdom that speak to Clark’s greater destiny such as, “You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Whoever that man is, he’s going to change the world.”
One particular scene speaks to Jonathan’s own inner struggle. After Clark saves a school bus of children from a watery grave to the seeming disapproval of Jonathan, Clark asks him with much consternation, “What was I supposed to do; let them die?” to which his father responds, “Maybe.” Jonathan is juggling quite the hefty dichotomy, as he realizes fully that Clark is destined for greater things than a farm in Kansas, but he fears what mankind will make of him. While Clark is not Jonathan’s son by blood, he’s still his son for all intents and purposes. Consider, here’s a kid that is mostly indestructible, but his father via the usual bonds that manifest in a father-son relationship, wants to protect him.
Such a notion becomes fully realized later on in the film when a tornado strikes Smallville. Clark, Martha and others find shelter under an overpass while Jonathan tries to rescue the family dog. His foot gets caught in a mess of debris and ultimately, he dies. Clark was going to help, but his father put up his hand signaling him to stop. He was afraid that the world would find about Clark. In essence, then, he sacrificed himself for his son. On the other hand, I also think this scene shows not just how courageous and heroic Clark’s father was, as a human, but that in some sense, Jonathan felt that he needed to be. Prior to this tornado, they had an argument where Clark yelled at him, “You’re not my real father anyways.” It could be argued, then, that Jonathan felt he had to prove himself to his God-like son.
Meanwhile, the fiercely independent, inquisitive and strong Lois Lane, as played by the brilliant Oscar-nominated actress, Amy Adams, is in search of this elusive and nomadic savior. She’s connecting the dots from witness after witness that regaled her with legends of this savior. Eventually, she connects the dots and actually confronts Clark at a cemetery. I liked this quick discovery of Superman’s identity from Lois instead of the mystery that we’ve seen in past adaptations. For one, she’s an investigative reporter, so surely she should be able to connect those dots. Secondly, it helps push the story along that these two are destined to be together.
Then it happens: Zod arrives and in grand fashion. He announces to the world – literally in every language – that he is looking for Superman (of course, he refers to him by his Kryptonian name, Kal-El). He demands that he turn himself in or the world will “face the consequences.” Zod, however, has clear motivation for coming after Kal-El. Krypton had developed a system where children of Krypton were being bred for specific societal roles: leader, soldier, scientist, etc. Kal-El, however, was the first natural born Kryptonian in years; hence, then, that Jor-El wanted him to chart his own destiny on earth. And within Kal-El’s cells is the mechanism by which Krypton could be born again. In other words, Zod needed Kal-El in order to remake earth into Krypton 2.0 without any concern to the genocide of billions of humans.
In an interesting scene, prior to turning himself in, Clark goes to a local church and speaks to a priest. He’s unsure of what to do. On one hand, he recognizes that if he turns himself in, there’s no guarantee that Zod won’t still kill humans. However, he’s also not entirely trusting of humans and their acceptance of him. Thus, we see Superman still developing his sense of connection to human beings; from the beginning, he’s still been the proverbial outsider unable to acclimate or fit in.
However, he turns himself in because that’s what he is about: he has an instinct to help and if that means surrendering to Zod, then so be it. Of course, the American military brass are skeptical of this “alien.” They don’t take to Superman right away. That’s one of the better parts of the movie that goes against the stereotype in action/superhero films. Usually, the authorities – the military or the police – are incompetent and waiting on the superhero or protagonist to do something. With Man of Steel, they’re not deferring to Superman in the slightest. Colonel Hardy in particular is a stubborn character that wants to take on the aliens.
At this point, the film unleashes a torrent of action that is quite simply epic. This is something fans were clamoring for after the disappointment of Superman Returns; they wanted more action and for Superman to punch something. Well, he has General Zod, his second-in-command, Feora, and the rest of his soldiers to punch and punch he does.
One has to remember, this is superpowered aliens battling each other. The scale of which is going to be rightly massive and impactful. Earlier in the film, we saw Clark finally step into his Superman costume and proceed to fly around. For the first time in any live-action adaptation, one can clearly see that it takes effort for Superman to use his powers. He’s not just casually flying around in a romanticized manner; he’s more like an F16. Not only does that speak to the power within Superman, but also to the notion that he hasn’t fully tapped into nor understood his own power. Additionally, he hasn’t faced a real challenge yet. He’s been saving people from burning oil rigs and school buses; not facing off against someone of his own kind that possesses similar powers.
All of that comes to bear in the action-packed second-half of the film. There is wide-scale destruction, which has drawn the ire of some critics that think the collateral damage (re: human death toll) is too high. However, again, with superpowered aliens battling each other, there is going to be a lot of destruction. Also worth considering is that unlike 2012’s The Avengers, which was fun and lighthearted, but also had massive collateral damage taking place in New York City, with Man of Steel, you actually feel bad for the loss of life; it’s not merely something in the background. For example, such empathy manifest in the emotional scene where Perry White, the editor of The Daily Planet, saves Jenny from debris and a falling building.
Moreover, Snyder’s trademark “shaky cam” works perfectly with this style and large scale action. The camera has a hard time keeping up with the speed at which these superpowered aliens are battling each other, which is reflective of the overall idea that humans are at the edge of their capability here. Even so, even with soldiers faced with aliens that bullets have no effect on, characters like Colonel Hardy and Lois Lane face up to them. Whether it was Lois battling for her life on the ship or Hardy facing off against the frighteningly intimidating Feora; humans were not backing down.
In one really cool scene, Superman had just saved Lois from falling off the alien ship when he stops mid-sentence and zooms off with a furious expression on his face; Zod had his mother in a chokehold. In the corner of the screen, we see Superman flying at top speed and he collides with Zod, sending them both careening for miles. Superman yells, “You think you can intimidate my mother!” while punching the ever-living hell out of Zod.
Zod is not your typically generic evildoer either. As mentioned, he has a clear motivation: the protection of his people. He was bred, essentially, as soldier and only a soldier. His duty is to protect Krypton at all costs, humans be damned. Such unyielding determination to succeed comes to a head at the end with the final confrontation between Superman and Zod. Superman manages to get Zod in a headlock, but Zod is using heat vision to attempt to incinerate a family, so Superman, in a shocking moment, snaps Zod’s neck. He kills him. Afterwards, Superman screams in agony with Lois rushing to his side; Superman cries into her lap.
And that, that is the key characterization of the entire film. This is a journey film; a becoming of age film, if you will. That is, Clark Kent/Kal-El is not “Superman” yet. He hasn’t developed the parameters for his powers or his moral code with the “thou shall not kill.” Superman has always been about finding another way, but he’s not there yet. Clearly, given his anguish after killing Zod, such will be the catalyst for him establishing such a moral code.
Likewise, the ending of the film points to this segue into him becoming the fully realized version of the Superman character, as he begins the disguise of “Clark Kent” at The Daily Planet.
Man of Steel provides what I’ve always desired: a modern interpretation of the Superman character. And Henry Cavill conveys all of it in such a remarkable fashion. In some respects, he pays homage to Christopher Reeve with the way he carries himself in the suit and then in other scenes, such as the screaming over losing his father or having killed Zod, he conveys the weight on his shoulders and what difficult decisions are all about.
The nomadic Clark Kent is not just trying to find his place in the world, as an alien, but he’s trying to understand who he is and who he is meant to be. Cavill pulls off the right amount of angst and frustration. However, in equal parts, he also pulls off the familiar component to the Superman character: hope and inspiration. For instance, in one awe-inspiring scene, Jor-El is talking with Superman after Lois is plummeting to the earth in a space capsule and he says, “You can save her; you can save all of them.” Superman floats backwards out of the ship with the beautiful, bright earth in the background and then he turns around with intensity in his eyes and zooms after Lois.
That scene epitomizes this journey from Clark Kent/Kal-El to Superman: he’s trying. He does not yet know what he can be – the symbol of hope and goodness for the world, but he’s trying. Ultimately, yes, he wasn’t able to save everyone in Metropolis, but with Man of Steel was us witnessing the growth and development of Superman. And that growth entails loss, disappointment and struggles with the real concept inherent in most Superman stories: he can’t save everyone.
A sequel, then, is well positioned to further explore the Superman mythos now that this absolutely solid foundation has been set up with his origin story. There is a vast amount of potential here because the cast and crew are perfect for this film and the universe established in Man of Steel is ripe for engaging storytelling.
All in all, I was more than satisfied with this film from the acting primarily of Cavill and Crowe to the goosebump-inducing score by Zimmer that made me forget about the legendary Williams’ score to the wholly unique and engaging characterization of Superman, his father, and his lineage on Krypton (which could have been a movie onto itself – it was that interesting), to the action scenes that I believe are some of the best I’ve ever seen put to film, as they truly captured just how powerful Superman truly is.
An oft-cited criticism of Snyder films with the likes of 300 and Watchmen is that he’s style over substance. In Man of Steel, I saw a healthy balance of both that served to present my favorite superhero as he journeyed on his way to becoming “Superman.”
The tagline for the Reeve’s Superman film was, “You will believe a man can fly.” For Man of Steel, I would argue that the sentiment should be, “You will believe a man can be super.”