When Warner Brothers kept talking about a new dark and gritty track for its superhero films, I expected Man of Steel to feature a Superman who chucked petty thieves through brick walls, killed on a whim, and acted quite unlike the Superman we all grew up knowing and loving all our lives. As you know from my boss Rich Drees’ spoileriffic review of the film found elsewhere on the site, Superman does kill someone in this film. But even that scene goes to illustrate the way David Goyer, Zack Snyder and everybody involved absolutely understood what made the character great. This is perhaps the best presentation we have had of Superman in any screen, big or small, in quite some time.
Rich is right that the film treads on familiar territory but, hey, it’s Superman. His origin has been told so many times in so many different venues that it would almost be a sin if it were change in any way. So, yes, SPOILER ALERT, Krypton still explodes, but the Krypton that buys it in the films is the most well realized and alive Krypton ever presented. Gone are the glowing white track suits and sets that look like the sound stages they were. What we get is a planet that would be at home in either the Star Trek or Star Wars franchises, with unique flora and fauna populating the planet. It is the first Krypton in film that I was sad to see go.
And of course since Supes is facing of against Zod, there will be call backs to Superman II. But this Zod is a more sympathetic character than the megalomaniac version so expertly played by Terrence Stamp in that film. It’s clear from very early on that this Zod was genetically designed to be Krypton’s protector by any means necessary. So even though his actions run from vile to genocidal, it’s simply the way he has been built. He can’t help himself. And, yes, Michael Shannon does chew some scenery, a lot of it actually, but it’s not like the part calls for much subtlety.
The main conflict in the first part of the film is an internal one within Clark (Henry Cavill) himself. He is fighting a war between honoring his father’s wishes and keeping his powers hidden or using them to help humanity. Yes, the scene where Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) says that Clark should have let the bus full of his classmates die is in the film pretty much in the context you’d expect it to be. This upset me when I first saw it because, for me, the influence of Jonathan on Clark is what made him become the hero he is. But the film does a very interesting thing. There is a heartbreaking flashback where Jonathan does an act of heroism in front of Clark that keeps that father/son dynamic from the comics going. Even though Jonathan is pleading with Clark to not be a hero, in this scene he is showing him how to be one. That scene, along with Costner’s acting in his limited amount of time on screen, is absolutely brilliant. And it is the last flashback before Clark decides to help humanity, if I am not mistaken.
Also brilliant is the film’s treatment of Lois Lane (Amy Adams). One of the recurring jokes in comic book fandom is how Lois can be a top-notch investigative reporter and not know who Superman really is. Not to reveal too much, but the film wittily turns that on its ear.
This film shows an substantial improvement in the way Superman’s powers are portrayed. From flight to super-speed to super-strength to X-ray vision, the film makers have used the advances in computer graphics to their fullest to provide a fresh and invigorating look at the hero’s power set. When Superman punches a bad guy through a wall, he goes through the wall, through the entire building, through the back wall, through another five buildings before stopping.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t flaws in the film. I was annoyed by Snyder’s use of shaky hand-cam. During battle scenes, it is to be expected. It adds an air of verisimilitude. But when the camera starts jumping around when Pa Kent is talking to Clark, I wanted to yell, “Keep the goddamn camera still! I am getting seasick!”
And if I were to nitpick, I’d ask why Lois was taken on Zod’s ship in the middle of the movie and how a man who was forced to be a pacifist by his adoptive father could do so well fighting a Kryptonian genetically engineered for combat. But I am willing to overlook these blips.
Now, as for that death. I can go on about all the ways I disagree with Rich. Rich is right that the comic book Superman never kills. But the comic book Superman never lets innocents die if he can help it (this is taking into account that I believe most of those building that were destroyed were evacuated by the time the Supes/Zod battle destroyed them). Not to reveal too much about that scene, but Zod essentially is committing suicide by proxy there. He has put Superman in an untenable position, intending to kill an innocent family unless Superman stops him. And the only way Supes can stop him is to kill him. If he came off with a Schwarzeneggerian quip after he did the deed (“Take ah BREAK, Zahd”), then I’d say Rich had a point. But Superman is visibly shaken by what Zod forced him to do. For me, Superman did what he had to do, something only he CAN do, in order to keep humanity safe.
And that is what makes Superman great. He can do all sorts of things regular humans can’t do. He could use those powers to enslave the Earth but instead he chooses to protect it. And he is willing to pay any cost, make any sacrifice to protect his adopted planet. The film is all about that. And that’s why I think it is a great Superman film.