Man of Steel is a little less than super, but man did it have potential. Since today is my birthday, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite DC superheroes of all time. Superman is an enduring icon responsible for the prolonged success of the superhero medium, but he hasn’t had the best luck when it comes to live-action movies. Superman: The Movie is a 70’s classic and its 80’s sequel Superman II was a vast improvement. Then everything fell apart with the release of the equally terrible Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. So many Superman movies were pitched throughout the 90’s & 2000’s, until Superman Returns was greenlit.
Although the 2006 reboot has merit, it still wasn’t the action-packed Superman spectacle fans like me wanted. DC never lost hope in rebooting the Man of Steel, but Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel is partly why they had to hurry. If Warner Bros. didn’t make a movie soon, then his estate could’ve taken legal action. Similar to Tim Burton nearly directing Superman Lives, the success of The Dark Knight trilogy led Christopher Nolan to produce an edgier version of Superman. Hence why both movies utilize the character’s nickname. I only got nervous when controversial Watchmen director Zack Snyder was hired as director. More nervous when I discovered his darker take on the big blue boy scout was intended to be the start of a DC Extended Universe…
Man of Steel is just as polarizing as other Zack Snyder productions. On one hand, I’m thrilled that Man of Steel finally took advantage of Superman’s immense power and role as a savior for mankind. The movie is full of Christian symbolism that the trailers very much leaned into. Zack Snyder knows how to make a thrilling trailer that’s sometimes better than the movie itself. I got excited the moment Superman took flight, but I couldn’t ignore the grim aesthetic. Apart from the less than favorable Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder is mostly known for R rated graphic novel adaptations. So it was more than a little bizarre to choose him to direct such a colorful and optimistic hero. There’s a very natural, sometimes colorless look with shaky cam and a little too much forced swearing. As well as David S. Goyer’s trademark cringy dialogue. Man of Steel isn’t a perfect Superman movie, but some of the changes work very well.
The best decision they could’ve made was casting the British Henry Cavill as the all-American Superman. He’s honestly the closest DC has ever come to capturing the bulky square jawed Man of Steel from the comics. Cavill lives up to the tradition of casting a relative unknown as Superman. Although he was previously cast in the proposed Superman: Flyby movie and even auditioned for Superman Returns before Brandon Routh got the part. He was practically destined to play Superman, given his comic accurate black hair and blue eyes. Despite being the first Brit to play the part, Cavill has a convincing American accent. His version of Superman appears a lot earlier in the movie since it goes for a more nonlinear take on his famous origin story. Krypton is given a lot more attention before it blows up.
Portraying Superman’s homeworld as a far more alien planet with flying creatures, nanotechnology, and spaceships was a good way to differentiate it from the crystal empire we’re used to. Costumes are similarly made to look more like an ancient society that wears armor and spandex with their house crest on it. Just like Marlon Brando, Russell Crowe is another Oscar caliber actor who was perfect for Jor-El. Unlike other adaptations, Jor-El is just as physically fit as the rest of the Kryptonians. Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer plays Lara Lor-Van in the process of giving birth to the last son of Krypton. Another change is having Krypton be an artificially conceived civilization with a predetermined genetic code stored in a Codex. Jor-El is the chief scientist who warns a council of Krypton’s impending doom.
This time the cause of destruction is Krypton mining the planet’s center until it becomes unstable. Jor-El takes the Codex and infuses Kal-El with it before sending him to Earth in a traditional space pod. Their A.I. named Kelor is voiced by Snyder mainstay Carla Gugino. Although Superman has a whole rogues gallery of underused villains, Man of Steel once again uses General Zod. Luckily Michael Shannon was just unhinged enough to differentiate his Zod from Terence Stamp’s version. This Zod is a radicalized soldier who was once friends with Jor-El. He’s made especially evil by killing Jor-El before the planet blows up. Just like Superman II, Zod and his soldiers survive thanks to being sentenced to the Phantom Zone. They’re sent in phallic space pods that enter a portal protecting them from the planet’s destruction.
Although Kal-El’s pod is seen hurtling towards Kansas, Clark Kent’s entire childhood is shown through multiple flashbacks. Making it similar to Batman Begins, as well as the TV series Smallville. Young Clark experiences his powers for the first time in Elementary school. Everything is noisy, his X-ray vision won’t turn off, and he uses his heat vision to keep everyone out. Man of Steel leans more into the alien side of Superman’s origin. He’s more of an outcast that no one understands except for his parents. Diane Lane makes an impression as Martha Kent. This version of Ma Kent is a caring adoptive mother, but she’s not a pushover. The second flashback shows Clark being bullied by a redhead Pete Ross and defended by a brunette Lana Lang. Clark rescues the school bus full of kids from drowning, but problems arise when Pa Kent enters the picture. Both of Superman’s fathers are Robin Hood, but although Kevin Costner is an ideal Jonathan Kent, his parental advice is questionable.
No matter how worried Ma or Pa Kent would be to lose their son, there’s no way either of them would suggest Clark not use his powers to save people. Jonathan comforts Clark when he reveals the truth about his alien birth, but they have a falling out in the third flashback scene. They argue right before a tornado that claims Jonathan’s life, because he didn’t want Clark to reveal himself. It’s definitely different, but at least a fourth flashback makes Pa Kent seem a little less selfish by teaching his son self control. In the present day, Clark secretly helps people as he searches for answers. Cavill is first seen in a beard working on a fishing boat. He rescues people on an oil rig and uses his super strength in an obligatory shirtless scene. It’s worth it since Cavill is more jacked than any other actor who played Superman. Clark also helps a waitress in a bar by destroying an obnoxious trucker’s truck.
His travels eventually lead him to the Arctic where he meets ace Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. Another understandable deviation from the source material. Amy Adams was more than up for the task, but I do prefer Lois to have black hair and be a little more feisty. Although it does seem like destiny since she appeared in an early episode of Smallville and auditioned for Lois twice before. She’s sent to investigate what turns out to be a Kryptonian scout ship standing in for the traditional Fortress of Solitude. Lois is met by Christopher Meloni as relatively important Air Force Col. Nathan Hardy and Richard Schiff as comic book scientist Dr. Emil Hamilton. She catches Clark sneaking into the ship which has a robotic security system. Lois & Clark officially meet when the latter is injured and the former uses his heat vision to save her.
When Lois returns to the Daily Planet, her outlandish story of aliens among us is rejected by Perry White. Despite the modern era, the Daily Planet is still depicted as a newspaper company. The only change is editor-in-chief Perry White being portrayed by the black Laurence Fishburne. Although he’s far more passionate about Marvel, Fishburne is a perfectly authoritative boss. The same can’t be said for his mostly forgettable news crew consisting of the obscure Steve Lombard and intern Jenny Jurwich instead of photographer Jimmy Olsen. Lois gets into trouble when she leaks her story to the online competition. Meanwhile, Clark learns who he is after using a key to activate the ghost of Jor-El. Another interesting change that’s different from the floating head we usually see. Jor-El tells his grown up son all about Krypton’s demise, his birth name Kal-El, the deception of General Zod, and reveals the House of El symbol to stand for hope. All while revealing a Kryptonian suit made especially for him.
The Superman costume is updated with more modern detail and the absence of his traditional red trunks. It’s not a major loss since he retains a dark blue costume with a magnificent red cape, red boots, and a bigger ‘S’ symbol. A hair curl was probably asking for too much, otherwise the costume is perfect. The best scene in the entire movie is Superman learning to fly for the first time. As he draws energy from Earth’s yellow sun, Superman takes off with a sonic boom. Cavill isn’t always given time to flesh out Clark’s personality, but his optimism is definitely seen when he’s flying. Although he stumbles at first, Clark doesn’t give up. It’s truly inspirational when Superman succeeds by extending his arms and soaring into space. Lois follows her leads (including an older Pete Ross who works at IHop) until she manages to find her reluctant protector. Only dropping her story when he explains why his adoptive father thought the world wasn’t ready to know aliens exist.
The whole world knows as soon as Zod makes his presence known. He sends a distorted message commanding Kal-El to turn himself over to them. Lois’ story gets her arrested by the military, led by Harry Lennix as Lt. General Calvin Swanwick. The movie’s Christian themes are made much more apparent when Clark seeks answers from a priest. Superman willingly turns himself in for the protection of humanity. Along with the safe return of Lois Lane. Although I’d mostly call it a mutual attraction, Cavill & Adams do have good chemistry. Their iconic romance seems to get its start from Lois being the only person apart from Ma Kent that he can talk to. She even suggests the name Superman before getting cut off. Superman’s handcuffs were just a sign of trust since he can easily break out of them anytime. When he does, he tells the military to trust him as he confronts Zod. The first Kryptonian to be sent down is German actress Antje Traue as the comic accurate villainess Faora-Ul. She’s basically this movie’s version of Ursa, since she has a similar thirst for battle.
Faora takes Superman and Lois to their retrofitted phantom drive spaceship. Although there’s no Kryptonite in Man of Steel, using the Kryptonian atmosphere as a weakness was a clever idea. Zod seems like an ally at first, but his ruthless plan to terraform Earth is revealed in a disturbing vision where Superman is buried beneath human skulls. Lois helps them escape using Clark’s key to summon Jor-El. She escapes in a pod and Superman flies out to rescue her with his arms in a cross position. Superman finally has a decent action scene when Zod threatens his mother at the Kent farm. The atmosphere temporarily subdues Zod, but Faora and a much larger Kryptonian take over. The battle of Smallville is an destructive fight that wrecks both IHop and Sears. Superman uses his strength, flight, and heat vision, but Faora uses her lack of morals against him. When he gets overwhelmed, Superman manages to win the fight by earning the militaries trust in the end.
They casually refer to him as Superman while making a plan to defeat Zod. When the Kryptonians unleash a world engine on the planet, they attempt to use his escape pod as a miniature black hole. Metropolis is in the direct line of fire with immense destruction that Perry is caught in the middle of. Zod also plans to extract the Codex from Superman’s body when all life is wiped out. As Lois attempts to activate the pod, Superman fights off the engine’s defense mechanism. Despite being weakened, Superman manages to save Metropolis before it’s too late. Christopher Reeve’s face can even be seen for a split second. Although it could never beat the John Williams “Superman March,” Han Zimmer’s score is just as powerful. Dr. Hamilton manages to figure out the pod and take out Zod’s ship with Faora and the rest of his soldiers on it.
Superman returns in time to save Lois and they kiss for good measure. Zod grows increasingly hostile when he loses his very purpose in life. Their fight is exactly the anime inspired CGI spectacle I was hoping for, but it’s tough to ignore the prolonged destruction of Metropolis. Zod learns to hone his senses and ends up in an evenly matched fight. They throw each other through buildings, trade punches in the air, use heat vision, and even end up in space. Although the proposed DC Extended Universe was still in its infancy, the Battle of Metropolis does reveal many easter eggs. Including several LexCorp logos, a S.T.A.R. Labs building, and a destroyed Wayne Enterprises satellite. The intense brawl ends back on Earth where Zod tries to kill civilians using his heat vision. What follows is the most controversial scene in the entire movie.
The only way to stop Zod is by breaking his neck. My theater applauded the decision, but I understand longtime fans being turned off by Superman performing such a violent act. I’m kind of in the middle. At least he’s genuinely remorseful about it. Really I blame Zack Snyder for writing the hero into a corner. It’s followed by a much lighter scene where Superman tells Swanwick not to keep tabs on him and a young female officer comments on his attractiveness. In the end, I really had to smile when Clark embraces his humanity by finally putting on his glasses to work for the Daily Planet. Unlike all other adaptations, Lois simply agrees to play along with his new identity. Man of Steel continues to divide people to this day, but I think it’s an acceptable chapter in Superman’s heroic legacy.
Followed by: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice