NOTE: This review contains Spoilers
For years friends and I have discussed what we wanted to see in a new Superman film. I remember the constant recurring theme–No More Origin! We wanted a film that started with Superman BEING Superman. A heroic, noble, super being among men, honor bound, loyal, and most importantly facing a massive threat that tests the immense power of the last son of Krypton. How many more times did we need to see Krypton destroyed and baby Kal-El sent to earth, raised in Smallville by the Kents? Let’s get to the good stuff!
Well, without beating around the bush, Man of Steel is not that film. However, it is an an all together different beast that enthralled me while covering familiar ground in new and innovative ways. I will later get to the one point that keeps coming back to bother me that keeps me from calling this a perfect Superman film. But oh how it comes close.
Man of Steel begins on Krytpon, and we spend a fairly lengthy amount of time here. We are immediately shown a world of technological wonders as Kal-El is born to Jor-El and Lara. Yes some of Krypton’s sites and technology reminded me of other films–The Matrix came to mind at times, an exciting flight on a winged creature reminded me of Avatar, and I was even reminded of some of the settings in the Star Wars prequel. As a whole though, this is the most in-depth, fully realized view of Kryptonian life we have seen in a Superman film, and this is a civilization nearing its end. Kryptonians have been forced to resort to population controls to try to stem the over harvesting of resources their expansion has caused, but it is too late. Krypton is dying.
Kal-El is soon sent to Earth, the last hope for the Kryptonian race. General Zod, Krypton’s Military defense leader, born and bred, has staged a failed military coup. He and his followers are banished to the Forbidden Zone shortly before Krypton’s destruction. All of the Krytpon prologue is staged in spectacularly epic fashion, giving us a rip-roaring start and pulling us in.
Soon we are seeing the wanderings of a twenty something Clark Kent, and this jump in time is what really made the film work for me. The film wisely skips back and forth between time settings, so rather that sitting through the Kents’ finding and raising of Clark, discovering his powers, etc in one long section…we dive in to a Clark who is aware of his abilities but holds them back for fear of the response of human kind. He wants to help, he wants to be the noble hero, but the fear of the reprocussions of revealing himself has been deeply ingrained in him by his father. And this history with the Kents is interspersed as flashbacks. So without having to take in the scenes of Clark’s youth in a long chunk, and with the novel approach to the way Jonathan Kent raises Clark, I never felt like I was retreading old ground. I was constantly engaged with the film.
Now to be clear, the film does not slavishly follow Superman lore. Elements of the timeline are changed, and Lois is looking for Superman way before Clark has been to Metropolis or the Daily Planet. Bits of urban myth have been left in Clark’s wake, and as a prize-winning reporter, Lois follows that trail and finds Clark. She knows Superman before she knows his alter ego. These changes to the cannon do not generally bother me, as I feel when adapting comics to the screen steadfast mimicry is not always the best path. A film is not a comic and what works best for one medium may not work for another.
That said there is one element of the story that troubles me. It is the item that I mentioned earlier that keeps me from calling this the perfect Superman film. In one of Clark’s flashbacks with the Kents, there is a tornado, and while Clark takes his Mom to safety, Jonathan Kent returns to the car to rescue their dog. Clark and Pa Kent soon exchange a knowing look, but Jonathan shakes his head. At the risk of death he still will not allow Clark to reveal his abilities. Clark watches his father die, a death he could have stopped with minimal effort. This right here is the point in the film I am having trouble with. Superman does not do this. While I know the point of this film is that this man is not yet the Superman we have come to know….that we are seeing but the initial step on the path towards Kal-El developing into that man…it still does not sit right with me. Superman let his father die.
As the plot in the present moves forward, General Zod and his fellow banished Kryptonians are free of the phantom zone, and trace Kal-El to earth. They want the codex that El has passed on to Kal-EL, for it is the genetic map for future generations of Kryptonians. Zod plans to terraform the earth into a new Krypton, sacrificing humankind to make way for the rebirth of Kryptonian society. Kal-El, born of Krypton but now a son of Earth, will not stand for this.
The second half of the film is that epic Superman battle we have dreamed of. Awesome adventure, epic heroics, massive effects and set pieces—it is all there and it left me with a big grin on my face, high fiving my son at key points in the excitement. One has to wonder though, as Superman gives his all to defeat Zod, just how many humans have actually fallen as collateral damage to the massive battle through their streets, buildings, vehicles… perhaps even homes? There is really nothing on display as far as Kal-El going out of his way to keep humans out of harm’s way…until the penultimate moment in the battle.
Superman has Zod in a headlock, and Zod, seeking to hurt Superman in any way he can, is aiming his heat vision at a cowering group of humans. Left with no choice, Superman snaps Zod’s neck, ending his life, and also killing off his last peer Kryptonion. Superman’s final victory is also his loss, and the scene carried an emotional heft for me.
There are two epilogue scenes, one that felt wrong to me, and one that completely sold me. The first comes when Superman downs a satellite from orbit that apparently the government was using to try to locate Superman. Confronted by a general, Kal-El claims that he is here to help, but on his terms. He does not want to be found. When asked how they can find him if they need him, he informs them to have faith. I can’t put my finger on it, but this response just seemed wrong to me–almost too smug for Superman.
However, next we see Clark Kent starting work at the Daily Planet (a job he wants as a way to keep his ear to the ground) and a knowing exchange with Lois. It was a perfect note to end on, leaving the sequel to begin with Clark ensconced at the paper, working with Lois, and perhaps ready to take on more of the noble hero role that defines Superman.
I know that my few issues with Man of steel stem from the path that Chrtopher Nolan, David Goyer, and Zach Snyder have chosen to take with this story. They are not giving us the Superman we expect. In this version, Kal-El has not yet evolved into that completely selfless hero. Perhaps some of that choice stems from the fact that today’s audiences may not be as accepting of that level of over the top heroics. Their whole approach is to ground Superman in reality wherever possible. Their approach asks–if there really was this alien sent to Earth as a baby what would his experience be like? I commend them for finding a fresh approach, and for 95% of the film it works. However, Superman is not Batman. The nature of Batman’s character leaves a lot more room for grey. Superman’s has always been more of black and white, right and wrong. If I am right, and the plan is that Man of Steel is the springboard for that Superman to take flight from, then I think we have here a great beginning.