I’m not entirely sure how to go about this review. There’s things about this film that I can’t abide and there are things that I think are wonderful. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is an extremely schizophrenic movie that has maddening tonal shifts throughout and an ending that is so nerdrage inducing that I may have momentarily blacked out. But its also a film that sharply puts into perspective the difference between Marvel and DC’s views on how their universes are to be portrayed.
Bear with me for a second. Marvel’s films are, by and large, sweeping and action packed super hero films which manage to balance character development and established mythologies in a way that is accessible and engaging to new and old fans. Hell, Iron Man
managed to make me a fan of a character I’ve found boring and pretty obnoxious for years. Marvel’s The Avengers was a great ride that coalesced characters from established films and brought all of their stories together in a cohesive, albeit talky, way that you could get something out of without having seen the lead up movies- like the two previous and nearly entirely discounted Hulk films.
DC on the on the other hand seems content with making dark and moving character pieces that just happen to feature super heroes. Ignoring, of course, Green Lantern which featured this to an extent but was a largely silly affair. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films (also written by David S. Goyer) were dark character studies where Bruce Wayne was everything from lost little boy to essentially a Christ figure while also dressing up like a bat. DC comics have always been slightly sillier in tone than Marvel and the grittiness of the characters has always felt like DC’s reaction to that. “Yeah, our guy dresses like a bat, but he is also a tortured orphan who fights so that no one else will have to suffer the life he has” they seem to say. Which brings us to Superman, the least tortured of DC’s canon. Yes, he’s the “last” (in quotes because, he’s REALLY not. Like, at all ) of his people but what he lost in his planet he gained (and then some) on Earth. A loving family, friends, lovers, a dog and a moral code that has always guided him to truth, justice and the American way. He is described, in canon, as the ultimate boyscout. In fact his inherent morality puts him frequently at odds with Batman (and Wonder Woman who seems to be the moral gray area between Superman and Batman’s all black or white perspectives) which would be intriguing if that rumored Justice League movie ever comes to fruition. Yes, Superman has had conflicts over his godlike powers and his background as a “normal” guy but always let’s the proper family background guide him.
All of this finally brings me to Man of Steel which manages to be in so many ways everything Superman isn’t while hitting more notes of what he is than has been done previously. It’s actually telling to me that this film is not only NOT called “Superman” but the moniker Superman is only used 3 and a half times. It’s so many things, but it’s not a Superman movie. That’s important to know so your head won’t explode when you see it.
Snyder’s take on this Kal-El fellow (as he’s Kal-El a lot more than he’s Clark Kent) is a man on a journey of self discovery. Screenwriters David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (sensing a pattern?) take us through the uber sci-fi H.R. Geigerified last days of Krypton where babies grow on trees and faceless, undulating, floating art pieces warn Jor-El (Russell Crowe) of security breaches while he rides on a giant space gnat. They spend an awful lot of time setting up what Krypton was, longer I think than we’ve ever seen, even though it’s ultimate fate is unchanged. The point of this section is to set up the man Jor-El was- and by extension who Kal-El will be- as a contrast to our villain General Zod (Michael Shannon)- and why Zod wants to punch Kal a lot- which is both heavy handed and unnecessary. But, it looks cool.
Snyder then, infuriatingly, brings us to adult Clark Kent hiding under assumed names and taking odd jobs in an attempt to find himself. Intercut with this are flashbacks to his childhood with his Earth family Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Some flashbacks would be fine but his entire formative time is shown via interspersed flashbacks throughout the movie. In many ways it never allows Henry Cavill to actually play the character of Clark Kent as we first meet him as a creepy mute drifter and any momentum he builds up is lost in every cutaway.
Clark does eventually finds the identity he so craves along with a plucky reporter named Lois Lane (Amy Adams, who while I feel was miscast in the role does fine with what she’s given) who also discovers all of his secret identities. Here, I have to to give the filmmakers credit as having Lois in on Clark’s secrets from the very beginning does add an interesting wrinkle to their relationship that I actually find really interesting. Despite his powers, this change in their fundamental relationship allows the two to be on a more equal footing in any future relationship as there’s no inherent dishonesty hovering around them.
The rest of the film plays out like a modern retelling of Independence Day with Zod and his Kryptonians as our invading aliens and Kal-El and the U.S. military as the defenders of Earth. I want you to take that comparison for all it’s worth, with all the associated massive, horrifying destruction and bizarre, wtf moments intact as fully half the movie is basically an orgy of destruction with perhaps the most jarringly awful ending I can think of.
Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan made a perfectly fine movie- if mindbogglingly destructive. But, it’s not Superman. The ending more than anything else proves that either they weren’t intending this to be a Superman movie, or that they fundamentally did not understand who and what the character was. I’m not the type of geek who feels that characters can’t change, I fully support the idea of the reboot/reimagining of known properties provided you have a fresh take on the source. But I also believe that you have to respect the fundamental building blocks- the basic DNA- of that source. To change that, well you’re working with a new character. And, Superman can survive tweaking as DC has shown over the years- Superman but a girl (Supergirl/Power Girl), Superman but a kid (Superboy), Superman but twins with electric powers (Superman “Red” and Superman “Blue”), Superman as a dog (Krypto), but at the core he’s always been Superman.
I’ve never considered myself a Superman fanboy, I still don’t despite the voracity of this review. But I am a purist on character and being true to what you’re writing. I feel that the filmmakers of Man of Steel were so caught up in making a “realistic” and gritty version of the Superman story that they forgot what they were doing. At times this is a sci-fi shooter, an alien invasion, a journey of the self, a family drama, and even the beginnings of a political thriller all while centering on characters who don’t fit into those worlds. It’s almost as they’re telling you the audience that the term “comic book” movie is beneath them and that they, for your sake- the sake of “art”- are trying to elevate the form and make it better and more than it has ever been. What no one seems to have told them though is that the audience came for a comic book movie. While Batman- in all of his broody, noir, self-seriousness- can thrive in that kind of environment, not all superheroes can. Superman is not self-serious, he’s not broody (and when he has been the character has been problematic) he’s a moral guardian- sometimes to the point of being a moralizing goody two-shoes even- and an ideal to strive for. And, in their desire to bring Superman into this arty, authentic world full of subtext and substance they instead shined a spotlight on just how much further we still have to go to get anywhere near that ideal. C-/D+