Man of Steel Review: It’s Superman And Yet It’s Not

If you’re a Superman purist I can guarantee you won’t enjoy Man of Steel. If on the other hand you go, forgetting all that you know about the world’s greatest superhero then you’ll likely be entertained. For years now, fans and critics alike have been calling for a believable Superman, one relevant to today. Director Zach Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyet accomplish exactly that with this dark, reimagined version which bares producer and Dark Knight director, Chris Nolan’s imprint. However, some of the liberties taken by these three to update Superman’s story have fans up in arms and understandably so. (Spoilers to follow)

Man of Steel does incorporate a number of the elements many would recognize from the Superman of before—the destruction of Krypton, the Kents raising young Clark, the return of General Zod from the Phantom Zone—and for the most part the movie does a good job portraying these backstory events in the setup. Beyond this things start to get dicey.

The movie begins with Lara, Superman’s mother, giving birth to her son, an act of treason on Krypton where children are artificially conceived and genetically engineered for predetermined roles within society. This is pivotal in setting up the themes of hope and choice echoed though Kal-El’s journey to becoming a superhero. Soon after the planet’s doomed fate is revealed, baby Kal-El is launched into space, and General Zod (superbly played by Michael Shannon) is banished for leading a failed coup. The rest, of course, we know.

Next we see a grown up version of the now, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), working a series of odd jobs in his search to discovering his origins while trying to keep his abilities under wraps despite circumstances forcing him to do otherwise. These scenes are intertwined with flashbacks to Clark’s past as the strange boy who never fit it and the lessons from his adoptive father (Kevin Costner) and mother (Diane Lane). Both actors made for the perfect Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Costner does a particularly good job as he expresses his deep concerns that the world isn’t ready to accept what it can’t understand in Clark’s powers.

Along the way we are introduced to intrepid reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who is covering a story about a strange object discovered in the ice somewhere in the nether regions of the arctic. After an encounter with Clark, Lois goes on the hunt to learn of her rescuer’s origins, eventually tracking him down to Smallville. Meanwhile, Clark discovers the frozen object is actually the key to discovering who he really is (although has to wonder how a centuries old Kryptonian scouting ship could contain the famous blue suit made specifically for Kal-El).

And then, after a solid hour or so, our story begins.

General Zod, who managed to escape the Phantom Zone with a squad of co-conspirators, shows up in search of Clark and an object containing the genetic coding necessary for preserving the Krytonian race which Zod, naturally wants to resurrect on earth. With the earth’s fate in the balance, Clark reveals himself to the world as the alien Zod is looking for, and he willingly surrenders, first to the U.S. government and then to the Krytonian invaders. So far so good.

Zod’s plan is eventually revealed and thus begins all the fighting and destruction—oh, the destruction. First Clark’s hometown of Smallville is ripped to shreds in a main street showdown, showcasing a host of corporate logos including Sears, 7 Eleven, and IHop. (Hey, they said they wanted to make it believable--what's more believable than IHop?) Next, the center of Metropolis is pulverized into dust as Zod tries to alter Earth’s composition into something a little more Krytonian. It’s like Michael Bay’s wet dream to the tenth power making the Avengers battle scene look like a fender bender on 5th and Wabash. And just when you think it’s safe to come out from under the rubble, Superman and Zod take turns wailing on one another as they topple about a dozen more skyscrapers for another ten minutes as a build up to a shocking climatic scene. (I’m not saying what.)

Given my blogging persona, I’ve been getting pegged with questions asking for my opinion of the movie almost from the minute I left the theater. Honestly, I’ve been debating how to answer this. Driving home at 3 AM, I really, really wanted to like Man of Steel. I mean I’ve been waiting for over two years to watch this movie, and yet after seeing it, I couldn't tell if it was worth the hype. This made me think that maybe my expectations were too high, that, like many fans, nothing could please me. However, by the second trip to see it, this time with the family, I felt a bit more comfortable with the movie—but not all of it.

The storyline, the acting, and the overall feel of Man of Steel were all headed in the right direction, certainly more so than Superman Returns, which, by comparison, even made the fight scenes and collateral damage justifiable. Execution, however, was another matter. I could nitpick the movie's flaults, but I’m not a critic, only a fan. And so, it’s from that perspective that I will point out the biggest flaw of the movie—they changed Superman.

I realize that changes were inevitable—needed even, but in Man of Steel there’s very little that makes the Big Blue Boy Scout just that, a boy scout. Sure, there are a few scenes of him saving a school bus full of children and a handful of trapped oil rig workers, but beyond this Superman, by omission, demonstrates an uncharacteristic lack of concern for human life (or Kyptonian for that matter since he wipes out his own race's last chance of survival--so much being a symbol of hope).

When Smallville is turned into a literal war zone, Superman does nothing to move the fight away from the terrified citizens. (You'd think he’d be more sentimental about his hometown.) The same is true when the Zod hits the fan in Metropolis as the two wreck everything and anything in their path.  And then there’s that final scene which caused everyone’s jaw to drop. Even my youngest son turned to me and said, “Superman doesn’t do that.”

Granted, I didn’t want to see a campy, sappy version of my favorite superhero, but in attempting to create a believable character Snyder and Goyer stripped Superman of the very essence of what makes him Superman, ultimately bringing him down to our level rather than giving us something to aspire to.  

Throughout the movie I kept waiting for that one dramatic moment when I'd be overcome by goosebumps after Superman did something amazing like rescuing a scared child from a meteor shower (Tom Welling in Smallville) or gently dropping a doomed airliner in a stadium as the crowd goes wild (*sad sigh* Brandon Routh in Superman Returns), but, to my great disappointment, that moment never came.  It never came because the real Superman, the one that inspires us never showed up. Oh well, maybe next time. 

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Do I recommend you see Man of Steel? Yes. It is a Superman movie and still entertaining (and better than Iron Man 3). For parents, keep in mind that Man of Steel does depict some dark imagery and a lot of violence; so, if you’re wondering whether or not to take the kids I would consult Common Sense Media for objective insights.

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