As Superman tells Lois Lane in Man of Steel, the “S”-like symbol on his chest represents “Hope” in Kryptonian. My own hopes for this film would have resembled a roller coaster ride if charted out over the years since its announcement. Initially I was glad, hopeful that it would provide a new start to the franchise after the disappointing Superman Returns. Then when I heard Zack Snyder was attached, I became a bit skeptical; I’ve never been a big fan of the director. When Christopher Nolan was attached to produce, I remained unsure; I have a lot of faith in Nolan, given his history, but I wasn’t sure he would be able to bring the right tone to a Superman movie. Superman needs something of a different tone than Batman, and as time went on, the more it sounded like Warner Brothers was moving in a dark, Batman-esque direction for the film. Promotional materials started to come out, and I started to become pessimistic; it not only looked very dark, it also looked to be very self-important. The first teaser trailer, debuting in front of The Dark Knight Rises, was easily the most pretentious trailer I’d ever seen for a superhero film. But the last few trailers before the film’s release started to turn things around, to make it look like there might be a decent film in the works after all. So I went to the midnight screening of the film with a sense of guarded — very guarded — optimism. I had, at this point, some hopes for a good film and worries of a bad one (or even worse, a popular one that I personally wouldn’t like), but was no longer sure exactly what to expect.
I was, however, reasonably sure it wouldn’t just be this kid running around.
The film, much like my anticipation, was a mixture of good and bad. It is self-important in some ways, but fortunately nowhere near as much as the early trailers suggested. Really, it’s about in line with most Superman movies in that respect. There’s an attempt to inspire awe and wonder, as there should be, and some moralizing, which is also as it should be, but it doesn’t delve so far into it that it comes across as faux-philosophy. It also manages to find a balance between having a dark villain and not having a dark story or dark hero. General Zod (Michael Shannon) is even more impressive here than he was in Superman II, and the raw power of the Kryptonian invaders is on display in a manner it never was before. Awe-inspiring is the word that comes to mind. Zod himself is given an extra level of depth in his motivations which makes him more understandable without running the risk of making him more sympathetic; he’s still an undeniably villainous character, but his actions have a sense of purpose to them in this film, and Shannon instills him with a strength of passion that makes him an entertaining villain to watch. His subordinate Faora (Antje Traue) has a more coolly logical disposition, providing the other side of the evil coin, and calling back to the portrayal of Ursa in Superman II.
But while the villains are dark, and the story is often dark, Superman himself thankfully is not. There’s a scene near the end that I disliked for the action taken, but it was a mild dislike, and largely mitigated by Superman’s reaction to it. The personality of Superman from the comic books and previous adaptations is largely intact, which had been my greatest concern. He’s a character who was meant to inspire hope, and he does so; he comes across here as a beacon of light in the darkness of the events, even if the people around him need to learn to see him as such. A large part of this is down to Henry Cavill, the actor who plays him; the character’s basic honesty and decency comes through in most scenes, as well as his humanity. I said to a friend a few days back that I didn’t think anybody would ever displace Christopher Reeve as the iconic Superman, and I stand by that statement. However, Cavill, whose Clark Kent is almost reminiscent of a young Tom Hanks, is well-suited to become the Superman for a new generation.
It helped that his accent never slipped. A British-sounding Kansas farmboy just wouldn’t work.
Those people surrounding him are, for the most part, similarly uplifting. Amy Adams captures the spirit of Lois Lane quite well, giving her a determination and spirit to go along with her sense of righteousness in her investigations. It’s easy to picture her as the intrepid journalist. Christopher Meloni is likely to be a fan-favorite character in the film thanks to his own display of heroics as a soldier involved in the fight. And Russell Crowe gets more screen time than probably any incarnation of Jor-El has gotten in any medium, giving a great sense of the personality that Kal-El’s father had. It’s a very humanizing portrayal of the character, and shows his influence on Superman even though he wasn’t able to raise him. The one issue I had with characterization is that it felt a little as if Snyder, et al, emphasized the importance of Kal-El’s Kryptonian father at the expense of Clark’s human father. While Kevin Costner was perfectly cast as Jonathan Kent, the writing for the character felt off, at least at moments. It is impossible to picture Jonathan Kent from the comics (at least in the modern era, I can’t vouch for early Silver Age comics) ever placing secrecy over somebody’s life. However, like some of the other complaints I have with the film, it’s mitigated by what it does right. The senior Kent gets his own moment of heroism, and the relationship the Kents have with their adopted son is heartwarming to see, particularly Cavill’s interactions with Diane Lane as Martha Kent. They really succeed at getting the idea across that he really is just the basic all-American boy at heart.
Before viewing this film, I was skeptical of Zack Snyder’s ability to direct a good Superman movie. In previous films (fellow comic-book adaptations 300 and Watchmen in particular), he has shown himself to have a distinct directorial style, and I did not feel it would fit the character and story of Superman. But while there are definitely some “Snyder-ish” elements to this film, Snyder adapted his style to suit the film, rather than adapting the film to suit his style. Action sequences are fast and frenetic, without the slow-motion punches that populated his earlier action films, yet still allowing the audience to see what is going on. The flying sequences, always a critical element of a Superman film, are handled skillfully, not only allowing us to believe a man can fly, but showing that it’s not as easy as it looks. There was some use of the shaky cam, but it didn’t seem as obnoxious as in a lot of other action films; I mostly noticed it when it was appropriate to notice it, such as in scenes when buildings were supposed to be shaking.
That said, there are some definite issues with the film, and most of them can be laid at Snyder’s feet. Clark Kent’s background as a boy growing up is intercut into the main narrative via flashbacks. While I understand the reason for this — it allows Snyder to show his upbringing while also allowing him to get to the action as soon as possible — it typically disrupted the flow of the main narrative. A dream sequence, in which Zod communicates his plans to Kal-El, had the same issue and additionally was very corny. I was also left with a feeling that Snyder needed to have had a stronger sense of what the audience didn’t need to see. This impression was actually my first thought on the film, as the movie opens with a scene of Kal-El’s Kryptonian mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer) in the midst of childbirth.
This is as early as the origin of Superman needs to start, and as much exposure as the infant Kal-El needs.
These flaws were sufficient to prevent me from fully buying into the film all the way through… but they weren’t sufficient to prevent me from enjoying it. My hopes, going into the film, were that at worst I’d be debating between four stars and five. My fears were that I’d be debating much, much lower scores. After watching it, I was debating three and four stars, but was leaning heavily towards the latter. What tipped the scale, ultimately, is this: Man of Steel is both a film and the start of a revitalized film franchise. Though it has to stand on its own feet to get a good rating, part of its purpose is to establish a foundation for the future films. And the flaws that it has are, in many cases, apt to become irrelevant with sequels. Taken as a film by itself, Man of Steel is a good movie, not great, but good enough to get more than a grudging pass. Taken as the rebirth of a franchise, it provides a solid foundation for future films. It isn’t a five-star film in and of itself, but it makes me believe there’s the potential for a five-star film to come.