Man of Steel is a good, but not great movie. It certainly doesn’t rise to the level of the Dark Knight movies, and in some ways struggles with the legacy of Richard Donner’s Superman. Spoilers ahead, assuming the trailers haven’t spoiled nearly everything about this movie for you.
Making a Superman movie is a tough assignment. First you have the character himself. He’s basically invulnerable, so while his friends and family might be in peril he never is. If the hero is never in peril one avenue for drama is blocked. Secondly, you have the shadow of Donner’s film, which is near perfect in terms of a superhero origin story. When Sam Raimi was asked what he did to prepare for telling Spider-Man’s origin he replied that he watched the first third of Superman over and over. Compounding this is the much more recent 2006 film which showed so much devotion to the Donner film while failing to revive the franchise. Elements that it tried to keep (such as the brilliant John Williams score) became difficult to include. Instead the excellent (but not all time great) score by Hans Zimmer references a bit of Zimmer’s own score for Rango. Odd, but understandable.
So how does one hit the reset button on a well known property with significant constraints? You take the notes that you have to hit and turn them up to 11. This is established early in the film in a few ways. One is that General Zod’s rebellion is shown, quite viscerally, as a member of the Kryptonian council is summarily executed before our eyes. In fact, we see Zod murder Jor-El, not that it matters since he knows he’s a dead man. Seemingly more importantly, we learn that Kal-El is the first Kryptonian born by way of sexual reproduction in centuries. The rest are the result of Brave New World type program in which people – especially Zod it seems – are engineered to a particular duty and destiny. He can’t help that he’s bad, he’s drawn that way. Speaking of drawing, Krypton does have some cool technology that involves small particles that rearrange themselves for various purposes, like bas-relief TV screens, and later for more aggressive purposes.
But it is not enough that Kal-El embodies the opposite of a virgin birth miracle. On top of this Jor-El dissolves a very important homo-erectus-ish skull and infuses it into his infant son, giving him all the DNA of all the clones that Krypton will ever produce. This turns Kal-El into a MacGuffin, motivating Zod’s search for him, but it seems that it doesn’t make him any more super for the purposes of this film. Perhaps in the future he’ll choose to populate a world with new Kryptonians, though it is heavily implied that Jor-El wants him to have earth babies.
After the destruction of Krypton the film gets a bit non-linear, which was unexpected. We see an adult Kal-El working anonymously on a fishing boat, nearly getting himself killed due to an act of carelessness. Is he being careless because he knows he can’t be hurt? It seems, given his super-awareness, that he can’t have been ignorant of the danger. This isn’t really addressed because moments later he’s rescuing a bunch of oilmen, and then communing with a baby whale and its mother which leads to the first of many flashbacks. These flashbacks document the difficulties of being very, very different as you grow up. Jonathan Kent wants his adopted son to hide his powers, but keeps telling him that he’ll change the world. In another example of turning things up to 11, Jonathan Kent becomes a bit of a Christ-figure, sacrificing himself to keep Clark’s secret. Clark is also navigating how to deal with bullies, which mostly consists of gritting his teeth and leaving evidence of his super-frustration. The young Clarks are well cast and look like Tom Welling from Smallville. In fact just about everyone is well cast from Amy Adams as Lois Lane to Diane Lane as Ma Kent. Henry Cavill especially looks the part, and has a super-build (shown off repeatedly), and requisite square jaw. There is not a huge Clark/Superman dynamic going on here, which is a big change from the Christopher Reeve interpretation. Rather than split personalities you see a single personality as it develops.
In one of the more interesting twists, Lois Lane and Clark meet while both investigating a mysterious craft discovered by the military in the Arctic. Lois is in peril and Clark, in his street clothes, flat out tells her that he has super powers and rescues her. She is able to follow the breadcrumbs back to Smallville very quickly where she learns the identity of Clark Kent as a super-human mere days after he has learned his own heritage as a Kryptonian. So the whole mystery of his identity, is replaced by the fact that his identity being known puts his friends and family in peril.
Zod arrives almost immediately and mayhem ensues as he demands that Kal-El be delivered to him for MacGuffin purposes. Clark goes to a mid-western Christian church and asks the preacher what he should do, posing in front of stained glass window of Jesus. Space Jesus and real Jesus, together at last. I thought there was enough Jesus symbolism for three movies without this scene, but it was an interesting choice to make it explicit.
From this point on there are a lot of fights, which mostly seem to involve finding something that viewers will think is really solid to smash someone through. Again the fights are extreme, with buildings falling left and right. Other than Zod the baddies aren’t given much personality. Faora is given less development than the similar Ursa character from previous movies. She does mention that she is a trained fighter and she hangs out with a big seemingly mute guy. Jor-El pops up again due to a Kryptonian USB drive that Clark gives to Lois. Besides lots of super-fights that destroy uncountable buildings (including obvious placements from IHOP, Sears, and LexCorp) the entire planet is put in peril when Zod unleashes a Star Trek II like terraforming device to turn Earth into a new Krypton. Why this is a good idea, I don’t know. Zod seems to adapt fairly quickly to Earth as Earth, and it is implied that if Earth is turned to Krypton all the Kryptonians will lose their super powers.
In the end it isn’t Superman that gets to be the final Christ-figure but Christopher Meloni ’s character, whose name I didn’t catch. Clark’s big decision is how to deal with bullies who shoot laser beams out of their eyes. This form of violence creates a literal red line which Clark doesn’t want Zod to cross. Trying to destroy human civilization and doing significant damage to the planet was bad, but heat vision was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In the end, Superman goes where Batman wouldn’t, which is an interesting inversion of the Dark Knight vs Big Blue Boy Scout dynamic, but somehow lacks the depth that it should have.
Again, I liked the movie. I was entertained and geeking out. There is humor without stooping to the level of the blundering Otis and Miss Tessmacher. I feel for the filmakers, who were it not for the constraints outlined above would have probably preferred to tell this story across two movies as Donner tried to do. And I really miss the John Williams theme.