Movie Review: Man of Steel
By Matthew Huntley
June 20, 2013

Stop saying I have a toilet lid around my head.

Superman: The Movie (1978) set such a high standard for bringing the iconic character to life that it seems any other attempt to tell Superman’s origin story would be automatically dismissed. Even to this day, Richard Donner’s film is often considered “the superhero movie of superhero movies,” which is saying a lot considering how prolific the genre has become. Whereas one superhero movie used to come along every few years, now they’re a dime a dozen and span across all of Hollywood’s seasons, not just the summer. But even with talent like Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy) or Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) behind and in front of the camera, many would agree the original Superman can never be matched in terms of quality, craftsmanship and influence. It helps, of course, that it was also the first of its kind.

With this in mind, it would be pointless to compare Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel to Donner’s masterpiece, not only because over 30 years of filmmaking and cultural shifts separate the two, but because Snyder’s movie is neither trying to one-up Donner’s nor pay homage to it. It’s a different entity and interpretation of the material altogether, and therefore we should judge it as one. And although it’s inevitable any fan of the original film is going to draw comparisons, these shouldn’t weigh in on the new movie’s value.

And despite its flaws, Man of Steel does have value. It’s a mighty bold undertaking to try and tell Superman’s origin story in a way that’s different from what we’re used to, but Snyder and his team mostly succeed, especially when it comes to making an entertaining blockbuster. They eventually get carried away, and the movie lacks the indelibility for us to consider it an “important” entry within the superhero genre, but its structure, performances and pathos, and to a lesser degree its action, are enough to keep moviegoers - and even the most ardent Superman fans - satisfied.

You know the general story, although Man of Steel adds its own fresh and interesting details. The planet Krypton, which has not had a natural birth in thousands of years, is unstable and about to explode. Only scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) knows this and he and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) decide to send their only son, Kal-El, who was conceived and born naturally, to Earth in an effort to save him. Jor-El believes his son can also form a bridge between humans and Kryptonians, which is why he steals and packs the codex that contains their genetic language into Kal-El’s spacecraft.
General Zod (Michael Shannon) has a different agenda. He wants to wipe out the human race and us their planet to start a new Krypton. After being jailed for treason and escaping the Phantom Zone, Zod sets his eyes on Earth and conquering its population, but he needs the codex. Of course, this is where Superman comes into play, but luckily Man of Steel isn’t just about his and Zod’s ensuing battle.

Superman’s story is told in flashback, which was a fresh approach to the material. When we meet the grown-up Kal-El (Henry Caville), he’s a lonely vagabond, wandering from one odd job - fisherman, busboy, etc. - to another and trying to keep a low profile at the advice of his Kansas parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who found him when he was a baby and named him Clark. Clark always knew he was different, possessing superpowers and senses, but Jonathan and Martha taught him to channel them, even though they also said to keep them a secret. Jonathan tells him his abilities would disrupt the course of mankind and the world would view him as a threat (“People are afraid of what they don’t understand”).

But as we all know, Clark feels inclined to utilize his powers for good, whether it’s saving schoolchildren from a sinking bus; or oil workers trapped on a burning rig; or the nosy Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a Pulitzer-Prize Winning journalist, who goes snooping around in the Arctic when the military finds an unidentified spacecraft covered in ice that’s over 18,000 years-old. This turns out to be a lost ship from Krypton and Clark, sensing its presence, explores it and finally meets his true father, who appears in hologram form and tells him who he is and what he must do.

Lois, of course, wants the inside scoop on her savior and goes digging for Clark’s backstory, although she has a change of heart to print it when she realizes the type of damage it could do. Her editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), doesn’t believe her when she says her sources have gone sour, and her discovery of the truth coincides with an invasion from Zod, who broadcasts a signal to the people of Earth telling them bring forth Kal-El, whom they start to refer to as Superman (and not just because the symbol on his chest resembles an “S”).

The story of Man of Steel, from David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy), doesn’t tell us a whole lot we don’t already know about the titular character, but then how could it, given how many different versions of Superman there have been since his inception back in 1933? How it tells it, though, in a raw, less romantic and colorful style, feels new, and that makes the movie engaging. It also contains strong performances, with Henry Cavill and Kevin Costner being especially memorable, and I liked how Amy Adams was free to make her Lois Lane strong, resourceful and daring (she’s more than just a helpless damsel in need of rescuing). It’s a neat twist that she knows Superman’s true identity from the get-go, although why anybody else doesn’t recognize him just because he puts on a pair of glasses still goes unexplained.

The first two-thirds of Man of Steel are the best part of it, in which the movie goes back and forth between the present and past as we learn about Superman’s origins and childhood. There’s genuine emotion and character development that’s heartfelt and effective. When it reaches its climax, though, Snyder more or less hands his movie over to the second unit and we get an overlong and exhausting battle sequence in which many, many, many buildings explode and fall down, and this seems to go on and on until we’re simply numb to the special effects. And the whole time we can’t help but wonder how many people are dying as a result of Superman and Zod duking it out.

Nevertheless, as the start of what will likely be another Superman franchise, Man of Steel is a worthy first chapter. It’s different enough from the original series in that it feels like its own adaptation, which is what I was hoping for, because it didn’t prompt me to question why they were making it in the first place. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a good one for sure, and just like the symbol on Superman’s chest, it hopefully serves as a sign there are good, if not better, things to come.