Man of Steel

Superman is 75 years old.  In that time he has had countless numbers of writers and artists guiding him through his adventures in comic books and on the big and small screens.  This multiplicity of visions has resulted in myriad tones and approaches to the character.  From teenage angst to romantic comedy Superman has seen and done it all.  Most people, however, associate him with the strong, invincible defender of truth, justice and the American way.  They see him as unassailable and incorruptible in body and mind, a paragon with godlike powers and godlike benevolence.

But there are only so many interesting stories that can be told from this approach.  Nuance and moral ambiguity is where drama lies.  The real world is not simple and the art we make to reflect it can’t be either and a character like Superman cannot have maintained his popularity over 75 years without some exploration of the obvious themes that come with having such great power.

The question is will the blockbuster summer movie audience accept a Superman who questions his right to use that power; who fears the reaction of the world if he reveals himself?  When Christopher Nolan, director of the last three Batman movies, signed up to produce Man of Steel and hired Zack Snyder to direct, we were bound to find out.  Because those guys were not going to make a sequel to the 1978 Donner film like Bryan Singer did in Superman Returns.  They rebooted and they made the story a lot darker.

The origin of Superman is well known.  His real name is Kal-El and he is the lone survivor from the planet Krypton which was destroyed.  His father Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, sent him to Earth as a baby where he was discovered by Ma and Pa Kent, played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, who named him Clark and raised him as their own son, instilling solid Midwestern values in him. 

This version differs, however, in that Clark Kent, played by Henry Cavill, does not go to Metropolis to work for a newspaper and fall in love with Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams.  Instead, unsure what to do with his powers, which he hasn’t fully explored, he travels the world, getting odd jobs and saving people from accidents and natural disasters.  He’s doing good on a small scale.  Pa Kent warned him to keep his head down because the world cannot accept someone with that amount of power.

There are two things working against him though.  One is Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane, who while researching a story about an anomaly found buried in the arctic ice, hears rumors of a man who seems to have uncanny powers wandering the countryside, saving people.  She is close to finding him.

The other is much more serious.  Others from Krypton have survived.  They are a military force led by General Zod who had been banned to the phantom zone just before the destruction of Krypton, which ironically allowed them to escape the fate of their planet.  Zod comes to Earth demanding that they hand over Kal-El.

Henry Cavill makes a good Superman.  He has the requisite dark hair with the curl in front.  It is perhaps a little too wavy but that’s not important.  All the actors who have played Superman have had gravitas but Cavill is practically moody.  He has a lot on his mind and his brow furrows and his mouth turns downward.  It’s a convincing performance.

If anyone could approach Margot Kidder’s iconic performance as Lois Lane in the Donner movie it would be Amy Adams.  She comes close, playing it with more spunk than Kate Bosworth did in Superman Returns.  I still give the edge to Kidder though.

Michael Shannon’s General Zod is excellent.  He gives the villain compelling reasons for his actions and at the end when he explains that because of Kryptonian genetic engineering he was literally born to be a soldier and therefore his actions in defense of his home planet are hardwired into his genes, you almost feel sorry for him.

The fight scenes bother me and I’m having trouble figuring out why.  First of all they are all very similar.  People get thrown through buildings a lot.  There are energy beams and everybody’s bulletproof.  They don’t really build to a climax and they make up almost the entire second half of the movie.  Once General Zod shows up Man of Steel pretty much becomes a movie about explosions and falling buildings.  Plus the Kryptonian soldiers move really fast and the effect doesn’t look very convincing.  They better work that out before they make a Flash movie.

I get the feeling that Nolan and Zack Snyder didn’t quite make the film they wanted to make.  There are some human moments in here but they don’t feel earned.  At the end, when he finally defeats Zod, Superman screams in grief.  One guesses it is because he has just killed the only other surviving member of his race, but that’s only a guess.  There are no previous scenes where they bond over their shared heritage and Superman’s reaction pulled me out of the story.  Also they touch on the theme of having great power and not being corrupted by it but it’s not really developed.

I always wonder in these cases if these scenes were filmed but left out in favor of more explosions or more people being thrown through buildings or if Hollywood screenwriters know just not to write them in the first place.

In any case Man of Steel feels like an unfulfilled vision to me.  It’s still worth seeing but I left with the nagging feeling that it could have been great.



4 Responses to “Man of Steel”

  1. 1 Faith Van Horne June 16, 2013 at 4:39 pm


    Here are a couple of things that struck me about the film. First, when Jor-El appears to Kal, he tells him his birth is significant because his destiny was not predetermined, and he can choose whatever path he wants. Then, in the very next breath, he tells Kal that he *will* lead the people of Earth. Isn’t that sort of like a mother assuring her kid that they can be any type of doctor they want?

    And here’s the conversation I imagine took place when the designers were choosing how to handle the Phantom Zone imprisonment: “Well, we don’t want to go with that silly album cover prison thing. Way too cheesy. I know, we’ll stick them in penis tubes!”

    As to your comment about the ultimate defeat scene:

    At the end, when he finally defeats Zod, Superman screams in grief. One guesses it is because he has just killed the only other surviving member of his race, but that’s only a guess. There are no previous scenes where they bond over their shared heritage and Superman’s reaction pulled me out of the story.

    It seemed obvious to me that he was screaming in grief because he just killed a man. For all his life, Kal has avoided using his powers against those who tried to do him harm. He’s done everything he can to protect people, and Superman ever, ever killing on purpose is canonically established as a really big deal. I was shocked by it. So it made total sense to me that he would react that way.

    Also, I thought Margot Kidder was a much better Lois Lane. Amy Adams struck me as way too fluffy and passive.

  2. 2 Tom June 16, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    I sympathized with Mark Waid’s perspective about the destruction (he said destruction porn — I wouldn’t go that far). It did bother me during the movie that we were watching easily 100,000+ people die with Superman doing nothing to mitigate that damage (like diverting the fight out of midtown?) — and while I’m willing to cut the guy a little slack after the ordeal of the big fight (when he doesn’t know Zod is still around) he is taking quite a lot of time necking with Lois there from the perspective of the guy 400 feet away who’s partially impaled by a section of re-bar (to cite and imaginary example)

    Aside from that I didn’t have your problems with the film (BTW, no shout-out for the evil Nazi Kriyptonian with ze German accent? — it really made me say “hey! wait a minute” — just me?) and overall I loved it completely — aside from some quibbling. (in this era of CGI, there’s no reason Clark Kent reporter should look EXACTLY like Superman wearing glasses — Chris Reeve did a great job in the day just with acting, but think of Captain America in the “before” sequences)

    I easily got that Superman’s tortured scream on killing Zod was because he had KILLED a PERSON… like with his bare hands. Fully justified, of course, but he’s spent his life saving people until that point.

  3. 3 theotherebert June 16, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    I guess the scream didn’t strike me that way. It may have been his acceptance of all that collateral damage, I guess. This seems to be a Superman who doesn’t worry about such niceties. Remember Pa Kent told him he had to chose what kind of man he wanted to be. He obviously had a preference but he knew the choice was Clark’s. Pa even suggested that it might have been better if Clark had let those kids die in the bus accident. Come to think of it maybe that sets up Superman’s attitude toward the casualties.
    I didn’t think Amy Adams was bad. She certainly wasn’t passive. She followed Clark into Kryptonian ship even after they told her if she got lost they wouldn’t find her body until spring. She was also on the plane in the last scene with actual stuff to do. I just thought Margot Kidder was better. Of course Margot Kidder is a fine woman and I want to protect her.

  4. 4 Silver Price June 26, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Like all Kryptonians under a yellow sun, General Zod possesses vast strength, speed, and endurance; super hearing; x-ray vision; telescopic, microscopic, and heat vision; super-breath and freeze-breath; invulnerability; healing and flight. In the movie Superman II he also displayed telekinetic powers, able to levitate a police officer’s gun into his hand. Zod possesses a detailed knowledge of military tactics, giving him an advantage over Superman’s somewhat amateurish combat prowess. Zod was trained in fighting arts before receiving his abilities, while Superman is prone to battling his foes with the aid of his own. Despite his tactical superiority in a confrontation with Superman, Zod’s main weakness is shown to be his arrogance. Not only does he underestimate Superman’s other allies, but he also lacks the ability to acknowledge his mistakes. When Zod originally escaped the Phantom Zone in the post-Crisis continuity, he proclaimed that he could have saved Krypton if his plan to kill the Council had succeeded; Superman’s rational argument was that nobody on Krypton would have followed Zod, also drawing attention to Zod’s inability to explain exactly what he would have done to avert Krypton’s destruction, with Zod’s only response being to reiterate his belief in his own success rather than provide any kind of counter to Superman’s claims. In addition, his powers are often inferior to those of Superman, due to the latter being exposed to the yellow sun over the course of his entire life, while Zod typically only gets exposed for a short period of time before being defeated and returned to the Phantom Zone, giving Superman an edge over Zod’s superior fighting skill.

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