Man of Steel is, in many ways, the Superman movie you have always been waiting for. Zack Snyder was exactly the right director for this, a filmmaker who has an unparalleled sense of epic sweep and scope when it comes to action, and a director whose eye for extraordinary imagery is among the best of his generation. This is a movie that is majestic in tone and exhilarating in action. It raises the bar in terms of superhero brawls so high that Kevin Feige is going to have to install ladders at Marvel Studios.
But as a movie, Man of Steel limps. The storytelling is often inelegant, the characters sometimes thinly sketched, and the film’s big destruction set pieces often play like a complete misunderstanding of who Superman is.
Man of Steel opens on Krypton, but the movie itself isn’t an overlong origin tale. The script by David Goyer (from a story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan) wisely jumps ahead thirty years from baby Kal-El’s ship crash landing on Earth to the grown Clark Kent wandering said Earth looking for meaning. The film sprinkles in details about Clark’s history - the first time he experienced his heightened sensory powers, when he discovered he was an alien, the death of Jonathan Kent - as flashbacks throughout. Grown Clark, trying to figure out what sort of man he will be, finds himself recalling events of the past that relate to the current moment (sometimes a touch flimsily - a passing school bus sends him into a reverie where he recalls rescuing a school bus full of his classmates). This structure works well to get us past the hump of Kal-El’s well-worn origin while also allowing the film to meditate on what his early years mean to the grown man.
The Krypton sequence is strange and fairly cheesy. Anyone worried about Christopher Nolan toning down Superman will have those fears very, very assuaged in the opening minutes of the film, which sees Jor-El (a passably pompous Russell Crowe) riding a dragon beast, floating robot companions, an over-the-top military coup and some mumbo-jumbo science about the genetic code for every Kryptonian hidden in a skull. It’s broad, it’s strange and it’s also strangely unengaging; maybe it’s my prejudice, but I’ve never found Krypton to be a particularly interesting part of Superman’s story. I’ve always liked the idea of Krypton as something we didn’t know well simply because Superman didn’t know it well; it was always a half-remembered dream of a place more important for what it represented than what it actually was.
As cheesy and unengaging as I found the Krypton sequence - which includes a civil war, a miraculous turnabout, the launching of Kal-el and the eventual destruction of the planet, all in about 15 minutes - it is absolutely spectacular. The design of Krypton and its non-humanoid inhabitants is a joy, recalling explicitly Golden Age science fiction concepts. Gone is the sense that every beast has been designed from an evolutionary point of view and in its place is the sense that every beast has been designed to catch young eyes on a book cover. I’m sure somebody involved in the production can claim that the way Krypton is designed makes sense, but it never does to me - which makes me like the way it looks all the better, as it has a gee-whiz quality of design enthusiasm sorely lacking in tentpole films lately.
It’s here on Krypton that Kal-El’s future struggle is explained, and where the thematic journey of Man of Steel is sketched. Kal-El is the first Kryptonian in millenia to be born naturally. All others are bred specifically to tasks - coup-leading baddie General Zod is genetically designed to be a warrior who protects the Kryptonian people - but Kal-El is unique in that his purpose is not written. He will get to choose what sort of man he will be.
Don’t worry if you miss this bald explication of the film’s themes in the prologue. They will be discussed, plainly and directly, in a series of expositional sequences that range from actually moving (Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent is the best deliverer of these speeches) to fairly tedious (Jor-El and Zod go at it even after Jor-El is dead). This recalls Nolan’s Batfilms, which never passed up an opportunity to have one character simply speak out loud the emotional or moral issues at play rather than work them into drama. You could argue that this fits into the Superman aesthetic - Supes and Captain America are the two superheroes most likely to just stand around and speech at you for a little while - but these mini-monologues never quite work. It boils down to everybody - including a priest - telling Kal-El what Superman is, rather than Kal-El deciding for himself. Also, most of these scenes are poorly written. Goyer’s dialogue carefully avoids anything zippy, memorable or interesting. Words are spoken to move along the plot or over-illuminate the themes.
The script is also herky jerky in construction - the movie has a few beats too many, and some of the elements could have been gracefully condensed together (ie, every subplot has maybe one scene too many. The film could lose one scene with the military, one scene at the Daily Planet, etc). That’s almost ironic because so many of the film’s character beats are perfunctory, sketched quickly based on the assumption that we know these characters already. The story itself feels tortured, and the character bits within it feel underserved.
And yet Man of Steel rises above all of that. It flies solely under the power of cinema; Zack Snyder is a first rate spectacle filmmaker and this is the most first rate of spectacle. But Snyder isn’t just about kineticism and bam pow moments. He has an innate understanding of visual storytelling, of how to use the frame to elicit an emotion instantly and automatically. He understands how we parse what we see on screen and he instinctually speaks that language. It’s stunning how beautiful Man of Steel often is, and how easily Snyder juggles that beauty with the big action we inherently crave in a superhero film.
Make no mistake: this is Zack Snyder’s movie. It doesn’t have many of his trademark (overplayed) touches like speed ramping but every frame of it carries his monumental understanding of cinema. Snyder has proven himself many times over to be a filmmaker whose vision is all about serving the work, and he does that here perfectly. He’s approaching Superman with a reverence for the character’s meaning and Richard Donner’s interpretation of his early years matched with an understanding of what it is about Superman’s abilities we’ve been dying to see on screen. Snyder’s vision serving the material has often left him at the mercy of that material, and while he falls into that trap a bit here even the dumb speechifying bits are elevated by his visual style. Over the years Snyder has taken an undue amount of shit from people who seemingly don’t understand the power of cinema as a visceral experience and the way he has all but mastered that; hopefully Man of Steel changes those opinions.
Henry Cavill is a wonderful Superman and Kal-El (we’ll have to wait until the next movie to get a sense of his Clark Kent, as the movie ends with him donning glasses and getting a job at the Daily Planet), in tune with the history of the character but also very of the moment. Cavill can be pensive and thoughtful, but he’s not mopey. He’s troubled at times by the weight on his shoulders, but he never buckles under it. The movie makes a lot of noise about Kal-El choosing between being human and being Kryptonian, but I don’t think Cavill sells that (neither does the script, frankly). What he does sell is the choice to get involved, which is different from the hackneyed Refusal of the Call. In this film Superman comes to the world’s attention when Zod, escaped from the Phantom Zone after the destruction of Krypton, comes looking for him. Kal-El can remain Clark Kent, an anonymous drifter who just makes his way from menial job to menial job, or he can step out into the spotlight and give himself up for the greater good.
That’s a great moral choice, and Cavill wears it well. Snyder shoots some of this stuff with way too much emphasis on the misunderstood Christ qualities of Superman*, including a glaringly obvious over the shoulder stained glass crucifixion bit, but that does offer the opportunity to examine The Last Temptation of Christ territory. What is it like to make that decision, even if the kind of man you are means the decision is already made? Kal/Clark is a hero from the beginning - it comes to him from his biological father and it is secured in him by his adoptive father. The irony of Man of Steel’s themes of choice is that Superman as a character historically has no choice - this is just the kind of guy he is. It’s easier to imagine an Imaginary Story where Superman takes bad action over one where he takes no action.
Cavill’s also damn good looking. Brandon Routh looked nice, but boyish. Cavill spends a couple of scenes with his very hairy chest exposed, giving a sense of the MAN in this Superman. We may wonder how he shaves his beard, but there’s no question that the rest of him goes unshaven. That makes this Superman the kind of masculine ideal that feels like a throwback; he’s manly but kind, and his generous and gentle nature in no way undermines his power and confidence. Cavill has all of that. Expect new Tumblr tags to be created this weekend.
That masculine energy and good looks make his lack of chemistry with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane all the weirder. I don’t doubt that she would fall for a guy who looks and acts like that, I just don’t believe she does in the context of the movie. Adams is very good as Lois, and I believe (for reasons I cannot divulge without spoiling the movie) that this is the smartest, strongest and best iteration of the character ever. She still falls into damsel in distress situations, but they’re not the sort we’ve seen in previous films, where her intrepid investigating gets her in over her head. Rather they come from her insistence on being present and helpful and acting as more than just a note-taking spectator. She isn’t simply documenting the legend of Superman here, she’s taking part in it.
And yet the love story is half-baked. It’s part of that complaint I had earlier about the character moments; it’s as if the script looks at us, acknowledges we all know how this meet-cute ends and then jumps right to it. Individually these two actors are good, but together there’s little spark. Their eventual kiss does not sizzle.
The third main player rounding out the cast is Michael Shannon as General Zod. One of the script’s best decisions is to give Zod actual motivation, even if it could make more logical sense (he wants to turn Earth into a new Krypton, but the movie shows him easily traversing the galaxy, hopping from planet to planet. Surely he could set up shop on another world without an advanced civilization already inhabiting it?). The important thing is that Zod isn’t on Earth for vengeance - there’s a specific, stupid and spoilery reason why he needs Kal-el to create his new Krypton - but with a purpose, and it’s one that he believes in. A villain with a reason is always the best kind of villain.
Shannon is, in general, the best kind of villain. While the script has Zod explain why he’s doing what he’s doing, Shannon’s eyes hold a maelstrom of insanity and rage at all times. He’s a terrifying guy even when he isn’t able to knock entire buildings down with one punch. Shannon seethes with energy, raw and contained, and when he lets it loose it’s electrifying.
Zod, it should be noted, leads a mini-army of Kryptonians. I think there are five or six of them, which ends up being a strange choice this early in Superman’s career. By having a whole bunch of his own kind show up we lose some of the uniqueness of Superman, a trap into which the comics have fallen into repeatedly. The movie further sets up the possibility of LOTS of other Kryptonians in space, as we learn that Krypton once had a thriving space colonization program which it abandoned some millenia ago. Is there a colony called Kandor waiting to be found? Is there a blonde named Kara Zor-El? Does she have a pet horse and a dog and a cat? Is the Superman Family waiting out there?
At least those Kryptonians are used well. The second half of the movie is an exhausting series of battles whose destructive power is astonishing. One fight takes place on Smallville’s main street, a battle which I believe essentially wipes the town from the map. The action in Metropolis is so big, so destructive, that I would put the civilian death toll easily in the tens of thousands, if not the hundreds of thousands. Zod’s World Engine, a terraforming device, seems to lay waste to a square mile of the city, and it’s operational at lunchtime midweek in the business district.
I’ll get to what bugs me about this in a moment, but first let’s talk about the action itself: it is breathtaking. The scale of the fights are incredible; almost a decade ago I was thrilled to see a bus being used as a weapon in Fox’s Fantastic Four movie. Now Man of Steel has brawling opponents throwing each other through satellites. A punch between Zod and Superman is so strong it creates a shockwave that collapses a building. Superman uses his powers with versatility in the moment, melting a steel beam that’s swinging at his head, hovering in place when a floor falls out beneath him.
It’s the best superhero action ever put to film. And it’s not stingy - there’s so much of it that you’ll be wrung out by the end. The set pieces keep coming and coming. Whatever this movie cost it was well spent.
At the same time the action is extraordinarily disturbing. Again and again Snyder takes pains to show us civilians scurrying out of the way as Kryptonians clash in their midst. The death toll must be staggering, a completely world-changing amount of mayhem. But Superman doesn’t care. Maybe I needed it spelled out more, but I never got the sense that Superman was trying to take the conflict out of the city. He doesn’t stop fighting to rescue people trapped in rubble, and since we’re watching Perry White and some Daily Planet staffers trapped in rubble during the battle we can assume there are many others in similar dire straits.
And then something happens. Something that is probably a spoiler, so I’m going to give you some space on either side of it. Feel free to skip this if you’re worried, but I think it’s a minor spoiler and it speaks to my issues with the scale of the film’s action.
The final moments of the Zod and Superman battle happen in Metropolis’ version of Grand Central Station. Zod, on the ropes, turns Superman’s love for humanity against him and tries to use his heat vision to fry a family of four. This is a big moment for both of them. Which is fine... if the preceding fifteen minutes had not been clearly a massacre of thousands upon thousands of people. There’s a certain point where the question of four more bodies on the pile becomes either irrelevant or the most relevant thing in the world, but the script doesn’t tackle it correctly. Superman makes no mention of the fact that so many have already died, and at the end of the movie nobody really seems to be worried about it (I’m reminded of the end of Star Trek Into Darkness where the devastation of San Francisco is utterly ignored). Many of Man of Steel’s speeches are questions about how humanity would react when the existence of an alien demigod was revealed to them. How about just dealing with how humanity would react when so many people are killed?
While Superman agonizing about the family in the path of Zod’s heat vision is classic, perfect Superman (and reminiscent of something John Byrne did in his early Superman reboot comics) the way he shrugs off the destruction of Smallville and Metropolis isn’t. I understand the need to not end the film on a downer note, but that could have been solved by simply having a throwaway line or two about the city being evacuated (or in the case of Smallville not showing Superman telling people to hide inside stores we soon see utterly destroyed). Instead the film keeps civilians front and center throughout the battle.
I don’t mind the deaths of innocents in a situation like this (fictional, I mean). But Superman would. In a very, very big way.
Spoiler space ends.
I don’t think that spoilery aspect of the ending ruins the movie; it could, in fact, present a fascinating springboard for the sequel. And I do want to see a sequel. This film ends with the traditional Superman status quo being introduced, much as Batman Begins did, and Snyder and Nolan have crafted a Superworld that is full of potential. The bar isn’t just set high for future Avengers movies, it’s set high for the next Superman film, and I’d love to see Snyder take another crack at it.
Whatever problems Man of Steel has - and it has enough to keep it from being a cohesively great movie - it has enough good to make it a must-see. Like I said up top, a couple of thousand words ago, this is the Superman movie we’ve been waiting to see. The fact that it leaves room for improvement only makes me more excited for the next one.
* it’s easy to see a great man sent to Earth by his father as Christlike, but the reality is that what makes Christ Christ is his sacrifice. It took Superman until the 1990s to get there. Considering the religion of his creators, Superman is clearly a Moses figure, sent to lead a people who are not his own.