I watched Man of Steel the other day, the underrated and divisive Zack Snyder film that reintroduced Superman on film and was the start of the celluloid DC Comics movie universe (known as the DCEU). It had been a while since I’d last seen it, so I thought I’d write a review (as you do), even though it’s somewhat late (like four years).
Henry Cavill stars as Clark Kent/Superman, and aside from being a good English actor who can do a decent American accent, he’s also built like the proverbial brick sh*thouse (Aussie slang meaning he’s big). Apparently he worked out solidly for six months before filming and put on about forty pounds of extra muscle. He’s the first Superman (sorry, Chris Reeve), who has the actual size and build to match the character in the comics. Clark is rocketed to Earth to escape his home planet Krypton’s destruction, grows up with human parents who teach him right and wrong, and eventually defends the planet from an invasion by Kryptonian criminals who survived the extinction of their world.
Amy Adams does a fantastic job as Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe is suitably stoic as Jor-El, Superman’s Kryptonian Father. Kevin Costner plays Clark’s human father, stealing his scenes in some deeply emotional flash backs with young Clark. Diane Lane is ideal as Martha Kent and Lawrence Fishburne redefines the role of Perry White, a role he was obviously made for. Michael Shannon plays General Zod, who wants to return the Kryptonian race by converting Earth into Krypton.
Now I know almost everyone loves Superman: the Movie and Superman 2, and for many people Christopher Reeve is the definitive Superman. I loved those movies when they came out, however there were some non-comics things that irked me about them even at a young age. For example, in Superman: the Movie, Superman turns back time by spinning the world backwards, undoing a major earthquake, saving Lois Lane from death and basically meaning he could do literally anything. Mario Puzo, who wrote the original script, advised that time traveling was not in his script, it was added by other scriptwriters later. And it was not a good choice. In effect, it demeaned the value of the characters and the movie itself, by being a deus ex machina plot device. In Superman 2, Superman loses his powers to a Red Sun Chamber in the Fortress of Solitude, so he can have a good time with Lois Lane, then gets them back when he needs to save the world, then reverses the chamber to take away the Kryptonian supervillains powers, whom he then throws into the freezing arctic waters where they die (who says Superman doesn’t kill – I guess it’s convenient in movies). And don’t get me started on the stupid cellophane “S” he uses as a weapon.
Man of Steel is a much more mature take on the Superman story. There’s no time travelling saves, no made up superpowers – in fact this version is probably the closest to the comics the movies have ever been. Man of Steel was pitched by Christopher Nolan (my all-time favourite director, who co-wrote the script with David Goyer) as a first contact movie, which makes a lot of sense. After all, if a guy like Superman was to appear and we found out he was an alien, what would people think, how would they react? They might not necessarily cheer him on at first and would probably be scared. Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS), the much-maligned sequel (which is a lot better than its critics suggest), addresses some of this in the news reports and interviews that feature as backdrops to some of the main Superman scenes in that movie, and includes the political and religious implications of a Superman.
Man of Steel has a serious and dark tonality. I like comic book movies taken seriously. I love the Marvel movies, but I understand that Warner Brothers was looking for a different tone when they launched the DCEU. One thing you notice when you watch Man of Steel is that almost every scene is filmed with handheld cameras, and the digital grading used washes out the primary colours, so that it appears more realistic looking – almost like a documentary. This is the effect that Snyder wanted. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, but it certainly makes the movie look much different to the standard superhero fare.
Man of Steel contains some of the best high-powered superhero fights committed to celluloid. The Kryptonian attack on Smallville is a standout. The impact of super-strength and super-speed on human soldiers and the town is convincingly portrayed, and Superman shows he can fight with the best of them (whereas previous Superman movies have shown the titular character as easily outclassed when he doesn’t have his powers, you can imagine a powerless Man of Steel Superman holding his own).
I like the fact that Lois Lane knows Clark’s identity from the start. In fact, many people in Smallville know he’s got powers. It makes more sense considering he is seen doing things a normal man can’t possibly do. Following up eyewitness accounts is how Lois tracks Clark down.
*** SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie, but want to, don’t read any further ***
One of the things that made the movie so contentious, was the ending. After defeating the Kryptonian invaders, General Zod and Superman duke it out in Metropolis, destroying multiple buildings and a satellite. The Superman most people know should have tried to take the battle away from the city to prevent property damage and possible loss of life. The explanation is that this is a brasher, younger, inexperienced Superman, who makes mistakes. Of course, Zod had threatened to destroy all humans at this point, so it’s quite possible Superman may not have been able to take the battle elsewhere, even if he wanted to.
Another thing that irks many viewers (especially those who prefer Chris Reeve’s Superman, despite the evidence in Superman 2), is Superman’s choice to break Zod’s neck, when Clark finds he has no other way of preventing Zod from incinerating some civilians. Yes, the comic book Superman has killed supervillains in the past (in fact, a parallel General Zod and Kryptonian villains in a storyline where they had destroyed an alternate Earth and threatened our Earth – it did send Superman a bit crazy, though). A lot of people make out that it’s some easy thing, but if you watch the scene you can see the impact is clear – Superman has not only killed a man, he’s killed the only other member of his race. Now he is truly alone. Luckily Lois is there to pick up the pieces, otherwise Clark may have ended up a basket case.
I haven’t mentioned the music. Hans Zimmer is not known for generic movie soundtracks. The Man of Steel soundtrack is a standout. Yes, I know the John Williams Superman theme can’t be beat, but Zimmer’s take is weighty and resonant, and in keeping with the current version of the character.
So take a look at Man of Steel again. It’s a lot better than you might have been led to believe.
And if you watch the sequel BvS afterwards, make sure you check out the extended edition Blu-ray, which includes a lot of scenes deleted from the original theatrical cut and provides much additional context and motivation for the characters.
Man of Steel presents a Superman for a newer, perhaps more pragmatic, generation. And it does it well.