(HEAVY SPOILER WARNING! – I have written this review assuming you have seen Man of Steel and will be including major spoilers in my analysis of the film.)
I should begin by saying that my devotion to the two Richard Donner films is almost religious in nature, and I came to this film with a very high bar. That being said, I was not looking for Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder to practice slavish devotion to the originals the way Superman Returns did to its critical and popular detriment. Instead, I used the same metric I always use when viewing a comic book superhero movie. A good superhero movie must, above all else, stay true to the essence of the character it is presenting to audiences.
Batman is driven by the death of his parents to try and prevent that from happening to anyone else. His crusade is pathological in nature, but kept on the side of the angels by Bruce’s unswerving moral code.
Spider-Man is an outsider who, despite his powers, is always struggling to succeed in his civilian role. Peter Parker is attractive to the outsider because, despite his super-powers, he remains an outsider to society.
And Superman is about the belief that we can be better than we are. He is a thinly-veiled Christ metaphor that says a great man, with great strength of character and body, can lead the masses to do great things.
So does Man of Steel get this right? Sure. Jor-El’s voice-overs and monologues spell out his hopes for Kal-El in black and white, and they include elevating him to world-savior status through his extraordinary strength and the vast knowledge bequeathed to him by his Kryptonian heritage. Henry Cavill plays Clark/Kal-El/Superman with the appropriate mixture of gravitas and starry-eyed optimism. He broods very well, but never mires himself in paralyzing self-examination. He struggles to figure out his role in the world, but doesn’t take forever coming to his inevitable conclusion (or at least we are not forced to watch it). The real struggle for Kal-El is whether or not to fully embrace his adopted home, and in doing so doom his genetic homeworld to oblivion. His conclusion is as blindingly optimistic as it is pragmatic: “Krypton had its chance.”
In saying this, he both dooms Krypton for its moral failings and grants Earth the chance to fumble for its own destiny. And in doing so he completes the Christ metaphor that this film works so hard (and obviously at times) to create. In a world where everyone is born with a specific purpose, genetically engineered and grown in a lab, Kal-El is conceived naturally and born the same. Like the divinely conceived Jesus, he is brought into the world in an unusual manner. We are first introduced to the adult Clark when he is working on a fishing boat, much like the Jewish “Fisher of Men”. When Clark goes to a man of the cloth for advice on whether or not to turn himself in to the Pharisees – I mean General Zod and the Kryptonians – he does so beneath a stained-glass window relief of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. As he later detaches himself from the Kryptonian mother ship and begins his descent to Earth he spreads his hands out with his feet together in a way familiar to anyone who has ever attended a church with a crucifix. In his final battle with Zod, Kal-El is forced to take on the sin of murder for the sake of the people he would protect. And his age in the film? Thirty-three. Just in case you didn’t catch all the other clues.
The exploration of this mythic archetype, however, runs face first into the epic requirements demanded of a summer blockbuster. We are given the per-requisite character building scenes, the obligatory monologues that explain the primary character conflicts – and then we are given the FX. It’s a Zack Snyder movie (Watchmen, 300), so you go expecting to see a certain level of spectacle and slow-motion violent acrobatics. And Snyder doesn’t disappoint. The fighting between Kryptonians is furious and dizzying in its speed and intensity, to the point that you can almost imagine that this is the way beings of this sort would brawl. There is no question that Man of Steel delivers the awesome fury that many Superman fans have wanted to see for so long. And it’s here that the movie lost me for a bit.
The violence in the film is vast in its scope and ferocity, and yet it occurs with no seeming concern for the numerous casualties that make up the collateral damage of these fights. Soldiers, pilots, and civilians all die with no sense that they matter more than mere set decoration. Every other incarnation of Superman that I can think of would go out of his way to prevent loss of human life. Why doesn’t he simply drag Zod out to the desert or the middle of the ocean instead of battling him in the one section of Metropolis that is still untouched by destruction? Answer: Because buildings falling over makes for better ticket sales. It’s inevitable – I get that. But Superman shouldn’t. He should do everything in his power to save lives, even at the cost of his own.
Taken together, these two elements create an enjoyable summer movie. It’s no classic, but it’s a nice update of a character that should never be far from the public zeitgeist. The supporting cast is more than capable, with strong if not iconic performances from Laurence Fishburne, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon. Kevin Costner’s Jonathan is pragmatic but loving, while Diane Lane’s Martha is a loving mother with a spine of steel. Both of them NAIL their part. Cavill is a great Superman – no Christopher Reeve, but I’m willing to give him a chance. Though with Zack Snyder at the helm, we should shelve any hopes for subtlety in the imagery or character departments. This Superman stares meaningfully and deeply into your eyes when he monologues with the wind blowing his cape artfully behind him.
One last criticism. I don’t remember a second of the score. I’ve never found Hans Zimmer’s music very memorable and Man of Steel did nothing to change that opinion. I know John Williams’ original theme was grandiose and horn-heavy, but that’s what made it great. You hear that theme and you not only believe a man can fly, you want to fly yourself. Zimmer’s score does none of those things and ultimately faded into background noise for me. Disappointing, but not surprising.
In summary I think Man of Steel was a flawed, but enjoyable summer movie. The special effects are impressive, though I think 3-D would only be significantly more rewarding in an IMAX theater. The performances are strong, if not always amazing, and I’ll look forward to seeing what they come up with for the already announced sequel.