Full disclosure: While I am a fan of superhero movies in general, I’m not a fan of Superman; I’ve always felt that he’s too campy, and that he doesn’t have enough weaknesses as a superhero or flaws as a character. He’s too perfect. Maybe this is why Man of Steel, for all its faults, still manages to soar. Zack Snyder gives us a look at Kal-El at his most vulnerable. Some people may not feel this is right, that the point of Superman is that he is above humanity’s weaknesses and an ideal to strive towards. But an ideal isn’t a character, and a film needs someone to relate to if it is going to succeed.
That said, from where I’m standing, Man of Steel still isn’t that much of a departure from previous iterations. It’s much more in line with the comics than Superman Returns was, but Superman still has his suit and cape, albeit in darker colors, and he’s still a corn-fed American from Kansas. Meanwhile, other elements have been given some “Nolanization.” Some scientifically plausible sounding jargon gets thrown around to explain Superman’s powers, and the world doesn’t just start bowing down to Superman the moment he reveals himself.
Clark grows up in Smallville dodging fearful suspicion, and as has been plastered on much of the advertising, gets himself arrested at one point. However, this makes up much less of the film than the marketing suggests; the film as a whole is much more devoted to your usual superhero origin story, with some occasional flourishes of narrative experimentation. When Superman gets cuffed, I started to suspect some The Day The Earth Stood Still stuff could go down, but it never did. I feel like there was some wasted potential there, but that could be my own expectations talking rather than the quality of the film itself.
Where the film is unquestionably a success is in its cinematography. Gone is the over-the-top spewing of visuals that Zack Snyder is known for. Instead, Man of Steel makes use of unobtrusive handheld-cameras and muted colors, both of which serve to ground the film in the real world (at least as much as a superhero film can claim). As the film moves on, the visual style slowly becomes grander until it evolves into the Zack Snyder ‘comic-book panel come to life’ look, though still with a sense of restraint. Indeed, the progression of visuals feels so natural that I’m even tempted to use the word ‘lyrical.’ My screening was in 2D, and while I’m a fan of good 3D, I can’t imagine it works well with the prevalent handheld shots.
Action-wise, Superman cuts loose like he never has before, and it really shows just how much Superman Returns failed to showcase his power. Once his fellow Kryptonians show up, punches send fighters back several hundred yards. Gone are the days of catching planes; Superman’s actually up against enemies who can match him in a fight. Sure, everyone knows who’s going to win by the end of the movie, but Superman actually having to struggle makes for much more thrilling action. The final bout does start to drag a bit, and the time devoted to the excess punching could’ve been spent fleshing out Clark’s character more. But still, after all these years, it’s about damn time we saw Superman cut loose.
The movie’s biggest misstep is David S. Goyer’s scriptwriting. The dialogue is on-the-nose almost to a fault, and the pacing is all over the place; the prologue on Krypton is given a surprising amount of focus, Clark’s childhood is glossed over, along with his coming-out to the world, and the film doesn’t slow down until just before the action-packed finale. That’s all largely forgivable, as origin stories are the most repetitive of superhero stories, and they often acquire some clunkiness in an effort to stand out.
Some of the additions to the Superman mythos are quite good, such as Jon Kent’s attitude towards his adoptive son’s powers. Clark’s journey over the film is largely about his fear of revealing himself to the world and learning to accept who he is. That journey becomes a little muddled towards the end, but the film does get it right more often than not.
And thankfully, the cast absolutely delivers. Henry Cavill isn’t given enough dialogue, but he captures Clark’s humility and Superman’s decency very well. Amy Adams is unsurprisingly wonderful as Lois Lane, cutting down slightly on Lois’s spunkiness while refreshingly upping her intelligence, even if she’s occasionally reduced to a damsel for Superman to rescue. As Clark’s Kryptonian and human fathers, Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner get the bulk of the script’s heavy-handed speeches, some of which they handle well, some of which they don’t. Michael Shannon, likewise, isn’t given much depth from the script, but occasionally he’s able to get some complexity through. Diane Lane is also quite good as Martha Kent.
Overall, Man of Steel struggles to overcome the faults of its script. But with good performances, a refined visual style, and thrilling action, the film is a fine and surprisingly faithful return for Superman.
Verdict: Movie Win