Spoiler Alert! If you’ve not seen Man of Steel, it’s highly recommended that you do before reading this review.
As a lifelong Superman fan, I’ve long felt that the World’s Greatest Hero has never gotten his full due in the world of cinema, nor has he received a representative adaptation of who he has become over the last couple of decades. Frankly, Superman isn’t really the same character in 2013 that he was back in the mid-1970s, but that bygone interpretation of Krypton’s Last Son has informed every cinematic portrayal of him since that point.
When Superman Returns was released in 2006 (the very first Superman film released within my lifetime), I came away with a degree of disappointment, because the character I had gotten to know over the course of my life in both comics and animation was nowhere to be found in that film. Instead, director Bryan Singer sought to revive that older conception of who the character was in those first couple of Christopher Reeve films, and the reaction was lukewarm at best. For most other fans, it failed to inspire them in the way that they expected from the single most iconic superhero in existence.
The importance of this film to me cannot be understated. Superman is one of the key figures of my moral development as a young man, he is a constant inspiration to me in my adulthood, and he’s a character I’ve spent my entire life getting to know as well as I can. The result is that I feel a very personal connection to who he is, and above most other characters in fiction, I desperately want him to be well-represented.
I’m beyond pleased to tell you that Man of Steel delivers everything I was clamoring for last time, and so much more. My first thought after the credits began rolling was that finally, the medium of film itself has caught up to Superman.
Man of Steel by its very nature isn’t an automatic “win” for Superman because you can finally see what he’s fully capable of, though. The components of it that won me over are the attention the story placed on Clark’s development as a young man, the formation of his powers at a young age, and the lessons instilled in him by his adoptive parents. Beyond that, though, the conflict between Superman and General Zod is one that really felt, for the first time in my life, like a threat worthy of the immense power and ability of the titular Man of Steel.
From a perspective of tone, the film reminded me greatly of some of the best Superman stories of the last decade. The moments in Smallville and in Clark’s rather aimless search for answers evoked a great deal of Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s acclaimed series Superman: Birthright, the moments on Krypton had an expansive scope in visuals and dialogue that reminded me of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s definitive All Star Superman, and the tumultuous journey of Clark’s youth as well as his temperament as Superman seemed ripped from the pages of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s emotional Superman: Secret Origin.
As with Superman: The Movie and Batman Begins before it, Man of Steel peppered both main and supporting cast members with established stars while leaving the big role to a relative unknown, and to great effect. From Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents, on down to Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, every member of the cast seems appropriate for their roles, and in many cases give truly stand-out performances (with my personal favorite being Costner’s Jonathan Kent). Amy Adams is the personification of the modern Lois Lane: strong, independent, no-nonsense and to the point. Her moments of tenderness helped to greatly balance her performance and push it into definitive territory as far as Lois was concerned, and she very much becomes the emotional core of the story due to her connection with Clark.
Michael Shannon as General Zod was nothing short of intense and unsettling. His overriding and fanatical desire to protect his culture to such a great fault doesn’t seem particularly implausible here on Earth for someone that might have a similar military position, and that fundamental connection to his duty truly allows his performance to stand as a great example of supervillainy in a comic book film. Zod seemed greatly inspired by the work of Geoff Johns in his “Last Son” story arc (co-written with Richard Donner and drawn by Adam Kubert), where his overriding patriotism for his homeworld helped to inform his substantial desire for subjugating humanity.
Then, of course, there’s the man himself. Henry Cavill has done a lot in the last couple of years to significantly win over a large sect of Superman fans, with his outspoken acquired love for the character he’s come to embody, and the lengths to which he studied the source material for the part. Cavill’s Superman is rather stoic, but never in a detached way. Man of Steel isn’t a funny story with a lot of humorous bits flailing throughout. It’s the coming of age and the acceptance of destiny within the mind of the most powerful being on planet Earth. Cavill’s performance as Superman validates that, while also having compassion and heart befitting the character that I’ve come to know so well. Elements of levity are found within that truth-to-character, though, like the moment where Superman explains to Lois that he allowed the military to handcuff him “if it makes them feel more comfortable.” That is totally Superman!
Superman, as a character, has far greater representative power than practically every other superhero in existence. He’s a beacon of hope, a symbol of strength, and a personification of good, and the movie really attempts to make it clear that this Superman is supposed to maintain a similar place in the new world created here. At some points it can hit you over the head with it, but one aspect that’s never been sufficiently fleshed out with the character before was his power. With the heart of Clark Kent firmly established, I felt that the film had earned the right to become a spectacle of Kryptonian mayhem, but even within that mayhem, you saw Superman saving people when he could. That in and of itself felt very true to me.
The science fiction elements were particularly impressive, as this was the most unique take on Krypton and its technology that I’ve ever seen. The ways in which this fed into the story at large was pretty satisfying, and really made me feel like the film was celebrating everything that makes up Superman’s world: normally conflicting genres like hardcore sci-fi, tender drama, and action-adventure combining into a hybrid story resulting in the World’s Greatest Hero. As much as Superman himself is a transcendent figure in the genre of superheroes and their source material, he’s also a hugely successful contradiction in a few ways, and I was very happy that the new film didn’t shy away from that (as other Superman outings have tended to do).
The conclusion to the main conflict has garnered a fair amount of criticism from certain Superman fans, and I understand completely where they’re coming from. I tend to think that Superman’s final actions toward General Zod are permissible for one basic reason: he’s done it in the source material before. In the early 1990s saga of The Death of Superman, the Man of Steel knew that the only way to stop the unstoppable behemoth Doomsday from destroying city after city, and life after life, was to end the rampaging alien’s life. It was not a decision he made lightly, but it was one that he was unable to escape from.
Man of Steel posits a similar “no-win scenario” involving General Zod, heat vision, and an innocent family. Could Superman possibly have prevented Zod from destroying that family without ending him? Maybe. But even so, then what? At the beginning of the battle, Zod makes it clear that he will not stop while there is life within him. Superman and he were practically stalemated up to that decisive point, and the fact that he waited until the last possible second while showing a great deal of remorse was important. Had Superman killed Zod and simply walked away, that would be one thing. The choice that he makes, though, is one that doesn’t come easily. Within Zod is perhaps his final, tangible connection to his people, and by ending him, he effectively cut himself off from Krypton forever. It was not an ideal scenario, but beyond that, the moment definitely served its purpose by shocking a great deal of people in the audience.
Man of Steel is not the Superman of 1978, and if yet another attempt was made at reviving an older conception of his character, the film would surely be a total failure. Instead, by relying upon some of the best examples of the recent source material, I believe it will go a long way in helping to redefine so many peoples’ incorrect perceptions about Superman and bring him to a level playing field with the other popular superheroes of today. In Man of Steel, the main character doesn’t try to be Batman, Spider-Man, or any member of the Avengers. Instead, he succeeds at being bigger and broader than those “imitators” by unequivocally being Superman, and at the end of the day, that was who I wanted to see the most.
Chances are, you’ll find a whole new Superman waiting for you at the theater when you see this film, and I can’t wait for the rest of the world to meet him.
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