(WARNING: This review contains spoilers).
Seven years after the mediocre success of “Superman Returns,” Superman, well, returns to the big screen thanks to director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan.
A young man from Kansas learns of his alien origin and that he is destined to become Earth’s greatest hero—just in time to fight invaders from his destroyed homeworld.
Unlike other superhero reboots like “Batman Begins” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Man of Steel” dares to tread on familiar ground. It retells Superman’s origin—odd since Supes has arguably the most well-known origin of any superhero—and it features a villain who has already appeared in a previous film: General Zod (who was originally played by Terrence Stamp in the first two Christopher Reeve movies). Other superhero reboots worked because they utilized villains who had not appeared on film before, thereby avoiding unnecessary comparisons at the onset. However, these old elements are given fresh takes by the film’s creative team, which also includes prominent superhero screenwriter David S. Goyer.
Snyder is known for his spectacular and imaginative visuals, and that talent once again shines through. It is best exemplified in the early scenes on Krypton. Like Richard Donner before him, Snyder gives a unique vision of Superman’s home planet. It is an advanced technological world that looks like it was misplaced from LucasFilm’s concept art department for “Star Wars,” what with its ray guns, spaceships and dragon-like beasts of burden. But even on Earth, Snyder does whatever he can to fill the screen with epic spectacle. Even something as simple as Superman taking off for the first time is handled with excitement, as he seemed to shake off gravity as if it were chains holding him down. The climactic invasion rivals that of last year’s “The Avengers.” The film certainly delivers on the fans’ demands to see Superman actually fight supervillains.
However, while Snyder is known for his “cool factor,” his films tend to be lighter on story, which is why it was smart to have master storytellers Nolan and Goyer onboard. These two crafted “Batman Begins,” so it made sense to have them reboot Superman too. The film has a Nolan-esque structure with its periodic flashbacks providing exposition or insights into Clark Kent/Superman’s character. While these flashbacks are shown out of chronological order, they are never jarring. Indeed, each one builds off the previous one in spite of it. The present-day story progresses at a brisk pace, but it still remembers its characters.
This creative team understands Superman, which is the film’s greatest strength. Nowadays, the Man of Steel plays second fiddle to Batman. Modern audiences have difficulty understanding a bright and optimistic character like him and prefer the brooding Dark Knight. Plus, Superman is demigod while Batman a mere mortal. So, Superman must be written well in order to be appealing. He is in this film. The first half has Clark Kent traveling the world trying to find himself since he is a child of two worlds. Only when he discovers his origins and learns of his destiny does he become Superman. Even then, he is still a Kansas farm boy at heart. Snyder also does not shy away from religious imagery. Several times Superman floats in the air in the shape of a cross. Jor-El, Superman’s birth father, speaks of his son’s destiny in almost messianic terms. Clark even visits a church and speaks with a priest about what she should do concerning the looming alien attack. The story of Superman has always had such overtones, but Snyder brings them boldly to the forefront.
As with most superhero adaptations, the story is combination of elements from multiple eras of the source material with some liberties taken. Fans will note that much of this film is derived from DC’s “New 52” line of comics. This is most evident in the military’s distrust of Superman and the design of his costume. Some of the classic mythos finds its way into the film. However, these make the liberties and omissions stand out. Perry White is African-American; Jimmy Olsen is nowhere to be seen; and Kryptonite is absent, to name a few. However, the filmmakers do sneak in some clever Easter eggs (foreshadowings?), such as a Lexcorp tanker truck and a Wayne Enterprises satellite.
The cast is strong. British actor Henry Cavil surprises audiences by proving he can play the most all-American of superheroes. He looks and sounds the part, whether he is wearing the colorful costume or a suit and glasses. Amy Adams infuses Lois Lane with an aggressive, tomboyish attitude. She will get to the bottom of a story no matter who gets in her way. Indeed, the filmmakers were bold enough to have her investigate Clark’s life and learn he was Superman before he put on the costume! Some fans may brand this heresy, but it has always seemed odd that a brilliant reporter like Lois never figured out Clark’s secret. Michael Shannon gives Zod more depth. Stamp’s Zod was a megalomaniac looking for a world to conquer, while this Zod is driven by his duty to serve his people, even if he must commit genocide. It makes him the most dangerous sort of villain: a sympathetic one.
The film is not without its Kryptonite, though. The visuals and action dominate the last 45 minutes. Some of those effects appear unpolished, especially during the herky-jerky fast movements of the fight scenes. The logistics of how yellow sunlight gives Kryptonians superpowers seem inconsistent. What fans will object to most passionately is the ending—Superman is forced to kill Zod. This scene is not helped by a set-up that still offers other options besides killing him.
Still, the film is “more powerful than a locomotive” and will hopefully be the first in a new shared cinematic universe for DC Comics.
Justice League, anyone?