Like The Beatles, breathing, and sugary soda, everyone has a soft spot for Superman. After all, the guy was the first superhero to grace comics and the big screen.
He’s a cultural institution and his iconic “S” symbol will be worn by humans even once we enter the generic jump suit phase of the future promised in so many bad sci-fi movies. The trouble and strength of the man of steel is that as the superhero genre evolved and progressed through various mediums, Superman has remained the same. There’s no Marvel neurosis or Batman brooding in Superman. The character is a god and an icon, and these days that’s a tough sell. He’s too perfect for character deconstruction and too powerful to ever face a threat he can’t overcome. Superman is a little boring in many ways and resistant to reinvention.
Yet, we’re also talking about a brand that sells, custom designed for a blockbuster marketplace that needs to guarantee hundreds of millions of dollars before coming close to cracking a profit. So in the age of superhero movies, it makes sense that filmmakers keep trying to find ways to update Superman for a new generation. Bryan Singer attempted to tap into Richard Donner nostalgia and godly mythmaking in Superman Returns, but delivered a disappointment. Now Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan have opted for a more grounded Dark Knight approach and fared only marginally better. They come tantalizingly close to delivering something special, but spoil it all about 90 minutes into their epic with a Swiss cheese script ripe for Dark Knight Rises-style internet nitpicking. It’s a shame they come so close, yet fall so far, but maybe Superman just isn’t suited to reinvention. He’s already a groundbreaking legend, why not leave it at that and focus on some more unexplored superhero avenues instead?
Since we’re in reboot territory, the movie starts exactly as you’d expect. We’re transported to Krypton where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) desperately tries to warn his Kryptonian brothers of impending doom that they refuse to hear. General Zod (Michael Shannon) then attempts a military coup to save the planet and just gets himself banished to the Phantom Zone for his troubles. The planet crumbles, but not before Jor-El sends his infant son hurtling towards a new home on a big, blue, living planet called Earth. Then the movie hits its most interesting section with Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) first appearing not as a pint-sized Superman, but as a bearded lost soul who saves a stack of sailors from a crumbling ship with his untested superpowers. From there, Superman’s origin is played out through Clark’s memory and a plucky young Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) investigative reporting. We see the painful difficulties of a boy who can see through skin and hear across the world struggling to not only control his powers, but hide them on the advice of his adopted Ma (Diane Lane) and Pa (Kevin Costner). At the same time, Lane hears the same stories in hushed tones from witnesses and the relatable tales take on the form of legend. Flashbacks fold into flashbacks and loop back into dream sequences. It’s an incredibly clever and non-linear way of framing the familiar Superman origin through a mix of mythmaking and psychological realism. For 40-minutes or so it seems like Nolan and Snyder might well have found a new way to tell an old story and then it all falls apart.
The moment things get a bit silly is when Clark finds a Kryptonion ship in the arctic that he uses to speak to Jor-El’s ghost. It’s pretty ridiculous and a huge leap in logic for the sake of pacing. If that were the only logic leap, it would be entirely forgivable since superhero movies need to move fast and this one rockets to the end credits. However, those lazy writing tropes pile up fast and furiously (not unlike a certain laughably ludicrous summer movie franchise). Characters appear out of nowhere and make insane decisions just because the plot demands it. Events happen with no correlation between time and space. Lois Lane transforms from a genius journalist into a whiny damsel in distress capable of little more than making goo-goo eyes at Superman. Lame one-liners take over the screenplay like it was written for Nicolas Cage. IHOP gets so much product placement that it practically turns into a reoccurring joke. Things get very, stupid very quickly, but thankfully it’s all mostly redeemed when Zod returns for the climax. The last 40-minutes of non-stop Metropolis crushing action is simply astounding to let into your eyeballs and fulfills every comic book geek’s fantasies of translating the most epic and impossible Superman action scenes to physical reality. The Superman vs. The Kryptonian fights might stretch on a bit long, but deliver everything you could possibly dream of from a Superman beat em’ up. Snyder and his effects crew have certainly gone above and beyond the call of duty in that department, it’s just a shame no one put that much attention into the script.
There’s so much to love and admire in Man Of Steel that it’s just as impossible a movie to hate as it is to love. Aside from the truly jaw-dropping, pants-filling action, the cast is quite special. Cavill probably could have used a little Christopher Reeves winking humor, but still fills the red boots like the hero they deserve. Amy Adams is enchanting as the witty, whip-smart, and tough-as-nails version of Lois Lane. Michael Shannon brings so much charismatic psychosis to Zod that Terrence Stamp’s version somehow slips away from memory almost instantly. Costner and Lane are the perfect parents a little alien boy needs. Even Russell Crowe manages to redeem himself after his awful, terrible, tragic, and heartbreaking “performance” in Les Miserables. It’s an incredible cast so collectively strong that they almost sell every silly plot twist (almost). Sure, everyone else in the cast are little more than pawns in a creaky screenplay, but the pillars that this franchise has been built on are more than strong enough to sustain a sequel or three.
Snyder even mercifully tones down his excessive/irritating slo-mo/fast-mo aesthetic for something more subdued and simultaneously mythic and gritty. Despite all the problems, it’s probably the best movie he’s done and contained enough to suggest that the 12-year-old boy-in-a-man’s-body might be growing up slightly. It’s clear that he, Nolan, and screenwriter David Goyer absolutely love this character and want to provide the movie Supes deserves. The film is littered with references to everything from Superman 2 to Smallville, All-Star Superman, The JLA books, and even Krypto. Thematically the film treats the character right as a godly figure of good that the world should strive to emulate without any needless humanization or forced compassion. Man Of Steel is clearly a movie made by people who love Superman for people who love Superman, but those frequent highs only make the lows that much more difficult to take.
It’s safe to say that this screenplay will be ridiculed on the internet all summer (get ready for some Jesus/Superman parallels even more painful than Superman Returns) and deservingly so. Man Of Steel is far from perfect, but considering that everyone involved had the thankless task of telling the one Superman story everyone has already seen on film, it could and should have been so much worse. There’s enough done right that future movies with tighter scripts and less ambition could genuinely deliver Superman thrills that can compete with an overcrowded superhero movie marketplace. Sure, it would be nice if this guy could be left alone to simply be a comic book hero and American legend, but if Superman movies still need to be made (and apparently they do), this speeding locomotive seems to be headed in the right direction. Man Of Steel might not be the big screen Superman masterpiece the fanboys hoped for, but that movie was already made in 1978 and at least this is the best batch of reheated leftovers to come along since.