Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) was a poorly-executed and poorly-received movie that effectively mothballed the Superman franchise for years while Warner Brothers spun its wheels and spent all kinds of money trying to figure out a way to reboot the potentially lucrative series, most infamously with Tim Burton directing and Nicolas Cage set to star as the son of Jor-El. Fortunately, that version never got past the planning stages. Finally, Bryan Singer got a shot with Superman Returns (2006) and instead of restarting the franchise, created a cinematic love letter to Richard Donner’s 1978 movie and pretended that Superman III (1983) and the aforementioned IV never existed. While Singer’s movie performed decently at the box office, it was hardly the blockbuster the studio had hoped for (in relation to its very large budget). In addition, Superman Returns was criticized for not having enough action.
So, the studio went back to the drawing board, this time enlisting the braintrust from the recent Batman movies with Christopher Nolan producing and David S. Goyer tackling the screenplay. To direct, they hired Zack Snyder, fresh from the critical and commercial failure of Sucker Punch (2011), but with comic book credentials thanks to his adaptation of Watchmen (2009). By bringing in these three men, the studio made their intentions pretty clear – to start fresh and that this would not be another bright and shiny Superman movie, but something darker and edgier, that would reflect the times in which it was made.
Right from the get-go, Goyer and Nolan tweak the Superman mythos by expanding the Krypton prologue so that not only is the planet self-destructing, its society is engulfed in a civil war with the insurrectionists led by General Zod (Michael Shannon). Right off, Snyder sets a massive, epic look and tone with frenetic battles and chases as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) evades Zod and races to send his son Kal-El off to Earth. Russell Crowe plays the role that Marlon Brando did so memorably in the ’78 version and brings just the right amount of gravitas to the part. He also brings an emotional weight to offset the overwhelming visual spectacle of Krypton’s destruction, which is an impressive CGI workout as you’ll see in any movie in recent memory.
We are introduced to Kal-El a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) in a striking sequence where he saves a crew on a burning oil rig that is gritty and visceral in its depiction as Snyder places us right in the middle of action so that we can almost feel the heat of the burning flames and get a sense of the dangerous situation. For the first half of Man of Steel, Snyder cuts back in forth from Clark as an adult, drifting from job to job, and showing key moments in Clark’s childhood where he came to terms with and first learned how to use and harness his superpowers as a young boy.
Meanwhile, intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is investigating a rather large object lodged in ice that’s been buried deep for thousands of years. She meets Clark who is also investigating it (under the auspices as a hired hand for the company that is doing all the grunt work) and they uncover an alien craft that Jor-El had launched many years ago. From it, Clark learns all about where he came from. Eventually, Zod and his cronies arrive on Earth, decked out in outfits that look like they came from the H.R. Giger collection, and call out Clark, threatening to destroy the Earth unless he surrenders to the general. As you would expect, much epic carnage ensues.
Henry Cavill is very good as Kent/Superman. He has a quietly confident presence that allows him to slip into this iconic role rather seamlessly and make it his own. He doesn’t try to play Clark as a bumbling nerd a la Christopher Reeve or earnestly like Brandon Routh, but delivers a more muscular, passionate performance as a young man trying to figure out who he is and his place in the world, which is the predominant theme of the movie. He also does a nice job of conveying the internal conflict that exists within Clark – should he reveal his true nature to the world and risk the lives of those he loves? Clark enjoys a satisfying arc as he learns the importance of sacrifice and doing what is right.
Michael Shannon conveys the right amount of anger and bluster as Zod, a military man with a personal vendetta against Jor-El and, by extension, his son, pursuing the child to Earth. Goyer provides Zod with a very clear and definite motivation. He wants to preserve his race and sees Clark as the key to doing that. Zod is willing to raze the Earth to achieve his goal and believes what he is doing is right. Shannon does a decent job of conveying this conviction with absolute certainty even if his performance involves mostly shouting dramatic speeches and threats.
Do we need yet another origins story, especially for a character as well known as Superman? I think so, but only if it is significantly different from previous efforts, which Man of Steel succeeds in accomplishing. Let’s not forget that we haven’t had a cinematic depiction of Superman’s origins since 1978. I think enough time has passed for a retelling. This new movie expands the depiction of the destruction of Krypton significantly and puts more emphasis on the civil war that is led by Zod, which is interesting as it provides strong motivation for what he does later on.
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane bring a wonderful, earthy, natural quality as Clark’s Earth-bound parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. Costner, in particular, is very good as he imparts to his son values that will serve him later in life, teaching him not to use his powers for personal gain. Early on, Clark is not ready to reveal his powers to the world and is still finding himself as he drifts from job to job. This is a nice touch as it shows how he accrues life experiences. This first half of the movie is the strongest part, especially a heartfelt moment where Ma Kent is called to school because young Clark’s X-ray vision has kicked in (quite an analogy for puberty) for the first time and he’s understandably freaked out. She is able to get him to calm down through the soothing sound of her voice. This scene shows the bond between Clark and his Earth-bound parents and how, over time, he gets used to his powers, which is something that figures significantly in the climactic battle between Superman and Zod. The second half, especially once Zod and his crew start trashing Smallville, gets a bit more problematic, especially some of the choices Superman makes that seem to only make sense in that it allows Snyder and the special effects department to flex their CGI muscles. Furthermore, the battle of Metropolis drags on a little too long. One can only take so much CGI carnage before you get numb to it and it goes from being visually dazzling to so much white noise. That being said, I am willing to overlook these kinds of lapses because Man of Steel is so strong overall.
For those tired of Snyder’s overuse of his trademark ramp-up/ramp-down action sequences, which reached their apex in Sucker Punch, they will be happy to know that he has eschewed that for a more grounded, naturalistic approach while still conveying the epic scale of destruction. For the larger-than-life action sequences, Snyder opts for jittery, hand-held camerawork that creates a grittier vibe than what has been depicted in previous Superman movies, which helps ground the fantastical by placing us right in the thick of the action. The advances in CGI have made the display of Superman’s powers the most believable of any of the movies, especially the sequence where he first learns to fly, which is breathtaking in how it conveys the speed and intensity of what he can do, like when he breaks the sound barrier, depicted in a way that evokes Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) – something that was sorely lacking from Superman Returns, which featured some dated and dodgy looking flying effects.
The fight sequences are appropriately loud and flashy as we get super-beings beating on each other, smashing through buildings and vehicles, which could so easily have been just another special effects workout scored to Hans Zimmer’s gloriously epic music. While they do drag on for too long, we are emotionally invested in Clark and those close to him because of the groundwork laid down during the first half of the movie as we grew to care about him and his world. It makes one wonder if Nolan’s presence as producer kept Snyder’s tendency to excessive style in check. I have enjoyed parts of Snyder’s past movies, but he always struck me as a talented director in need of the right script and someone to rein him in. This is the first movie of his that I’ve enjoyed all the way through and it is by far the best thing he’s done to date.
Snyder and co. clearly learned from the mistakes that Singer made with Superman Returns and made sure that Man of Steel was distinctly different in look, tone and pretty much everything else. Goyer and Nolan wisely reboots the franchise and amps up the action and the visual spectacle to impressive levels while also managing to get us invested in the characters so that we care about what happens to Superman amidst all the noisy CGI carnage. While it may seem like faint praise considering their quality, this is the best Superman movie since Superman II (1980). After the fanboy love letter that was Singer’s movie, we needed one that finally got away from the Christopher Reeve era and struck out on its own, which Man of Steel does quite impressively. This is no more apparent than the now controversial ending where Superman is faced with a dire moral dilemma. The choice he makes is what has stirred up those that feel Goyer and Nolan have betrayed one of the basic underpinnings of the character, but I think that it gives the movie a bit of complexity, much as was done with Batman in The Dark Knight (2008). It should be interesting to see where the filmmakers take Superman from here with the inevitable sequel.