It would seem we are in something of a Golden Age of superhero film. It seems like every other blockbuster is based on the exploits of a Marvel or DC Comics character, especially since 2008 when The Dark Knight was released and Iron Man began the march toward The Avengers. Conspicuous in his absence was the granddaddy of all superheroes, Superman. Though the first two Superman films are fondly remembered, the 2006 continuation Superman Returns fell flat and left the series in limbo. Now Man of Steel hopes to start an all new Superman film franchise. Is this a shiny new beginning for our oldest superhero, or another non-starter? Here are my mostly spoiler-free thoughts.
Man of Steel is very much Batman Begins for Superman, even relying on flashbacks to explain the backstory. This is not a slight against Man of Steel, the Superman story needed to be rebuilt from the ground up on film, just as Batman needed it. The choice of Zod as a villain is a bit interesting, because he is better known from the original films than he ever was in the comics. The sequel focused mindset dictates that Lex Luthor cannot be featured until movie #2 or #3 (though you are likely to spot some LexCorp logos throughout Metropolis).
The nonlinear exposition was actually refreshing for me, because I was prepared to sit through a full Smallville retread of the Superman origin. The prologue on Krypton at the start of the film does its best to reinvent the dying planet, but I found the execution a bit too Star Wars-prequelish. I say that as a fan of those movies, but the pure amount of CGI-candy, and action hero Jor-El, in that sequence gets to be a bit much.
“A bit much” is probably the right descriptor for Man of Steel overall, from overwhelming aerial battles to Christ metaphors. The popular narrative across the internet seems to be that this movie is a direct response to the criticism of Superman Returns. That in response to a movie with no action, we get a ball-to-the-wall super-punchfest. This is somewhat true. There is no doubt that the goal for Man of Steel was to cut the ties that held Superman Returns back, and offer a more physical threat.
But who among us has not wanted to see a Superman fight with modern special effects behind him? Anyone looking for Superman unleashed in combat is going to be happy. Yet I think this movie has enough heart that it cannot be completely dismissed as Michael Bay’s Superman, and that heart is mostly supplied by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).
- I really like Henry Cavill as Superman. I am not familiar with his past work, but he really looks and sounds the part. It is a very controlled performance, and the Superman character is all about self control. He might not get a lot of recognition now, but I think he will become an iconic Superman if the franchise takes off.
- I still have not decided how I feel about Michael Shannon’s take on General Zod. The sheer amount of henchmen and technology at his disposal lessen his personal menace. He is not the threat, he is just its leader. But he does have some fantastic moments.
- Not a huge Amy Adams fan, but I enjoyed her here. I do have doubts about her returning in sequels, she just doesn’t seem like a franchise actress to me.
- I really enjoyed Christopher Meloni. His military character plays a key role in several scenes, and he was quite a badass.
- Another note from the Batman Begins playbook is the emphasis on the people’s reaction to the superhero in their midst. The world is thrown for a loop that Superman exists, and this is very much a movie about aliens.
- The climax of the film features a fairly shocking moment, likely to be the “make it or break it” moment for Superman fans.
- Several classic superpowers are not present or undiscovered at this point. The heat vision was well executed, and really felt like a potentially devastating weapon.
- The settings of Smallville and Metropolis were not given much emphasis in the film. They usually do in Superman adaptations, and Gotham was given so much discussion in the recent Batman trilogy.
- The line between Superman and Clark Kent is hazy at best, to the point that I honestly thought they were going to skip the alternate identity. I’m still not sure how he would be able to maintain a secret identity after the way things play out in Smallville.
This movie is probably not for everyone the way that the first Iron Man was. I walked out with the feeling that this movie will have a lot of supporters, and also many detractors. However, now that a big, blunt battleaxe has severed the connection to the Richard Donner films, I believe a solid foundation for the future of Superman movies has been laid. It is important to remember that this was supposed to establish the character of Superman as he realizes his destiny, so we are not really seeing the character you might be expecting until the final scenes. If we are witnessing the first step toward a Justice League crossover film, I think this is a Superman who can carry the weight.