Man of Steel presents a version of Superman that I didn’t care to see but that, in the course of its 143-minute runtime, I learnt to appreciate just the same. Do I wish director Zack Snyder had chosen a brighter palette with which to paint the DC universe, one inspired by the poppy primary colours of the original Action Comics series as opposed to the grey murkiness of The Lord of the Rings (2001)? Definitely. Do the film’s hopeful message and Henry Cavill’s understated warmth as our titular hero make up for it? Absolutely.
In light of Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer’s involvement in the plot, many will compare Man of Steel to 2005’s Batman Begins, which reintroduced the Dark Knight to modern audiences as a haunted vigilante rather than a Gothic icon. Similarly, this movie retells the origin of Superman in the hopes of finally shedding off Richard Donner’s campy interpretation, portraying an altruistic soul with the weight of the world on his shoulders rather than a symbol of American perfection. The question at the heart of this story isn’t whether you’ll believe a man can fly but what could motivate a humble person like Clark Kent to become Earth’s messiah.
This requires a lot of exposition and introverted talking-head scenes. In that regard, Man of Steel reminds me more of 2003’s Hulk than any of the Dark Knight movies. As in Ang Lee’s film, the emphasis is put on our hero’s parents or rather the peculiar hubris they project on their son. Consider the opening act, in which Clark’s biological father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), betrays an age-old tradition of designer procreation so his child can embody his species’ untapped potential. For the first time, we’re given an elaborate look at Kryptonian culture, both its technological virtues and societal flaws, which prompt General Zod (Michael Shannon) to attempt a coup in the name of his planet’s survival. He’s, of course, too late.
I don’t much care for Michael Shannon’s theatrics in Man of Steel, but I like that his character is given a noble cause. Bred to handle Krypton’s defense, Zod will do anything to ensure his people’s survival, so, when he threatens to terraform Earth thirty years later, we see him less as a villainous despot than as a desperate nationalist who can’t understand why his civilisation should fade into oblivion just so the local fauna can go about its business. Clark obviously has a different perspective, seeing as Jor-El sacrificed himself so he could grow up in Kansas, and the movie spends most of its runtime exploring how our hero negotiates his dual heritage.
In fact, over a third of Man of Steel follows a scruffy, bearded proto-Superman as he wanders the world, lifting heavy objects, saving lives, and flashing back to his formative years with the Kents. Like Jor-El, our hero’s adoptive father showed his love by way of sacrifice, though his final gift feels more like a curse, owing to its extreme nature. Really, it’s a terrible scene, made worse by Kevin Costner’s decision to play Jonathan as a zealot, a quiet madman who identifies a bit too much with Saint Joseph. Sure, the American military proves itself just as hostile as the Romans of yore, but I dare you not to groan when the old man argues that young Clark should have left a bus-full of children drown in order to hide his powers.
Thankfully, his wife Martha (Diane Lane) imparts a stronger set of values on their alien charge. I like, for example, the way she teaches Clark to get a hold of his abilities, reminding him to “make the world small”. The implication here is that looking at the big picture can overwhelm our senses, whereas focusing on our smaller acts allows us to keep better track of their consequences. Our titular man of steel takes this lesson to heart, which explains how he can remain such a Boy Scout despite all of his power. It also helps us understand why Lois Lane (Amy Adams) falls in love with him almost instantly.
Incidentally, I adore what the filmmakers have done with her character, who, in Man of Steel, isn’t attracted to Superman because of his amazing feats but because of his limitless compassion. Lois remains a reckless and abrasive investigator, mind you, but here she comes off infinitely more competent by simple virtue of figuring out the most obvious secret in the DC universe. Also, the award-winning journalist is portrayed by Amy Adams, whom I could watch paint her toenails and still be entertained.
Ironically, my interest only starts to wane during the climactic battle, which, give or take a few expository exchanges, lasts almost an hour. In fairness, I was never outright bored, owing in large part to Snyder throwing everything at the screen, including the kitchen sink, the sewage pipes, and the entire waterworks system. I love the attention to details, such as the clever LexCorp product placements. Unfortunately, some of the digital effects fail to live up to his vision, and there are only so many high-rises Zod and Superman can crash through before I start wondering about collateral damage.
Otherwise, Man of Steel keeps the focus firmly on our hero’s deep-seeded humanity, providing him with a genuine ethical quandary and using the editorial team at the Daily Planet to remind us of the personal stakes. Consider Clark’s reaction when Zod makes the mistake of threatening Martha: “You think you can attack my mother!” he shouts while ramming the general halfway across Kansas. Such moments allow us to relate to the last son of Krypton, making his moral fortitude, as opposed to his power, all the more inspiring. I may not have expected this version of the eighty-year-old funny book titan, but he remains, in every facet that matters, the one true Superman.