Before I dive into my review, please indulge me for a moment. I want to admit something: with the exception of John Byrne’s take on Superman back in the mid 80s, I never liked Superman in the comics. I found the books to be extremely juvenile and corny, what with Supergirl, Superboy, Krypto, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the bottled city of Kandor, red K, yellow K, green K, etc. I even tried reading the updated New 52 Superman as of last year and it left me cold. But then came the Superman movies.
I was eleven years old when Superman: The Movie came out. I was young, so at the time, it was just something to watch and it held my attention. Then two years later, Superman II was released…and it blew my head open. Superman II was my Star Wars; much like that movie inspired a generation of filmmakers, Superman II was what led me to take up film and video production as a career. When I say that to people, they look at me like I have two heads; maybe I’ll write a piece on why that movie had such an impact on me, why it made me run out and buy the soundtrack (along with Thriller), which was the first piece of music I ever bought. Admittedly, the movie is hard to watch now, but back then, I saw it in theaters at least five times. And that movie made me go back to the original movie and I love it now. I think the original actually holds up better than Superman II.
That’s a long-winded way for me to say this: Superman in film has always been special to me ever since the first sequel came out and I’ve been waiting ever since for another Superman movie to thrill me like that. When I saw Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in press photos for Superman Returns, I knew that was going to be a disappointment as well, and I was right. So, it goes without saying that I went into Man Of Steel feeling like a 14 year old again, excited, prepared to force myself to like it. Which is to say, as I write this, I will try to divorce my prejudicial nature from having craved a good (or just decent) Superman movie since 1980.
The fact that the name “Superman” doesn’t appear in the title of this film is the first clue that this is a new take altogether. As much as I hate this cliché, this is not your dad’s Superman. This is a post-9/11 Superman, one who has been retooled to fit in the 21st century where paranoia runs rampant over illegal immigration, Islamic fundamentalism and a malaise from two wars whose history in terms of benefit or liability is still being written. This is a Superman where all those fears are fodder for subtext within Superman’s arrival on Earth, Zod’s jihad-like attack on humanity and a blasé attitude in depicting the destruction of a large portion of Metropolis, which becomes a wartorn panorama akin to Beirut, Mogadishu, or Baghdad. We’re living in dark times and our heroes are reflecting that. Even Superman is not immune. His costume is dark. He’s brooding. He’s conflicted about his identity. And in this film, he makes decisions that are decidedly un-Superman-like.
We all know the origin: Jor-El and Lara place the infant Kal-El into a spaceship and send him to Earth as Krypton explodes. Zack Snyder must have known how boring it would be to re-tell that story in traditional form because he masterfully creates a fully-realized Krypton, with incredible and original sets and costumes (I question the pin art hologram floating devices used for communication; the retina display on my iPad has better resolution) and there are just enough new touches to make this portion of the universally known story completely fresh. I loved seeing Russell Crowe’s Jor-El as a badass. I loved how Zod was incorporated into the origin. I loved the concept of the phantom zone pods. We see Kryptonian creatures we’ve never seen before. The first twenty minutes or so, I was amazed and I was immediately invested. I thought Ayelet Zurer as Lara was kind of bland and there’s some convoluted introductions of genetic codexes, social engineering, etc. But all in all, I was satisfied that the movie spent only a little time to get the basics of the origin out of the way and more time on the little tweaks to the origin story. I felt like this was going to be a great ride.
Once the story gets to Earth, the brooding really kicks into full gear. When we first see a pre-Daily Planet Clark Kent, he’s a bearded nomad. The film palette is awash in greys and moody blues. Through a series of flashbacks which are artfully placed at first, but become distracting later on, we see little Clark struggling with and fearful of his powers. Seeing Martha Kent talk him through the pain of honing his abilities was a nice and fresh touch. Unlike most takes on Superman, where the discovery of his powers as an adolescent is a joy, in this film , it plays more as a curse. Even when he tries to use his powers for good, his father chastises him. Jonathan tells him that the world is not ready for him. And this theme is central to the film and sets the tone for the duration: this movie is as much a superhero story as it is a first contact story. It’s made clear thematically that Kal-El is an alien and is received as such by the human race. His alien nature is exacerbated when Zod arrives on Earth, demanding that Kal-El be delivered to him. Superman is initially taken to be as great a threat as Zod. Again, I thought this was a fresh take on Superman’s arrival; unlike all previous incarnations of Superman where he’s accepted and loved immediately, this time he’s seen as something to be wary of, possibly to be feared. All this comes off as original and new. Snyder also provides a welcome explanation as to why the Els chose Earth for Kal-El, something that always nagged me. I always wondered how an advanced civilization would know anything about Earth, so much so that a dying family would send their child here. This movie explains that.
Zod also gets a nice spin. While he’s still a bad guy, he’s made more sympathetic because of his motivation. At least I understood why he was hunting Kal-El and why he wanted to eradicate humanity. Whereas Kal-El struggles with his duality, Zod is crystal clear in his conviction: he is a Kryptonian. His first duty is the preservation of his people. Unlike the Zod of Superman II who only wants to rule humanity out of hubris (“finally, to rule”), this Zod wants to repopulate a new planet with fellow Kryptonians. In other words, this Zod doesn’t want us to kneel, he wants us to die, to make room for his people. Thus, while he’s without a doubt a villain, he’s also suffered the loss of his entire species. When compared to Kal-El, who was raised on Earth as an infant and knows of no other culture than humanity, who’s the more tragic figure? I’d say it’s the guy who knows the immense depth of what is forever lost. Some reviewers have criticized Shannon’s performance as too downbeat, but maybe what they see as downbeat is a choice the actor made to imply that Zod is simply doing what he feels he has to do to insure the survival of his people.
Now here’s what the film gets wrong.
Let me first say that as much as I love love love John Williams’s score, and even though it felt wrong not hearing that music, I completely understand why Snyder chose to go a different direction. This movie had to stand on its own and that music was as identifiable with the older films as Reeve was to the Superman character. Snyder had to go completely fresh, make it his own. I don’t fault him for that at all. So I don’t know if it’s appropriate to put this in the “wrong” category. But anyway, on to the meatier stuff.
Much like last year’s Amazing Spider-Man, there are elements of Superman that have become canon that are either omitted or altered to the detriment of the film. In all Superman incarnations, Jonathan Kent instills in Clark the idea that he is destined for greatness. In the original film, Jonathan tells Clark, “You are here for a reason…and it’s not to score touchdowns,” or something to that effect. Subsequently, he suffers a heart attack and dies. So, a being as powerful as Superman could not prevent his father from dying from a mundane natural cause. Clark then becomes Superman because, as he muses, “All these powers..and I couldn’t even save him.” The irony is clear and powerful: he was unable to save his father from dying of natural causes, emphasis on natural, so he chooses to become Superman and use his powers to save the world from itself. In this new film, Jonathan pushes Clark AWAY from his powers, he suggests that maybe people should die rather than Clark reveal himself by saving others. So, in the original film, Pa Kent dissuades Clark from using his powers to score touchdowns, while in this film, he dissuades Clark from using his power to save lives. As I said, it’s a nice take and probably more realistic, but then where’s the fatherly motivation to don the cape? In one farfetched ham-handed scene, Jonathan refuses to accept Clark’s help in dire circumstances; he once again compels Clark not to reveal himself by using his powers because he feels the world isn’t ready for him. While this remains consistent to the novel theme of Clark as an alien living among us, it makes for a film that doesn’t sufficiently explain why Clark chooses to become Superman.
In Donner’s original film, Superman is introduced to the world in a glorious rescue of Lois dangling from a helicopter atop the Daily Planet building. We all remember Clark ripping open his shirt, spinning through the revolving door and coming out as Superman! Cue John Williams’s rousing score! In Superman Returns, we recall Superman catching the airplane in midair, landing it in the middle of the baseball field, walking onto the plane, striking a pose and asking, “Are you all right, Miss Lane?” We get none of that in this film. No grand introduction to the world. Our first introduction to Superman is him hovering in midair over the military who has come to arrest him. It’s an awesome visual, but underwhelming when you consider this is the FIRST time we’re seeing him in costume. In a sense, I was as mystified as the military personnel, seeing this flying guy in a cape for the first time. We all remember in Donner’s film the reflective scene in the Fortress of Solitude, where the spirit of Jor-El councils Clark about his history and his destiny. Through a series of elegant audio dissolves, and a visual journey back to Krypton, we are made to feel that much time has passed and our imagination fills in the blanks as Kal-El is instructed in Kryptonian ways and he learns about the hero he is to become to the people of Earth. “They can be a great people, Kal-El. They just need someone to lead the way. That is why I’ve given them you…my only son.” Then Superman soars off on his maiden flight as he exits the fortress in a breathtaking long single camera shot. We get NONE of that here. What we get here is Krypton For Dummies by way of a metallic powerpoint presentation by a Jor-El who has apparently found a way to not only overcome death, but also suspension of disbelief (I, for one, didn’t buy what his ghost/hologram was capable of). Nothing is left to the imagination and once again, Jor-El’s speech does not give me enough payoff to understand why Clark chooses to become Superman. And it takes little time for Jor-El to get through his monologue because it’s all laden with bottom line exposition, which is necessary, but there’s nothing really inspiring or grand about it.
Also, much like the last Spider-Man film, Snyder goes too far to the other end of the spectrum in making an effort to present Superman as a grave and nuanced character, not just a comic cardboard, one-dimensional, “truth, justice and American way” character. I do hate it when characters are just thrown into the thick of it without a sufficient catalyst or reasoning. But by the same token, it’s not necessary to take ALL the lighter moments out of the film. One of the film’s lighter joyful moments is when we see Superman mastering his flying ability. A truly fun moment. We see Superman smiling, laughing. For the first and only time during the whole movie.
Now here’s the biggest problem I had with this film. This film has some really kick-ass fight scenes. Other reviewers have complained that the fight scenes go on way too long and become repetitive. Given that the only fight scenes to date are the outdated scenes in Superman II and the horribly corny ones in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, I had no problem with the length or repetitiveness of these battles. I loved seeing Superman duke it out with Zod’s minions in Smallville and with Zod himself in Metropolis. Here’s the problem: You may have heard me complaining in the Geeked Out Star Trek: Into Darkness review (GEEKED OUT 5/19/13) about how filmmakers today have a penchant for scenes of wholesale carnage and destruction, where there’s no doubt that thousands of lives are lost during the course of the good guy dispatching the bad guy. Well, this film provides that IN SPADES. The movie makes the mayhem in last summer’s Avengers look dainty. It makes the Federation battleship crashing into San Francisco in ST:ID look quaint. Zod’s terraforming machine lays waste to a large swath of Metropolis; hundreds of cars, debris and presumably pedestrians are hurled into the air only to crash back down to pavement. Buildings topple, ash and soot waft in the air, recalling chilling photos and amateur video of 9/11. Then Superman arrives…and it gets worse. Remember I mentioned those un-Superman-like decisions? Superman hurls Zod through populated office buildings, runs him along the facade of skyscrapers, as rubble falls to the ground, again presumably on top of panicked pedestrians. Do you remember in Superman II when Non and Ursa toss the bus at Superman and he stops it from crashing into a building? “Don’t do it! The people!” There’s a scene where Zod tosses an oil tanker at Superman and rather than stop it, he jumps over it! And of course, it crashes into a building and explodes. Superman, who has chosen to fight for humanity, causes as much destruction as the bad guys. Then there’s a pivotal scene where Superman makes a decision that is totally against his character. It borders on being disrespectful to the character and is so easy as to be a cheat. I’d just as soon see Superman fly around the planet and turn back time again than see this lazy bit of screenwriting play out onscreen.
Nitpick alert: I want my Superman to sport the cowlick across his forehead and I want my Lois Lane to be a brunette! Also, how in the hell does Superman get into that suit? And doesn’t it look damned uncomfortable?
At the end of the day, this is a Superman film that atones for the crimes of the last three Superman films. We get a dynamic Krypton, we get a more human, down to earth, accessible Clark Kent, we get Superman battling it out in tremendous action scenes, we get a decent performance from Amy Adams as Lois Lane, even though I didn’t like how much access she has to Superman in this movie–I think she learns too much too soon; we get a visual feast, we get a more realistic take on Superman, one that could possibly co-exist with Nolan’s Batman, should DC and Warner Bros. ever get their act together (and if this movie brings in the bucks). I’m going to say it’s the best popcorn summer film thus far. But as I said earlier, I’m prejudiced when it comes to Superman movies. I saw it in 3D (waste of money–absolutely no more 3D conversions for me), I plan to see it again, this time in IMAX. It’s not a perfect film, but it gave me two-thirds of what I wanted in a new Superman movie. So, although I may be off on my math slightly, two-thirds satisfaction adds up to roughly 3.5/5 reels.