If the Dark Knight trilogy is Christopher Nolan’s gritty, street level, crime-drama version of the Batman epic, then Man Of Steel (which Nolan produced) is director Zack (Watchmen) Snyder’s crazy, science-fiction version of the Superman legend, in which the Man Of Tomorrow’s formative adventure is presented through the lens of a full-on alien invasion disaster movie. In fact, Man Of Steel is so much a science-fiction alien invasion disaster movie that it doesn’t always feel like much of a Superman movie (and based on the lukewarm reception to Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns, it’s an approach that Warner Brothers is probably fine with). But even though Snyder (and scripter David S. Goyer) get carried away with the skyscraper-shattering climactic battles, the film’s uniquely alien approach sets it apart from most of the recent spate of superhero adaptations.
The first fifteen minutes of Man Of Steel are jarring and disorienting, as a journey to a dying alien world should be. The flora, fauna, and technology of Krypton are utterly unlike any version we’ve seen before—Jor-El (Russell Crowe) rides around on some kind of dragon, citizens communicate via 3D screens made up of dozens of black-silver balls that form images of the users’ faces, and babies are born in a weird underwater chamber/garden/nursery that recalls The Matrix. Jor-El’s child Kal-El, however, is the first natural birth on Krypton in generations, and he is its last son. As an armed insurrection led by General Zod (the utterly terrifying Michael Shannon, from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) fails, Jor-El and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) arrange to have baby Kal rocketed away from Krypton, a world shuddering in its death throes after its inhabitants have plundered & squandered its internal energies. From here, we jump ahead to Clark Kent in his twenties (Henry Cavill, from The Immortals and Showtime’s The Tudors), a young man traveling the globe trying to find himself. We see Clark in a variety of odd jobs, sometimes saving lives, other times trying to hide his true nature, always intercut with flashbacks to his youth as he learns about his powers and his legacy. Clark’s adopted mother (Diane Lane) teaches him how to control his burgeoning abilities, and his adopted father (Kevin Costner) teaches him to hide them. Grown-up Clark makes a pilgrimage to a mysterious snowbound starship that may hold answers about his origins, pursued by journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams). A holographic Jor-El fills Clark in, just in time for General Zod and his pack of now-super rebels to emerge from the Phantom Zone, demanding that Krypton’s only other survivor—who may hold the key to recreating Krypton on Earth—turn himself in. Clark embraces his alien legacy and forms an uneasy alliance with the military in order to try and save his new homeworld from certain destruction.
Man Of Steel takes a lot of liberties with the specifics of the Superman mythos, and longtime fans will likely have a tough time dealing with some of them. For my part, the fundamental change in the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane was surprising, but welcome—it addresses one of the aspects of her character that hasn’t exactly aged well, and strengthens her personality at the same time (Adams’ tough-but-tender performance helps a great deal). On the other hand, a fateful choice Superman makes in the final battle with Zod was tougher to swallow, but it may steer his character’s decisions in the inevitable sequels. Cavill plays Clark/Superman as a much more tortured character than Christopher Reeve or Brandon Routh, but it works for this telling of the story. I found Clark’s journey from wandering loner to outcast superhero absorbing, even as I found the epic destruction of the second half’s battle scenes exhausting. Superman and the Phantom Zone criminals create so much destruction in their fight scenes—throwing each other through buildings, casually tossing tanker trucks at each other—that it’s hard to even process the death toll that must have resulted (after Zod uses a giant space weapon called the World Engine to try and terraform Earth, Metropolis is practically wiped off the map). Sadly, in the wake of 9/11, we have a pretty good idea just how many people are killed when one or two office towers collapses, and Man Of Steel sees about a dozen get knocked over. This troubling aspect of the movie might have been mitigated a bit by some scenes of Superman rescuing innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, but the movie doesn’t have time for that (by contrast, The Avengers trashed almost as much real estate, but devoted considerable time to showing the heroes protecting ordinary people, and it meant a world of tonal difference). All this aside, the alien ambience and heightened danger makes Man Of Steel feel like no other comic book adaptation, or Superman story for that matter, which, considering that its titular hero turned 75 this year, is a feat worthy of a superhero.
Check out our other reviews for Man Of Steel: