At the beginning of the animated movie All-Star Superman (2011), there is a voice-over, “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. Superman.” In combination with images, these 90 seconds explained the origin of Superman. Man of Steel takes over two hours to tell Superman’s origin story, a story many of us know, but for some reason, the filmmakers decided to complicate into an incoherent mess.
Man of Steel starts on Krypton. Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) is giving birth. Assisting her is her husband, Jor-El (Russell Crowe). Krypton is in danger. After depleting their natural resources, Kryptonians decided to mine the core of the planet, an act that will cause the core to collapse. Jor-El tries to convince the council to do what their ancestors did and take to the stars, but the council is set in their ways, and they really don’t believe Krypton will be destroyed soon. Interrupting the session is General Zod (Michael Shannon). Along with his followers, Zod tries to take over the council. Zod takes Jor-El into custody, but Jor-El uses the security system to get away. Jor-El uses this time to get the codex and prepare to send his child away.
The codex is all of the DNA of Kryptonians. Kryptonians artificially create their offspring. The children have a set path. Zod was designed to be a warrior; all he knows is protecting Krypton is his primary reason for living. Jor-El, riding a cool flying creature, steals the codex. Jor-El believes Kryptonians can be more; his son is the first natural birth in centuries. Knowing his planet is doomed, Jor-El sends Kal-El and the codex to Earth. Zod and his followers are captured and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone.
After 20 minutes on Krypton, we jump to Kal-El as an adult, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). Clark is a drifter, who is unsure of what his purpose should be. Key moments of his childhood are told in flashbacks. His Earth father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), taught him to hide his abilities because humans aren’t ready for him. Clark can’t resist doing good and saving people, so when he saves an oil rig crew from an exploding rig, he has to go back on the road again to avoid questions and being discovered. We spend some time with brooding Clark (this is where Nolan’s influence is felt), but we don’t get to know him. Cavill looks the part, but all he gets to do during this section is to be constipated. Clark is stuck; he can’t move forward because he doesn’t know why his alien parents sent him to Earth.
Clark starts his development into Superman after the discovery of a ship in ice. The ship is Kryptonian, and it is about 18,000 years old. Kryptonians used to travel in space a lot, setting up outposts, but they stopped exploring when their resources dried up at home, leaving those at the outposts to fend for themselves. Our government is trying to hide this discovery, but reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is the only reporter who thinks this is a worthy story, getting a court to rule that the government can’t keep her away. She follows Clark into the ship so they can meet. Cute. The security defenses hurt Lois, so he cauterizes the wound before leaving her behind when he takes the ship.
The film is littered with contrivances. Lois’s introduction is the start of many, like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger as the film barrels onward. Clark has a command key. After he lands the ship, a ship no Kryptonian knew was there (Jor-El says it is one of the many ships lost to the void), Clark uses the command key, bringing up a digital ghost version of Jor-El. Jonathan kept Clark’s ship. Why didn’t Clark use the command key on his own ship after Jonathan show the ship and the command key to Clark? Yes, there is a slot for the key on Clark’s ship. It has taken Clark 33 years to figure out how to use the command key? Really? Anyway, Jor-El tells Kal-El that he is destined for great things, that he can lead humanity into the light, and why Kal-El has superpowers (weaker gravity, great sun, and a nourishing atmosphere). And Kal-El believes him. Immediately. No doubt, no brooding, just one message from his digi-ghost dad and he suddenly has a purpose. And the ship has a Kryptonian battle uniform on board that fits and happens to have the El family crest of “hope” on the front. How is that possible?
Clark dons the suit. Does the action pick up? Nope. Clark has to figure out how to fly because Jor-El told him to test his limits. Clark zips around for a bit. Next, a ship appears by the moon. General Zod has found Earth, and he gives Clark/Kal-El 24 hours to surrender or humanity will suffer. Before this happens, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) didn’t run Pulitzer prize-winning Lois Lane’s story about the ship and the alien she met on the ship, so she leaked it to a blog. Are we supposed to believe Perry White would spend all that money sending Lois out and not run the story? Just because the Pentagon denies the existence of the ship? Really? The blogger goes on TV and tells the world that Lois knows who Zod is after, so this brings the FBI to her doorstep—just the FBI, no press, which is hard to believe. Clark, after doing some soul-searching by talking with a preacher with Jesus framed just over his shoulder (not subtle, director Zack Snyder, not subtle at all), decides to surrender to our military on the grounds that he will only talk to Lois Lane. Why her? Well, earlier, Lois tracked down Clark. She knows who he is; she didn’t tell the world because Clark told her how his father died by tornado (yes, you read that right). Lois spent all that time tracking him down, and then she backed off because…he’s hot? Another hole I don’t know how to fill.
Anyway, back to Zod. Does the action pick up now? Of course not. We have to hear how Zod and his lot escaped the Phantom Zone, how they survived, and where they got their ship. It takes the film over an hour to get Zod to Earth, and we have to sit through more exposition. He has to tell us that he wants the codex; he tells us many times that the codex is all the bloodlines of Krypton and how Krypton needs to be reborn. Each explanation tries to add some drama to the film, but all it does is slow the film down. Also, there are so many people involved in the conflict with Zod (Lois, the military, digi-ghost Jor-El, different members of Zod’s crew) that it convolutes the plot and forces us to wait even longer to see Superman do his thing.
After Lois is rescued from the pod by Clark and his mommy (Diane Lane) is threatened by Zod, the action happens. The special effects are stunning as Superman fights Zod and his crew while saving military forces. The final fight is some of the best CGI work I’ve seen, but it is not worth waiting two hours for. The actors try to make the two hours interesting, but they aren’t sure about their characters. Cavill gets a lot of moments to pose and look at the sun. Adams doesn’t know if Lois is a strong, capable reporter or a love-sick swooning puppy. Shannon tries to chew the scenery as Zod, but Zod is single-minded, and his laser focus makes Zod one-dimensional. Antje Traue as Faora-Ul and Christopher Meloni as Colonel Nathan Hardy play well off each other, creating a more interesting confrontation than Cavill and Shannon do as Superman and Zod. When the most emotional moment is Perry White holding the hand of a coworker as destruction happens all around them, then you know there are major problems with the film.
Man of Steel tries to tell an interesting origin story, but gives us a mess instead. The film is inconsistent with its rules (Earth’s atmosphere makes him stronger, Kryptonian atmosphere weakens him, but he is fine in space), spends too much time explaining everything, and takes too long to tell an origin story. Forcing Lois into the plot takes away from what the film is supposed to be about: Clark coming into his own and beating Zod. The last ten minutes of the film presents the Superman that should have been in the rest of the film—witty, heroic, and struggling with a duel identity. Man of Steel fails to prove why it needs to exist, why we need yet another detailed retelling of a story that can be summed up in less than two minutes.
Check out our other reviews for Man Of Steel: