Man of Steel seeks to reinvent Superman in the movies in the same way that Batman Begins did for Batman. It is a far more serious take on the character, eschewing the primary colored heroism of previous incarnations. In its place, it offers a Superman more informed by his orphan roots, grappling with the decision to become a hero to the people of Earth. It’s an interesting take on the character, but an ultimately flawed one. Man of Steel has all the muscle of the character, but little of the heart and the charm.
Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is the last Son of Krypton, sent to Earth by his parents (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zuran) to escape the destruction of the planet. He grows up in Kansas raised by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who warn him to hide his true nature from the unready public. In present day, he wanders the planet under various names, doing odd jobs and leaving when he’s forced to help people in danger. But he’s forced to come out of the shadows when the ruthless Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) shows up on Earth, threatening to destroy the entire planet to make way for a new Krypton.
The immediate danger in trying to reinvent Superman in the way that they did for Batman is obvious: Superman is not Batman. Though his story also has a tragic beginning, the core of the character is fundamentally different. The film begins with a lengthy retelling of the character’s origins, laying out a tragedy that comes to define the character. This Superman begins not as a well-raised little kid from Kansas, but as an angsty orphan wandering the world, trying to figure out what it all means. It’s a valid perspective, but it does take away much of what makes the Superman character so appealing in the first place.
The movie basically takes Clark Kent out of the equation, making the human side an indistinct blur just waiting to be a hero. Superman becomes an abstract concept, more a godly figure than a human being. To this end, the movie produces a convoluted mythology so riddled with plot holes that it’s barely worth discussing, though it probably should be mentioned that the Kryptonians are made out to be completely incapable of self-preservation. To the movie’s credit, the plot holes don’t slow it down. Zach Snyder’s muscular direction makes everything feel momentous, every last frame imbued with gravity.
For the action sequences, Snyder eschews the slow-mo laden technique he’s become known for, and returns to the dynamic lensing of his Dawn of the Dead remake. It’s terribly exciting stuff, capturing the scale of the battles while still maintaining a very human feel. The camera takes a step back to see buildings crumbling in the aftermath of the punch, and then moves back in to check on the people who are caught in the epic conflict. It’s a really bracing way to shoot something so beyond human reality.
Like the movie itself, Henry Cavill is pretty much all muscle. He isn’t given much of a chance to leave a mark on the character, the Superman of this movie seemingly beyond petty human affairs. One can only hope that the role will eventually grow to meet Cavill’s talent in the inevitable sequels. This iteration of Lois Lane triumphs by being depicted as a competent journalist and a compassionate human being, and Amy Adams brings those qualities to the fore in a subdued performance. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe bring considerable gravity to their fatherly roles, providing the film with its few emotional moments.
Man of Steel is a pretty good blockbuster, but somewhat of a contentious Superman movie. Personally, as a fan, it’s disappointing that the film seems so ashamed of the earnestness and brightness of the character, going as far as keeping his name from being uttered more than once. Still, separated from that legacy, this is a pretty entertaining picture; plot holes and all. If nothing else, Snyder proves that he’s more than a one-trick-pony, displaying a visual dynamism that carries the movie through its entire runtime.