In 1978, Warner Bros. Pictures released Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. Superman was not only the feature film debut of the Last Son of Krypton, but also the first ever big budget superhero film. Now, in the midst of one of the biggest superhero movie crazes ever, director Zack Snyder has created a new Superman flick for the modern era. The result is an uneven mix of amazing visuals and flimsy narrative.
Man of Steel brings some new twists on the classic Superman origin. In this version, Krypton was a once sprawling galactic empire until the resources became scarce and the Kryptonians were forced to return to their home planet, mine the planet’s core for energy, and adopt a system of birthing where citizens were artificially born to fit specific roles in society. Unfortunately, Krypton begins to collapse due to the mining of its core. In the midst of a military coup started by General Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian scientist named Jor El (Russel Crowe) sends his naturally born son, Kal El (Henry Cavill) to Earth, where Kal El develops superpowers. As Kal El tries to figure out how to best use his powers to serve humanity, General Zod invades Earth, seeking to convert the planet into a new Krypton. Now, Kal El must stop Zod’s plans before humanity is annihilated.
In terms of pure spectacle, Man of Steel is amazing. Its Krypton, while clearly a hodgepodge of sci-fi ideas from other movies, is charming in its comic book-like ridiculousness. And the action sets a new standard for superhero movie fights. Snyder has finally captured the raw power of Superman’s abilities. Kryptonians collide into each other with earth-shattering ferocity, and the film makes you feel every moment of it.
The cast really brings the iconic Superman characters to life. Cavill brings real energy to his role as Superman, and Amy Adams manages to capture the tenacity and strength of what has to be one of the most proactive versions of Lois Lane. Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are great as Jor El and Jonathen Kent respectively. Micheal Shannon is perfect as General Zod. Shannon brings a barely contained rage to the performance, as if Zod is one small push away from destroying everything around him. Together, these performances really help to give energy and gravitas to the film.
But while the movie has fantastic visuals and a note-perfect cast, its story is severely lacking. The film attempts to give Krypton a far more complex backstory than other interpretations have. This forces a far more elaborate exposition than otherwise necessary in order to detail the new version of Krypton. As a result, whole scenes are dedicated just to explaining Krypton’s new history. While the film tries to incorporate some interesting visuals in order to liven up these scenes, it still doesn’t change the fact that it feels like the audience is listening to a class lecture instead of watching a film.
The excess exposition wouldn’t be so bad if the film gave the rest of the story room to breathe, but Man of Steel is in such as rush to get to its superhero fights that the story becomes truncated. As a result, characters and themes are thinly sketched, and what little plot is there is told in rote speeches given almost directly to the camera.
In addition, the superhero flick doesn’t seem to truly understand the character of Superman. Without giving away any spoilers, there is a lot of implied civilian deaths in the film. Plenty of buildings topple during the fights, and the movie makes it clear that people are in those buildings. And yet, Superman doesn’t really seem to care. He never attempts to save anyone during the fights, nor does he seem to try to get the fights out of populated areas. One could argue that focusing completely on the fight will ultimately save more lives in the long run, but such pragmatism is for other superheroes, not Superman. Though he may not always succeed, the Man of Tomorrow tries to save everyone no matter what, and the films inability to capture that is what makes it a failure as a Superman adaptation.
Don't fret, superfans, Man of Steel still delivers. It is well acted, and boasts some spectacular superhero combat. But with such a huge emphasis on its action, the film fails to craft a satisfying Superman story. While the movie is worth seeing, it’s exposition-heavy narrative prevents it from being a truly great superhero film.