Despite being arguably the most iconic superhero ever (this coming from a diehard Batman fan, no less) Superman has had only a fair share more luck getting traction on the big screen than his lower tier friend Aquaman.
It’s a little surprising to think that over 30 years Supes has had just five big screen adventures, with only one reaching beyond the general consensus of “really good.” Richard Donner’s Superman is still hailed as a quintessential superhero movie while its three sequels saw the effect of diminishing returns, whereas Bryan Singer’s 2006 revisit, Superman Returns, was generally met with a resounding “meh,” effectively putting any future Superman movies on hold.
Now, Man of Steel has arrived to bust down our doors.
This is not your father’s Superman. He still stands for doing the right thing but gone is the campy humor and tongue-in-cheek joy the character is widely known for, instead adapting the material for the complexity of modern superhero movies. Maybe this is due mostly to the fact that Superman can often be a very cut and dry, plain character (read: boring). Nothing can hurt him, he always does the right thing and the people he surrounds himself with are usually just as cookie-cutter.
Honestly, this movie is all the better for dumping the old and trying a new approach because even if it’s far from perfect, Man of Steel has succeeded in doing something that needed to finally be done: make Superman exciting.
Man of Steel‘s savior is its simplicity. By focusing the story into a straightforward sci-fi actioner, the filmmakers have allowed for the themes in the story to flourish, such as finding your place in the world, choosing your own destiny, and a father’s wisdom. These themes help bring a richness and emotional satisfaction that this character deserves and will hopefully continue to display.
David Goyer of Dark Knight trilogy writing fame follows a pattern of similar strengths found in the recent Batman movies, utilizing several flashbacks to explain why our hero becomes something greater and delivering the raw emotional moments that elevate both movies.
Much as it is a superhero movie, this revamp holds just as strong roots in sci-fi. The opening 15 minutes on Krypton are surprisingly realized and put any sci-fi elements in the recent Star Trek sequel to shame. Likewise, Zod’s threat to Earth plays out much like a grand scale alien invasion plot, which sits well in this universe.
Superman Returns was largely criticized for its lack of action, plane scene excluded. No one is likely to find issue there with Man of Steel. In fact, it’s now gone to the other extreme. Director Zack Snyder knows a thing or two about over-the-top action and for some it may be too much (with good reason). Just like Star Trek Into Darkness and even Iron Man 3 among other blockbusters, Man of Steel exists in halves: the first half is made up of character building moments and emotional beats while the second half dives headlong into balls-out action scenes.
True, the first hour or so is definitely more rewarding on a story level but it’s not as if the action half is boring (this is what some people solely want to see in a Superman movie) — it’s more like having a hyper puppy: fun and amusing but occasionally draining.
What may push people past patience is the instances of wholly unnecessary action (giant robot tentacle thing, anyone?), Superman inadvertently causing more catastrophic damage, product placement more rampant than Supes’ Kryptonian adversaries in the battle of Smallville, and a controversial choice our hero is forced to make (for my money, it’s an appropriately buzz-worthy one).
Even if the second half drops the character development the first had for more wow-factor moments, the cast assembled here is still impeccable — seriously, they nailed it. Henry Cavill delivers the earnest, good-heartedness of Clark Kent all while exploring a more conflicted version. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane goes through a few adjustments that make her a stronger, more believable female character. Michael Shannon is held back as Zod but still exudes the requisite menace, and the likes of Russel Crowe, Kevin Costner, Antje Traue, and Laurence Fishburne all get their supporting moments in the yellow sun.
Thanks to the team of Snyder, Goyer, producer Chris Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer, what we have here is a technically masterful, fulfilling movie that keeps the ball rolling full steam ahead, enough so to even make you miss some of the bad dialogue here and there. While it may run more than a bit long, the gorgeous, Malick-esque camera work, Zimmer’s epic score, and the cast’s terrific performances set the movie in its own territory.
There are no doubt those who will say that this movie is lesser for its more serious tone and that the supposed magic of Superman is gone. Don’t be one of those people. The magic is still there, this time supplemented by some actual weight. Man of Steel finds a good tonal mid-ground between the dire Batman movies and the weightless Marvel movies, providing the fun sci-fi action adventure this series deserves while giving a reason to care about the danger.
A sequel is all but assured at this point and this is nothing but good. With the straightforward, though imperfect introduction in place, this universe now has the ability to expand into even more exciting new places.
It may be overlong and it may go overboard (“over” seems to be the operative criticism here) but it’s never not fun in its excesses. It may not be an instant classic but it stands on its own and is a promising new start. Say what you will about where Man of Steel stands in Superman fandom lore — in the lore of superhero movies and summer blockbusters, it lifts off.