When “Man Of Steel” was released in 2013, I remember thinking the overall direction of this movie was very refreshing. The Donner films are easily the definite Superman movies, with the first film in particular being a masterpiece, and as such, they’ve had a tremendous amount of influence on the Superman franchise over the decades, with movies and TV shows alike modelling themselves after them in a variety of ways. At some point though, that starts to feel like a reductive crutch. “Superman Returns” in particular tried so hard to be like the Donner films that it never really established an identity of it’s own. By the time 2013 rolled around, I wanted a Superman movie that wasn’t afraid to take risks, be creative or ambitious; a movie that for better or for worse would pass or fail on it’s own merits. With “Man Of Steel”, I can safely say that I got that movie. The first twenty minutes on Krypton alone make it clear that it’s going to be a pretty clean break from the Donner series.
“Man Of Steel” wound up being one of the most divisive Superman movies ever produced. You’ve got people who really, really like it for its fresh take on the Superman universe, and people who absolutely hate it for its portrayal of Superman, and that’s before you get into the sequels that came after it that split the DC fanbase even further and are arguably a series of diminishing returns. Me, personally, I quite like “Man Of Steel” for a multitude of reasons I’ll be getting into. Superman movies are usually very lengthy, clocking in at around two and a half hours. Depending on how strong the story is, that runtime either gives the plot plenty of space to breath or it drags like hell, so it’s a testament to how much I liked this movie that it rarely ever bored me. The first half is pretty slow-paced, taking it’s time to build up Clark’s character and develop him, while the second half is very fast-paced. Once Zod shows up to begin his invasion, it’s pretty much a race to finish, and there’s a nice, rousing experience of escalation as the severity of the situation is steadily unveiled to Superman and the audience.
In the comics and other media, Superman’s double life has generally been approached in two different ways over the years. With pre-crisis Kal-El, Superman the alien hero was his real, dominant identity and Clark Kent was mostly a bumbling mask he wore for the public’s eye: this was the version of Superman that George Reeves, Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh portrayed. With post-crisis Kal-El, Clark Kent the strong-willed cornfed farm boy was how he saw himself first and foremost, and his alter-ego Superman was a means for him to do good while still maintaining his personal life: this was the version of Superman that Dean Cain, Tom Welling and Henry Cavill portrayed.
Easily my favorite thing about “Man Of Steel” is Superman’s character arc: it’s one of the most fleshed out portrayals of the character that we’ve gotten so far in the cinema. As a child of two worlds, the movie frequently stresses that it was Clark’s upbringing from Jonathan and Martha Kent that made him the man that he is today, and his humanity is every bit as important as his Kryptonian heritage, if not more so. “Superman” was pretty straightforward with handling Clark’s origin story, while “Man Of Steel” indulges in a lot of non-linear storytelling. There are a number of character-building flashbacks from his childhood scattered throughout the film, and the audience is invited to piece together his background as we learn about the struggles he had growing up: like adjusting to each one of his new, unknown abilities manifesting, having to live apart from the other kids as he tried to keep his gifts a secret, and the fact that he has to hold himself back all the time, every day, even when he could easily destroy the bullies in his life. In the present day, Clark is wandering around the Earth like a nomad, trying to find himself, find his purpose and discover his origins after his dad’s death.
Once he makes contact with the ghost of his birth father, Jor-El, Clark starts to explore his Kryptonian half and unlocks his full potential. After an entire first act of build-up, the euphoria of Clark’s first flight scene is utterly fantastic. For the first time in his life, he stops holding himself back and cuts loose, breaking free of the Earth’s gravity, and he proves to be pretty damn good at flying too. Since Clark is an illegal space immigrant, one conundrum he keeps returning to is how much he should try to assimilate with the native species on Earth. Should he keep his head down and continue pretending to be human like he’s always done, or should he stand out and do his own thing, trying to help humanity at a risk to his own personal life?
Eventually, General Zod and his men show up on Earth and try to turn the human race against him, by threatening to invade the Earth if he doesn’t reveal himself to them. In the Donnerverse, Superman was accepted pretty quickly and easily by the people of Metropolis, because those movies ran on a different sort of logic. “Superman” and “Superman II” were purposely designed to feel like comic books coming to life, and they were incredibly entertaining for that choice. “Man Of Steel” takes a more grounded approach to Superman’s origin story. Clark may be a good man, but humans are very stubborn and reticent. He has to earn humanity’s trust in him and it takes him a while to do so. Nevertheless, Clark is interested in the chance to meet other survivors of his race, however shady they may be, until they turn out to be insane, genocidal monsters who are willing to destroy the Earth to build their own utopia. With Zod forcing his hand, Clark throws his lot in with the humans and sides with them over his own people, even if they don’t currently like him or trust him.
The Superman movies frequently talk about Clark leading by example and he does a fair bit of that in this film. Clark may not be human, but the Earth is his home just as much as its humanity’s home, and his willingness to fight for it and all the people who live on it gradually sways people over to his side and inspires a few of them to be the best that they can be. Clark is unfortunately fighting an uphill battle: he isn’t much of a fighter, he’s only just started to unlock his full potential, and he’s going up against experienced soldiers. He gets beat up and tossed around a lot during this movie, to say nothing of all the collateral damage Zod and his goons cause (so much collateral damage). Still, he does have one advantage: he knows the home turf and all its secrets a lot better than they do.
I’m also impressed that “Man Of Steel” manages to give Clark a weakness without breaking out the old Kryptonite. Thanks to their unique biology, Clark and his fellow Kryptonians draw their powers from the sun, so the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere on them proves to be both a strength and a hindrance several times over. Even while he’s not at his full strength, Clark manages to push himself harder and faster than he’s ever done before for the sake of his home-world and all it’s inhabitants, which definitely earned him my respect. And after all the hardship he’s already overcome, the movie manages to drive one last knife into his gut. Clark has to give up his innocence, betraying his core principles, to finish the job and keep the Earth safe from Zod, making himself the last Kryptonian on Earth once again – and that double dose of pain nearly kills him. By the end of the film, Clark is pretty certain about who he is and what sort of man he wants to be, so he sets up permanent residence in Metropolis and officially starts his career as Superman, Earth’s protector.
Amy Adams portrays Superman’s colleague and soulmate, Lois Lane, in this film. Lois has her first encounter with Clark Kent while she’s searching for a hot scoop in the Arctic circle. She stumbles upon the scout ship with him (which serves as Clark’s Fortress of Solitude in this continuity) and he saves her life. Having seen with her own eyes that metahumans exist, Lois’s curiosity is piqued. A reporter can never resist a good story, and Lois is stubborn, sneaky, clever and resourceful. Having caught wind of him, Lois rather impressively tracks Clark down by following the trail of his fake identities, the people he saved, and his old acquaintances, tracing him back to Smallville. Once she gets his backstory and discovers he just wants to be left alone to live in peace, her sense of decency overrides everything else so she decides to bury her story and keep his secret to try to protect him.
However, her overzealous desire for a big scoop winds up biting her in the backside after all, when the US government comes knocking on her doorstep and she winds up getting drafted into the alien invasion plot that’s going on. Lois is rapidly tossed into the fray and for the rest of the movie she’s right in the middle of everything as titans clash, alternating between trying to help and trying to survive. Lois and Clark’s budding friendship (with some ship-tease moments sprinkled in) is a subplot throughout the movie, woven in between the various action set pieces, and I have to say, it’s pretty cute (as the Clois ship often is). Lois and Clark bond a lot through adversity and several near-death experiences, and as Lois gets to know Clark better as a person, learning where he came from and what he deals with everyday, she develops a good amount of respect and admiration for him.
The classic dynamic Lois and Clark have is that Lois will often get herself in trouble for the sake of truth and justice, but Superman will always be there to back her up, and you’ll find plenty of examples of that happening in this movie. However, after eighty years of stories being told with these characters through various forms of media, their dynamic has also evolved beyond that set-up. During the later years of the Superman franchise, they’ve proven to be a great, formidable team when they want to be, especially when Lois knows Clark’s secret. Clark, the superpowered hero, can handle cosmic-scale problems like fighting off giant monsters and stopping alien invaders, while Lois, the seasoned reporter with various connections, can handle the human-level problems and technical difficulties on the ground, especially since she’s the one who comes from a military family. Lois and Clark’s teamwork skills are put on full display in shows like “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman” and the later seasons of “Smallville”.
Something I really appreciate about “Man Of Steel” is that this movie always makes it clear that as bad as their circumstances might be, Lois and Clark are in this Zod business together. Lois might not be able to punch people through walls, but she always finds a way to pitch in and contribute something, whether it’s sabotaging Zod’s ship, getting some helpful information from Jor-El (which made me realize, it’s really rare for these two characters to share a scene), teaming up with the US military to pull off their plan, or simply providing some emotional support. Basically, Lois did her part to help Clark save the world. Lois’ crush on Clark is very much reciprocated, and by the end of the film, she’s not only become a trusted friend and confidante of his, but also his new girlfriend, and I feel quite happy for both of them.
As is traditional for a Superman movie, a major theme throughout the film is the relationship between fathers and sons, and the legacy Clark’s parents left for him. I have to say, Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent is probably the element that bothers me the most in “Man Of Steel”. So many other reinterpretations of the Superman characters feel on-point and refreshing in this movie, but Pa Kent feels weirdly out-of-character half the time. Jonathan loves his son and he always tries to offer him helpful life advice, but he’s also incredibly overprotective, to the point where he sometimes seems colder than his alien son. At one point, after a bus accident, Clark bitterly asks him if he should have just let his classmates die to protect his secret, and Jonathan actually, honestly answers with ‘maybe’. Holy shit, dude.
The strangeness of Jonathan Kent comes to a head in his death scene, which is easily the worst scene in the movie; everything about it is so forced. First, we get a “Spider-Man” ripoff where angsty teen Clark is a dick to Jonathan and tells him he’s not his real dad so he can feel bad when he dies minutes later. Then a tornado suddenly appears on the highway and Martha insists that they go back to rescue the family pet. Then, Jonathan stops Clark – his super-fast, indestructible son who has nothing to lose – from fetching the dog so he can do it himself. Then, when Jonathan gets in trouble, he stops Clark and Martha from intervening to protect Clark, so they get horribly traumatized instead as they watch him die. Jonathan had previously suggested that Clark let other kids die to protect his secret, so at least he practiced what he preached in the end. Clark’s earth parents gave him his strong sense of morality, but considering how paranoid and overprotective Pa Kent was, it’s lucky Clark didn’t grow up to be a bitter, emotionally disturbed misanthrope.
Colonel Hardy has a simple but effective character arc in the movie. He’s initially your typical American military man in a sci-fi movie, albeit not to an annoying extent. He’s stubborn, gruff, hotheaded, xenophobic, and patriotic to fault. As a rather cynical soldier, he has a great distrust of the unknown, particularly an uncontrollable alien who belongs to the same race of aliens who are currently trying to destroy the Earth. Therefore, he has little problem firing on the vigilante who’s fighting on his side, along with the enemy, trying to get rid of him. Eventually, he’s humbled when Superman saves his life, so the colonel finally swallows his pride, becomes fully cooperative and gains respect for Clark. Funnily enough, he shares a lot of his scenes with Lois, someone he has nothing in common with, and he goes on to have a rivalry of sorts with Faora, since they’re both the dedicated second-in-commands of their units who will do anything they have to to protect their own. In the end, Colonel Hardy and Emil Hamilton are given a moment of heroic sacrifice, giving their lives to stop Zod’s world engine.
Lois’s coworkers at the Daily Planet aren’t given a lot of focus in “Man Of Steel” compared to other Superman films, since Lois spends most of this movie out in the field, but there is one moment with them that I really appreciate. During the chaos of the climax, Perry White and Lombard can’t rescue another reporter from danger in time to avoid being crushed to death, so they choose to stay with her and offer her some comfort until the end comes. It’s especially notable since they haven’t exactly been the most likable characters before now. The end of the world can bring out the worst in people, very easily, but it can also bring out their best. Throughout this movie, Clark and Jor-El have an unwavering faith in humanity, in their capacity for good and selflessness, and that faith is repeatedly validated. We see it with Lois, who risked her life so many times for the mission, we see it with Colonel Hardy and Emil, who grew out of their prejudices and sacrificed themselves to save the world, and we see it with Perry and Lombard, who were prepared to die with Jenny instead of leaving her behind. It’s nice sometimes to be reminded of what Clark fights for.
The planet Krypton in this film is depicted as a fairly cold, restrictive caste system, and the system’s failings over the centuries drive the majority of the movie’s conflict forward. In order to keep the planet’s population in check, people on Krypton are bred and born for one purpose, and their worth is generally measured by how well they carry out their role in society. Krypton’s chief scientist, and Clark Kent’s father, Jor-El, is a good man. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is something of a philosopher; a radical visionary who frequently questions the way of life his people have created for themselves. He reckons that they’re stripped of themselves of free will and their freedom of choice over the years, and their hubris and complacency with the status quo has utterly doomed their world. Jor-El and Lara choose to defy the artificial order of Krypton and give their first child a natural birth, without any of the standard conditioning.
Ironically, Jor-El and his former friend Zod have a few things in common: they both believe Krypton’s council is decrepit and outdated and that their race needs a good shake-up. Where they differ is their approach and their clashing ideologies. Jor-El is a radical and he’s not afraid to fight if he has to, but he will always favor peace, idealism and freedom of thought. Zod favors brute strength, social Darwinism, total control and pure military force to get what he wants. The pair officially end their friendship during Krypton’s last days, when Zod tries to stage a violent coup. Jor-El sends the life force of Krypton along with Kal-El on his journey to Earth, so Zod kills him. Luckily, Jor-El saved up a back-up of his consciousness on Kal-El’s ship, so he could his mentor his adult son later in life. Jor-El’s ghost has all the same regrets in death that he did in life, so he always tries to be a gentle, guiding hand to Clark, walking him through his journey to manhood, while also allowing him to choose his own path.
With previous depictions of General Zod (including Terrence Stamp’s gloriously campy Zod from “Superman II”), his ego, vanity and desire for power were singled out as his primary motivations for his villainous actions, “Man Of Steel” adds a few more. From birth, Zod’s sole purpose is to be a soldier and lead Krypton’s troops. Despite his high status as a decorated general, Zod is well aware that he’s ultimately just a grunt, another replaceable cog in the system, so he resents his superiors in the science council. With the potential extinction of the Kryptonian race quickly becoming a reality, Zod (along with the men who are crazy enough and loyal enough to follow him) is absolutely obsessed with securing the survival and longevity of his species. He’s determined to make a space for his New Krypton, no matter how many treasonous, murderous atrocities he has to commit in the process.
Zod are his men fancy themselves to be revolutionaries, when in reality they’re tyrants, usurpers, terrorists and extremists. Jor-El seems to believe Zod’s motives are far more self-centered than he claims: that he’s taking advantage of Krypton’s destruction to place himself into a position of power and reshape their race in his own image, and since this is Zod we’re talking about it, it’s almost certainly true. Spending thirty years in space does little change to Zod’s mind about his life choices, and by the time Clark is an adult, Zod is deadset on carrying out his old plan. Despite their savagery, Zod and his men are entirely, arrogantly convinced of their own superiority. They regard the human race as nothing more than insects really, primitive apes of lesser value than the survival of their civilization. So they have no problem trying to wipe out all life on Earth so they can terraform the planet into their new utopia.
General Zod is bitter, ruthless, merciless, amoral, spiteful, and entirely unrepentant. He justifies any sort of evil that he does as being for the greater good of his troops, when he’s really little more than a raving lunatic on a power trip. He previously served as an ideological foil to Jor-El, and he serves as another one to Superman for the bulk of the movie. The last thirty minutes of the film, after Zod has been thoroughly beaten, reveal the fundamental difference between the two men, beyond the attempted genocide. Over time, Clark accepted being the last of his kind and let go of his dreams of finding other Kryptonians for the greater good of the Earth. Zod ultimately cannot deal with Clark taking away his army and his entire purpose in life all in one day, so with nothing left to lose anymore, he essentially throws a massive tantrum.
Zod goes on long, destructive, murderous rampage, trying to level Metropolis to the ground so he can hurt Clark and spite the traitor. Eventually, he forces Clark to kill him and put him out of his misery, to stop him from burning innocent people alive. The general comes full circle from a rant he had at the start of the film, about how he loathed falsely sanctimonious Kryptonians and wished he could drag them down to his level by forcing them to get their own hands dirty. Zod lost in every way that mattered, but he still achieved some sort of victory over Clark in the end. Michael Shannon straddles a good line between being disturbingly callous and indifferent, and being incredibly, deliciously over-the-top during Zod’s rage fits (especially whenever he stares straight down the camera with his crazy eyes). In any other role, I would want the dude to tone down his scenery-chewing, but since this is General Zod we’re talking about, it would be weird if he wasn’t completely fucking insane.
Zac Snyder helms the film as it’s director, with Amir Mokri overseeing the cinematography, and between the two of them they certainly make the project look like the $200,000,000, early 2010’s action movie that it is. The film is rarely ever anything less than visually stunning and engrossing, particularly during the establishing shots and high-octane action sequences. You’ll quickly notice that Zack has his own bag of tricks that he likes to dive into frequently: Zack Synderisms is you will. There are so many lens flares, erratic close-ups, and Michael Bay-esque explosions throughout the movie, you could probably easily make a drinking game out of spotting them. When it was released, “Man Of Steel” was a very divisive movie and Zack Snyder’s direction was the most controversial part of it, particularly during the last act, which people have labeled gratuitous destruction porn. And honestly, that’s fair. As the climax reaches its boiling point, it’s clear Zack enjoyed trashing Metropolis way too much and should have shown some more restraint, though the large amount of destruction doesn’t start to become obnoxious for me until the sequel (I have a lot of feelings about that movie).
Hans Zimmer writes the score for “Man Of Steel”, and his composing work is so much better here than it was in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” the following year. As usual, percussion seems to Hans Zimmer’s favorite musical group, utilizing it in different ways throughout the score. He blends together drums, electric guitars and a slick electronic beat to create Superman’s rousing, uplifting character theme in “Flight” and “What Are You Going To Do When You’re Not Saving The World“, a worthy successor to the Superman march, which was finally retired. There’s also the sinister brass and chaotic, pounding drums of wars that symbolize General Zod and his soldiers when they’re on the attack in “Arcade” and “General Zod“.
I would rank “Man Of Steel” as the third best Superman movie, after “Superman” and “Superman II“. It’s fun, fresh and ambitious, and it manages to take a different approach to Clark Kent’s origin story while still maintaining the core optimistic spirit of what makes Superman Superman. Much like Christopher Reeve, Henry Cavill’s first Superman movie is also his best one, since it has less flaws than “Batman v. Superman” and isn’t a colossal trainwreck like the theatrical cut of “Justice League”.
* “Nooooo!!!” Michael Shannon’s crazy eyes.
* “And you. You think your son is safe? I will him, Lara, and reclaim what you’ve taken from us. I will find him. I will find him!”
* Like in “Superman II”, you’ve got to love the irony of the science council banishing Zod and his men to the phantom zone as a punishment, when all they really did was give them another few decades of life. They should have just let them die on Krypton with everyone else.
* Man, Henry Cavill is buff, isn’t he? And I was caught off guard by the beard of depression Clark sports in his early scenes. An unshaven Clark is a rare sight, and I kind of wished he had kept that beard. It was a good look for him.
* Ah, Pete Ross. He only had thirty seconds of screentime during that flashback, and I can already surmise he was the most annoying kind of kid there is.
* “What was I supposed to do, dad? Just let them die?” “…Maybe” Every time I watch this movie, I always laugh at how awful that sounds. Who says that to a thirteen year old?
* Is it like a rite of passage for every Superman to be harassed by some random, drunken bar hooligan? He seems to attract these sorts of louts.
* “The people of Earth are different from us, it’s true. But ultimately, I think that’s a good thing. They won’t necessarily make the same mistakes we did. Not if you guide them Kal. Not if you give them hope. That’s what this symbol means: the symbol of the house of El means hope. Embodied within that hope is the fundamental belief in the potential of every person to be a force for good”.
* Dat cape.
* “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They’ll race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall, but in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders”.
* “How do you find someone who’s spent a lifetime covering their tracks? You start with the urban legends, the friends of a friend. For some, he was a guardian angel, for others, a cipher, a ghost who never quite fit in. As you work your way back in time, the stories form a pattern”.
* “I’m just worried they’ll take you away from me” “Don’t worry, mom. I’m not going anywhere” Nice going, Clark. You jinxed it.
* Something tells me the pastor was not prepared for this development.
* “What does your gut tell you?” “Zod can’t be trusted. Trouble is, I don’t think the people of Earth can be either” Ouch. That’s totally fair though.
* “What does the ‘S’ stand for?” “It’s not an ‘S’. On my world, it means ‘hope'” “Well, here it’s an ‘s’. How about ‘Super-”
* “The craft he arrived in, where is it?!” “…Go to hell” And just like that, my respect for Ma Kent grew twicefold.
* “You will not, win. For every human you save, we will kill a million more” You evil bitch.
* “Mom?” “I’m alright. Nice suit, son”.
* Can we talk about how the world engine makes a stock giant monster sound effect for some reason when it lands in the ocean?
* “You might want to step back a bit. Maybe a little more”.
* “Silencing me won’t change anything. My son is twice the man you were” Hot damn.
* I’ve always liked that Superman draws his powers from the sun: it’s kind of nice to know that even though Clark wasn’t born on the Earth, he relies on our star for strength and nourishment just as much as we do. Not to mention, it can lead to some beautiful imagery. There’s a heartwarming scene in “Smallville”, where Clark uses the light of a rising sun to heal a stab wound he received, while Lois watches him in secret, and she looks so proud of her boy.
* “STOP!! YOU DESTROY THIS SHIP, YOU DESTROY KRYPTON!!” “KRYPTON HAD IT’S CHANCE, WAUUGHH!!” More of Michael Shannon’s crazy eyes.
* “A good death is its own reward” Die, Faora, die!
* How convenient of the script that Lois was blown out of that plane, so she wouldn’t go down with Colonel Hardy and Emil on their suicide mission, and Zack Snyder wouldn’t be tarred and feathered for killing her off.
* “You know, they say it’s all downhill after the first kiss” Kind of like your average series of Superman movies.
* “I was bred to be a warrior, Kal. I trained my whole life to master my senses. Where did you train, on a farm?!” Didn’t stop him from wrecking your shit, though.
* After Clark is forced to kill Zod and he starts to sob with grief, Lois steps in to give him a hug and plenty of sympathy, without having to say a word. Bless Lois.
* Clark, you know you’re my guy, but sometimes you can be really thick. You know the military is trying to figure out your secret identity, and that tracing your background is easy enough for Lois, a reporter, to pull it off. What do you think the US government is going to do with the tidbit you just gave them that you grew up in Kansas?
* “What are you smiling about?” “Nothing, sir. I just think he’s kind of hot” Heh, you should have seen bearded Clark.
* “Welcome to the Planet” “Glad to be here, Lois”.
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