What do you get when the team that brought us the Dark Knight trilogy comes together with the man best known for Watchmen? You get this summer’s most anticipated action film, which explores the origins of one of the comic book world’s beloved icons. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect: opening weekend of Man of Steel not only included Father’s Day, but this June marks the 75th Anniversary of Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1. This strategy clearly paid off, earning the film $113 million in ticket sales over the past two days, plus an additional $12 million from Thursday screenings.
To tackle the challenge of telling a story that’s been told and re-told countless times over the span of 80 years, David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan started with heavy doses of emotion. The film opens on a politically and environmentally unstable Krypton, presided over by an ignorant government and threatened by one rebellious General Zod, who leads a military coup in an effort to save the planet. Meanwhile, scientist Jor-El and his wife Lara send their child Kal-El to Earth to save him from Krypton’s eventual destruction, and to serve as mankind’s hero and savior, which leads many of us moviegoers to wonder: does mankind even need a hero?
The movie then toggles backwards and forwards in time, between the ordinary and extraordinary life experiences of Clark Kent, a farm boy from Kansas who is destined to be anything but. Suddenly, a series of events forces Clark to discover the hero within: first, the U.S. government’s discovery of a Kryptonian spaceship; next, a disastrous run-in with journalist Lois Lane on said spaceship. Her curiosity about the man who saved her leads Lois to investigate Clark’s solitary, nomadic life, unraveling the web of lies he’s left in his wake trying to bury his true identity.
These events also betray Superman’s whereabouts to the film’s headlining villain, General Zod. After being banished to The Phantom Zone with his military cohorts, he seeks out Kal-El, keeper of the codex that would resurrect the entire Kryptonian race. Zod demands Kal-El in exchange for Earth’s safety. Clark willingly turns himself in via the U.S. Government, but Zod’s crew inexplicably requests the additional company of Lois Lane, who now becomes an integral part of the movie’s action.
Aboard one of Zod’s ships, adapted from the vessel which Jor-El himself designed, Jor-El’s consciousness appears to Lois and provides her with information and instructions on how to, essentially, save the day. Again, Lois’ instrumental role in this inherently Kryptonian dispute is perplexing, but she fulfills.
After discovering that Zod and his crew have installed a device intended to transform Earth’s environment into Krypton’s, a series of epic battles ensue (some would say, too many epic battles). Certain scenes took on an Avengers-esque sense of fantastic surrealism. Dozens of aircraft explode. Most of Metropolis and its outlying suburbs crumble. Entire neighborhoods are demolished with every punch. We are led to assume that these structures have long been abandoned, as Superman wouldn’t let a single human hair be harmed in the altercation…but when it comes to his fellow Kryptonians, that’s a different protocol entirely.
If you haven’t seen the movie, yet decided to brave the spoilers in this review, you might want to brace yourself for this one. In a dramatic departure from the moral and righteous Superman we all know and love, Snyder’s Superman is a murderer. This may not seem like a big deal, considering that the main objective all along was to defeat the evil General Zod and his minions, but generations of Supermen have established a strict no-kill policy. This certainly proposes an ethical quandary that should be at the top of Superman’s list of internal conflicts – even over, say, preserving his identity. A Superman that kills enters Batman territory: is he a friend or enemy of the State?
Regardless of Snyder’s unconventional interpretation, Henry Cavill surprisingly balanced the human and superhuman sides of his character quite well; at times charming, but mostly conflicted. All the while, he maintained that genuine “boy scout” sense of honor and responsibility that continues to resonate with Superman fans today.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the rest of the cast, Amy Adams in particular. Her portrayal of Lois Lane was weak and one-dimensional. Her determination as a journalist and her attraction to Superman lacked conviction. The Lois Lane I always envision is one with fierce independence and subtle sex appeal, and Amy Adams brought neither to the big screen. Other actresses considered for the role included Kristen Bell, Olivia Wilde, and Mila Kunis, all of whom I would have preferred seeing.
Kevin Costner brought an interesting perspective to the character of Jonathan Kent: a noticeable departure from the overly warm and sentimental Jonathan Kents that preceded him. Still affectionate towards his son, Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent served as Clark’s moral conscience, and forced him to examine one of the movie’s major themes: understanding what greatness truly means.
Purpose is the unifying element that pulses through Man of Steel‘s cast of characters, a theme that originated with Krypton’s genetically engineered citizens, each one bred to fulfill a specific function in Kryptonian society – this is what drives General Zod to seek out the codex. Purpose is what drives Lois Lane to attempt to expose Superman’s true identity. Purpose is the defining principle of Clark’s entire life: that he was meant to do something great, before anyone knew what that would be.
Another key driver of the plot is the theme of identity. Identity in Man of Steel is defined by allegiance, where different characters’ loyalties lie. For Superman, this extends beyond being human or being alien; as he moves through different stages of his life, through school and friends and different parts of the country, through different jobs and different social circles, Clark’s quest to find himself is magnified in Man of Steel.
Faith and trust also play a significant role in the movie. When Clark seeks counsel from a local priest, he is told: “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.” Somewhere buried within those simple words is the answer to all of Clark’s questions…the heart of what makes Clark, and the world at large, human.
It’s worth noting here that there’s a bit of controversy around the character of “Jenny,” which must be addressed. When I first learned about Man of Steel, I wondered whether or not there were plans to incorporate one of my favorite characters, Jimmy Olsen – simply for the fact that he’s so understated in a world of extraordinary individuals and even more extraordinary circumstance. It was originally suspected that Jenny, whom I agree was given too much screen time considering that the rumors weren’t true, was a “gender-bent” re-interpretation of the Daily Planet’s cheerfully naive photojournalist. The rumors were quickly squashed, to my relief, but it does make us wonder if Jimmy will appear elsewhere in the franchise.
For many, Man of Steel overdelivered on action, and underdelivered on romance and humor. For me, Man of Steel was the exciting beginning to an even more epic story. There were decisions made that I disagreed with, certain elements that left a bad taste in my mouth, but in the end, I couldn’t have imagined a better re-telling of a classic superhero story. In the end, past all the debate about staying true to the original material, or certain directorial decisions, I left the movie contemplating humanity, destiny, and our responsibilities towards each other.