While it was certainly polarizing to both critics and audiences, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel truly stands out among the ever growing crop of comic films.
Making a modern movie about the Man of Steel is a lot more difficult than it sounds since the character is more than just a comic book super hero, he’s an American icon. In his 80-plus years of existence, Superman has had countless incarnations over every type of media imaginable. You can furnish a house exclusively with items containing the “S” logo, and the logo is even a popular tattoo choice.Incredibly, through all this, the character hasn’t undergone much of a transformation in terms of personality. Though he doesn’t always actually say it, the slogan “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” has always been associated with the character, and while that hasn’t changed the meaning of the statement has indeed.
“American way” is a far different term today than it was in the 1940s, as the United States has become far less of a standard setter for the rest of the world. What was once used to instill a sense of patriotism is now looked at as corny at best and ironic at worst. The character of Superman is faced with similar issues as there are certain elements that you have to embrace to enjoy. Even the most extreme fans have to admit glasses and a collared shirt isn’t a believable disguise for the most famous face in the world. In a sense, Superman is both outdated and popular at the same time, which actually works well for the comic book medium where continuity and mythology can be completely retooled in a matter of issues. Film doesn’t have the same luxury.
Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns failed to be the box office success that WB had hoped for, but the issue there was more to do with the $270 million budget than the $391 million in ticket sales. It was still a bit concerning that a critically well-received solo movie featuring the most recognizable comic character on the market was out grossed by the panned third entry of the X-Men series in the same summer. Less than expected box office combined with a divided opinion among audiences left the studio unwilling to pull the trigger on a sequel. When it went back on the shelf, the focus of DC switched to furthering Nolan’s Batman saga and an attempt at starting a new franchise with Justice League alum Green Lantern. Knowing that Nolan and crew would be done with Batman after the third entry, and there being no chance of financing a Green Lantern sequel, it was time to revisit the last son of Krypton.
I’ll admit I was really excited when I heard Zack Snyder was going to be the director in charge of the new Superman movie. Considering Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen were all well-done, I had no doubt his style and approach would give Superman the update he so badly needed. As production began, three details emerged that specifically kept my hopes up for this movie. The first of those was the title; in excluding the name Superman from the title and going with a more modern sounding nickname Man of Steel was already establishing itself as a different type of movie than the previous entries. Next came the fact that Christopher Nolan was producing and that a tremendous supporting cast had been put together. It was hard to imagine that many talented people attaching themselves to a bad project. Finally, the biggest exhale came when it was announced that Michael Shannon’s central antagonist would be General Zod and not Lex Luthor. While Lex certainly has more name recognition, it was nice to know Superman would have a threat to him physically. One of my biggest issues with Superman Returns was just how infallible Superman was. There was a lot of grumbling from all corners of the internet, but once that perfect teaser trailer was released, my level of expectation went from high to “this might be one of the best comic book movies ever.”
Man of Steel arrived on June of 2013 with a $116 million opening weekend, almost exactly 7 years after Superman Returns opened to a $52 million take. The difference was pretty staggering, but when comparing the films it’s understandable why the newer effort was more successful. Man of Steel wasn’t just a new Superman movie, it was a totally new version of Superman. One of the main issues with prior Superman movies is the fact that Clark Kent is as much a disguise as the Superman costume. This isn’t a human with super powers; he’s an alien first, a human second, and a hero third. Zack Snyder grasps that fact and runs with it.
The opening sequence in Man of Steel offers us an extended look at Krypton and it’s pretty damn exciting. Russell Crowe does a great job carrying the opening bit, giving Jor El more of a human dynamic than the Wizard of Oz-like version portrayed by Marlon Brando in the original Superman movie. We’re also introduced to General Zod on Krypton and, in a world of one-note villains, it’s a relief to see the antagonist as a conflicted man whose motives are rooted in saving his people as opposed to yet another world conqueror. The visuals and steady action throughout the first twenty minutes are a good amount of fun and leave you with a sense of wanting to dig deeper into that world, but we’ll have to wait for the upcoming SyFy series for that opportunity.
Man of Steel’s opening three scenes on Earth do a wonderful job of establishing who Kal El/Clark Kent/Superman is and the struggles he’s faced with. As a child we get a glimpse of the struggle Clark has with understanding who he is and how he’s different. As a preteen we get an existential conversation between Clark and his Earthly father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner), in the aftermath of Clark performing a heroic deed. Jonathan is scared for his son, he knows that Clark’s abilities being discovered are inevitable, but he tries to shield him as long as possible. Jonathan’s humble nature is a trait Clark feels comfortable adapting to, hiding in plain sight is much easier when nobody is looking at you to begin with. As an adult (Henry Cavill) he’s a lost soul, a being of great power trying to hide among the masses. You can see the conflict in Clark, wanting to both embrace his powers and anonymity at the same time. Fortunately relief comes when Clark discovers an interactive hologram of his father in his crashed ship form Krypton. Jor El encourages his son to become the hero and embrace the difference between himself and the humans of Earth. The first time he puts the costume on is probably my favorite scene of any Superman movie because in it he is simply Kal. In that moment, learning to fly, he’s able to shed himself of Clark and he’s not yet Superman. It’s a heartfelt and genuine moment for the character and the viewer.
Once General Zod arrives Man of Steel’s pacing breaks out into a jog, and that’s a rare and appreciated thing in the comic movie genre. Too often the introduction serves as a cue to sprint towards the end credits, but there’s no reason to race to the finish here because for once we’re given a villain that can match the hero physically and has legitimate belief behind his plan beyond just wanting to watch the world burn. Zod is a misguided patriot; a man trying to replicate his home and ensure the reemergence of his people. He also forces Clark to face his internal conflict by presenting him the opportunity to help in the recreation of his home, but at the cost of the only life he’s known. We all know what side Supes is going to take and the following fight sequences are fast paced and intense.
I know level of destruction was a big source of controversy with fans, but the reality is that a fight among aliens of this power level would easily leave a staggering amount of damage. Maintaining that sense of reality throughout the third act inexplicably cost this movie a lot of fans, which is a concept I find baffling. This isn’t a seasoned Superman acting recklessly; in fact his first public act as Superman is to surrender himself to Zod in an effort to save an attack on Earth. The combined threat of the world engine and the Kryptonians left human kind moments from extinction; in the midst of those odds where exactly was Superman expected to call time out and move the fight to a less populated area? I’m not so sure.
Finally let’s get to that infamous neck snap. I don’t see any other way of handling a villain of this magnitude. By the end of the film Zod has nothing left to lose, which means no matter where he is he will always be a threat. Not to mention – Earth has no way of containing him at that point.
All in all I find Man of Steel to be one of the best entries of the comic book genre. This isn’t a movie made for children or to sell toys. It’s a realistic and adult oriented take on a character whose prior heroism on film felt a little too easy. I applaud Zack Snyder for taking those risks and can only hope that the upcoming DC films further them.