The critical response to Man of Steel has been decidedly mixed, as have fan reactions. It seems this could be the most divisive Superman, if not superhero, film ever made. But in this fan’s humble opinion, this was exactly what Superman needed and what fans deserved.
Superman, once revered as the greatest of all superheroes, has become a bit dated. Don’t get me wrong, I still love those old Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve films, too. But if you were to put that in a modern context, it would probably do well with critics but (younger) fans would largely reject it (see Superman Returns).
The Christopher Reeve, and later Brandon Routh, version of Superman/CK made a huge impact on a lot of fans (me included). He was funny and fun to laugh at, but he was charming, too. And that version of Superman had a smile that would put you at ease, even when things were going horribly wrong.
Even the versions that came after, like Dean Cain in Lois & Clark or the animated version from Superman: The Animated Series, tried to capture that same feel to an extent. But each of these versions had something deeper in their backgrounds: they found ways to fit in with the “regular” people of their stories.
Man of Steel took a much different approach to Superman. This Clark Kent has never fit in with anyone. He’s had trouble hiding his abilities all his life and doesn’t understand where they come from, even asking at one point “did god do this to me?” It’s an intimate portrait of a boy coming of age and finding his place in the world…mixed with a heavy dose of ass-kicking battle sequences and massive destruction. Some say it was too big, but more on that in a minute.
Action and amazing special effects aside, this is a story about a modern Clark Kent who is trying to find himself. Once he does, he starts to feel more self-confident and we even see that warm smile start to come out (the first flight scene will go down as one of my all-time favorite movie scenes ever).
But it doesn’t last. He’s challenged on every conceivable level and finds that even getting answers doesn’t make things easier to understand. It’s very modern in that context and is exactly what Big Blue has needed in the film versions for a long time.
A hero is only as good as his villain allows him to be and Michael Shannon’s General Zod pushes Superman to his breaking point (pun fully intended). The fight scene between the other Kryptonians and our hero are nothing short of mind-blowing. I couldn’t help but get sucked into every sequence and every nuance this film threw at me during those moments.
As to the controversy over the ending, I was shocked by it at first, but then it all fell into place. This was what Superman hadn’t had at his beginning: a real no-win situation. In the original version of the Man of Steel script, Zod was sent back to the Phantom Zone with the rest of the Kryptonians. And writer Daivd Goyer along with director Zack Snyder agreed that ending was kind of boring and even cliché’ for the character. It didn’t resolve anything and felt flat.
Zod was never going to stop. Putting out his eyes wouldn’t keep him from finding ways to kill/destroy. Knocking him out was a temporary solution, at best. What happens when he wakes up? What prison on Earth could hold him? He was programmed from birth to be a warrior and protector of Krypton. His programming had become corrupted after being left behind with no way to get his people back. Everything he was had been taken from him. He even said it himself that the only solution was that one of them (Superman or Zod) had to die. How do you reason with someone like that, especially when you’re less than 48 hours into being a superhero who’s never actually been in a fight before?
Making superhero films more realistic means confronting the obvious: when big, powerful things have fights in crowded cities, people are going to get hurt and likely killed. After seeing it a second time, I saw cops and other emergency responders directing people away from the destruction, so evacuations were happening. Yes, there had to have been lots of off-screen deaths in this movie (around 5,000 according to Snyder). Just like there had to have been lots of off-screen deaths in Avengers.
Saying Superman didn’t show concern for people around him is an asinine argument to make in this case. His whole focus was on stopping the thing that was causing the destruction in the first place. And during his fight with Zod, do you honestly think Zod would have just followed Superman out of Metropolis? There’s simply no way that would happen. He’d stay right where he could kill as many people as possible. If Superman had left the area, he would have returned to a Metropolis-sized ash pile complete with scattered human bones.
Superman does go out of his way to protect several people in the movie. From the bus crash when he’s a teen to the oil rig explosion to saving several members of a military team who were, just minutes earlier, attacking him as much as they were attacking the other Kryptonians. Not to mention saving Lois a couple of times, too. Oh, and the entire human race from extinction.
One positive thing to take away from the whole experience is that, if you were bothered by the idea of so many people dying at once then you are not a monster and have at least some shred of compassion left in you. But, if you place that blame on the protagonist of the movie, then you’re missing the bigger picture, too. You had a front-row seat to his point of view and if all you could do is criticize him for not saving every single person in danger then you’re willfully ignoring the circumstances.
Superman, contrary to what ideas you may have, is not all-powerful. He’s not able to save everyone. The idea that he could is just plain silly. It’s established early on that this version of Superman has limits. He’s not going to be lifting a continent over his head any time soon.
The supporting cast in Man of Steel couldn’t have been better, either. Russell Crowe as Jor-El is probably the best on-screen version of the character ever. He plays the part brilliantly and mixes in something we’ve never seen the character do before: kick ass! Kevin Costner also knows how to steal scenes with his inspired, modern take on Jonathan Kent. He’s not the perfect dad like he was in the past versions, except that he is. He sees the harshness of the world his adoptive son is growing up in and wants to protect him. He doesn’t have all the answers. How could he or anyone know what the right thing to do was in these situations? He tries to give Clark answers and an example to live by, but it can’t be easy raising a child as powerful as that. He could easily develop a bit of a god complex.
The lighter moments, woven so subtly into the fabric of the film, make it truly inspiring. Quiet moments between Clark and Martha Kent have a realistic feel to the mother-son relationship that’s often felt ignored in so many other versions of this story. Diane Lane’s performance was pitch-perfect and easily the most understated in the entire film. What a strong, loving, beautiful woman. She owned that role, ladies and gentlemen. Owned. It.
While Lois Lane doesn’t get as much screen time as she deserves, she makes a big impression when she’s there. And Amy Adams nails it perfectly. She and Henry Cavill’s Superman have such great chemistry together and their bond of mutual trust feels very natural and satisfying in a way that hasn’t happened…probably ever in a Superman film.
I can’t forget about the absolutely amazing Lawrence Fishburne, either. He nailed it as Perry White. And seeing him get his own great hero moments made me want to stand and cheer. Of course there’s the moment during all the destruction, but it’s when he’s proving to be the champion of facts over hyperbole that made this former journalism professional feel inspired. Great performance from one of today’s best.
If you’re still not convinced this is the Superman movie we needed, there’s nothing more I or anyone can do for you. If you’re one of those who loved the Richard Donner films and want more of that, you’re in luck! The Blu-Ray collection is very reasonably priced on Amazon and is a worthy piece to anyone’s collection. In fact, if you’re close by and planning to have a movie marathon, I make a mean chili-cheese dip…just saying.