By Nick Maylor
This film was widely disliked.
Henry Cavill was heavily criticized.
Zack Snyder has gotten some truly undeserved hatred.
I loved Man of Steel (2013). I think it is the best Superman film yet made. With all due respect to Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner, Superman (1978) has one of the dumbest, laziest, Deus ex Machina endings in all of cinema. Neil DeGrasse Tyson wouldn’t put up with being in a Superman film with that plotline. He did show up in Batman v. Superman (2016), however.
More on that later.
Batman Begins (2005) began Hollywood’s obsession with “reboots” and yet despite being a massive success for Batman, the same approach wouldn’t be given to Superman for 8 more years. A year after Batman Begins, Warner Brother’s released Superman Returns (2006), directed by Bryan Singer. The film is a continuation of the Richard Donner film and its sequel. It is a Superman film that has some awe-inspiring moments but it is also a Superman film where the titular hero throws not a single punch. John spoke fondly of Superman Returns recently when he revisited it. He’s a fan. I’m more a fan of this film. This is the movie that Warner Brothers should have made in 2006 INSTEAD of Superman Returns (2006). Maybe then we would have had Christian Bale in a Justice League movie. We’ll never know.
Man of Steel feels like Snyder doing his best Christopher Nolan impression; in terms of shooting the film. It very much feels like the Batman Begins version of Superman. It works very well and perhaps if it had been made earlier, it would have been received more favourably. Snyder’s film has no opening credits. It shows us the planet Krypton in a fully realized fashion, exploring the various flora and fauna of the planet. Advances in CGI make this approach possible and much like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), Avatar (2009) and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Man of Steel shows wild and exciting creatures that show how much work went into creating Krypton’s identity. The humanoid Kryptonians are shown as an advanced technological society that explored and terraformed various planets.
For reasons that aren’t explored, the Kryptonian society decided to devolve into harvesting Krypton’s non-replenishable resources, mining the planet and abandoning the space program. Mastering eugenics is employed to eliminate natural birth in a deranged mission to achieve perfection for everyone; with their genetics traits tailored towards their predetermined role in society. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is a chief scientist on Krypton and denounces the ways Krypton has taken this dystopian path. Jor-El discovers the impending destruction of the planet which has been exacerbated by society’s actions mining the planet. General Zod (Michael Shannon) is a fascistic military leader who overthrows the remnants of Krypton’s high council. Mimicking the opening of Richard Donner’s Superman, Zod and his soldiers are sentenced to the phantom zone, cruel punishment of banishment from the known world. Zod (Michael Shannon) delivers a chilling warning to Lara (Ayelet Zurer) that he will find the child Kal-El if it takes him an eternity to do so.
Kal-El is sent to Earth as Krypton dies, his mother accepting her fate and praying that her son will build a better world than the one he leaves behind. Kal is raised by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) as their adopted son Clark.
Man of Steel is a beautiful story of fathers and sons. The film was released around Father’s Day in 2013 and struck a chord with me as my father had died from cancer years earlier. I ended up seeing this film three times in theatres just to make sure I had it all right but it stood to the test each time. Kal’s relationship with Jor-El and Clark’s relationship with Jonathan Kent; two important threads to this story. Clark’s relationship with his human father is given new insight as the farmer fears for his son’s safety. Upon revealing himself to humanity, Clark may be tremendously feared and misunderstood to the point where humanity turns against him. Jonathan knows this and rather than simply encourage his son to save lives, he stresses the importance of knowing how humanity feels about things they do not understand.
The film’s weakest moment is the death of Jonathan Kent. While masterfully filmed, it is not as powerful as the death of Jonathan Kent in the original Donner film. This Clark COULD HAVE saved his father but obeyed Jonathan’s wishes to restrain himself. In Donner’s film, Jonathan’s heart attack is an important reminder to Clark that his powers have limitations. While I do like Man of Steel tremendously, I will concede that this story point could have been better.
Henry Cavill looks like Superman lifted right off the pages of a comic-book. His physique attained for the role is as impressive as anything a Marvel actor has done if not more so. The most interesting part of Cavill’s characterization of Clark is that there is no facade yet. There is no “Clark Kent” persona. No glasses, suits or newspaper jobs (yet). Only a glimpse of that person shows up in the film’s final seconds and it’s perfect
Michael Shannon’s performance as Zod is terrifying and evokes the feel of renowned dictators like Adolf Hitler.
His dedication to eugenics and unshakable dedication to his mission are themselves a product of his own engineering. He represents the dark side of Krypton’s mistakes; being a living example of the destruction that can come from trying to play god. Kal-El was conceived naturally by his parents and birthed from his mother’s womb.
This is something that had not occurred on Krypton for several generations. As Jor-El tells his son, he is as much a child of Earth as he is of Krypton. The human side of Clark comes out when fighting Zod as he furiously beats the military leader in a rage-filled battle after Zod had manhandled Martha Kent. “You think you can threaten my mother?” He screams as he attacks Zod.
Later when aboard the Kryptonian vessel which carries a birthing chamber, Superman faces Zod and his eyes fill with fire as he prepares to use his laser vision to destroy the vessel. Zod desperately informs Superman that if he destroys the ship, he will effectively destroy any hope of new Krypton with it. Recalling Zod’s apocalyptic vision of earth’s future, Kal-El pauses momentarily; only to continue burning down the ship as he affirms that “Krypton had its chance.”
It would seem as though Man of Steel could be an appropriate reaction to Superman Returns in the realm of punches thrown. In Returns, he doesn’t throw one, in Man of Steel all the punches led to Kal and Zod destroying half of Metropolis. Is it wrong to respect this film for treating me like an adult with all the destruction? Isn’t this what happens all the time in comic books? Cities get leveled, right?
The massive casualties upset a lot of people including (spoiler alert)
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor