Man of Steel: A review
I grew up loving comic books, and my favourite superhero was Superman. I can still vividly recall waking up on a Sunday morning and sitting at the breakfast table to hear my dad tell me that Superman—or, at least, Christopher Reeve—was injured in a horse-riding accident. I was gutted. I was seventeen years old, but Reeve was a childhood icon. For superhero lovers, he was Superman.
Dean Cain took over the small-screen Superman mantle for a while, and was pretty woeful. Tom Welling tried it in what became a painfully drawn out reinterpretation of the Superman story, and fared little better. Then it was announced that Superman would return to the big screen. I wasn’t familiar with Brandon Routh, but a little googling revealed a man who looked, at times, strikingly similar to Reeve. Could he pull of what others had tried and failed?
I loved Superman Returns. Superman didn’t punch as much stuff as some people would have liked, but it was a great continuation of where Superman II had left off. I was excited about a Routh sequel. He did, in fact, manage to play the part almost as well as Reeve, and Brian Singer had set things up very nicely for a future, more action-packed film.
It never happened. Time passed, and rumours rose and died. Then one day it was confirmed. There would be a Superman reboot. Sadly, Routh would not play the title character. In fact, none of the preceding cast would return, but Superman would come back nonetheless.
News came of another little known actor (to me at least) being cast as the man of steel. This time, I googled and immediately thought, “That guy looks like Superman!” Over time news of the supporting cast came in, and I was impressed with each decision. Previews showed Christopher Nolan’s influence all over the film. I wasn’t thrilled with the new-look costume, but figured I could live with it if the film was good enough.
The release date arrived. Like a kid in a toy store I sat down to watch the long-awaited return of Superman to the big screen. Two-and-a-half hours later I found myself wondering, “What have I just watched?” The answer, in part, is that Man of Steel was, without a doubt, this year’s most polarising blockbuster. What follows is nothing more than my personal opinion of the film as a long-time Superman fan.
This film is packed with (admittedly repetitive) action and eye candy. In fact, it’s so action-packed that you may come away from it on an initial high, and only really think about how good it really was much later.
The cast was almost perfect. I personally had mixed feelings about Michael Shannon’s Zod and Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White, but my reservations were not universally held. Amy Adams offers a fresh spin on Lois Lane as an invesitgative journalist. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play Ma and Pa Kent to perfection, and Russell Crowe gives us a look at Jor-el that we’ve not seen before.
The story is reimagined well enough. The radically new-look costume makes good sense, and I particularly liked how Zod’s forces needed to adjust to earth’s atmosphere before they could do everything that Superman could do after years of exposure to the yellow sun.
One of the biggest complaints about this film is that it lacks character development. We are quickly introduced to characters who get on with their respective roles, but we never get much insight into who they are. That’s a fair enough complaint, though it didn’t bother me too much personally seeing that I am already so familiar with these characters.
I have also read complaints about the depths of storytelling. To be fair, I think that there was so much crammed into this film that it was hard to tell the story as well as some would have liked. (The Reeve film series, for example, took a full movie to tell Superman’s story before introducing Zod in Superman II. Here, everything is crammed into two-and-a-half hours.)
The one thing that I really missed in this film was Superman. The film featured a super-powered Kryptonian in blue and red, but it wasn’t Superman—or, at least, not the Superman I know and love. As it was noted in one YouTube interview, Kal-el was in this film less of a superhero and more of a rock star.
When you walk away from a Superman movie in which there are exponentially more people whom he didn’t save than he did save, you know that something has gone horribly wrong. Those who hated Superman Returns will be thrilled that he punched more stuff in this film, but if I can be hyper-critical for a moment: Superman had one job! What happened?
There is one scene in Superman Returns that illustrates the world of difference between the two films. As Lex Luthor is growing a Kryptonian landmass from crystals stolen from the Fortress of Solitude, Superman flies over the ocean to confront him. As he does so, he notices, using x-ray vision, that the growth of the landmass has created an undersea fault line that is speeding toward Metropolis. Human lives are in danger. What does Superman do? He stops, turns around, flies back to Metropolis, saves everyone, then heads back to deal with Luthor.
The Kryptonian in Man of Steel chooses to play Kryptonian tennis with his enemies. He tells the residents of Smallville, “Get inside: It’s not safe!” before demolishing the entire town centre. And then, as if that is not enough, he heads to Metropolis and, in what one reviewer called pure “disaster porn,” flattens the city centre in an epic battle with Zod.
Watson Technical Consulting has looked at the film and crunched some numbers for us.
They estimated the area of major damage to be a mile in diameter, with 129,000 people killed, a quarter million missing, and almost a million people injured, which was the same damage the U.S. caused from dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki during WWII.
They estimate the building damage to be $700 billion, with damage to the economy reaching $2 trillion. To put that in perspective, 9/11 wreaked $55 billion in structural damage and $123 billion in economic impact.
The Kinetic Analysis Corporation did some of its own homework when The Avengers was released and estimated the damage to New York in that film at about $160 billion.
As expected, Superman saves Lois Lane a number of times in this film. He also saves a fighter pilot and, later, a family of four by making the agonising decision to kill Zod. (For those debating whether or not Superman ever kills, here is some discussion on the matter.) And then, despite the flattened city in the background, a Daily Planet intern looks at him with admiration and cheesily declares, “He saved us!”
This is not the Superman that I grew up with. The Superman I know would have done whatever was necessary to get people out of harm’s way. If he had to take the fight with Zod to the desert—or to the moon—he would have done so in order to avoid injuring and killing innocent people. Unfortunately, Cracked.com hits the proverbial nail on the head:
We know it doesn’t look as cool and CGI artists love to render flying debris, but that’s part of the cost of heroism. As it stands, it will take Metropolis decades to fully recover, assuming people don’t just abandon like Detroit. And that’s not even counting the hundreds of thousands of families left with Superman-shaped holes in their lives where their loved ones used to be. Jor-El should’ve left a copy of Of Mice and Men in Superman’s space crib.
If Superman was sent to earth for a reason—and Jonathan Kent seems to think that he was—then he failed pretty miserably in this film. As an aforementioned reviewer has noted, “From everything shown to us from the moment he put on the suit, Superman rarely if ever bothered to give the safety and welfare of the people around him one bit of thought.”
It is impossible to think about Superman without thinking of the Christian parallels. This is true historically of the character, and there are some added elements to it in this movie. As director Zack Snyder told CNN, “The Christ-like parallels, I didn’t make this stuff up…. That is the tried-and-true Superman metaphor. So rather than be snarky and say that doesn’t exist, we thought it would be fun to allow that mythology to be woven through.”
Kal-el was sent to earth by his father to be a saviour. He always chooses to do what is right, though in this particular film he appears to be less decisive than he classically is.
This particular film goes further by adding an interesting twist on the virgin birth, with Kal-el being the first natural birth in centuries on Krypton. Jor-el says to Lara at the beginning of the film, “He’ll be like a god to them.” Sent to earth, Kal-el is given a human name and raised in humble surroundings by a childless human couple. Though he is clearly far more powerful than they are, he submits willingly to them. This rendition of Clark Kent is a manual labourer (though not a carpenter), only taking his post at the Daily Planet in the final scene of the film. The world is oblivious to his existence until, at age 33, he is called upon to save the world. At one point, Superman floats out of an alien spaceship with his arms spread out in a “crucified” pose as his father urges him, “You can save them, Kal-el. You can save them all.”
Superhero films, by their very nature, provide us opportunity to think about issues like catastrophe and redemption. They give us pause to contemplate the battle of good-versus-evil, and give us the warm fuzzies that good ultimately wins. This film is no different.
All that said, collateral damage in the Superman universe is generally minimal. In this film, it played centre stage.
When Captain America: The First Avenger was released, a (female) fellow church member, who has always been a Superman fan, quipped on Facebook that Captain America had stolen her heart from Superman. At the time, I remember thinking, “Don’t worry: Man of Steel is coming soon, and Superman will have your heart back.” When I walked away from my Man of Steel experience, I realised that this Superman had little chance of doing so.
While Man of Steel would’ve made a great Hulk film, and is a decent enough action flick, it didn’t impress me so much as a Superman story.