If you gauge the merits of Man of Steel by whether it’s better than Superman Returns, or whether it successfully puts the proper pieces is place for sequels and Justice League movies and a shared DC universe, or whether it finally gives us a Superman who uses the full extent of his powers to pummel otherworldly bad guys into dust, then it’s hard to quantify the film as anything other than a raging success. But away from all of that, viewing it as just a single movie meant to be a modern retelling of the origins of the greatest of all comic-book heroes, the film’s ultimate impact becomes far murkier. This is not the sweeping, epic film the trailers promised, but rather a clinical take on the Superman mythos that sacrifices heart for a cold intensity. As an sci-fi action film, it mostly works. But you’ll find none of the grandeur of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie here, and, at times, it’s sorely missed.
Just like Donner’s 1978 film, Man of Steel opens on Krypton, with the planet nearing collapse and scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) deciding that the only way to preserve his world’s legacy is to ship his newborn son off to Earth. Meanwhile, Kryptonian military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) is leading a coup against the planet’s leaders and is attempting to retrieve a mysterious codex that Jor-El has already snatched to send off with his kid. Everything turns out bad for everyone — Krypton blows up; Zod and his peeps are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone — except for little Kal-El, who is safely delivered to his new home.
Smash-cut to the present day where a very grown-up Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is now using the name Clark Kent but still hasn’t quite figured out what his ultimate destiny is supposed to be. He roams America doing odd jobs and helping people out when disaster strikes, only to quickly disappear again. We see flashbacks to notable events of his youth, a time in which his concerned adoptive father (Kevin Costner) convinced him that humanity wasn’t ready to accept someone so different from themselves. Clark still isn’t sure the time is right to reveal himself, even after a discovery that leads to him learning about his true heritage, though it becomes a moot point once a freed General Zod shows up looking for the son of Jor-El. Superman is needed, so Superman he must become.
The first half of the movie is odd in that it often feels like a series of Superman-based vignettes rather than anything that congeals into a successful whole. The Krypton stuff is imaginative and effective, though it’s mostly just prologue. Once we arrive on Earth the movie jumps from idea to idea without ever settling into a decent rhythm. I was intrigued by Clark moving from job to job and trying to come to grips with who he is, but that’s quickly tossed aside in favor of Clark stumbling upon a deserted Kryptonian spaceship where he also bumps into a snooping Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who is conveniently ALWAYS at the right place at the right time. The movie often feels like it was based on a script outline, or index cards taped to a wall, rather than an honest-to-god completed screenplay.
Still, Man of Steel stays just engaging enough through its first half not to run completely off the rails, mostly thanks to its winning cast. Cavill isn’t given a ton to do as Clark — there’s an entire facet of the character that’s essentially left out of this film — but he wears the red and blue well and acquits himself nicely with what he is tasked with. If Warner Bros.’ hope is that Cavill can anchor the DC film universe through a series of movies for years to come, my guess is they got the right guy. Adams makes for a spunky Lois Lane, though her character is let down even more by the writing. The relationship between Clark and Lois benefits and suffers from nearly the exact same strengths and weaknesses as the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises. Cavill and Adams have good chemistry, but the movie gives them no time to develop it. I don’t doubt I could buy these two falling in love, but the “falling” part never happens. They meet. A bunch of plotty stuff happens. And then they’re holding hands and kissing for no other reason than they’re Clark and Lois so this is what they’re supposed to do. It seems like there’s an entire chunk of film missing where Lois grows to understand Clark’s inner turmoil and appreciate him for the sacrifices he’s had to make.
Michael Shannon does his always entertaining psycho-bad-guy thing as Zod, but the character also benefits from being given a legitimate, if extremely misguided, point of view. Zod just wants to save his nearly extinct people and will attempt to do so by any means necessary. The movie finally starts to coalesce in the movie’s second half when Zod’s plans are fully revealed, forcing Kal-El to choose between sacrificing Earth to preserve the future of a tainted Kryptonian race or rejecting Zod’s harsh morality to become his adopted planet’s guiding light. It’s not really a spoiler that he chooses the latter, leading to a full-on battle of the gods between Superman, Zod and Zod’s minions. Make no mistake, the fight scenes in this movie are the best we’ve seen in a comic-book film thus far. The combatants punch, kick, throw and tackle each other with blinding speed and massive power, and each impact seems to explode from the movie screen. The mayhem is a blast for a while, though at some point you begin to wonder just how many off-screen deaths are occurring in Metropolis while Zod’s doomsday machine levels entire city blocks and the Superman/Zod throw-down barrels through a number of skyscrapers. You’d think (and hope) Superman would do his best to prevent that kind of thing, but the idea of Superman and Zod wrecking half the city — bystanders be damned — as they trade blows must have sounded like too much fun for director Zack Snyder and script writer David Goyer to resist. Still, seeing Superman so unconcerned with the destruction occurring around him comes across as a somewhat tone-deaf view of the character.
Ultimately, Man of Steel is good enough for Warner Bros. to finally have a viable Superman franchise back in play, but I hope future films in the series place the character in the middle of an engaging story that flows organically and gains momentum from scene to scene rather than something that feels like a checklist of things that people might want in a Superman movie. For too much of its running time, Man of Steel favors the latter, resulting a modern-day reboot that is technically impressive and perhaps fits the times but fails to soar as majestically as the Donner/Christopher Reeve version of the character was able 35 years ago.