Superman is not an easy character to get right. Many people have taken approaches at him, and few have succeeded. Snyder’s approach was actually fairly new, and I am not sure if he succeeded or not, but if he failed, he failed in an enjoyable manner.
Superman is a legend, a god that has feet on the ground like a man. He is the invulnerable, and unstoppable man. That is often the problem, as he is so powerful, it is awfully hard to give him a challenge he can’t rise to. More than that, he is big boy scout, always, and today’s audience is often seen as having a problem buying in to the character which has a perfect moral compass. Our heroes must be flawed, and tortured people just trying their best. We can’t have people who just instinctively know what is right and wrong. That is seen as boring, and too unbelievable, more unbelievable than a man who can fly.
Man of Steel poster, Copyright Warner Bros
The Superman in this movie starts out in the middle ground. What was a five minute montage in the 1980’s Superman film is the heart of this movie. This movie is about Clark/Kal trying to figure out what kind of man he wants to be. It is not the hero’s journey, really, but it is more of a familiar coming of age story.
When you are a young adult, filled with power and potential, but no idea who you are going to be, you have to find it through trial and error. Clark/Kal is doing that, only more so. He is aware of the man Jonathan Kent raised him to be, but not sure how to get there. This is Superman figuring out how to be Superman, which could have been enough on its own. But they don’t stop there.
This movie also has a strong immigration theme to it. Is Clark really just an American boy, his father’s son, just because he was raised in America, or is he his race/ethnic group, his father’s son, member of a people left behind. They walk an interesting line there, and ultimately it has a message of American inclusiveness, which we maybe don’t see enough of in the real world.
The film’s final act is where it begins to fall apart for me. There is something that happens which I won’t go into, for fear of spoiling the film, but it pretty much broke a lot of my goodwill towards this production. It feels like the first theme got thrown to the wolves in the interest of making a hero people will find “believable.”
That is a shame, because there is a lot of good in this movie. I know some people didn’t like him, but I thought Henry Cavill’s performance was spot on. He was not campy, but believably human, while showing genuine empathy. Russel Crowe was a pleasure, as always. The Kent’s were perfect; I would take nothing from them. Lawrence Fishburne was an excellent choice for Perry White, and it is completely believable why people would be very loyal to this man.
In fact, I will say the surprise of this film is the humans. This is a movie about Superman, and you never forget it, but the humans are not just there to be saved. They are active movers in the story, and much of the heroism in this film comes from the humans being awesome. Arguably Christopher Meloni has not only the best moment in the film, but the best line. Most of the humans who spend more than 2 minutes on screen are definitely awesome at some point or another.
Sadly, this Lois Lane is not great. Part of that has to be chalked up to the previous examples to follow. Most of the previous examples of Lois were brash, head strong, and independent to the point of being almost a detriment. Amy Adams is a fine actress, and she gets a few moments to do stuff, but at no point does she feel like the very strong character we have grown to expect. Her performance was more subdued, and suffered for it. Lois Lane is not supposed to be subdued.
Also, the villain is not up the challenge. Zod is played by Michael Shannon, and he chews up the scenery, but he feels not quite right. He is maybe egomaniacal, or maybe deluded. His rage feels manufactured, and never really seems to flow from anything that make sense, but they also never really sell him as crazy, either. He is nonspecifically evil, with little of the charm we saw from the previous actor inhabited the role.
So…was it good? There is a lot to like in this movie. There are some great moments, the visuals are amazing, and the fights between superpowered beings was amazing. As an experience, I loved it. Despite its flaws, I think it is well worth watching and I would watch again. Do I think it is a good Superman story? Ultimately, no. I think it had a lot of potential to be a good Superman story, but spoiled it towards the end. That said, I do believe it is a good set up for another Superman film, one that could very well be better. They leave room for some interesting stories and I hope to see them continue, despite my disappointments in this film.