Man of Steel re-imagines the legend of Superman in modern movie fashion – beginning with the story of his home planet, Krypton. We first witness the miraculous birth of Kal-El, son of prominent scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), who happens to be the first naturally born Kryptonian (i.e., not genetically engineered) in a long time. Unfortunately, Kal’s birth comes just at the time when Krypton’s society is fracturing under the fear inspired by Jor-El’s prediction that the planet’s end is nigh.
An attempted military coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) sets into motion a series of fateful events that see young Kal-El raised on Earth, where he is warned by his adoptive parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) that his god-like alien powers will one day force him to make a choice about how he will change the world for better or worse. And when Zod and his minions suddenly appear in Earth’s orbit, ready to finish what was started on Krypton, Kal-El/Clark Kent realizes that his prophesied moment of choice has now arrived.
As was hoped for by many, Man of Steel is a fine marriage between the rich character-centric storytelling of Dark Knight Trilogy architects Chris Nolan and David S. Goyer, and the signature visual talents of director Zack Snyder. The movie is very much “Superman Begins” in terms of its narrative approach and structure; however, in terms of themes and tone the film achieves its own identity as an insightful, reverent and effectively relatable Superman story. Are there liberties taken with certain details of the costume, origin story or character relationships? Of course. But then again; this is a fresh start to present a new Superman to a modern world – and in that, Man of Steel ultimately succeeds.
Visually, this is Snyder’s most impressive film yet – and it looks pretty stunning in 3D. Everything from Kryptonian culture and technology to the way Superman’s powers (and the impossible physics surrounding them) operate looks on point and believable (enough) in a real-world context. Add to that an abundance of visual iconography and head nods to both the comics and Richard Donner’s seminal films (in particular Superman II) and it’s clear that Man of Steel‘s director has true love, understanding and appreciation for the subject matter at hand.
The action sequences – while at times a bit too CGI-heavy – are pretty epic in nature and certainly deliver on that perennial fanboy desire to see a film that depicts how super-powered beings would look and feel battling it out in a real-world setting. The wonderful pacing, editing, smart selection of scenes and abundance of action make this two-plus-hour ride go rather quickly; although by the climax, seeing flying men get punched through buildings over and over again might have you checking your watch. The score by Dark Knight composer Hans Zimmer is phenomenal and heightens the film every turn, while also establishing yet another new-age superhero theme to replace a classic favorite (John Williams’ Superman theme from the Donner films).
Script-wise, the story moves at a nonstop pace and should be wholly familiar to fans of Batman Begins in terms of structure; while comic book fans will also recognize several modern Superman stories that were mined for this film’s plot. A lengthy prologue introduces us to the world of Krypton in detailed and imaginative fashion, before we break into that signature Nolan non-linear scene montage format, covering Clark Kent’s life on Earth, past and present. The second act settles back into linear character and plot development (the re-introduction of General Zod), while the third act takes things into a full-on, over-the-top, super-powered showdown.
In terms of quality, the script definitely has strength and heart in terms of characterization and themes; Nolan and Goyer seem to understand Superman and his origins as well as they did Batman’s, as well as the similarities and the distinct differences between the two characters. The film contains some powerful moments and character beats – particularly where Clark Kent and his human parents are concerned.
At the same time, Man of Steel is not without some noticeable narrative flaws. The script can be very “comic-bookish” in some scenes of dialogue, and the jumps in time and place during the first act are not as cohesive as they were in Batman Begins. Clever editing and speedy movement earlier on often comes at the price of effective narrative development. In short: if you were one of those people who were hung up on the question of how Bruce Wayne made it back to Gotham after escaping prison in Dark Knight Rises, you’ll find similar gripes with Man of Steel. Thankfully, the studio and filmmakers pull the same magic trick they did with the Batman franchise by casting an impressive array of highly-talented actors, who help elevate the weaker points of the script.
Henry Cavill’s role is pared-down and restrained much of the time, which, combined with the talent of his co-stars, helps to overcome any deficiencies in his performance and sell him as the new Superman for a new era. By the end, he locks down the role and franchise as his own. Amy Adams (even with her different hair color) and Laurence Fishburne (even with his different skin color) both nail their respective characters of Lois Lane and Perry White and have great chemistry with each other, and with Cavill. Michael Shannon was the perfect left-field casting choice for General Zod, as he and Antje Traue (as Zod’s lieutenant, Faora-Ul) manage to ground all of the alien fantasy with no-nonsense performances that steer well clear of comic book villain campiness.
Meanwhile, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe add Oscar-caliber gravitas and heart to the film as Superman’s two sets of parents. Crowe gets a substantial amount of screen time to really flesh-out the character of Jor-El like never before, while Lane and Costner totally carry the family drama subplot, which is the most moving and beautiful element of the story. Even military side-characters like Genearl Swanwick, Colonel Nathan Hardy and scientist Emil Hamilton get a boost from being portrayed by fine actors like Harry Lennix (The Matrix 2 & 3), Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) and Richard Schiff (The West Wing), respectively.
On the whole, this movie is exactly the sort of experience that many Superman fans have been asking for, with the added benefit of having some smart storytellers providing fresh insight into why the character is one of the most iconic fictional creations out there. Like Nolan and Christian Bale’s first Batman outing, Snyder and Cavill’s first crack at Superman isn’t a homerun (we’ll call it a triple), but having succeeded in re-introducing the franchise to the masses; crafting a satisfying summer blockbuster; melding real-world sensibility with sci-fi fantasy (better than Green Lantern ever did) AND leaving the door open for an entire DC superhero universe to follow behind it, Man of Steel has more than earned its keep, and deserves to be THE iconic Superman movie for a whole new generation. (Sorry, Bryan Singer…)
…And, if the Batman franchise is anything to judge by, imperfections will be corrected and the best is still yet to come with the inevitable Man of Steel 2.
Man of Steel is now in theaters. It is 143 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.
Want to discuss the film without SPOILING it for others? Head over to our Man of Steel Spoilers Discussion. If you want to hear the Screen Rant Editors discuss the film, check out our Man of Steel special episode of the Screen Rant Undergound Podcast.