Monday, July 8, 2013

Film Review: The Man of Steel

I'm in a little bit of shock. I don't usually see movies so close to their release date. Nevertheless, on Sunday, July 7th, I was sitting in a local movie theatre watching Man of Steel (2013). I couldn't have been happier.

A word of warning, especially if you haven't seen the film yet (and I highly recommend that you do). I'm going to be dropping spoilers all over the place. If you don't like surprises ruined, then save this review until after you've seen the film. Remember, you have been warned.

I love this movie. I really do. It's not a perfect film but it's very, very close. As far as superhero films go, I thought The Dark Knight (2008) completely nailed it, and Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker sent it over the top. I thought The Avengers (2012) was just as good, although in a completely different style. I'd have to say that Man of Steel comes very, very close to equaling those two other movies with just a few small problems.

First things first, though.

The Movie

Man of Steel starts out with a bang, almost literally. We're on the planet Krypton. The son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer), Kal-El (when referred to by his Kryptonian name, he's called "Kal" most of the time) is the first natural birth on their planet in centuries. He doesn't have much time to enjoy that distinction.

The planet Krypton is about to explode. This is straight from Superman canon going back at least fifty years. Jor-El confronts the planetary council and begs them to take the only option they have left after centuries of consuming the core of their now unstable planet: space travel. One hundred thousand years past, Krypton had a thriving system of space colonies. They eventually became a more introspective and even xenophobic race and withdrew from space, abandoning all the colony worlds. If they don't revive that tradition and very quickly, the planet's explosion will destroy the Kryptonian civilization.

The old guard in the council refuse to accept this. Jor-El speaks to deaf ears. But General Zod (Michael Shannon) has another plan. Violent overthrow of the government in order to save the essence of what Krypton is. Jor-El approves of saving Kryptonians but not by bloodshed.

Lots of action ensues and not only does Jor-El illegally launch his newborn son into space, but he sends the stolen codex, the genetic record of all Kryptonians, into the void with him, rocketing to an unnamed planet with a yellow sun.

In the battle to prevent Zod from stopping the launch, Jor-El is killed. Zod and his commanders, including Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), are captured and condemned to the Negative Zone. With her husband dead and her son sent into an uncertain future on an alien planet, Lara lives long enough to mourn before being killed along with her entire species as her native world explodes.

A space warp opens and a ship emerges just outside Saturn's orbit. The ship negotiates the rest of its journey with remarkable speed, passing Earth's moon and then entering the atmosphere...

...shift to the present on a fishing boat where a mysterious man with a beard is working, although this is hardly the sort of job he's used to. An emergency call from a burning oil platform. Men trapped inside. The stranger disappears from the boat and the trapped men are confronted by a shirtless man standing in the naked flames who can rip a steel door open with his bare hands.

They all make it out and onto a rescue helicopter in time except for the stranger, who manages to keep the flaming, melting superstructure of the rig from collapsing on the aircraft until it can take off.

Clark Kent's (Henry Cavill) life story is told from present to past and back to present in a series of flashbacks. As the stranger travels from town to town in the frozen north, he picks up clues to the mystery he's searching artifact of some kind trapped in a glacier over ten-thousand years old.

He's a quiet man, almost serene at times. He wants to help, even when it's not appreciated. He doesn't quite fit in. He keeps moving.

Enter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) by helicopter at the arctic site where the American military and scientists, including Dr. Emil Hamilton, still can't find a way to investigate whatever is buried in the ice. She almost doesn't notice a worker named "Joe" who is assigned to carry her luggage.

That is, until she sees him later that night outside in the sub-zero weather wearing no coat. She follows him. It almost kills her.

Besides the ship, Clark came from Krypton with two artifacts: the codex and a key displaying his family crest. Clark burns his way through the ice and into what turns out to be an ancient Kryptonian scout ship. He activates the ship with the key and his father's "personality" is uploaded. Jor-El answers all of Kal's questions. Lois isn't so lucky since the ship's security identifies her as an alien.

Clark saves her...the first of many times. He places the wounded woman outside where she's quickly found by others. The ship launches and then lands in another part of the arctic, this time without witnesses. Jor-El tells Kal of his destiny, gives him the undersuit to the battle armor worn by the House of El. It's a suit that is unmistakably familiar to generations of people in search of a hero.

We learn in flashbacks that Clark's amazing calm (no, he's not emotionless) is a result of how his parents brought him up. His mother Martha (Diane Lane) helped young Clark overcome the debilitating sensory overload when the vast information gathering power of his eyes and ears turned on all at once.

His father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) was hard on Clark, desperate to protect him, and he's the one who taught Clark to endure any abuse or insult, no matter how harsh, as opposed to using his vast power to strike back, which would not only kill, but expose young Clark to a government that would most assuredly exploit or destroy him if they knew of his existence.

But sometimes young Clark had to help. A blow out of a school bus tire sends the vehicle over the side of a bridge and into a river. Everyone is going to drown...except one young teenage boy. He's the boy who pushes the bus back onto the bank and then dives under the water to pull out Pete Ross (the teen version played by Jack Foley), who only minutes before had been teasing him.

Jonathan and Martha later try to calm Pete's mother down as she rants on about how Lana (Jadin Gould), Pete, and several other kids saw what Clark did. After all, how could any human being, especially a thirteen year old boy, push a school bus out of a river? This isn't the first time Clark's done something like this, but it's rare enough that it only attracts local attention...for now.

As an adult, Clark has an almost supernatural calm. But he's not perfect. When he's bullied by some drunk in a bar, Clark just walks away. But when the trucker walks outside, his rig is a twisted mess, tangled with cable and tree trunks. Apparently Clark can lose his cool, but only when no one can see and so that no one gets hurt.

When Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) refuses to print Lois's story about the alien stranger and the ancient spacecraft in the Daily Planet, she goes on a personal quest, starting with "Joe" at the arctic site and working backwards, searching records for mention of a dark stranger, a loner with a penchant for helping, and who sometimes seems more than human.

Apparently, it's not hard to follow the trail, which leads the reporter straight to Smallville, Kansas, restaurant manager Pete Ross (as an adult played by Joseph Cranford), and finally, Martha Kent.

Lois meets Clark again at his father's grave. She knows who he is now. And because of who he is, she kills her story. She'll never tell anyone about him as long as she lives...if she can help it.

It might have ended there if not for the message from a ship from the stars: "You are not alone." When Krypton exploded, the Phantom Zone was opened and Zod and his commanders were freed. They converted the "phantom drive" of the prison ship to a warp drive and then searched the old, long dead colony worlds for decades, picking up old technology, looking for the lost Kal-El, until Clark's entrance into the scout ship activated a signal and led Zod straight to Earth.

This is when the world learns that they have had an alien in their midst for thirty-three years. This is when they find out if he's a threat or a hero.

That's really the point of the movie in many ways. Ten and twelve year old boys in 1938 wouldn't have asked themselves how we'd all react if we really found out we weren't alone in the universe. They wouldn't have wondered how the human race would respond to an alien "Superman" whose powers would make it all too easy for him to kill millions. They'd have assumed he was good and a hero and a lot of fun to read about. They wouldn't have a clue how a flawed and panicky mankind would really see a stranger from the stars who could "bend steel in his bare hands."

The love story between Kal and Lois is handled well. She does name him "Superman" in a lull in the action, after Kal surrenders himself to the military and before he is surrendered to Zod in exchange for Zod not destroying Earth. They only finally kiss near the end of the film but the magnetism between them is obvious and forged by her search for his story and her integrity in keeping his secret.

It's Lois who saves Kal on Zod's ship where the Kryptonian environment maintained on board weakens the would be "Man of Steel" and even makes him sick. She uses the key given to her by Kal, since she was turned over to Zod as well, to upload Jor-El, and the simulation of Kal-El's father sends her off the ship in an escape pod along with the secret Jor-El teaches her of returning Zod and his crew back to the Phantom Zone.

Jor-El reprograms the environment on the ship for Earth normal, and Kal's powers are back...but not before a blood sample is taken, which is important later on.

Superman rescues Lois from her damaged space pod and sets her down on Earth. But the battle is on. Zod and his team come to Earth, to Smallville. They want Kal's ship and the codex that is supposed to be inside.

The problem is not only how Superman is supposed to handle numerous super-powered Kryptonian soldiers, all wearing battle armor. It's also how the U.S. military considers all Kryptonian's a threat, including Kal. The human weapons can't really hurt him but the betrayal can, especially since he gave up everything to protect them.

However, after the immediate battle is finished and Kal exploits the one weakness the Kryptonians are sure to have and sends them back to their ship, General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) tells his troops, "this man is not our enemy."

This is also where Clark's calm and his father's love and trust pay off. After the fight is over, Kal pushes the wreckage aside and finds dozens of American troops all pointing their weapons at him. He looks at them. He's serene, almost parental. He slowly, calmly walks up to them and past them. They can't fire. Everyone is in awe of him, not just his powers, but how almost godlike he is.

"This man is not our enemy." It's the first time Kal-El becomes Superman, Earth's greatest protector.

Lois shares the secret of stopping Zod and his lieutenants with Kal. It involves Kal's ship and the Kryptonian key. It may be too late. Zod uses his ship in tandem with something called a "World Engine" to attempt to change Earth's environment into Krypton's. Zod discovered one unpleasant thing in Smallville. Kal's ship didn't contain the codex. His blood sample revealed that Jor-El had encoded all of Kal's cells with the genetics of millions of Kryptonians. They could be used to restore their race using the Genesis chamber in the scout ship. But doing that would exterminate all terrain life...including human beings.

All Zod has to do is kill the son of his enemy and take his blood to make his race live again. It's all Zod knows how to do. It's the one thing that gives Kal the advantage. On Krypton, everyone is artificially nurtured from conception to birth. All their characteristics including their role in society are predetermined. This was true of even Jor-El and Lara, just as it is true of Zod. Kal-El was the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. Of all Kryptonians, only Kal-El is free to choose his own destiny. It's what saves his life when, after the rest of the Kryptonian soldiers are sent back to the Zone, he is faced with battling a desperate and incredibly dangerous General Zod alone.

Kal-El wins. Superman wins. The world is saved. But the cost is horrible. Kal has to give up everything. His ship, the scout ship. All of Zod's technology. Even the key bearing the crest of the House of El. All that is left of Krypton is its last son...and the DNA of his race now trapped in his body, with no way to release them, to regrow them, to restore their lives. Perhaps even his mother and father are somewhere inside of him.

There's one more cost, the worst of all. In order to save people, Kal had to take a life. It devastates him. But Lois is there to comfort him.

Man of Steel is a virtual rollercoaster ride of action and is paced wonderfully so that the more "narrative" portions of the film take nothing away. I especially loved Clark's relationship with his father Jonathan. As an older teen, Clark chafed at being controlled but in the end, his father, who was also a very calm and parental man, was always right. Even on the day he died.


Superman wasn't the only hero. The world was full of them. OK, to be fair, there were also a lot of jerks in the movie, which was part of Clark's problem. When Zod gives him only twenty-four hours to surrender to the authorities, Clark doesn't know what to do. Are human beings worth it? He's an alien but he was raised in Kansas. He turns to the only authority who he thinks can help him, a Priest in a church.

I'm glad this scene was included. Clark was raised by a farm family in a small town in the middle of Kansas. His values from a young age were almost certainly conservative and he probably went to church as a child. Hollywood has been phobic about having their heroes be religious for decades now for fear of offending someone, but the movie, television, and comic book media abandon and important aspect of many people's reality by enforcing a politically correct (and real world incorrect) view of our world.

In his context, church is the only place where Clark could learn why it was right for him to surrender to save a people who might end up hating him just for who he is. The priest, once learning that he's in the same room with a potentially dangerous alien, maintains his composure (after a moment of total shock) and tells Clark that we have to have faith before we can earn trust. It's that message that enables Clark to do the most heroic thing he's ever done...protect the human race even if they aren't worth it.

Except they are.

Jonathan Kent dies when his son Clark is seventeen years old. There's a sudden tornado. Traffic is backed up. Jonathan sends Clark to shelter under a freeway overpass to protect his mother while Jonathan helps rescue other people. Something goes wrong. Jonathan's caught out in the open with a broken ankle. He'll never get to safety in time. Clark struggles against a lifetime of inhibition against using his powers and almost races forward to save the only father he's ever known.

Then he sees his father. Jonathan looks right at Clark and calmly, quietly raises his hand telling Clark to stop. He's almost smiling at his son when the tornado strikes. Clark let his father die because he trusted that his Dad knew what was right. As much as anyone, Jonathan Kent lived and died to show his son what being a hero was all about.

Perry White is a hero. In the destruction caused by Zod's ship and the World Engine, as gravity is turned upside down and inside out, a Planet staffer is caught under some rubble. There isn't time to get her out and destruction is coming. Perry and reporter Steve Lombard could still run away and survive, but then the young woman would die alone. They stay. And halfway around the world, an all but exhausted Superman stops the World Engine just in time.

Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) is a hero. He's a soldier, so you short of suspect he should be, but even knowing how impossible it is to stop any Kryptonian soldier, he still goes toe to toe with Faora...with a knife. She tells him that a good death is its own reward. A line he'll use against her at their next and last meeting. Even more than General Swanwick, I liked Hardy. At first, I thought he'd be a typical Army hardass, but he was always at the front of the action, never shirking risks his men were taking, protecting them, protecting his people.

Even Emil Hamilton was a hero, on board a crippled aircraft activating Kal's ship at the last second so it could be used to send the Kryptonians back to the Phantom Zone.

Lois Lane is a hero. She kept a secret that if revealed, would have made her internationally famous overnight (true, she'd already won the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism). At first it was out of respect, but eventually it would be love that turned a hard nosed and jaded reporter into a woman with a conscience who would sacrifice even her career for the hero we don't deserve but desperately need.

A Few Problems

Superman supposedly gets his abilities from sunlight. Somehow, his biology allows him to absorb the rays of the yellow sun, store their energy, and turn it into the source for his amazing powers. He generates a field around his body that makes him invulnerable and enables him to fly. Sunlight also powers his strength and his sensory abilities. He can even survive for brief periods in orbital space (and who knows what his limits are in this universe?).

So why does Kryptonian air and Kryptonian gravity suddenly make him weak, sick, and have him spitting up blood?

Here's a much bigger problem. Clark shouldn't have a secret anymore.

It seemed almost easy for Lois to start at the arctic base and work her way backward through Clark's history, eventually tracing him to Smallville. Pete Ross remembered Clark and when Superman crashed into his diner during the battle with the Kryptonians, Pete looks right at his face and knows who he is.

Martha Kent told Lois about her son. I don't know why she trusted Lois.

After Kal rescues Lois from the burning space pod when they escaped from Zod's ship, he leaves her by a country road to go battle Zod who had invaded his mother's farm. Lois gets a ride from a passing police car. They take her to the Kent farm where they can obviously see a costumed Clark Kent talking with his mother.

Later, when its discovered that Kal's ship is the secret to sending the Kryptonian criminals back into the Phantom Zone, the military just retrieve it from the storm cellar under the Kent's barn.

And at the very end of the film, when General Swanwick is asking Superman how he could ever be sure Kal wouldn't turn against American interests, the last son of Krypton replies, "I was raised in Kansas. I'm about as American as you can get."


But at the very, very end, Perry White introduces a new stringer to Lois and Steve Lombard and asks them to show him the ropes. It's Clark Kent in a suit and glasses and a winning smile.


A number of the other reviews I've read of this film have complained that Man of Steel lacks the ability to make fun of itself, that it's too dark, too serious. I know my fear was that too much camp would be inserted into the movie and I'm thankful I was wrong, but most critics say movies about Superman need to have the ability to poke a little fun at themselves.

But this movie does that. I guess no one was paying attention.

The first time Martha sees Clark in his costume, she wryly comments, "Nice suit."

When Kal turned himself in to the military, he was handcuffed. He's sitting in a room talking with Lois while being watched by a lot of soldiers including General Swanwick. He can see all of them and standing to address them, Superman tells them they are afraid of him because they can't control him. He punctuates that statement by breaking the handcuffs, startling everyone behind the glass.

This may have been unintentional, but in the final battle with Zod, the General finally strips off his battle armor revealing his under suit...which looks a lot like Kal's except it has no cape. At one point Zod, having recently learned how to fly, grabs Superman's cape and uses it to whip Clark around and throw him several hundred feet into a building. Inside my head, I heard a tiny voice whisper "no capes."

When new reporter Clark Kent is introduced to Lois Lane for the first time, she says, "Welcome to the Planet," obviously referencing his being from another planet.

British Henry Cavill playing Superman tells General Swanwick that he's as American as they come. That's got to be worth a chuckle.

There weren't a lot of jokes in the movie. It wasn't that kind of film. But I did see that Man of Steel was able to wink at itself from time to time.

Smallville Television Show

There were a few tie-ins but just a few. In the Smallville TV show, Dr. Emil Hamilton is played by actor Alessandro Juliani. In Man of Steel, Juliani plays a minor role as Officer Sekowsky, a technician at the site where the Kryptonian scout ship was found.

Of course, actress Amy Adams plays Lois Lane in the film. However, she also played a high school student in the first season Smallville TV episode Craving (2001).

I know when this film was first announced, an overwhelming number of fans of the Smallville show demanded that Tom Welling and Erica Durance play Clark/Superman and Lois Lane respectively.

Having seen the film, it's tone, it's personality, I just can't see those two fine actors pulling it off the way Henry Cavill and Amy Adams played Clark and Lois. Welling was a great teenage Clark Kent, but even though Cavill is only six years older than Welling, the Smallville actor's youthful face wouldn't have carried over into the maturity that Cavill brought to the role. Cavill is young enough to communicate charm, especially once he puts on the glasses, but old enough to be Superman. Even though during the final episode of Smallville, the Superman suit was CG-ed onto Welling's body, it never seemed to fit.

As far as Durance vs. Adams as Lois, Durance patterned a lot of her portrayal of the role after Margot Kidder's Lois from the Christopher Reeves Superman movies. Lois was disorganized, impulsive, scatter-brained, and she couldn't spell. While Durance played Lois a little more seriously than Kidder, she was never a "real" reporter. Adams brought a serious human being into the film. True, as time progressed, Adams seemed just a tad "sappy" every time Kal was around, but she could bring both a hard edge and competency to her Lois Lane. Durance might have been able to do the same, but the fans would have freaked if she was the same face but a different personality.

Also, Smallville was largely derivative from the earlier Superman films and Man of Steel needed to be a clean reboot. And it was.

DC Universe

Two small tie-ins to the larger DC world. We see a truck with the LexCorp logo on it, promising a future appearance of that company's dastardly CEO. The satellite that Kal and Zod crash into during their final battle had a Wayne Enterprise logo. Either Batman already exists in Kal's world or he soon will.

I know this was long. It's longer than I intended it to be. I had a lot to say about this movie, but I'll sum it up in just a few words. If you haven't seen Man of Steel yet, go! It's worth it. It's the must see movie of the summer of 2013.


  1. man of steel movie the worst reboot ever with the worst casting and worst story

  2. Everyone has a right to an opinion. Do you tend to be a fan of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies or perhaps a Smallville TV show fan? What could have made "Man of Steel" a better film?