Man of Steel Review – A Modern Update on the Classic Superman Tale

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

By Damon Martin – Editor/Lead Writer

The superhero platform has become a popular attraction to filmmakers worldwide with the success of franchises like Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, which transcended comic book fantasy with real life drama.

But if there’s one superhero that has been nearly impossible to capture correctly over the last 20 years on film it’s the iconic image of Superman.

Possibly the most well known superhero in the entire world, Superman is a tough subject to tackle because he is impenetrable to any force known to mankind, and he holds powers that are untouchable by any human standard. 

Still, director Zach Snyder (300, The Watchmen) along with executive producer Christopher Nolan decided to give the Superman franchise the reboot it’s been waiting for ever since Richard Donner created the iconic image of Christopher Reeve as the man with the “S” on his chest in the first and second Superman films between 1978 and 1980.

As the film opens, a baby is born on the planet Krypton to the El family headed up by patriarch Jor-El played this time around by Russell Crowe. His son, who will be named Kal-El, won’t enjoy his home planet for long because in a twist that certainly rings to a modern day tale, the government on Krypton has used up all of the natural resources and the entire civilization, despite all of their scientific wonder, is now doomed to be destroyed.

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Kal-El is rocketed off by his parents to safely land on Earth, where his body will be enhanced by the strong rays of the yellow sun, and as his father is quoted “he will be a God to them.”

It’s in this that Snyder truly understands the power of the Superman character when telling his story in the film.  At the heart of it all, Superman is not only a hero to the people of Earth, but in many ways he is the true definition of a messiah figure that is sent to save the world from evil. 

Snyder also does a fantastic job in this film of showcasing the true reality of society’s reaction to an alien making Earth its home and no matter how good he appears to be, he is still met with fear by the masses that can’t understand where he came from or how he got here.

The real power behind Man of Steel is in the story played out by the father figures in Clark Kent’s life once he’s landed on Earth, millions of miles away from the planet he was born on.

Growing up in Kansas, Clark was raised by Jonathan Kent (played masterfully by Kevin Costner in this film), who knew all along that the world would not know how to accept a stranger like him into their arms without being scared of the power he possessed.  The movie plays from beginning to end with flashbacks throughout showing how Clark became the man he is today as molded by the strongest male figures in his life.

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Costner plays the role beautifully with a real sense of raising an alien child in a world that can’t understand him, while also instilling in him the moral aptitude that will allow him to become Earth’s savior.  It can’t be forgotten, however, in this adaptation of Jonathan Kent, he raises his son with a sense of paranoia to how the world will react to meeting him for the first time once they know what kind of strength lies at his fingertips.

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It’s a far cry from the father most Superman fans have come to know, but in a more modern storytelling of the classic tale, Jonathan Kent’s desire for his son to hide away his abilities is really his way of protecting Clark the only way he knows how.

Crowe’s Jor-El become more of the leading force into bringing his biological son to the place where he can unleash his power onto the world, while helping to craft it for the better by helping humanity with his gifts.  It’s a change from the traditional Superman story, but a more realistic approach given the world of fear and paranoia that we tend to live in these days.

British newcomer Henry Cavill plays Superman with a certain charm that makes him endearing to the audience, but also forgettable enough that with only a pair of glasses he transforms into Clark Kent and blends in with the rest of the world.  Cavill is no Christopher Reeve, but he’s taken over the role with grace and the kind of complexity necessary to make Superman believable in this day and age.

Mid-film the focus shifts from Clark’s coming of age story to a more natural setting where Kryptonian baddie General Zod (Michael Shannon) shows up to claim his “citizen” from the alien world he’s been hiding under for the last 33 years.  Shannon embraces the villainous nature of Zod, and how deep down this cruel and evil man really is the embodiment of everything that went wrong with Krypton that led to its downfall.

The final 30 minutes of the film becomes a true action movie with a predictable battle ensuing between Superman and Zod, but at the same time Snyder must have had an epiphany that these two unbreakable beings could not simply have a knockdown, drag out fight high overtop the city, or contained by just a few buildings, and he executes is to perfection.  When one god battles another god, an entire world crumbles around them.

The ending will also surely upset some Superman purists, but in this modern age some of the old pieces of the Man of Steel surely had to fade away.

The action scenes in the film, while spectacular in CGI, do take away something from the overall story because what was quickly becoming a truly great film was overcome with big explosions, flashy effects and mind numbing battle scenes that seemed somewhat drawn out over the course of the last third of the film.

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If there was another knock on the movie it really seemed to be the forced nature of the relationship between Clark and Lois Lane (Amy Adams). While the pair was pushed from the very opening moments of the film, it appeared that the filmmakers wanted this couple together before the final credits ran instead of actually showing how a woman from Earth could fall in love with a savior from the stars.   The connection between Adams’ Lois Lane and Cavill’s Superman just didn’t quite shoot sparks into the sky, but hopefully the filmmakers will make that happen in the subsequent and inevitable sequels.

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Overall, Man of Steel is a great opening chapter to what will likely be the next major DC trilogy to stand along side Nolan’s Dark Knight saga.  Snyder took a character that is impossibly hard to make vulnerable, and showed how fragile his humanity could be even though his skin and body could not be pierced.

It won’t stand up to the brilliance that Nolan displayed through three films when he recreated Batman, but Snyder’s Superman does a good job of introducing a classic character into modern society without any over the top campiness that has sunk previous incarnations of Superman.

It’s a solid effort with plenty to like, and the parts that drag Man of Steel down a bit, ultimately don’t sink the effort. Snyder along with screenwriter David S. Goyer did the best job this side of Smallville to make Superman believable for the 21st century.


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