Most people will either love or hate this film, all because of one crucial scene near the end of it. I’ll get to that issue in a minute, but let’s look at the rest first. Let me say that I enjoyed this film. I loved the acting. No performance was lackluster. Henry Cavill and the two other actors that play Clark Kent at ages 9 and 13 are all perfect. I’ve heard there was some CGI enhancement of Cavill’s musculature, so he looked beefy enough for the role. I don’t know if that’s the case, or if it’s all natural muscle, but I can say that this is the first actor to play Superman in live action film or TV that looks beefy enough to me. Christopher Reeve was skinny as a pole. Brandon Routh was even skinnier. This guy looks like my vision of Superman. As for the rest of the cast? Amy Adams’s Lois could have used more to do on screen, but she gets her moments. This isn’t a Lois film though, it’s about someone else. I expect she’ll have a meatier role in the next one. As for Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, and Diane Lane? Fine performances all around, and they add to the film. And that’s coming from someone who loves Lane, couldn’t care one way or the other about Crowe, and actively dislikes Costner.
I loved the visual look of this film too. In all the reviews you’ll see out there, people are talking about that polarizing issue I’ll come to, and they’re talking about the action and the spectacle (both things you expect from director Zack Snyder, and let’s face it: that’s what you want in a Superman film). Very few people are talking about the things this film brings to the table that we haven’t seen before. I’m impressed that Metropolis doesn’t look like Gotham City in the recent Christopher Nolan films or any other Metropolis or Gotham we’ve seen. I’m impressed that the otherworldliness of Krypton as portrayed in the beginning of the film looks different. It’s not the Krypton we’ve seen dozens of times before. The technology is different. The spaceships are different. We’ve seen dozens of retellings of the origin story of Superman in film, animation, and print at this point in the character’s 75 year history. I haven’t seen it look like this before. When you get to that pivotal moment in the film, and afterward when it’s the main thing you remember, try to recall that the style of the film was consistent throughout and was clearly a labor of love for those who worked on the film. And it’s not what you’ve seen before. There are no ice crystal palaces here.
So the acting is great, the spectacle is great, the style is great. The score by Hans Zimmer is, naturally, great. Some people are growing tired of Zimmer’s bombastic approach to film score and complain about it, but here it’s right at home. Most of the time, you don’t notice it. When you do, it’s fitting. That’s how a score should be.
So what about the story? Well, we know the origin story, roughly. It’s been altered as it’s been retold over the years in comics and film. It’s basically the same here, but, and this ties into that moment in the end, it’s perhaps portrayed more realistically than ever before. The basic story of Superman, the last living being from a world far away, sent to our world as a baby, and raised by good people on a farm in Kansas, normally results in a man willing to fight for what is right. The problem with that tale is that it has primarily been portrayed in fiction starting in the thirties in a really goody-two-shoes kind of way. Superman became a parody of himself and a paragon of rah-rah-shish-boom-bah, we love America and all things democratic. He became the poster child for doing the right things, to the point that he’s not able to do one single thing wrong…or people scream foul. In this film, in a minor scene, the character is forced into a situation where he must steal something. It’s early on in the film, and it was shown in one of the trailers, so I’m not letting the cat out of the bag. In the comics, and more importantly, in the minds of those screaming foul about the turn of events in this film, this character would later go back and repay the people from whom he stole. He’s just that kind of good guy. But not in this film. He’s busy saving the world. The petty larceny just has to be a means to an end. It also sets the tones for things later.
I’m talking around the issue, because I’m trying to be as spoiler-free as possible. The whole film is actually building to the pivotal moment when the character is forced into a less than savory decision. Audiences either accept the scene or cry foul—in one former Superman scribe’s case, he literally stood up in the theater and screamed at the screen. But I think the point here is simple. The film portrays a realistic situation, where there is no easy choice. Comic books and fiction often provide a deus-ex-machina solution in such situations, and the filmmakers avoid doing that here, for a sense of realism. Make no mistake, this film and the character are watched over by guardians at DC Comics and its parent company Warner Brothers. People debated this stuff for months—possibly years—before making this film. It wasn’t the decision of the director to do this. Lots of people had to be consulted. They all came to the consensus opinion that within the confines of the world created in this film, the character’s decision works. I agree wholeheartedly.
My answer to those who would prefer this character stay rooted in the 1930s and an inviolable sense of morality is to look at Superman Returns, the flop of excrement released in 2006. That film failed horribly because it tried to retell the same story of Superman we saw in the Donner-helmed 1980 film, to the point of showing some very similar scenes. It tried to recapture the look of that film and the look of the popular Batman films before it. But most unforgivably, it portrayed Superman with a moralistic virtue that was so fundamental to the character, that it forced him into inaction for much of the film. The problem with Superman Returns was that Superman rarely did anything super in it. It was boring.
Man of Steel is not boring. It’s action-packed, filled with explosions and spectacle. But while I agree with a large number of reviewers that the final battle goes on for a bit too long (I’ve heard people say for maybe 10 minutes too long, but I’d say maybe only 2 or 3), I want to point out that not all spectacle in the film is big, bold, and brassy. For me, one of the greatest moments of the film’s spectacle comes in a tiny piece of ‘super’ that no one but the viewer sees, after a younger Clark must face a tough moment of reigning in his powers.
Was the story good? It works. Does it have holes in it? Of course. It has a few. These are mostly the kinds of things you find yourself noticing after you leave the theater and you start to see issues with the way characters did things. But if you don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain, and watch the film at face value? You’ll have fun. Is it disturbing? Yes, at times. Is it hyper-violent? Yes, at times. But I’ll tell you something. I’m a weepy guy at films. I get into the story. If there’s a really well-acted sad part in the film? I’ll cry. I cried four times in this film. Beyond the spectacle, there’s some powerful acting and some poignant emotional scenes. Is it going to win Academy awards? No, but the story is well rounded. It’s not just all action.
So how about the CGI? A film of this magnitude must have loads of CGI in it. It’s either believable or not. I say it is. If you are looking for bad CGI (and I was, because someone told me they had heard it had some) you can find bits of it. Places where the anatomy of a character is off, just slightly. But, the great thing is this: those scenes flash past so quickly, that your brain almost has no time to register them. Unlike in films such as Blade II, where an entire fight scene occurred with characters whose CGI was so bad they looked like skinny marionettes in silhouette, CGI has come a long way. Here, we are talking about things slightly off and off for less than a fraction of a second. Film was traditionally at 24 frames per second. In this film, we’re talking about bad CGI for maybe 2 of those frames, in each instance. Not really long enough to be a problem—unless you are a critic and looking for flaws.
Perhaps the biggest flaw is not the controversial outcome of the film, or its CGI, but an issue which has pervaded Superman history forever: How the hell can people not see through the Clark Kent disguise? That issue crops up in this film too, and it’s never been satisfactorily explained in any medium. I believe that’s on purpose. There is no explanation for it. It just is. It just works. And you are meant to take it on faith, that it does. I’m sure you can read into that last sentence and realize why no one has dealt with this issue. Just trust that it works. My own feeling with this issue in the film is it works less well than in other film interpretations, but a minor quibble.
So is this a good reboot of the Superman franchise? Yes. Is it a fun film? Yes. Will it spark debate between Superman purists and fans that want a 21st century take on the character? You bet. Should you rush out and see it? Faster than a speeding bullet.