Andrew D Duffy
Film Review: Man Of Steel
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Man Of Steel (2013)
Directed by Zack Snyder Story by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer Written by David Goyer Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russel Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and Laurence Fishburne.
Having missed the chance in 2006 to do a ‘Superman Begins’, opting instead for the misguided nostalgia fest of Superman Returns, Warners wisely decided that their 2013 release would indeed be following the path tread by Christopher Nolan et al in 2005’s Batman Begins.
And to whom did they turn? Why, Christopher Nolan, of course.
The story goes that, whilst chewing over story elements for The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan and Begins scriptwriter David Goyer took a meander down Superman-way, to discuss just what they’d do, if they were to do it. Realising they were on to something, Warners got the ball rolling and Nolan got to work handpicking the director to take the idea forward.
Up stepped Zack Snyder, and the rest was controversy-ridden, internet-war history.
Few films have been so dissected, so thoroughly analysed, debated and argued over as Man of Steel… at least amongst geek-dom (At least until the 2016 sequel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice hit screens).
Man Of Steel made a tidy sum at the Box Office, more than Batman Begins, more than any Marvel movie released before 2012’s Marvel’s Avengers Assemble. The DVD/Blu-ray sales were incredibly strong, too. So it doesn’t seem to have come close to as divisive amongst the wider audience.
Nonetheless, geek-passions were stirred. Why?
Because Superman matters. Perhaps more than any other character in the entire medium of comic-books, Superman matters. He’s the first. He’s the icon. He’s the best.
So, what of Man Of Steel, then? Worthy of its illustrious title characters storied and hallowed legacy?
Man Of Steel is one of the most poetically meaningful, emotionally stirring Superman stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing (and that’s a hell of a lot of Superman stories).
It’s a film about free will, about self-determination and the nature of heroism. Outside of The Dark Knight Trilogy, no comic-book film before it has the depth of story, the layers of meaning or the mythic resonance of Man Of Steel. It’s a film which has something to say, which provokes thought, which welcomes, no, demands analysis. It’s a remarkable achievement, a piece of art that fundamentally challenges its audience with the ideas it examines as much as with the expectations it subverts.
Free will is at the heart of the story Snyder and scriptwriter Goyer present us with, as are the consequences, both good and bad, of the decisions made and actions taken. The entire basis of Kryptonian society, as witnessed in the visually astonishing prologue, is that free will has been taken out of the equation. In their birthing matrix, Kryptonian’s decide for their children who they will be, what they will do, the role they will have in society, even as it crumbles and collapses around them. One of several story elements taken directly from the source material (John Byrnes seminal Man of Steel miniseries from the mid-80’s, for those keeping track) this serves as an early example of the scripts willingness to say something meaningful with its Science Fiction trappings.
Krypton has decided the fate of its children for them, blunting their possibilities, eliminating their potential and ultimately sealing their fate, and consequently the fate of the Planet itself. Their tomorrow is set, their horizon fixed.
Kal-El, then, as the first naturally born Kryptonian in centuries, has the freedom to self-determine his fate. This again has consequences for our central character; he has to decide, he has to choose, and in this story, choices have consequences of their own. Clark is not called to his heritage. Clark is not destined to it, nor is he lead to the arctic by a mysterious sci-fi force. He is not made Superman, nor is it thrust upon him. Clark searches for answers, as the possession of free-will demands we all do. We have to do the looking, the searching, the discovering, for ourselves.
Even once he has learned of his alien heritage, even when he is meeting the holographic Jor-El, Clark still has to choose. His life was not pre-determined for him and so he had to embark on a voyage of self-discovery, culminating in the decision Jor-El asks him to make. Sure, he’s biased, but he is forever stressing the potential Cark has if he makes the choice to be Superman.
Free will and the consequences of choices extends beyond Clark and filters through the rest of the film, as all good themes should. Lois Lane, played superbly by the wonderful Amy Adams, is a dynamo of free will; her self-determination, expressed through her constant defiance of authority, is also always met with consequences, both positive and negative. At the arctic crash site, she’s told not to go out after dark. What happens? She gets hurt, but is ultimately saved by Clark. And thus whilst her decision imperilled her life, it also establishes not only her lifelong connection and fascination with Superman but also her role as a key figure in the decisions Clark makes later in the film. Perry says he won't publish the article she writes as a result of this encounter, so she leaks it, getting her suspended. It also leads to her getting arrested once Zod makes his demands of the earth, but the positive consequence is she gets to interview Superman once he has turned himself over to the authorities.
The need for free will, and to make your choices based on that, is drilled into Clark by his adoptive parents. Jonathan Kent, played with an impressive air of the genuine by Kevin Costner, implores Clark to take the consequences of his actions into account before he makes them.
‘You just have to decide what kind of a man you want to grow up to be, Clark; because whoever that man is, good character or bad, he's... He's gonna change the world.’
And so it is that, when the tornado hits and Jonathan dies, Clark decides not to act. The consequences of this are obvious, and heartfelt, and costly. Clark loses his father. His father asks Clark not to intervene, not to expose himself to the world at this early stage in his life, still a boy really, not to risk everything that would entail, for the sake of his life. Clark chooses to wait, because he trusts and respects his father, but more importantly because he was not ready to choose.
It’s a controversial moment in the film, but one justified by the narrative, one that is heavy with meaning and thematic relevance. One that plays a crucial part in the meaning the story is trying to convey. Superman isn’t real. He’s not a man. He has no personality, beyond that which is assigned to him by the writer. He makes no decisions, acting only as the writer decides he will act. There is no ‘Superman would never’ or ‘Superman would’; each Superman story, each truly good Superman story, in fact each good story of any kind, must feature events that transpire as they do because of what they mean to that specific story.
Nothing else matters.
The aforementioned Jonathan Kent is one of many fathers that Clark has in the film. Borrowing from its spiritual predecessor Batman Begins, Man Of Steel uses several father figures to teach Clark something, or to reflect something of him.
Jonathan teaches him the consequences of acting, or not acting. He also teaches him the importance of being ready. As a consequence of that lesson, however, Jonathan leads Clark to be waiting for the wrong thing. Instead of waiting for the world to be ready, Clark should be waiting for himself to be ready. At that point, as Jonathan himself said, he will change the world. He will make it ready.
That is the function Jor-El serves in Clark’s journey. It is through Jor-El that Clark realises the world will never be ready for him unless he makes it so. More obviously it is through Jor-El that Clark learns of his heritage, his origins on the doomed Planet Krypton. And it is through Jor-El that Clark sees the need to step out of the shadows and into the light.
You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.
It’s an inspiring quote paraphrased from The Greatest Superman Story Of All Time, the comic book All-Star Superman. It is books like that one which this film has used for inspiration, and it really tells. The lofty ambitions and even loftier philosophy, the layered, multifaceted storytelling, the sheer artistry and desire to be meaningful that runs through the heart of the film springs from the bounteous fountain that is comics like that one.
And it comes from a moment in the film that is pure, unadulterated joy from start to finish.
Without a doubt the most exhilarating moment in the movie, the first flight sequence stands as my favourite from any Superman film released thus far. That’s no slight on the many, many magnificent scenes from before or since, but this is simply a cut, or several, above.
It’s written all over Clark’s face, and its but one example of the wonderful performance Henry Cavill (Cav-El, to give him his birth name) gives in his first outing as the original Superhero.
Once he decides to take on the cape, his Superman truly feels like Superman. His polite but firm lack of deference to the military is the first time we’ve seen anything like that side of The Man Of Steel outside of the comic-books, where he has only rarely been the figure of authority and the status quo that the cinematic and televisual representations had portrayed him as continuously.
Superman is pretty much NEVER about the status quo. He’s about changing the world, and finally we had a film willing to take that on. He decides to be Superman before Zod makes his presence known to the world, a presence that forces Clark into another choice, one that disrupts what otherwise would have been a more traditional introduction to the world. But it is in making that choice in the first place that the point lies, and thus the story moves forward through another Father, in the form of the priest with whom he converses before revealing himself to the military. He’s unsure if the world can be trusted, and is thus hesitant to hand himself over to them; it was, after all, Martha Kent’s great fear, that the military would take her son away from her.
The advice of this father is what helps Clark take that final step, and reiterates the point Jor-El had made; you have to change the world. You have to lead by example.
“Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.”
And so Superman surrenders to the people of the world and allows himself to be given to Zod, but not before leaving the American military in no uncertain terms about how he will operate, whether they like it or not. Bullish without being arrogant, commanding and confident without being frightening and making clear that he will not be controlled, subjugated, made into a weapon, but will help, and do it his way. That’s Superman.
Cav-El nails it; the sureness of his delivery, the matter-of-factness of it, the fine line balanced with finesse and grace, his Superman impossible not to like and charming without losing his edge. This is Superman the champion of the little people, Superman the folk-hero. Leaning back to his first appearance as a socialist champion of the oppressed and the downtrodden, Cavill’s Superman isn’t here to help authority; he’s here to defend the little guy from it.
Thus Kal-El meets Dru-Zod and his final father figure, the authoritarian military leader, literally the authority figure of Krypron itself. Zod as a father figure is an altogether darker one, a cautionary tale of what might have been, what could have been were it not for Jor and Lara El’s choice, and what could be if not for Clarks. General Zod is a fundamentally tragic villain, an under-rated gem who is deserving of more screen-time yet shines in what he does have nonetheless.
As a product of the failed Kryptonian society, Zod has no choice but to pursue the course of action he does. He can’t help but try to save Krypton when it is very obviously self-imploding. He can’t do anything other than try to recreate Krypton on Earth. His entire purpose, from birth, is to protect Krypton. That by necessity means protecting the Krypton that he knew, that he was born into, hence his utter disgust at the natural birth of Kal-El and his complete contempt for the council that has let the Planet fall into such dire straits.
This is, as he notes, the reason he was born. This is the point of his existence. When Superman puts an end to his attempt to terraform the Earth, Zod is a being genetically programmed to do one thing no matter what, with no ability to change tack or change course or adapt or move on, and is unable to do it. He literally cannot do the thing he was born to do, they only thing he exists to do, and so a furious, relentless monster is born, one dedicated to nothing else but destruction. It’s a compelling, fascinating villainy, one borne from the themes of free will and of the consequences of removing that self-determination.
The much criticised finale of the movie does overcook things. There are one too many shots of destruction, and there is only so much super-powered fighting even this reviewer can put up with. It’s a flaw of every modern era movie about a character with powers; there are parts of the action sequences that descend into computer graphics fighting other computer graphics and, as is always the case, it gets tiresome. Yet even here, it’s as a result of the determination of the story to apply consequences to actions.
You’ll see it in countless other films, this level of crashing and bashing and smashing, but you won’t feel it. You won’t see the consequences, as in those films, consequences are treated as inconsequential. These films are hollow, disposable, without meaning or lasting impact.
They are without consequence.
Man of Steel at least returns consequences to the CGI mayhem, and has been talked about more than pretty much any comic-book film since as a result (okay, apart from its successor).
Once again, a Superman movie influences the Comic book movies that follow it. The fights between Superman and the rogue Kryptonians have dire consequences, as well they should. This is what happens when gods go to war in all the best myths.
And Man Of Steel is nothing if not mythical.
Even this reviewer, who partly feels the final fight with Zod is a bit drawn out, has to concede that the fight itself is incredibly powerful, particularly as they blast into orbit and back again, or weave between, and through, skyscrapers (Skyscrapers which are, to the eagle-eyed, largely empty by the time they are chucking each other through them). It’s a grandiose, operatic finale. One that does give Zod the conclusion his character arc needed and gives Clark one more character defining choice to make.
The consequences of the end of his fight with Zod were felt so deeply in and outwith the film that it’s likely they will be felt in some way forever. In story, though, as controversial as it is, the narrative demands it.
The first time I saw this film, I was aghast as what seemed to be unfolding did indeed unfold. I could feel the dread, the horror, which came with the realisation that Superman was going to do what he did. Looking back on it, I notice with no little admiration that those feelings were felt so keenly because they were the same feelings Clark is suffering with at that moment. Every fibre of his being hates that he has to do this. But do this he must. Sure, the writers could have conceived of another means out of the situation; it’s a story, the only limit is imagination. But Zod’s arc, the arc of a man with no choice, the ultimate warning about not making your own decisions and allowing your fate to be taken out of your hands, and how that inevitably leads you down a path of nothingness and torment, needed to be closed.
He had been robbed of his sense of self, his reason for being, his soul purpose, if you will. He had become a monster, one with nothing left. As such, his story was over. There was nowhere else to go. Villains should only come back if it serves a narrative purpose and there is a story worth telling with them. That’s why it was wrong to kill The Joker off at the end of Batman 89’ and why it was right not to in The Dark Knight. That’s why it was right not to kill off Magneto in the X-Men films but was right to kill Stryker in X2.
Zod’s story had nowhere left to go and, much like the tragic Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, there was only one possible way to close the loop. Zod needed the finality. After all, he was already dead.
And so Clark Kent breaks his neck.
When I first saw it? I was about to explode in a fit of rage. Superman just murdered him! And then I was stopped, just in the nick of time. It’s funny, how the best two actors in the role have wowed me with an anguished howl.
Just as Reeve did at the end of Superman The Movie, Cavill roars, and I was won over once more. The difference is, Superman The Movie was a film without consequences (and all the weaker for it). Man of Steel doesn’t let Clark off that lightly.
He has to live with what he had to do. His actions have consequences, none more so than here. But just as the negative consequence is the guilt and moral and emotional pain the nigh-on inconsolable Clark is clearly going through, so too does the action have consequences of another kind. For in the moment after that cry of sorrow and pain, of sheer regret, a decision is made, once more with feeling.
Clark Kent killed Zod, and then decided there was no way it would ever happen again. From that moment on, and you can see it in his eyes, there will always be a way.
And in that decision, Superman was born. The idea. The icon. Clark truly and properly invents Superman here, and it’s a beautiful bit of storytelling. To us, in our real world, Superman is an idea; the idea of a man who never gives up, who will always be there for us, who is the embodiment of the very best of humanity.
In the story Man of Steel tells, Clark Kent is a man, a man who in that moment invents Superman the idea; the Superman who will always find a way, always protect humanity, always guide it and never let it down.
It makes Clark Kent us. Grant Morrison, writer of the aforementioned Greatest Superman Story Ever, All Star Superman, put it this way;
Somewhere, in our darkest night, we made up the story of a man who will never let us down.
Clark’s darkest night is just then, as he is forced to kill Zod. And that’s when he does what Humanity did, what Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did, and creates Superman.
In Man of Steel, Clark Kent is us and we are Clark Kent. For what is Superman to us all if not an impossible standard, an example to try to live up to, a role model whom we aspire to be like? A dream to save us, a hope to redeem us?
That’s the promise Clark makes, and the identity he creates in that moment.
It’s wonderful, poetic, beautiful storytelling. It’s an incredibly interesting and, as far as my vast knowledge of Superman can tell, a unique and original interpretation, one as creative and inspiring as the grandest of grand old Superheroes deserves.
As a film, Man Of Steel is not universally popular, nor is it without its flaws. It takes the odd fall into predictable summer blockbuster traps, has some decidedly spotty dialogue and a fair share of CGI excess.
That being said, it’s a wonderfully deep, thoroughly involving film that never apologises for its mythological, philosophically dense and intellectual provocative approach to its material.
It’s not executed with as much sheen or charm as Superman The Movie, nor is it as artistically strong as The Dark Knight, but Man Of Steel is without question a remarkably impressive, captivating motion picture, with a highly impressive cast and anchored by an exemplary lead performance; a film which works on almost every level.