For many filmgoers, Superman movies are cinematic comfort food—you walk in knowing what you’re going to get, and there are always familiar elements to enjoy, even if the overall film is subpar. But while Man of Steel contains every single one of those familiar elements, it presents them in a (literally) skewed light that subverts your super expectations and gives you something wholly unexpected: A Superman film that’s surprisingly fresh and challenging.
Director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer studiously strip the gee-whiz factor from their Superman, employing a subdued score and de-saturated color palate, and taking a much more grounded—albeit wholly alien—approach to Kryptonian technology. As a result, Man of Steel isn’t the story of a super guy in bright tights doing impossible things; it’s the story of an alien refugee trying to make a home on Earth. This straight-up hard Science Fiction edge makes this version of Superman much less pulpy and much more plausible—but not at the cost of style and flair.
The story opens on a Krypton that looks like a cross between 2009’s Avatar and 1980’s Flash Gordon. Faced with a ruling council that won’t heed his warnings of the planet’s imminent destruction, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) places his infant son Kal in a spaceship bound for Earth—all the while working to thwart a last-ditch military coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is also desperate to preserve his race, but only in his own warped image. Zod’s de rigueur banishment to the Phantom Zone ensues, and then Man of Steel ditches the Superman formula never to look back.
Cut to the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), an itinerant worker doing dangerous jobs in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, struggling to come to terms with his powers and his identity. The film artfully portrays this struggle, intercutting Clark’s adult journey to discover his Kryptonian heritage with flashbacks to formative chunks of his Smallville childhood with adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Jonathan has instilled a healthy fear in Clark about how mankind will react when it finds out about his powers—a fear compounded by the fact that Clark still doesn’t know everything he’s capable of.
True to its stripped down aesthetic, Man of Steel handles the ongoing emergence of Clark’s powers with depth and realism, presenting them as organic and often painful parts of his growth rather than grand fannish milestones.
Speaking of which, enter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who first crosses paths with Clark in one of the film’s more contrived moments. But her chance brush with a mysterious and apparently miraculous drifter gives us an opportunity to see something we’ve never seen in a Superman film before: Lois actually being a pretty great reporter, not just some supposedly brilliant journalist who’s nevertheless fooled by a pair of glasses. The Lois/Clark dynamic in Man of Steel is as unexpected and unconventional as everything else, but it ultimately works.
And that’s the key to appreciating and enjoying Snyder’s Man of Steel: throwing out all of your fannish expectations and dealing with the film on its own terms. If you’re unwilling to accept anything but another Donneresque dose of bright fun and bombast, you’ll be disappointed. Man of Steel is not a buoyant, feel-good film. But neither is it as relentlessly dour and joyless as Nolan’s overrated Batman films. Despite its starker approach, Man of Steel ultimately strikes an optimistic tone appropriate for Superman. It just gives fans something new to chew on.
Thanks to my friend Jason Nadler who introduced the comfort food analogy during our post screening bull session!