WARNING: Spoilers begin very soon in the plot recap in this article. If you haven’t seen Man of Steel yet and don’t want to be spoiled, READ NO FARTHER.
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Ayelet Zurer, Michael Kelly, Rebecca Bueller
Plot: The planet Krypton is embroiled in a civil war. Jor-El (Russell Crowe), leader of their scientific community, believes the planet to be doomed, but the ruling caste refuses to believe him. One person who does believe him is General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod stages a violent coup, during which Jor-El steals the Kryptonian Codex, an artifact that carries in it the pre-determined genetic code for all Kryptonians. He and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have conceived a child in secret, Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries. Hiding the Codex with the baby Kal-El, Jor-El sends him into space to the planet Earth, a distant world where Krypton sent scouting parties eons ago. Zod kills Jor-El, but is captured. He and his followers are sentenced to an orbital phantom stasis, which allows them to escape soon afterwards, when Krypton is destroyed.
Flashing forward, we see an adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working on an Alaskan fishing boat until an oil rig disaster forces him to reveal his incredible strength and resistance to injury. This is not the first time it’s happened – the wandering Clark has been roaming for some time ever since leaving his mother Martha (Diane Lane) back in Smallville, Kansas. Clark makes his way to an arctic research station, where he has heard rumors of an alien spaceship deep beneath the ice. There, he encounters Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Saving Lois from the Kryptonian spaceship’s built-in defenses, he leaves her safe and takes the ship elsewhere. Using a key he’s had with him since childhood, he activates the ship and a hologram of Jor-El, who tells him the history of the planet Krypton and begins teaching him to use his powers for a greater purpose, one that seems to echo the wishes of the man who raised him, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Coster). Through a series of flashbacks throughout the film, we see young Clark trying to deal with his enhanced senses and using his gifts to help people. Jonathan has always been afraid, though, knowing that Clark is an alien, that people would not accept him. He impresses on his son that he will – one way or the other – change the world when he is revealed, but the time for that reveal hasn’t come yet. Jonathan ultimately dies in a tornado rather than allow Clark to save him and show his powers.
Lois tracks down the activities of her savior, eventually finding the home of Martha Kent in Smallville. She meets with Clark again and the two strike up a friendship, with her deciding to bury her intended story about him as she returns to the Daily Planet. The point is quickly overshadowed when Zod’s ship appears in the skies above Earth. It announces, in a broadcast translated into every Earthly language, that they are harboring Kal-El of Krypton somewhere on the planet, and promises to bring down great suffering if they do not turn him over. After some soul-searching, Kal-El gives himself up to the military, who turn him over to Zods’ lieutenant, Faora (Antje Traue). Faora insists that Lois Lane come with them as well.
On Zod’s ship, Lois activates the recording of Jor-El, who guides her in an escape attempt while Kal-El finds the truth about Zod’s plan: he wants to find the Codex stolen by Jor-El and use it to transform Earth into a new Krypton, a process which would necessitate the extinction of the human race. Kal-El escapes and saves Lois, but not before the Kryptonians manage to read both of their memories, revealing that the Codex has been imprinted the very cells of Kal-El’s body. Faora leads a Kryptonian excursion to Kal-El’s home in Smallville. As Kal-El and his brethren go to war in Kansas, the American military initially targets them both, but Col. Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) soon comes to realize that Kal-El is not an enemy.
The Kryptonian warship splits into two, using “world engine” technology to sandwich the planet and begin the terraforming process, beginning with Metropolis. Kal-El, now being called “Superman” by the soldiers, provides the military with the ship that brought him to Earth, explaining that it uses the same sort of technology that powers the engine, and that crashing it into the Kryptonian ship will rip open the portal and toss them back into the Phantom Zone, provided he can destroy the engine on the other side of the globe first. As he battles his way to the engine, in Metropolis, Hardy’s army pitches a desperate battle against the Kryptonians. Both Superman and Hardy succeed, but at the cost of Hardy’s life. Returning to Metropolis in time to save Lois from falling to her death, Superman realizes one Kryptonian remains: Zod. The two engage in a pitched battle, Zod blaming Superman for destroying Krypton a second time. Although Superman does his best to minimize the destruction and save the humans, when Zod discovers how to activate his heat vision, Superman is left with no choice but to kill the General. Realizing what he’s done, the Man of Steel screams in agony and collapses in Lois’s arms.
Some time later, Superman again shuts down military efforts to track him, promising he’s on their side, but won’t stand for being watched. Returning home to Martha, Clark tells his mother his decision: to use his powers for the betterment of mankind, and to do so, to take a job where he can monitor danger and where no one will question him for running off at a moment’s notice: that of a reporter. In Metropolis, he takes a tour of the newspaper where he’s been hired as a stringer, culminating with “meeting” Lois Lane. With a sly, knowing grin, she shakes his hand and says, “Welcome to the Planet.”
Thoughts: It’s been several days, as I write this, since I saw Man of Steel, and my brain is still processing a lot of it. The reaction, from comic book fans, comic book professionals, and the general public has been remarkably mixed, with some people loving the changes to the mythos and others who hated them. I’m not here to keep you in suspense, friends: I absolutely loved the movie.
Not every minute of it, mind you. There were some slow moments, particularly in the middle, and a few times when I thought things didn’t quite feel right, but most of those were overshadowed by the things I did like. Christopher Nolan, who directed the Dark Knight trilogy, took the reigns as a producer for this film, with the directing chores going to Watchmen and 300 director Zack Snyder. The story was by Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer, who also worked on the Batman movies. The resultant film has a tone and emotional impact that’s similar to Nolan’s Batman with a visual style that’s the best parts of what Snyder brought to his other movies, but without some of the over-the-top elements (such as his frequent use of slow motion) that can sometimes make those films a little hokey.
Unlike any other version of Superman we’ve discussed this week (or, for that matter, any other version I’ve ever seen on film) this film really plays up the alien “first contact” aspect of the character. Initially, this made me nervous, as I prefer my Superman to be Clark Kent in tights and not an alien who pretends to be human. Those fears melted away pretty quickly, though. Jor-El is a much bigger presence in this movie than he’s been in any of the other versions, and Krypton plays an enormous role in the story, but at the core we still have the son of Jonathan and Martha Kent trying to solve the mystery of his own life and, once that puzzle is cracked, trying to learn his place in the world. Like Batman Begins did for that franchise, Man of Steel ends its story much earlier in the character’s personal mythos than we’re used to, with the very beginning of Clark’s life in Metropolis and many of the familiar elements (working as a reporter, donning his trademark glasses) not clicking into place until the final moments. This wouldn’t work, except for the fact that the whole film is about building up to that, about Kal-El and Clark Kent learning how to be Superman. In my mind that’s why all of the movie – including (hell, especially) the drastically shocking ending worked.
I’ll address that particular elephant in the room later, though – it’s important enough to save it for last. Let’s get back to Snyder for a moment. His 300 was a fun movie, full of action and violence, but it was hardly a serious picture. Watchmen, if anything, suffered a bit from remaining too faithful to the source material, much of which comes across as rather ponderous when put on the screen. His first original project, Sucker Punch, was a garbled mess of a film that looked pretty but didn’t have a scrap of logic, development, or coherence to it. Worrying about him taking on the premiere superhero franchise was a fair reaction.
But by giving him a solid story to work with, Snyder did some fantastic work. These are the most intense, brutal, energizing and electrifying action sequences a Superman movie has ever had – the most almost any superhero movie has ever had. The only thing that comes close, to my mind, is the final alien invasion sequence from Joss Whedon’s Avengers (another great superhero movie with an entirely different tone, despite a mild structural similarity to the conclusion of this film). Snyder didn’t only land the action moments, though… the quiet bits in Smallville worked very well, and the scenes of Clark learning how to fly were a joy to watch. They did, however, inspire a small chuckle from me when I thought about how similar they were to bits from Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, a 2012 sci-fi film that didn’t get nearly the credit it deserved. Carter is one of the characters Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had in mind when they were pulling together the many pieces of the Man of Steel back in the 1930s.
Henry Cavill works very well as a young Clark Kent. The earliest scene with him, chronologically, is the death of Jonathan Kent. There, we see him as a frustrated young man (a late teen or early 20something) still fighting against a father who he feels has repressed him. The pain in his face when Jonathan dies lingers, and informs so much of what the character does later. Looking back on the previous scenes of him saving the men on the oil rig, you can now recognize in him someone who has something to atone for. That pain is amplified exponentially after Zod’s death, and it will be very interesting to see whether the promised sequel (which has already been pushed into production) will follow up on that sort of emotional beat.
Amy Adams as Lois Lane is another fine touch. She’s a great actress in her own right (I am, I admit, a fan), and she brings a strength and courage to the character. She’s not the spitfire that Margot Kidder was, but she’s not a wallflower either. This is a Lois that doesn’t go out of her way to be antagonistic, but she isn’t about to back down from a fight either. What’s more, she’s also the first Lois we’ve seen to actually solve the mystery – she figures out that her Guardian Angel is Clark Kent of Smallville before there’s even a “Superman” identity to look for. It’s a great moment for the character that deviates a bit from the usual pieces of the Superman mythology, but it does so in a way that strengthens Lois’s character without weakening Clark. What’s more, it will also easily allow the filmmakers to sidestep any future questions of how the person closest to both Clark and Superman is fooled by his rather simple disguise.
The entire cast, really, acquits itself well. Russell Crowe and Kevin Coster both feel like good, rational and admirable fathers for Superman. (Whether the fact that both of Superman’s fathers have played Robin Hood was considered during the casting process or not is a question for the ages, but I like to think it brings a little bit of metatextual gravitas to the casting.) Crowe’s Jor-El is a larger presence than the other versions have been, even Marlon Brando’s, but he also feels more like a loving father than those other versions. Even his holographic replica, at the end, sounds like he’s proud of his son.
Costner’s Jonathan Kent dies before he gets to see what Clark does with his power, but the way he dies is just brilliant. Almost every other version of the character has died of a heart attack – believable, sad, but not the character-defining moment we get here. In this version, Jonathan is saving people in traffic from a coming tornado, goes back for the dog, and realizes he’s not going to make it. His son could easily save him, even at this early stage of his development, but Jon refuses to allow it. At this point, Clark’s secret is more important than his own life. The one thing that’s always set Superman apart from the likes of Batman and Spider-Man is that he’s not usually driven by tragedy or survivor’s guilt… sure, he’s the last son of Krypton, but his home planet is one he never knew until he was an adult, it wasn’t formative for him. Jonathan’s death, in this manner, gives him something to atone for. His father – just minutes after Clark denied that he was his father – made a supreme sacrifice on his behalf. From that moment on, we’ve got a Clark Kent trying to be worthy of that sacrifice. It’s powerful as hell.
Michael Shannon was an interesting choice as General Zod. He doesn’t quite have the devilish look of Terrence Stamp, he could almost be a hero in the right circumstances, and he certainly believes himself to be the hero of the story. That’s what makes him compelling – from his way of thinking, he’s doing exactly the right thing. To use a rather overused metaphor, if you knew that the only way to save the human race was to destroy an anthill, would you hesitate to do it? Ants aren’t sentient, of course, so it’s a metaphor that falls apart, but using Zod’s logic, it’s perfectly sound. The best villains are always those that believe themselves to be in the right.
So having danced around it enough, let’s get to the most contentious part of this movie: Superman kills Zod. There’s no question about it here, no way to dress it up like an accident, no way to say that he didn’t know it would be fatal or that maybe Zod really survived. Superman wrapped his arms around Zod’s head, twisted with all his incredible strength, and killed him. And Superman is a character who should never kill.
And that is why it worked.
I’m about to get super damn nerdy here, pointing back to specific comic book stories and everything, but please bear with me. I’ve got a point to make. Superman is the character who believes in life above all else. Superman is the character who will do anything to find another way. Superman is a character who believes that death is not the last resort, but it is never a resort at all. But this is a lesson that has to be learned, and how else do we learn than from our mistakes?
I’m about to blow some minds for people who don’t read comics, but Superman has killed before. At least twice, in fact. In Alan Moore’s epic Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (recently voted by fans as the greatest Superman story of all time), he kills the interdimensional menace Mr. Mxyzptlk, who has gone from being a pest to being a homicidal god. Then, to punish himself for killing – something he believes nobody, even Superman, has the right to do – he removes his own powers and walks away into the arctic waste. Fans accepted this pretty readily, most likely because it was presented as an “imaginary story,” something that was not technically in-continuity and was, in fact, the final story of the previous 50 years of Superman continuity before writer/artist John Byrne came in and relaunched the character with his Man of Steel miniseries. It’s a good story. But the second one I’m going to mention is even more applicable.
A few years later, Byrne left the Superman comic books with a story called the “Supergirl Saga.” In this story, Superman discovers an alternate dimension where his counterpart is dead, there are no other superheroes in the world (no Batman, no Wonder Woman, no Justice League, etc.), and three Kryptonian criminals are laying waste to the entire planet. Superman is brought there to stop these alternate versions of Zod, Faora and Quex-Ul, but he’s too late, and the planet is left with just one survivor. Superman plans to strand the Kryptonians on this dead Earth, but Zod taunts him, promising to find his way to Superman’s own dimension and repeat his massacre there. Realizing Zod is right, that he can do it, Superman uses a piece of Kryptonite and executes them.
This being a part of the regular Superman line, it got a much bigger reaction than the Moore story. It was horrifying. It was shocking. Superman isn’t supposed to kill. And the writers who followed Byrne recognized it – Superman was so emotionally scarred by what he did that he wound up exiling himself from Earth for months, no longer believing himself worthy of being among humans. Both the “Supergirl Saga” and the subsequent “Exile” storylines also made that list of the best Superman stories, as voted on by fans, and I think it’s because they so brilliantly exemplify the point I’m trying to make here.
Superman doesn’t kill, that’s true, but that’s not the whole statement. The whole statement should read thusly: “Superman doesn’t kill, because the one time he did, it almost destroyed him.”
Zod’s death in Man of Steel isn’t a calculated, premeditated act. Superman never sets out to kill anybody. It’s not even the cold execution of the alternate Zod from the “Supergirl Saga.” It’s done in the heat of battle, by a young Superman who has only recently learned the full extent of his powers, and it’s done while Zod is actively threatening the lives of innocent people. And after it’s over, Superman is shattered. He screams in pain and agony, not at Zod for placing himself in that position, but at himself for failing to find another way. In circumstances where virtually anybody on the planet would consider his actions justified, Superman considers himself a failure, because he didn’t live up to the ideal that Jor-El has set for him.
And it’s that ideal, more than anything else, that drives the character. Clark Kent is not Superman because he can fly or see through walls or juggle tanks. He’s Superman because he reminds all of us that there’s a better way, and nobody will be harder on him for failing to reach that ideal than he will be himself. This may be the first Superman movie that actually demonstrates that influence on others as well. Repeatedly, throughout this movie, we see characters step up and be heroes because of the example he has set: Hardy’s death at the end, where he throws a one-liner back in Faora’s face, is priceless. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (in every version of the mythos, the biggest douchebag who ever worked at the Daily Planet – here played nicely by Michael Kelly) risk their lives to save an intern named Jenny (Rebecca Bueller, who many believe is this universe’s gender-flipped stand-in for Jimmy Olsen, as her last name is never spoken) even while Metropolis is crumbling all around them. Even before there is a Superman, we see young Clark save a bus full of kids, including a bully named Pete Ross (Jack Foley as a kid, Joseph Cranford as an adult). After he saves him, the next time we see Pete he’s helping Clark to his feet after he stops himself from crushing another group of thugs who are picking on him. Adult Pete shows up too, around the time that Zod is demanding Kal-El be turned over, and warning the people that know who he is to step forward. It seems pretty clear that Pete knows who they’re talking about, but he doesn’t say a word.
(I would, in fact, love to see this in the Man of Steel sequel – some circumstance where the entire town of Smallville turns a blind eye to the Clark/Superman connection, because there’s simply no way to believe they don’t know who Superman is, but it’s easy to believe that they’ve all silently decided to keep his secret.)
So yes, I loved Man of Steel, and if you didn’t, I hope I’ve at least articulated exactly why I think it worked so well. Warner Bros, as I’ve said, has already kicked off work on Man of Steel 2, with the promise of it leading to a Justice League movie down the line. After so many false starts over the years, if this is the template they use, they may finally have found a way to get it right.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
Tags: 2013, Amy Adams, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, Diane Lane, General Zod, Harry Lennix, Henry Cavill, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Lois Lane, Man of Steel, Michael Kelly, Michael Shannon, Rebecca Bueller, Richard Schiff, Russell Crowe, Superman, Zack Snyder
As you may know, I’m something of a Superman fan. This week, in my comic book column over at CXPulp.com, I talk a lot about the new trailer for Man of Steel that hit the internet this week. So watch the trailer, then click here to read my thoughts.
In addition to the many, many other projects on my plate, friends, I also co-host a weekly podcast about comic books and pop culture. We also have periodic “at the movies” mini-episodes, where myself and my co-hosts talk about a recent film we’ve seen. In this episode, my fiance Erin and I discuss a double feature of Tarantino’s Django Unchained and the musical Les Miserables.