Few people are really Superman fans, because let’s face it, Superman is boring compared to say, Batman. I wouldn’t claim to be a fan either, though I follow the history because of being generally a comic book guy (I got less than 50% of the answers in a recent Superman round in one of the local quiz nights =/) That being said, I did re-watch the first 2 Donner Superman movies and re-read All-Star Superman and Superman: For Tomorrow ahead of watching the movie. So, I look at the movie from the point of view of someone familiar with the lore, but not all the history of the character.
First the hype: before the release, there were people claiming that Man of Steel was the best superhero movie, with one reviewer even claiming it to be better than The Dark Knight. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m going to have to disagree; The Dark Knight was a clever movie with a terrific villain built upon a solid universe established by Batman Begins; Man of Steel is by no means a bad movie, but it’s pretty much just a straightforward action flick.
Second, the action scenes: probably the most entertaining part of the movie for me would be the fight scenes between Kal and the other Kryptonians. It probably helped that I had just watched Superman 2 the week before which featured laughable (by modern standards) fight scenes between Superman and Zod and his two henchmen. Compared to the older movie, the battles here are much more grand in scale and effect, with the final showdown between Kal and Zod taking down a whole lot of buildings in Metropolis (more on that later), giving the battle a Dragonball-like feel (I like Dragonball, so that’s fine). The opening sequence on Krypton was okay too, with kind of a Star Wars vibe going for it. (I noted that first Superman movie took 20 minutes before Kal was shot off Krypton, I think Man of Steel takes even longer.)
Now, the story. Like I said, very straightforward. Bad guy comes threatening people, Superman punches them around until we figure out a magical way to get rid of them. Then some more punching. Okay. Specific points:
1. Changes to Krypton’s back story and Superman’s origin? Ok, I’m fine with that, although it’s never really explained why the Kryptonians abandoned space travel or why the colonies couldn’t survive alone. I’m not even sure they have a canon explanation in the comics as to why there weren’t a bunch of other Kryptonians who jumped into rockets to escape. No Kryptonite? Okay, that’s fine – the simulated Kryptonian atmosphere probably has trace elements from Krypton that could be hand-waved into some sort of Kryptonite later if needed.
2. Pa Kent dying to a tornado and Clark doing nothing to save him? Ugh, I remember whispering “that’s terrible” to my brother who was watching with me. In most continuities where Pa Kent dies, it’s almost always due to a heart attack – where the idea is that Clark learns how his powers won’t let him save everyone no matter how hard he tries. In this movie, Pa Kent’s death was entirely preventable even if you assume that his protectiveness of Clark’s powers was so strong as to override his own survival instinct and Clark’s instinct not to save his adoptive father. It’s not like the townsfolk didn’t know about Clark’s powers either, at least two kids and one parent knew, and that pretty much meant he grew up with rumors of his powers all around town. And the most ridiculous part is that he died trying to rescue a dog. A dog. A dog! Order of priorities: Save dog > Don’t let Clark use powers > Stay alive.
3. Apparently it only takes Clark two tries to learn how to fly. And he instinctively knows how to fight while flying too! In Donner’s Superman, Clark took a long hiatus from the world to learn the history of Krypton and how to use his powers, here it only took him overnight on an ancient Kryptonian scouting ship. Okay, this isn’t really a problem, for all we know there was some magic Kryptonian mind meld device in the ship to explain this away.
4. Okay, here’s the big one: heroism and killing Zod, this is where we see a major departure from the Superman mythos. Before the Kryptonian invasion, we see Kal doing heroic things exactly twice: on the ocean platform at the start of the movie and saving his classmates in the school bus. And in the school bus incident he says to Pa Kent “what was I supposed to do, let them die?” and Pa Kent answers, “maybe”. That conversation was in one of the trailers too and at the time I knew it was off. One of the big things about the Superman mythos is that he grows up to become a hero because of how the Kents raised him, that they instilled in him a way of thinking that prioritized doing the right thing regardless of the sacrifices you had to make. The idea being that being raised by the Kents contributes to his being Superman as much as his alien heritage does. Comparing Superman to Batman, the comparison is often made that for Batman, Bruce Wayne is his disguise and Batman is who he really sees himself to be, while for Clark it’s the opposite: Superman is his disguise and Clark Kent, the person raised by the Kents, is who he really is. Man of Steel has none of that, Man of Steel is all about the alien heritage. Not to say that he’s selfish or not heroic, after all he does decide to turn himself in during the Invasion, but I feel like the comic-book Superman wouldn’t have needed to talk to a priest first. (I feel like that scene randomly wanted to reference For Tomorrow)
In the final scene when Kal is forced to kill Zod to save civilians, why does he have such anguish afterwards? The movie had made no earlier indication that this Superman had a distaste for killing; heck millions of lives were probably lost due to Kal and Zod tearing each other apart across Metropolis (I feel like comic-book Superman would have at least tried to bring the battle to a less-populated area). Because I’m a comic-book fan I know that he made that scream of anguish because he didn’t want to have to kill since that’s a standard part of the Superman mythos (heavily emphasized in the What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way? story arc and later in Superman vs the Elite), but for the normal moviegoers I feel like they might have gone “huh”?
5. There’s almost no characterization for the side characters here – Lana is barely relevant (though of course she had to appear for lore reasons), and they could have dropped Steve Lombard without consequence and that whole scene with the Daily Planet girl stuck under rubble wasn’t even needed. I’m really annoyed about Perry White not wanting to run the alien story because people might not take it well. He’s a journalist – his first concern should be the truth! I’m not sure why they needed Emil Hamilton here either. Bah, they’ll probably get more play time in the sequel.
Those are the major nitpicks I have with the movie, the rest are just minor details (although there are a lot of them.) Many of the problems are due to expectations of Superman based on what I know from the comics. I guess we can forgive some of them, since movie Superman doesn’t need to be the same as comic book Superman, in the same way that Nolan’s Batman wasn’t exactly comic book Batman either.
All of that being said, I still enjoyed the movie, it was entertaining enough for a first movie in the franchise (and it’s way better than Superman Returns). I’d rank it close to or below Amazing Spider-Man I think. A sequel is already being planned and hopefully we get a better, more clever movie the second time around. If it were up to me, the second movie villian(s) would be Luthor and Metallo (With Nolan and Snyder, I think we can look forward to a more interesting take on Lex Luthor compared to Hackman’s self-declared “greatest criminal mind in history” at least.), with a third movie either for Braniac or Doomsday (Braniac would probably be better). It probably depends on their plans for a shared universe and a Justice League movie though. Let’s see how it all pans out; in any case, it’s a good time to be a comic book fan!