Marvel and DC Comics may be viewed as equals in the publishing arena, but the latter is hopelessly losing the battle when it comes to their respective film divisions. While Marvel has released one hit after the next (culminating in last year’s mega hit “The Avengers”), DC has failed to launch a single successful franchise other than Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. 2006’s “Superman Returns” was a big disappointment, 2011’s “Green Lantern” was even worse, and Joss Whedon’s long-mooted Wonder Woman project was ultimately axed, leading him to direct the aforementioned “Avengers” for the competition.
But in trying to reboot their Superman franchise, parent company Warner Bros. did something very smart – they enlisted the aid of Nolan and Batman co-writer David S. Goyer to usher in a new era of Kyrpton’s favorite son. And if “Man of Steel” is any indication, that was a great move on the part of the studio, not only because they’ve finally managed to do Superman right, but because it shows that they’re thinking about the bigger picture, both for their flagship character and the DC movie universe as a whole.
“Man of Steel” is a giant-sized film with so much on its plate that it takes nearly 30 minutes before Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill) even makes his first appearance. The movie opens with a prologue set on Krypton amid a military coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) in a last-ditch attempt to save their dying planet. But scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) doesn’t agree with Zod taking such desperate measures, and instead launches his newborn son Kal-El (the first natural born Kryptonian in centuries) to Earth in the hope that he can save that planet from making the same mistakes. In the end, Zod and his cronies are captured and sentenced to the Phantom Zone, while Krypton is destroyed.
Fast-forward about 30 years and Clark is now a grown man who wanders the planet working odd jobs, never staying in one place too long so as to not draw attention. But when the government uncovers an alien spacecraft in the Arctic, Clark’s secret is uncovered by Daily Planet journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) after saving her at the crash site using his superhuman powers. As Lois begins digging into the mysterious stranger’s past, Clark learns more about his alien race and the man that his father was confident he would become. No sooner does he accept his role as Earth’s protector than Zod arrives on the planet (having escaped the Phantom Zone years before) with plans to begin terraforming it into a new Krypton.
This is exactly the kind of reboot that the franchise desperately needed, and though Nolan and Goyer will probably receive a lot of the credit, director Zack Snyder is just as responsible for its success. One of the biggest problems with Superman as a character is that his perfection and omnipotence makes him rather dull. Snyder and Co. can’t really change that, but they at least manage to make him feel more relatable by depicting him as a bit of an outcast. This works best in the flashbacks, which smartly doles out details from Clark’s childhood over the course of the film, resulting in a more well-rounded character. It also helps that the man donning the famous suit and cape imbues Clark with a certain warmth and humanity, and the fact that he shares an eerie likeness to Christopher Reeve at times doesn’t hurt either.
Henry Cavill hasn’t had much luck in his first few outings as a leading man, but he proves himself more than capable of carrying the Superman torch with his subtle yet effective performance here. Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner (playing Jonathan Kent) also shine as Clark’s two father figures – particularly Crowe’s Jor-El, who gets a lot more to do than in Richard Donner’s 1978 version. Michael Shannon, meanwhile, has some great moments as the villain Zod, but it’s not nearly as iconic as Terence Stamp’s portrayal, mostly because he just doesn’t seem as dangerous as he should. But perhaps the biggest disappointment in the cast is Amy Adams, who never gets the chance to fully flesh out the Lois character, although she’s clearly perfect for the role.
The best thing about “Man of Steel,” however, is the action. The fight scenes are lightning fast and brutal, really playing up the superhuman angle of the Kryptonians in a way that’s never been done before. Though there are only a handful of action sequences in the movie, all but one of them is outstanding, especially the fight between Superman and two of Zod’s soldiers in the streets of Smallville, which, despite some disgustingly blatant product placement, delivers everything that you’d expect from a modern day Superman film. The big finale is a little too generic and blockbustery for its own good, but by that point, “Man of Steel” had already won me over. It’s not quite as groundbreaking as what Nolan achieved with “Batman Begins,” but considering Warner’s recent track record with DC Comics characters, it’s a massive and incredibly enjoyable step in the right direction.