With the recent (long-awaited) release of Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” (2021) now on HBO Max and 4K Blu Ray, we now have the fully realized vision that first started in 2013’s “Man of Steel”, and continued with 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”! Considering this is essentially the third chapter of a trilogy, it only feels right to revisit the first two acts of this epic superhero saga before diving into this new (and very different) version of 2017’s “Justice League”…
Part One: MAN OF STEEL (2013)
“Man of Steel” (2013) is a modernized retelling of the Superman origin story. For all intents and purposes, Superman is the original superhero, first debuting in Action Comics #1 (1938), and is the archetype upon which all the rest have been in some way inspired by, so it’s fitting that Zack Snyder (hot off the success of “300” and “Watchmen”) chose this movie to start his take on the DC Extended Universe. I for one unapologetically love this movie and will defend it till my dying breath. No, it’s not the perfect “Superman” movie, but to be honest, we kinda already got that with Richard Donner’s 1978 classic (Superman: The Movie). What we needed was a movie that proved that Superman was still relevant today.
‘Man of Steel’ stars: Henry Cavill as Kal-El aka Clark Kent aka Superman (aka The Man of Steel), with Amy Adams as intrepid reporter, Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as the villainous General Zod (a role that Terrance Stamp made iconic), Russell Crowe as Jor-El (Clark’s “Space Dad”), Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent (Clark’s “Ghost Dad”), Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Harry Lennix as General Swanwick (later revealed to be ‘The Martian Manhunter’? Spoilers?), Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy (aka Col Red Shirt), Richard Schiff as Dr. Emil Hamilton, Antje Traue as Faora (Zod’s side chick), and Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, editor and chief of the Daily Planet!
A Modern Superman
This was of course the first Superman film since the equally divisive “Superman Returns” which was Bryan Singer’s legacy sequel to the Christopher Reeve / Richard Donner Superman films starring Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey and DC’s follow up to Christopher Nolan’s incredibly successful “Dark Knight Trilogy”, so it’s understandable why they decided to go with a drastic tonal shift when approaching this reboot. In a lot of ways, “Man of Steel” is the antithesis to “Superman Returns” for better or worse. While ‘Superman Returns’ was derided for it’s slow meandering plot, campy tone, and little to no action, ‘Man of Steel’ is often criticized for being ‘too action packed’ and ‘too serious’. Personally though, as a life long fan of the character, it was pretty amazing to see a movie where they actually took the source material seriously.
Unlike the previous versions which were primarily inspired by the Silver Age version of the character, this one takes it’s cues from some of the more modern retellings, including John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” reboot in the 80’s and Mark Waid’s brilliant “Superman: Birthright” graphic novel. “Man of Steel” approaches Superman as if he existed in the real world, which is honestly a really cool approach to the start of a cinematic universe. Snyder’s visual style really elevates the film throughout and Hans Zimmer’s score is nothing less than legendary (very reminiscent of the Mass Effect soundtrack).
Henry Cavill plays Kal-El as a humble young man, trying to find his place in the world. He has these insane god-like powers, but just wants to fit in. He wants to do what’s right, but he doesn’t like being the center of attention. He feels lost in the world, trying to find meaning and purpose, like so many of us. I thought this was a really clever way to portray Clark before he takes on the mantle of Superman, it’s a way to really ground the story and make him relatable before he flies off to save the world from an unstoppable alien threat.
The movie opens with the birth of Kal-El on Krypton before cutting to Jor-El arguing with the council of Elders about the imminent destruction of their world, seconds before General Zod and his insurrectionists attack the Citadel! Right away, the pacing is relentless and exciting, in heavy contrast to the slow and gradual build up of the original Donner film. The overall design aesthetic of Krypton is brilliant: although they look human, everything else about their planet, society, and technology is alien, from their metallic holograms to the Phantom Zone tech. The costumes, prop, and set design here are stunning. It’s a huge step up from what we had seen previously. Unlike the frozen and lifeless crystalline planet of Marlon Brando’s Jor-El, *this* Krypton is living and breathing world, with stunning creatures and breathtaking views, with a sense of culture and history. We really get to know Krypton before it’s epic demise.
General Zod’s military armor is menacing, like a cross between a Xenomorph and Sauron from Lord of the Rings! Meanwhile, Jor-El’s ceremonial robes emblazoned with the House of El (it’s not an ‘S’) are intricate and we come to learn that Kal-El’s own suit is really just Kryptonian casual wear, with the details of his ‘costume’ resembling high-tech chainmail rather than fabric that his ma sewed together for him. We also learn later on that the ‘S’-shield isn’t just his family’s crest, but their symbol of ‘hope’, which fits so perfectly with the theme of this movie.
Speaking of the “Super suit”, I love this design – while it’s a bit more muted than previous versions, it still absolutely looks like Superman. They ditched the red underpants (like the comics did around the same time), which I personally thought was a solid choice. I always felt like giving Kal-El Kryptonian armor makes way more sense than him throwing on a set of flammable pajamas before rocketing through the atmosphere at Mach 5 to fight a monster made of spikes and lasers. And visually, it looks incredible in high definition. Whether you’re a fan of this design or not, you can’t argue that they didn’t put a lot of love and detail into getting it right.
From Smallville to Metropolis
After the tragic destruction of Krypton, the movie makes an interesting choice by jumping ahead to Clark as an adult, he’s not the Clark Kent that we’re used to just yet, he’s a drifter on a shrimping boat with a beard! This was a neat way to subvert expectations and keep the story moving forward. We see him save some workers on a burning oil rig before flashing back to his childhood. We also get a really interesting take on Clark’s powers as his enhanced hearing and X-Ray vision start to manifest. There’s some pretty heartfelt moments between Clark and his adopted parents, even if it’s a slight departure from the typical Ma and Pa Kent that we’re used to. They’re not portrayed as paragons of virtue, but you can tell they genuinely care for and love him, and it’s those very human connections that motivate Clark later on to take sides against his own people to save his adopted planet.
Amy Adams’s Lois Lane is also handled extremely well, she’s far from the typical damsel in distress of previous versions, but also embodies the strong-willed nature of the character from the comics. The relationship between Lois and Clark is one of my favorite things about this iteration, because the writers decided to completely side step the usual secret identity plot, and instead she meets him as himself, before he dons the cape, and even before he dons the Clark Kent glasses and persona! Right out the gate, it eliminates one of the biggest plot holes of the mythos, and puts them on equal footing right away.
I also like this take on Perry White, but unfortunately one of the drawbacks of this version is that the Daily Planet cast isn’t given a lot of screen time or development, in any of these movies. (Although I thought the inclusion of Jenny Olsen rather than Jimmy was a cool touch.) A lot of the other supporting characters are fine, most of the military characters are just there to spout exposition, while the Zod’s Kryptonian lackeys are just there for Superman to punch something (which is awesome btw). That said, Faora was a total badass.
There are a lot of really spectacular action sequences throughout the movie, which is probably the strongest thing about this one. Most of the Superman comics are pretty action packed after all, so it was awesome to see him unleashed on the big screen finally, with a budget that could actually pull it off! As much as I love the Donner Cut of Superman II, the fights between Superman and Zod in this movie blow that one away! Their smashing through concrete, tearing up asphalt, and every blow sends shockwaves through the air!
Another cool change the movie made was the inclusion of the ancient crashed Kryptonian ship, hidden beneath the arctic ice, which served as this Superman’s ‘Fortress of Solitude’ where he first gets his iconic suit. The scene where Clark first suits up and is figuring out how to fly, in the arctic, is one of the coolest sequences in any superhero film! And all the little details, like how the snow or dirt levitates around him before he launches off was an inspired choice. All of the flight scenes are a visceral experience!
General Zod’s invasion!
This movie also really plays up the alien aspect of the Superman story in a clever way. When General Zod and his Kryptonian followers arrive on Earth, we get this really creepy and creative sequence where he transmits a message to every electronic device around the world, translating into numerous languages: “My name is General Zod. I come from a world far from yours. I have journeyed across an ocean of stars to reach you. For some time, your world has sheltered one of my citizens. I request that you return this individual to my custody. For reasons unknown, he has chosen to keep his existence a secret from you. He will have made efforts to blend in. He will look like you, but he is not one of you. To those of you who may know of his current location: the fate of your planet rests in your hands. To Kal-El, I say this: surrender within twenty-four hours, or watch this world suffer the consequences…”
One of my favorite sequences is when Clark is brought aboard Zod’s ship and we get this eerie dream-like sequence where Zod monologues about his plans to terraform Earth into a new Krypton – we see the sun turn red and he’s pulled down through a creepy wasteland of skulls! It’s a little over the top, but the visual storytelling here really feels like a comic book brought to life. Zack Snyder’s greatest strength is in his thematic visuals and it really shines here.
What a lot of fans don’t understand is that Clark doesn’t actually become ‘Superman’ until the end of the movie. Much like Batman Begins, this is an origin story in the truest sense, because the entire movie is his journey to becoming the hero we all know and love. When he faces off against Zod at the end, he’s completely outmatched and inexperienced, which is why Metropolis gets leveled in the process, because that’s what would happen if two super-powered beings duked it out in the middle of a major city!
In fact, one of the possible faults in the movie is that it’s *too* good at making the world feel real to the point where the final battle is almost traumatic, with entire skyscrapers collapsing left and right. Still, the actual fights between Supes and Zod are extremely well done, between the choreography and effects. You can feel the hatred in every one of Zod’s punches and the use of their powers is like nothing we’d ever seen before in a super-powered brawl.
And of course their fight ends with one of the most controversial moments in the history of the DCEU: Superman is forced to kill Zod in order to stop his rampage. Here’s why I think this moment works: for starters, Superman has actually killed Zod in the comics before and it ended up being a moment that really haunted him and motivates him to never take a life again. In this version, there isn’t a supervillain prison that can contain Zod, the Phantom Zone portal was destroyed, and even Kryptonite hasn’t been discovered yet. He kills Zod as a last resort, because he knows that no matter what, Zod won’t stop, and at this point he understands that he’s completely and totally outmatched. They may have the same abilities, but Zod is a trained soldier from birth. To top it off, Clark is absolutely distraught afterwards. It really solidifies that this wasn’t something he wanted to do, but was forced to do, because it was the morally right thing to do in that moment. It’s heroism in the darkest of moments.
Overall, I think “Man of Steel” is a great origin story. While I would have liked a little bit more worldbuilding considering where the story is going next (we did at least get a quick nod to Wayne Enterprises and Lex Corp), it’s still a really solid start. We’re given a really humanized version of Superman, and he’s still growing into the role of a hero. This is the beginning of his journey after all, not the end. Unfortunately, the next entry in this trilogy managed to squander a lot of what was set up so well, but I’ll talk about that more on the next one…