Superman, the character, has never held great appeal for me. I’ve enjoyed some of the movies and shows, read a few comics here and there, but he’s never been particularly interesting. The trailers for Man of Steel, though, intrigued me. They promised a Superman with some depth, played with the mythology a bit, and implied some true terror from Zod. In truth, all of those things are there, but I still feel slightly disappointed in the end result.
We begin on Krypton, which is dying already due to it’s core being tapped for energy. There’s another interesting twist – all of Krypton’s babies are part of a breeding program, designed to create a sort of caste system. Kal-El is the first baby born in the natural way in hundreds of years. I have no idea if this is an idea from the comics or not, but I hadn’t seen it before. Zod busts in to the council chamber to take over the planet, such as it is. Considering the previous regime has literally set it on the course for destruction, he’s got a point. It’s too late, of course, but Jor-El steals…something and hides it inside his baby, who he launches into space. So far, pretty normal, right?
The middle section of the movie explores Clark’s life after he’s found by the Kents, seen from the present day but with flashbacks to childhood events. You’ve seen most of the flashbacks in the trailers. Lois Lane, ace reporter, stumbles across our hero while reporting on an apparent spacecraft hidden under ice for thousands of years (old Kryptonian scout ship). It serves the purpose of the Fortress of Solitude, and Clark/Kal-El meets a hologram of his space-dad and has The Talk. He saves Lois after she follows him to the ship, and she tasks herself with finding out who this mysterious superpowered stranger is. It’s not that hard, as she quickly follows his trail of daring rescues back to the bus incident you see in the trailers – perhaps a commentary on how hard it is to keep things secret nowadays. But don’t worry, she’s not going to tell anyone.
Zod finds the Earth, having been freed from the Phantom Zone ship when Krypton went boom. Apparently activating the scout ship to talk to his space-dad sent out a distress signal. Oops. Clark, trying to gain the trust of the American military, surrenders to them and allows them to hand him over to Zod. We learn that Zod was engineered to be the perfect soldier to defend Krypton, and he wants to take the info Jor-El stole and embedded in his son to recreate Earth in Krypton’s image. Since this would mean the destruction of his adopted home, Kal-El reacts pretty strongly to that. Space-dad’s hologram passes the information on how to stop this ‘World Engine’ terraformer in a way that will suck the Kryptonians back into the Phantom Zone, and Lois works with Eliot Stabler and Toby Ziegler to make sure it happens. That leaves the final battle between Superman (finally named as such) and Zod. It is what you expect, though their fight and the World Engine’s destruction pretty much level Metropolis. Of course, it’ll be completly normal next movie, right? Anway, Superman is forced to make a terrible choice that feels pretty contrived at the end of the Zod fight. An epic fight between two nigh-indestructible heat-ray wielding supermen comes down to what happens while Superman has Zod in a headlock? There’s some emotion there, but only if you know the one thing Superman never wants to do (kill). And he sure does get over that in a jiffy, doesn’t he? More on that later.
In the end I think we’re supposed to feel sorry for Kal-El that Krypton will not be restored, but considering the Krypton that was, was a stagnating society that had destroyed itself with bad choices, I find it hard to get too worked up over it. He wouldn’t fit in there any better than he would here, really. I did enjoy the performances from all of the main actors. Shannon’s Zod is both sympathetic and menacing. He’s a product of the broken Krypton – engineered to protect it, and unable to think outside of that. Henry Cavill was a solid Superman and Amy Adams at least seemed like she could be a reporter, which gives her an advantage over Lois in Superman Returns. All the various Clark/Kal parents are where they need to be.
The major problems with the movie come down to two things. The first is the neck-snapping. Up to that point, Superman hadn’t been paying any attention to what’s been happening to the average person on the ground. Now, suddenly, here’s a couple of people being directly threatened, and he goes THERE? Where Superman NEVER goes? My friend Chris points out numerous other options other than the FINAL one used. I bet you could think up a few more. Even if you keep that scene, you know what would’ve made it more poignant? Say Supes and Zod are bashing their way through the city, wrecking stuff, but hey! That schoolbus is about to be crushed by rubble! Superman zooms over and rescues them, and gets wrecked by Zod as a result. Show him trying and failing to help these common folks caught in the crossfire of this huge battle. Then the terrible choice Clark makes might have some heft. Zod will have already killed thousands but at least it would’ve shown that Superman cared. The anguish might’ve felt earned instead of forced.
The other problem is that you went big with the first movie. How do you follow this? Lex Luthor is the only other option that Joe Moviegoer knows. But that usually means bringing in the biggest weakness of the Superman franchise – Kryptonite. There are other villains but even now, everyone is looking for Luthor, there’s no way that’s not what comes next.
I will say that I did enjoy the movie. I have no plans to see it again, but it’s probably one of those I’d watch when it came on FX in the future. That puts it on par with Iron Man 2. No need to seek it out unless you are a big Superman fan, and even if, it may tick you off.