Man of Steel accomplishes in its 143 minutes what Smallville spent 10 seasons alternating trying and failing, and just plain not trying, to do; show how Clark Kent, a young man of strange parentage alternately blessed and cursed with fantastic abilities, grows into the role of Superman, as much a symbol of heroism as a hero himself. It's not unlike Batman Begins, a similarity helped along by the presence of Christopher Nolan as producer, in the way it tracks its titular hero from their definitive origin point (the alley shooting for Batman, the destruction of Krypton for Superman) through a somewhat dissolute period of travel, into a return to their point of origin, and ultimately the establishment of their superheroic identity amongst the broader public. It's a bit formulaic, but hey, not all formulas are bad.
The movie opens on Krypton, giving mainstream viewers their first extended look at the doomed world in its last days. This is no Morrison-ian four panel, eight word introduction, however; Man of Steel intends to hang rather a lot of its story on Kryptonians, and the movie devotes no small amount of time to fleshing out the planet and its people. Jor-El is doing his usual thing, futilely warning people who won't listen about the doom hanging over Krypton, when Zod, Krypton's military leader, launches a coup d'etat against the Science Council over their (admittedly monstrous) mishandling of, well, everything. Russel Crowe probably does more in this movie's prologue than all other Jor-El's put together, from riding a four-winged dragon, to stealing a Kryptonian artifact, to getting into gun fights and even facing off for a one on one duel with Zod himself. Of course, after all the guns have been fired, the knives thrust, the punches thrown and the baby-rockets launched, the end result is ultimately the same as in all other Superman tales; doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple.
I haven't actually seen many people talk about the Krypton section of the movie, and I think that's a shame, because the writing team for Man of Steel pulled off the necessary balancing act for the lost planet pretty perfectly. Krypton, to me, should be a world of technological and philosophical marvels, a place of tremendous accomplishment that exerts an understandable pull on Superman for reasons beyond a sort of genetic nostalgia. At the same time, however, Superman is ultimately a human, whatever his genetics, and his first loyalty should always be to the present Earth, not past Krypton. Man of Steel presents just such a world; their technological achievements are breathtaking, their science perhaps centuries beyond ours, their flag planted on multiple worlds, but for all that they are a fallen power, insular and more than a little pathetic in their decline. Man of Steel brings forward a little-used concept, that natural birth is unheard-of on Krypton, and ties that into a sort of Brave New World concept of Kryptonians being genetically designed to fill specific societal roles. It's an ultimately logical conclusion, one you would expect a governing body known as the Science Council to reach for the most pragmatic of reasons, and it speaks of a tremendous ability to tailor genetic structures to express or suppress particular traits. But it's also, from a western perspective, utterly monstrous. Krypton's achievements are to be envied, but their culture should never burn brighter than that of Superman's real home.
Once the infant Kal-El arrives on Earth, however, things start to get somewhat contested. In this iteration, Jonathan and Martha Kent are no less good than they're usually portrayed, but they're a little more wary of the world, a little more afraid for their son's place in it. Jonathan, in particular, repeatedly hammers home the idea that while he believes his son has the capacity for greatness, that in time he'll change the world for the better, Clark absolutely needs to be careful because the world is not ready for him. It's a very post-9/11 kind of argument, I think, this idea that suddenly announcing yourself to be different, to be an alien simply masquerading as One Of Us, is going to cause problems. In one of the most controversial scenes, which made it into the trailers, Jonathan even suggests that it might have been better for Clark to let a schoolbus full of children die rather than risk exposing himself. I'm not surprised that a lot of people have been critical of that comment; frankly, it's kind of monstrous. But it's also kind of understandable. Those kids are not Jonathan Kent's children, and while I'm sure he'd never wish harm on them, he'd be a pretty unusual parent not to be willing, when you come right down to it, to think in a moment of weakness 'better them than mine'. It's a bit of a black mark on Jonathan, but I actually think it serves a useful purpose, which I'll get to in a little bit.
Anyway. The movie cuts back and forth, between Clark as an adult being drawn to situations where he has to expose himself to help people, leading up to his dealings with the US military and the showdown with Zod and the Kryptonians, and vignettes from his time growing up in Smallville, tracking the growth of his powers and moments where he learned some particular lesson or value. I thought the way the scenes were broken up was mostly well done; particularly when you're doing an origin story for someone as globally familiar as Superman, you really need to put in some extra effort to keep things fresh. It's still, to a certain extent, reinventing the wheel, but at least it's done in an entertaining way, the scenes in the past balanced out by the forward motion of the plot in the future, rather than just being a great big slow-moving growing up montage clogging up the middle of the film.
It isn't until Superman and the Kryptonians start to throw down, however, that Snyder really feels like he's settled into his comfort zone. Given his history, films like 300 and Sucker Punch, it's fairly obvious that Snyder is not a director who really feels comfortable with quiet moments and slow character beats. So it should be no surprise, then, that once super-powered individuals are duking it out, Man of Steel is at its best. Snyder constantly remembers the abilities of the characters, and has has the budget and the effects department necessary to pull it off. These characters are constantly punching harder, throwing farther, moving faster than a normal human being. The fight in Smallville, against Zod's female lieutenant Faora and a suspiciously large, silent Kryptonian, is an obvious homage to the fight scenes in Superman II, until now the Superman film series' high water mark in terms of showing the man of tomorrow engaged in a full-powered fight against an opponent of equal strength and ability. And then, frankly, Snyder tops that, in the one on one fight between Superman and Zod in Metropolis. There have been those who've described the Kryptonians' assault on earth as 'disaster porn', but I don't think that's really fair. It is a disaster for the people there, there's no question about that, but it's not just thrown in their for no reason; it's a natural outcome, the inevitable end result of two beings of Superman's titanic abilities clashing against each other. A world of cardboard, indeed.
The climactic fight scenes lead us into the other big point of contention amongst critics and regular movie-goers alike. I won't spoil it here, but suffice to say that even I will admit it is a huge digression from Superman's traditional depiction. It's fairly well justified within the movie, so it's not like it just comes completely out of left field, but you could just as easily say that the movie engineers a situation so the end result is inevitable, and you'd be right. That's the thing about storytelling; no result is truly 'organic' when the starting conditions are entirely artificial.
But let's talk about the complaints. There have been many; the folks over at Comics Alliance in particularly have not been happy. The general consensus seems to be that, in presenting a Superman who is less than a paragon of morality, Man of Steel has offered at best a grotesque impostor, and at worst a failed attempt to make Superman 'edgy' on par with electric blue Superman. For myself, at least, I disagree. I don't have a problem with Superman being depicted as a guy whose super-everything makes him a being of perfect morality, unfailingly polite and restrained and with a plan always in mind to deal with every situation with no real danger to all those around him. Heck, I think All Star Superman, the comic more than the movie, is probably one of the greatest Superman stories ever told, and that Superman is even more powerful than usual. But that story only really works because of the underlying reality of the piece; that Superman, who is so perfect, is already dead. I honestly don't think you could translate that Superman into the period in his life Man of Steel is set in and have the plot work as well, or even at all. Man of Steel is Issue Zero, it's the origin story, it's the prologue to the true tales of the big blue boyscout. It not only wouldn't make sense for Superman to have the perfect response to every issue he's confronted with, it would cripple any kind of multi-film growth arc Snyder and company have in mind. And given that Snyder went into this fully expecting to be around for another Man of Steel or two, and that the sequel was officially greenlit even before the movie opened, there's no reason to assume that wasn't the plan from the start. This is multi-movie story telling, something the massive success of superhero film franchises has made possible. And I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing the fall-out from Man of Steel's events in the follow-up film.
There's not a whole lot to say about the performers. I can't remember where, but I read somewhere that the casting choices basically stand as shorthand for character traits, and that's not unfair. Perry White has gravitas more because he's Lawrence Fishburne than because of anything he really does, and while Lois does get some good-ish moments of being a danger-seeking ace reporter, the casting of Amy Adams doesn't hurt her portrayal as spunky and determined. The strangest choice was probably Michael Shannon, as Zod. This is pretty far away from Terence Stamp's theatrical, almost Shakespearian Zod; Shannon, last seen on the big screen portraying a rather fidgety crooked cop in the excellent Premium Rush, offers a Zod who is a little more down to earth, as befits a lifelong soldier. His Zod has rages, gloats, threatens and throws down with wild abandon, a gleefully emotional portrayal that stands in stark contrast to Stamp's famously icy Zod. It works well, though. This is the right kind of Zod for this kind of film.
I hugely enjoyed Man of Steel. There were things I might've preferred, small tweaks I might have made, but that's true of all movies. At the end of the film, myself and the friends I'd gone with were fully animated by our experience, keyed up to discuss the film, its moral implications, its practical effects, its suggestions for sequel events, all of that and more. And that, whether you approve of certain choices Superman makes or not, has got to be the hallmark of a successful big budget superhero film. With Christopher Nolan having formally declared his Batman trilogy is outside the universe of Man of Steel, it's down to this film to get the ball rolling if DC is serious about having a Justice League series to compete with Marvel/Disney's Avengers entertainment behemoth. And as far as starts go, this is a damn good one.