Warning: minor spoilers
First off, let me state I’ve never read a comic book, so I have no idea how Man of Steel fits into or compares to the wider Superman universe. That said, I love the superhero genre, and we’re currently living in a golden age of superhero films (with some, or should I say Four, notable exceptions). I’ll be comparing Man of Steel to Superman 1 & 2 which I consider to be the only films worth watching (yes, not even Kevin Spacey could salvage the mess that was Superman Returns).
Man of Steel is a very worthy addition to the recent canon of serious superhero films – it has the grittiness and brutal realism of the Dark Knight (Nolan’s influence is clear), the spectacular clashes of the Avengers, and the emotion of Iron Man, but yet still retains the core of what makes Superman Superman. It ‘s a great re-interpretation of the character, played to perfection by Henry Cavill - and his history. He captures Clark Kent’s inner turmoil and sense of not belonging, without turning him into a walking pile of angst like Batman; he also puts the steel in his incarnation as the Man of Steel. I will say this, however: Cavill has a lot of work to do on Clark Kent’s ‘hiding in plain sight’ act at the Daily Planet, which Christopher Reeve nailed. It’s ridiculously obvious he’s Superman.
Amy Adams is a Lois Lane for the 21st century. Gone is the woman who throws herself off waterfalls to provoke Clark into proving she’s right about him being Superman; she figures out who he is very quickly and is considerably wiser in how she acts on this knowledge. She’s almost a sidekick as well as a love interest, proving to be far more of a help than a hindrance. Kevin Costner also revealed hitherto unsuspected acting skills as Pa Kent. Costner is an actor I have been singularly unimpressed by in every movie I’ve seen him in – notably Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, where the only thing he managed to outact was Sherwood Forest and that was by being more wooden – but here he brings the right emotional depth as Superman’s adoptive father, and you can see and believe the deep influence he’s had on Clark’s moral and emotional development.
Superman’s true father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) plays a far more active role here than he does in the previous films, while not altering the key means by which he communicates with his son. Crowe turns in a performance vastly superior to Marlon Brando’s phoned in effort. Of course, Brando making no effort is still better than many an actor giving it their all, but the Jor-El of Superman 1/2 still serves purely as an expositionary figure rather than a fleshed out figure connecting us (and Superman) emotionally to Krypton. A far greater level of importance is attached to Superman’s origin story this time around: Jor-El’s status as a heretic and his reasoning behind sending young Kal-El to Earth are what set up the key conflict between Superman and General Zod.
Right, on to said villain of the piece. While Superman calls General Zod a monster. He does indeed do monstrous things, but just how much choice does he have in the matter? Zod is the literal creation of a society where your sole purpose in life is determined by geneticists, and you are basically stored in a test tube until Krypton needs you. Zod was made to be a soldier, so while what he does is heinous, you can see why he does it. To him, Jor-El and Superman are taking his raison d’etre away from him, therefore he must stop them by all means necessary. It makes him a serious villain with understandable motives, a far cry from the General Zod of Superman 2 who took over Earth for kicks and was soon bored to tears by how easy mankind was to subjugate.
With regards to the film as a whole: the fight scenes were great; my only complaint would be they went on a little too long, and I found myself thinking “when the hell is Superman going to defeat these guys?” They don’t go lightly on the destruction either – the joint really gets wrecked here. On a meta level it was hilarious watching a virtual parade of characters from my favourite TV shows appear one by one – why hello West Wing’s Toby Ziegler, Elliot Stabler of SVU, Boardwalk Empire’s Nelson van Alden, Hannibal’s Jack Crawford and Doug Stamper from US House of Cards!
All in all: Man of Steel is both a fantastic movie and a really great reboot which should do for Superman what Batman Begins did for Batman.