There’s no denying that Richard Donner set the bar for the Superman franchise with his 1978 film. The icy landscapes of Planet Krypton, John Williams’ vigorous musical score, Christopher Reeve’s iconic performance -- every aspect of Donner’s movie remains definitive.
Since then, most interpretations of Superman have either drawn inspiration from or paid homage to the classic. One has to give director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan credit for taking “Man of Steel” in the complete opposite direction. Where Donner’s “Superman” was light, funny, and colorful, “Man of Steel” is dark, serious, and brooding. The film presents a vision of Superman that’s new and bold, with a satisfying payoff.
There have been countless renditions of how Clark Kent became Superman. The TV show “Smallville” even managed to stretch the story out for ten seasons. Although Screenwriter David S. Goyer revisits many familiar plot points from Superman’s origin tale, he also manages to structure the narrative in a refreshing, nonlinear light. Occasionally it feels like you’re hearing this story for the first time, which is no easy feat.
The real appeal of “Man of Steel” is its performers, particularly Henry Cavill as Superman. Cavill isn’t as cheerful or humorous as Reeve, but he does capture the turmoil of being an alien lost in a world of humans. Superman is often depicted as such a flawless character that people forget he’s capable of being confused, lonely, and morally conflicted. “Man of Steel” is truly a human story about the need to belong and finding your place in the world, or universe. In that sense, this interpretation of Superman is very different, but also very true to the character’s emotional core. Plus, he no longer has the dorky red underwear over his pants.
After more than 30 years of feeling alone, Clark Kent finally meets a fellow Kryptonian named General Zod, played by Michael Shannon. In search of a new planet, Zod and his exiled followers plan to wipe out Earth and build a new Krypton. This is a much more complex version of Zod, who was previously portrayed by Terence Stamp. Where Stamp's Zod primarily wanted to seize control, Shannon actually gives the character a fair deal of depth and an understandable motive. We sympathize with this guy who desperately wants to preserve his species and their legacy. But it’s his methods of achieving his goal that establish him as a villain.
Since the performances and characters are so strong, one would expect a heated rivalry between Superman and Zod. Unfortunately, most of their scenes just consist of physical violence with little tension. Where that dynamic is a bit of a disappointment, “Man of Steel” more than makes up for it with the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane.
Amy Adams is perfection as the plucky reporter with a knack for getting into trouble. Although “Man of Steel” stays true to the nature of Lois, the character is something much more here. She’s not just the love interest or the damsel in distress. She’s someone willing to put herself in the line of danger for others, and she's Superman’s link to the human world. This movie takes more chances with the Lois and Clark relationship than any other incarnation, resulting in a romance and friendship that’s surprisingly believable. It’s one of the first times we see why Superman needs somebody like Lois in his corner.
In addition to the three leads, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane provide much of the movie’s heart as the Kents. Russell Crowe is a powerful figure as Clark’s biological father, Jor-El, who acts as a guardian angel to his son even beyond the grave. Laurence Fishburne creates a unique Perry White, who gets to be at the center of the action for a change.
For all its superb performances and character moments, “Man of Steel” should be right up there with the best “Superman” movies. There are some issues, though, that hold it back from achieving greatness.
Snyder has made some stupid but fun movies, like “300,” and some flat-out stupid movies, like “Sucker Punch.” “Man of Steel” may be Snyder’s best directorial effort, but he still succumbs to some of his more annoying habits.
The camera is constantly shaking, and the editing is so fast that it makes it hard to appreciate the jaw-dropping special effects. On top of all that, the cinematography is relentlessly cloudy, often making the entire picture look like a flashback. These reoccurring grievances aren’t enough to ruin the experience, but they do prevent “Man of Steel” from ranking alongside Donner’s film or the equally outstanding “Superman II.” The movie could have been stronger had Nolan stepped into the director’s chair.
As it is, however, “Man of Steel” is an exciting and thoughtful reboot with potential to inspire a promising new series.
• Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for the past seven years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com.