Origin films have become all the rage in the superhero universe, and it's obvious from virtually the first moment of Man of Steel that the creative staff wanted to take that same approach here while at the same time tweaking the general way origin stories are typically presented. Man of Steel starts out with a viscerally exciting sequence taking place in the waning hours of Krypton's existence, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) tries to talk some sense into Krypton's ruling council, which has led to the impending destruction of the planet. Jor-El isn't getting through to these supposedly wise elders, but even his attempts are brought to a crashing halt when the meeting is interrupted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who bursts in and attempts to instigate a coup.
A longish set of affairs on Krypton ensues, where we are given a cursory glance at Krypton's culture, which turns out to be a dystopian alien version of elements from Children of Men. Jor-El and Zod obviously have a history, but Zod is impervious to Jor-El's pleas to not resort to violence. Jor-El is initially taken prisoner by Zod's cohorts, but he of course escapes and then steals a magically glowing skull like object and makes his way to his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer), who has just given birth to little Kal-El. Jor-El and Lara have obviously made preparations for just such an eventuality, and they kiss their baby goodbye and place him in a space pod, but not before they place the glowing skull over him and he is bathed in an effulgent light.
So far, Man of Steel has more or less hewed to the Superman template of old, albeit with a few fanciful additions (some other aspects of Krypton's culture which play important parts in the plot have not been spoiled in the paragraph above). But at this point screenwriter David S. Goyer does something quite interesting: instead of moving chronologically to the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) discovering little Kal-El and raising him as their own son, whom they name Clark, the film jumps ahead to Clark's young manhood, where he, unlike any previous Superman iteration, has taken a series of odd jobs in order to stay as anonymous as possible. Unfortunately, his innate urges to do good and save people keep getting him "outed" as someone with rather unusual abilities, and he is repeatedly forced to move on to the next hidden enclave where he can hang out for a while. Goyer starts ping ponging to flashbacks during this part of the film, going back to Clark's childhood and revealing more and more of his early years with the rural Kent family. This gambit is obviously meant to develop an emotional tether to the character of Clark, and while it may help, it also gives the film a strangely lurching quality as the "contemporary" story keeps getting interrupted.
Man of Steel then really starts to play with the Superman mythology in unusual ways. Clark's lonely travels bring him to the Arctic, where a top secret military installation is investigating a mysterious entity found buried in the ice. Reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up, having gained access by pulling strings with Canada which are never really fully explained. While Adams' Lois is not as overtly spunky as, say, Margot Kidder's in the Christopher Reeve Superman entries, her curiosity is piqued when she sees Clark walking out in the frigid evening air one night. She follows him into what is a reimagined version of the Fortress of Solitude, which turns out to be the buried remains of a long forgotten Krypton scouting ship. There the film unleashes one of its biggest conceits—a holographic version of Jor-El, who is able to fill Clark in on the mysteries of his past. (Some may wonder why the technologically advanced Kryptonians depict their history in friezes made of tin, but I digress.) During this sequence, Lois has her first "damsel in distress" moment, which Clark mitigates (no surprise there). He then blasts off in a mini Krypton spaceship, while Lois is left to ponder what has just happened.
Back in Metropolis, Lois finds that her story of an alien creature living amongst Earthlings doesn't meet with Perry White's (Laurence Fishburne) approval. She leaks the story to an internet blog, where it goes viral (and here, too, some may wonder why Goyer didn't update The Daily Planet to be an internet entity, since papers are obviously a dying art form). Clark, now armed with the knowledge of who he really is, returns home to Kansas to be with his mother, only to suddenly become the object of a global search when Zod and his cohorts show up, holding the entire planet hostage until Clark (or more appropriately Kal-El) turns himself in. Meanwhile, Lois' investigative prowess has actually led her back to Kansas, where she eventually tracks down Clark, but then refuses to divulge his identity after he has a little heart to heart with her about wanting to stay anonymous.
That sets up the noisy third act of the film, which boils down to a CGI-laden remake of Superman II, with Zod and his acolytes attempting to take over the Earth (and Clark, of course), with the newly minted Superman the only thing standing in their way. The major problem with Man of Steel is that it wants to reinvent this hero in the roiling emotional template forged by Nolan in his Batman films, when Superman simply isn't the same kind of personality. Goyer and Nolan even give Clark a Batman-esque trauma involving one of his parents that is obviously supposed to play into the character's inner turmoil (and truth be told, for all its manipulative excess, this sequence actually does end up generating some emotional heft). But too often Superman is left to actually scream as he chases Truth, Justice and the American Way, to the point that some of the character's heroics may actually provoke giggles among the more cynically minded. There may in fact have been no easy way to approach the more stolid persona of Clark/Superman, but trying to reinvent the character as a rural Bruce Wayne doesn't work, at least for the most part.
Director Zack Snyder has already proven his mettle with epic CGI-fests (300, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole 3D), but he's also frankly shown himself to be easily seduced by visual and storytelling excesses (Sucker Punch). Both of those tendencies are on display throughout Man of Steel. The film is first and foremost manifestly too long, especially in the completely predictable third act (how many times do we have to see a huge fight raining down destruction on a major American city, with just a moment of respite when the battle seems to be over, only to have another smack down ensue between the hero and main villain?). But Snyder for all his technical prowess can't keep himself from using needless techniques like "jiggly cam" or the now ubiquitous sudden zooms in and out which are supposedly meant to give the film a "you are there" veracity, but which often just seem pointless.
Snyder does much better with his cast, all of whom are quite good in what are frankly (and probably inevitably) cartoon cardboard cut-out roles. Henry Cavill is physically extremely impressive (a shot of him half naked emerging from the surf brings a new meaning to being buffed and toned, to say the least), and he tries to give Clark some "human" qualities, though as mentioned above, that frequently devolves into tragic screaming as he's forced to save humanity, giving up his anonymity in the process. Adams' Lois is an interesting study in vulnerability with just the hint of a (no pun intended) steely spine lurking in the background. Costner and Lane are quite touching as the Kents and probably come closest to achieving the sort of emotional tenor Goyer, Nolan and Snyder were aiming for. Shannon is of course larger than life.
Bryan Singer attempted to reboot this character along more traditional lines in Superman Returns, but one of Singer's addition to the mythos was a patently Christian subtext where Superman's sacrifice was likened to Jesus on the cross (visually as well as textually). Of all the ideas Goyer and crew could have cribbed from Singer's version, it seems odd that it should be this one, but here is that same conceit, handled perhaps even more overtly than in the Singer film. When Clark seeks out a priest to discuss whether he should sacrifice himself to save Mankind, he does so with a stained glass window of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane hovering over his shoulder. Later, Clark mentions to a military expert that he's been on Earth for 33 years. In one of the moments of calm before the (repeated) storm that is a Groundhog Day-esque feature of the film's final act, Superman haltingly grasps toward a glowing light in what is perhaps an unintentional reference to Michelangelo's immortal Sistine Chapel painting of God reaching out and touching Adam.
It's not hard to see what Snyder, Nolan and Goyer wanted to do with Man of Steel, and in a way it's perfectly understandable, especially given the previous success of the Dark Knight films, as well as the lackluster response to the last Superman outing by Bryan Singer. But some may, as I do, question the appropriateness of investing this frankly two dimensional hero with so much emotional baggage. Sometimes it's best to just be able to root for the good guy without worrying about what he's going through as he leaps over tall buildings in a single bound.
Man of Steel is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Brothers with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.40:1. Whatever qualms some may have with the dramatic content of this film, few are going to have even slight quibbles with the stunning visual allure of Snyder's latest opus. The film seamlessly blends live action and lots of CGI, something that surely should come as no huge surprise to fans of Snyder's previous films. Some of that CGI is just slightly soft looking, as tends to be the case, but it also gives the film some amazing set pieces, both Earthbound (when Clark rescues workers off of an exploding oil rig) and in space (courtesy of both the long Krypton sequence as well as Zod's incursions later in the film). The image here is sharp, precise, and full of superb fine detail (just take a look at that weirdly rubbery lizard like suit Superman wears, or the close-ups of faces, where every pore is visible). You don't have to wait long at all for Man of Steel's incredibly forceful DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix to announce its very visceral presence. As soon as the seemingly endless series of production entity logos starts unspooling, the listener is greeted with an almost chthonic rumbling gurgling up from the subwoofer, in an approximation of what being in a live volcano probably sounds (and feels) like. That's just the opening salvo in what is a nonstop barrage of artful surround activity. Both the opening half hour as well as the final half hour-plus of the film are incredibly loud and sonically incredible, which will no doubt delight those who like their home theater setups pushed to their limit.
- Strong Characters, Legendary Roles: purports to be about the history of the character, but instead focuses almost solely on this film's reimagined version, with passing nods to various changes in the comic book through the years. A more inclusive look at Superman's storied multimedia past might have been more informative.
- All Out Action: takes a look at the physical training of the actors, as well as the stunt coordination and big set pieces that are a major part of the film.
- Krypton Decoded: features host Dylan Sprayberry, who plays the teenaged Clark, looking at the visual effects sequence of the destruction of Krypton.
- Superman 75th Anniversary Animated Short: For those who miss John Williams' epic theme from the earlier Superman films, it's here.
- New Zealand: Home to Middle Earth: You can explain to me why this Hobbit related supplement is included, because I frankly have no idea.
- Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel: is the first time that I can remember where the feature film is presented again on a second disc with interstitial interviews and background featurettes, but that's exactly what this is. Unfortunately this bonus content is not available as a standalone supplement.
- Planet Krypton: If you've ever wondered what History Channel would do with this subject if Krypton and the events of Man of Steel were actually real, look no further. This is one of the more patently ridiculous supplements in recent memory.
I'm kind of in the middle ground with regard to Man of Steel. I don't think it's the masterpiece the film's staunchest advocates argue it is, nor do I think it's the abomination sullying the iconic history of this character that the most vociferous naysayers claim it is. For me, Man of Steel is an interesting but flawed attempt to reinvent the franchise. Parts of it work very well, and other parts are so patently manipulative and even ridiculous that they're almost laughable. Where you fall on this spectrum will probably have a lot to do with your personal history with this character, and perhaps even more to how you feel about previous film and television versions of Clark and his alter ego. One way or the other, this Blu-ray offers stupendous video and audio, and despite my issues with some of the creative decisions in this reboot, it comes Recommended.