RECAP: Man of Steel

Man of Steel (2013): Zack Snyder

Comic book whisperer Zack Snyder takes the reigns of another beloved comic book for Superman’s biggest everything yet!

The previous Superman adventure, 2006’s Superman Returns, was a failure. If you can name the star, well, you probably paid more attention than the general audience.

While $200 million might, at the time, have seemed like a good chunk of change, after that movie came three Iron Men flicks, The Dark Knight, and The Avengers. So Warner Brothers knew it had to try again.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Krypton might be dead, but its conflicts endure on Earth, between Superman, General Zod, and helpless humans. 

Hero (7/10)

Henry Cavill plays the Man of Steel. He’s a good cast, because his enormous chest and hard jawline evoke strength, while his attitude and chin cleft promote his gentleness.

We don’t see Cavill for some time, because Man of Steel is an origin story, and when we do he’s working on a fishing ship in the northern Pacific. His colleagues call him Greenhorn. Greenhorn hears a distress call from a nearby burning oil rig and is soon climbing the rigging.

He catches fire, but saves the rig workers, even holding back a huge metal section from collapsing onto the rescue chopper. The explosion knocks him cold, and we watch him float in ocean.

Later, Clark Kent shows his compassion and calm when he faces down a jerk in a greasy spoon. An ass-grabbing truck driver dumps beer on him and throws a can at his head. Kent is visibly upset, but he allows himself to be talked down. Then he turns the guy’s truck into shish-kabob.

Superman’s origin is also told in periodic flashbacks to his youthful days as Clark Kent, resident of Smallville, Kansas. As self assured as adult Kent acts, young Clark acts as unsure. We see Clark overwhelmed by his powers. We see him take a punch, but never throw one. We see him save a school bus full of children from drowning after he’s been bullied.

Superman is born when he accepts the cape Jor-El gave him. He is ready to help people on a global scale. But first, like all heroes, he has to go to jail. Superman lets the US government arrest him, so they can hand him over to General Zod (Michael Shannon). That’s kind.

Even during Superman’s world-spanning fights with Zod and crew, he can’t help but saving people falling down, especially Lois Lane. He loves the people of Earth, even if he can no longer consider himself one of them. He loves humans, but the world knows he’s an alien, and won’t ever embrace him. “I’m here to help,” Superman tells General Swanwick.

Villain (5/10)

Cube-skulled Michael Shannon angrily portrays General Zod, discharged from Krypton’s military because the planet imploded. Cast into the Phantom Zone, he returns to our dimensions because Superman pissed him off. Scores must be settled and all that.

On Krypton, Zod is a strong guy. On Earth, he’s like Superman, of course, but he controls powerful technologies that Superman did not have on his escape pod.

When Zod finally reaches Earth, he wants to find Superman, and puts out an All Points Bulletin for him by wresting all forms of communication across the entire planet. Seemed like no problem for him.

Zod is full-fledged homer of Krypton. Earth is a planet for him to exploit, to create a new Krypton, making him a colonial in the classic sense. He’s pretty much Cecil Rhodes in metallic armor.

We don’t see Zod for some time, until he piggybacks on all Earth communications. He’s been busy since leaving the Phantom Zone: scouring dead planets and Kryptonian outposts, searching for the codex of all Kryptonian DNA, growing a goatee.

General Zod has one plan for Earth–turn it into a new Krypton. To do that he’ll have to change the gravity and mass of the planet to match his own. For that he’ll need a world engine. Luckily he found one. Cue the line, “Release the world engine.” That was probably the line in the script after which Shannon called his agent to read for the part.

Zod doesn’t care who dies to create his world. He killed his friend Jor-El, but he would do it again, to save Krypton. As for humans, “A foundation has to be built on something.” He means there will be billions and billions dead.

Zod is most terrifying because he’s played by Shannon. Shannon is a scary dude. Look at him. He’s a bad man. The guy is a walking embodiment of an embolism. Something about him seemed too, what’s the word, intense, too villainous.

Action/Effects (5/10)

One great aspect about Superman is the dichotomy of highly advanced alien technology and god-like powers against the blue collar cornfields and rotting wooden barns of Kansas. Man of Steel exploits these differences in the central action scene.

Zod shows up to the Kent house for a nice friendly chat that involves choking the widow Kent and throwing her truck onto her house. They find Kal-El’s escape pod but not the precious codex they’ve scoured the galaxy for.

Quickly Superman arrives on the scene and, enraged, spear tackles Zod and flies him through fields, silos and into downtown Smallville, all while wailing on him and shouting. He’s in a primal state because he messed with his mom.

Zod’s helmet breaks in a gas station explosion, something the locals will surely talk about for generations to come. “Say, Hal, remember back in ’13 when the ol’ seven-‘leven blew up?” “Sure do. Was a mighty fine place to get a hot dog.” Then the grandkids will ask them what were hot dogs and gas stations.

One of those bug-like spaceships flies away with the injured Zod, but Faora-Ul is there with a very big dude. So is Colonel Hardy and some A-10s. The planes make a pass down Main St., but the two named Kryptonians dodge the bullets. The big dude bounds onto one cockpit, ripping it to pieces as it crashes and explodes on Main St. Faora flies to one until Superman intercepts her.

The pair slam and smack and punch each other around Smallville. They fight in Pete Ross’s IHOP, where Superman was surprised to see his buddy. Faora throws him into a bank vault door. They trade punches outside a Sears. The hulking dude throws a U-Haul at a helicopter.

Also, the Army’s there. We know they can’t do anything to harm the aliens, but their efforts are charming. There’s a terrific moment when Faora faces down a platoon of Rangers. She stands amongst them and throws or punches them as she pleases. She moves fast, and they look like stop motion moves as she dispatches the soldiers.

Faora and Colonel Hardy face each other after the latter’s chopper crashes. Hardy fires off all his guns, and then draws a knife. Faora looks at him as you might a scrappy dog. She draws a larger knife and tells him, “A good death is its own reward.” That, kids, is called foreshadowing.

Superman crashes into her before she strikes the death blow, and with enough force to break her helmet. The big dude throws a train engine onto Superman to afford the Kryptonians an escape. Hardy, grateful for Superman’s help, says to the Rangers, “This man is not our enemy.”

That was the longest and best fight in the movie. The effects here were very good, but at other times too patchy and blurry. As I’ll discuss later, they were too video-game-like.

Sidekicks (7/8)

What do you when you’ve cast a new Superman movie, and the lead actors are unknowns? Henry Cavill’s highest grossing movie before was Immortals, a movie that was less than its title. Michael Shannon had a longer career, but his most famous movie until then was, uh, Revolutionary Road?

If that happens, you surround the stars will Stars. How about Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, and Amy Adams? These five have a combined 10 Oscar nominations and two wins.

Adams is her normal button-nosed self as Lois Lane in Man of Steel. She doesn’t sing, but neither does she take any guff, whether from her boss or from the Army. She shows up in Canada to investigate the object buried in the ice for 20,000 years. “I get writer’s block if I’m not wearing a flak jacket,” she says of her love of danger zones.

Christopher Meloni‘s Colonel Hardy tried to keep her from the site, because he’s military, but she knows the score. “If we’re done measuring dicks…” she says, to bat away their contentions. Lois follows Clark into the ancient ship. She accompanies Hardy on the plane delivering the hyperdrive bomb. She goes into space with Faora. Nothing scares her.

Crowe is effective as Jor-El, ill fated lead Kryptonin scientist. He is solemn and strong, even as a hologram. My favorite part with Crowe is when he’s on Zod’s ship helping Lois escape. He starts flicking his fingers to open doors. I liked it, and I imagine Crowe doing just that in his house.

Diane Lane plays Martha Kent. Costner hogs the flashback scenes, but after his death Lane gets the screen time. Although, she’s there at school when Clark, overwhelmed by his powers, locks himself in a closet. “The world’s too big, Mom,” Clark says. “Pretend it’s an island in the ocean,” she says. Clark instantly takes this advice and never looks back, only through, people, and walls, and whatever else he wants.

Lane really shines outside her house. Clark comes home after his encounter with Jor-El in the Krypton outpost ship. He’s happy. He found his parents. Her look mixes joy with loss. Clark has finally answered a question he, and she, have asked for decades. But the answer means she can no longer claim him, fully, as her son.

Costner has made a career of acting firm but fair. He’s hard when he has to be, soft when he needs to be. In the flashbacks Clark struggles with his powers. His talks with Pops nearly make the story into an allegory about a boy’s struggles with puberty. What are these changes I’m going through, Dad? You have to choose to be the man you want to be.

It never quite gets there. Jonathan Kent advises Clark again and again to keep his powers in check, that the world can’t handle it, but it will learn the truth about him. He knew the world would never be ready for Superman, but he had to ensure that Superman was ready for the world.

Henchmen (7/8)

Zod has a few friends with him. There’s a doctor onboard who sounds much like a German doctor, and that always screams “Nazi” to me. I’m sorry Germany, but you’ve still got a ways to go before living that down.

Faora-Ul (Antje Traue) gets the most action and lines in Man of Steel. For the first 90 minutes she seems to function as Zod’s id, eager to unleash herself against Zod’s foes. She does not have the hampering connection Zod had to Jor-El.

Faora glowers a lot, until she gets her chance to fight Krypton’s last womb-born child. She shows up on Smallville’s main street with a tall friend to fight Superman. She is every bit his tactical equal. Faora tosses Superman like a rag doll, repelling his punches with ease.

“You are weak, son of El,” she taunts him. Faora believes she is without morality, and that evolution has bred morals from her, Zod, and her brethren. “Evolution always wins.” Faora never struggles against Superman, until her mask breaks, exposing her to the Earth’s atmosphere, for which she isn’t ready.

Her empathy is shown with her final line to Superman. “For every one you save, we will kill a million more.”

Stunts (1/6)

Superman and the other Kryptonians are like gods on Earth. Their fighting is basically flying into the other guy and throwing ’em a thousand miles or into space or whatever.

Faora and Superman fight in Kansas. They display their powers. The fight is creative in that it takes place across the whole town. Faora taunts Superman inside an IHOP. She starts a sentence about evolution, and then throws him across town into a bank vault. She’s there the next moment to finish the sentence.

Zod and Superman fly around each other, wailing away. They crush buildings and throw satellites at each other. All of these actions are effects, not stunts, and diminish the film.

Climax (2/6)

The DARPA scientist figures out much of the things necessary to destroy Zod and his crew. He’s aboard the the C-117 flying toward Zod’s ship hovering above Metropolis, onto which they will drop Kal-El’s space pod/Moses-like reed basket. The two hyperdrives will collide to create a singularity.

No one questions this. Will there be enough energy to create the singularity? Will it run out of control? Who can say? No one in this movie does.

Zod’s got Jor-El’s scout ship, and when he fires on the C-117 he misses, because Superman has crashed through it. Superman and Zod face each other inside the ship. Zod tells Superman, as the latter warms up the laser eyes, that if he destroys the ship, he destroys Krypton.

This statement, given with the most heart of any by Zod in the movie, gives Superman pause. Remember, Jor-El told his son that he was to be the bridge between Krypton and Earth.

Superman says, “Krypton had its chance,” and he lasers the ship in two, sending it to the ashen Metropolis below.

Up in the C-117, Faora finds a chance to finish the humans. She boards the plane and fights some green soldiers. Hardy is there, watching, and he just runs. He’s seen this before.

Faora dispatches a few guys before she joins Hardy in the cockpit. The colonel faces her and says, “A good death is its own reward.” Faora looks like she might disagree as Hardy dips the cargo plane into Zod’s interstellar ship, triggering the singularity. At least part of the plan worked.

Superman and Zod have to settle their score. Watching them fight is like watching a scene from the latest Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter game. They are worlds imagined for the characters only, and not as real worlds.

When Zod and Superman collide, they create sonic booms. Buildings are destroyed left and right, high and low, even ones not yet finished. People surely die, but we never see them. (We also assume that many buildings are empty, as we see the two men fight inside one that is empty.)

Only when they end up in the train station do we see actual humans in danger. Superman gets Zod in a headlock. Zod gets his laser eyes going, and he slowly, slowly points the beams toward a family of four sort of trapped in a corner.

The beam speed reminded me of the steamroller joke from the original Austin Powers, when the guard stands in front of one for several seconds screaming at it, and, despite its achingly slow speed, he never gets out of the way.

Superman begs Zod to stop. Zod chokes out, “Never.” Superman snaps his neck. To Zod’s vertebrae Superman could have said, “Consider that your severance package.” He didn’t.

Instead Superman falls to his knees and lets out a barbaric yawp. Perhaps he has just realized that he truly is the last Kryptonian alive.

The end of Man of Steel failed to raise the stakes. The dull final battle setting made them seem to fight, not in a major American city, but in a level of Sim City.

Jokes (0/4)

You know a movie is super-serious when, at any time, some uniformed grunt or all-the-stars general demands a “sit rep.” General Swanwick does that, so we know where we stand.

Because Man of Steel is SO SERIOUS, its few jokes stand out. Superman and Zod fight on a skyscraper under construction. Zod throws Superman into one of those workplace signs that says “106 days since last accident” or something like that. Superman knocks off the “1” and the “6.”

Blink and you might miss it. It’s perhaps the only moment of subtlety in Man of Steel. But at least we’re afforded a good joke at movie’s end. Clark Kent, newly hired reporter for the Daily Planet. He’s introduced to Lois Lane, and she says, “Welcome to the Planet.” That, kids, is a (clean) double entendre.

I’ll throw out the sound gag when Lois almost dubs Kal-El “Superman,” but the crackle of a microphone interrupts them. Ha HA indeed.

Setting (1/4)

KryptonMan of Steel kicks off on Krypton, a world literally exploding. And who would want to live there? The place is as dull and dreary as a bat cave. Everyone seems to wear grey, sometimes tinged with gold.

Perhaps Krypton’s saving grace are its cool animals. Jor-El flies around on four-winged bulbous creature, and we glimpse their elephant equivalent. These creatures help us identify Krypton as an alien world, because the anthropomorphic beings are as human as can be.

Metropolis: The home of Clark Kent-as-Superman gets little attention in Man of Steel, except as a venue for destruction. Superman and Zod, during their climactic fight, initially engage on a perfectly flat, dusty plane encircled by rubble.

The fight zone resembles the worlds built by video game designers about 10 years ago. In other words, they don’t at all resemble the real world and are clearly made for the characters to destroy them.

SmallvilleMan of Steel is an origin story. Thus we get scenes in Smallville, Kansas. Superman’s creators grounded him in Kansas because images of America: corn fields, pickup trucks, precocious white people (certainly true in the 1930s if not still true today), are no more so than images of Kansas.

There are a lot of flashbacks to Clark’s childhood and scenes of Kansas today. Corn’s everywhere. We grow a ton of corn in America. Actually 400 million tons, but you get it. Clark’s childhood shows him saving a yellow school bus, another classic American symbol.

The filmmakers wisely embedded further American icons in downtown Smallville during the Superman-Faora fight scene. As mentioned earlier, we see 7-Eleven, Sears, a Main Street, and IHOP, the latter being “International” in name only, as it’s headquartered in Glendale, California.

One shot even shows a giant, building-side mural of the Stars and Stripes. Zod cares nothing about “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” and Superman might not either, but American viewers surely do, and the filmmakers know it. Smallville was as real as Metropolis was aseptic.

Commentary (1/2)

At play in Man of Steel are two warring paternal views of Kal-El’s future. Jonathan Kent raises Clark to hold back. He knows exactly how powerful Clark is, and he knows exactly how the world will think of him. When they find out what Clark can do, “It’s going to change everything,” the elder Kent says.

Jonathan Kent knows that “people are afraid of what they don’t understand.” Clark is “the answer to ‘Are we alone in the universe?'” (Did he include Clark in that “we?”) He believes that the world is not ready for Superman.

Contrast this to Jor-El. He tells his son that they sent him to Earth to be a bridge between Krypton and Earth. He also knows that Kal will “be a god to them.” Jor-El’s hologram later tells Kal, “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive toward.”

Both fathers are right. I think Superman took the wrong lesson from Man of Steel‘s most powerful scene. When a tornado swirls in the Kansas countryside, the family is in jeopardy, as are the other people in cars at a standstill.

Dad tells son to get Mom to safety, but they forget the dog in the truck. Dad goes back. We are all confused as to why Dad ordered Clark to stay away instead of rescuing the dog. Dad gets stuck in the truck, frees himself, but hobbles. He won’t make it. The tornado is coming.

This is the moment. Clark makes a move toward Dad. Dad, with a slight smirk, holds up a hand, keeping his son away, ensuring his death. Now remember, Clark is narrating this story to Lois, and he tells her that he believes his father gave his life at that moment because he did not think the world was ready for Superman.

He took away the entirely wrong lesson. Jonathan Kent wasn’t afraid out there, the freight train storm bearing down on him. He knew Clark could save him, probably knew he could do it without using superpowers. Despite that, he died to show Clark that he couldn’t save everyone.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Thousands of people die in the climactic duel between Superman and Zod. The movie makes no mention of this, leaving viewers to wonder what producers were thinking. They were thinking, “Hey, we can get another movie out of this,” and thus was Batman v Superman born.

I don’t think a movie can be saved by its sequel. What happens in the movie must answer for itself. However, not addressing the deaths of people never seen is not necessarily a fair critique.


  • Great music from Hans Zimmer, my favorite movie composer. (John Williams is obviously more iconic–maybe THE icon–but I prefer Zimmer in toto.)
  • Lois gives her story to the conspiracy theorist guy. His name is Woodbern.

Summary (36/68): 53%

Man of Steel is really long. This movie is packed with stars and locations, but still keeps its world surrounding its titular character. Cavill is a man with the chops and the bod to play Superman in the new century.