Has Superman as a character become so passé his name can’t even be used in a movie title? Perhaps the people behind Man of Steel didn’t want to remind audiences of Superman Returns, which was in theaters only seven years ago and has no relation to this theatrical reboot of the legendary comic book character. In these times of political unrest and disenchantment, maybe a character that fights for “truth, justice and the American way” is a tough sell. Back in 2006, Superman Returns cut “the American way” from the famous line, substituting “all that stuff” in its place. This time around the man of steel eschews the entire mantra in favor of personal self-discovery. Maybe it’s this lack of a central focus that resulted in the disappointment Man of Steel turned out to be.
The film actually gets off to a good start. All of the scenes on Superman’s home planet of Krypton are filled with drama and excitement. Krypton itself is an inventive combination of ancient Greece and fantastic futuristic technology. Citizens zip around on giant flying bugs, though there are also mechanical flying transports. All Kryptonians are genetically programmed to serve a particular function in society. Some are bred to be soldiers, some scientists, some teachers, and so on. Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a scientist who thinks the Kryptonians deserve more than a predetermined lot in life, decides—along with his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer)—to have a natural-born child with no genetic programming. It’s all very interesting but unfortunately Krypton is not the story. As we all know from comic book legend, Krypton is doomed and Jor-El’s infant son, Kal-El, is sent to Earth as the only free survivor of Krypton.
In this film, Kal-El’s Earth story is not all that compelling. He’s adopted by Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan (Kevin Costner) Kent, who rename him Clark. Clark knows he’s an outcast and Jonathan enforces this by forcing Clark to hide his super-human abilities “until the time is right.” Of course, Jonathan has no idea when this right time will present itself and therefore Clark (Henry Cavill) wanders around depressed as he suppresses his true identity. He is unable to form any kind of meaningful relationships, find a career, or basically do anything with his life. There are some cool flashbacks as young Clark deals with his developing powers, such as x-ray vision that shows him more than anyone would ever want to see. But most of the time we just see an adult Clark wandering from town to town, leaving each place as soon as there is any hint that he is not just an ordinary guy.
Cavill does a decent job playing the morose Clark Kent, but he isn’t given the opportunity to create a very distinctive character. He is not attempting to live any kind of dual life, one as a superhero and one as a regular guy, because he doesn’t get to be a superhero for most of the movie. When Superman’s time finally comes, there is no moment of epiphany where he realizes his life has a purpose. Instead he is forced into a situation where the very existence of Earth hangs in the balance. It doesn’t seem like the moment his dad had spoken about, but a cataclysmic event that left only one choice.
General Zod, (Michael Shannon) another Kryptonian survivor (imprisoned before the planet exploded, which actually freed him), has tracked Kal-El down and plans to use his genetic code to turn Earth into a new Krypton. Finally we have Superman in action, but instead of further character development we get a bombastic battle that dominates the last act of the film. There is no time to see Superman as a superhero in the greater scheme of things. He just partakes in this battle with Zod that seems to last forever and that’s about it. It’s not very interesting.
Have I mentioned that Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is in this movie? No, I haven’t because her character serves almost no purpose. Lois stumbles onto the mysterious Clark Kent and decides to investigate, but it doesn’t lead to anything other than a preposterous meeting with Zod and an even more preposterous encounter with a holographic projection of Jor-El.
The Blu-ray itself is everything one could want in a high-definition viewing experience. Even without being the most colorful movie, the earth-tones of Krypton and cold grays and blues of Metropolis look rich in this transfer. Fine detail is most obvious during the non-special effects sequences, for example when seeing the actors’ faces close up. The audio is an even better presentation. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is highly active, with no shortage of business in all channels. When Superman and Zod duke it out, the impact of their blows is really felt due to the powerful subwoofer response.
The two-disc Blu-ray set is pretty well packed with special features. The main one is on disc two, “Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel,” though the extra material is exclusively embedded in an alternate presentation of the movie itself. Basically, it combines commentary with picture-in-picture material and additional footage that interrupts the movie in order to play separately. It sounds clunkier than it is. If you’ve got three hours, this “Journey” offers all kinds of interesting tidbits, with most of the main cast and filmmakers contributing.
Also on disc two is the faux-documentary “Planet Krypton,” which tells the planet’s story in a way you would see on the History or National Geographic Channel. It’s so straight-faced and convincingly assembled that it’s fun to watch. Disc one has the more traditional featurettes, including two 25-minute docs: “Strong Characters, Legendary Roles” and “All Out Action.” A six-minute short zeros in on the effects that allowed Krypton to be realistically depicted (and destroyed), “Krypton Decoded.” There’s also an entertaining animated short using John Williams’ score, showing the different looks Superman has had over the decades. And for some reason there’s a Hobbit-related featurette here, “New Zealand: Home to Middle Earth,” cross-marketing at its best, I guess.
The end result of Man of Steel is that the pieces don’t add up to an interesting story even when the ideas are good. In fact, it is a fairly standard alien invasion film where Earthlings need to fight off the aliens to save the planet (with help from a virtuous alien, in this case). There isn’t anything distinctively “Superman” about it, aside for the opening scenes on Krypton. Man of Steel is a Superman movie that was afraid to really be about Superman.