Man of Steel may not measure up to the classic 1978 Superman, but it’s a refreshingly grownup film in a sea of the summer sillies. Here’s why it easily tops Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Oblivion, After Earth and the rest of the blockbuster slate so far.
1. It’s a classic story told seriously, with no goofy elements.
If comic-book movies run from Batman & Robin on one side to The Dark Knight on the other, Man of Steel, which essentially begins like Superman and morphs into Superman II, is much closer to the psychological and foreboding end of the spectrum than the campy and ridiculous one. The Christ-like story of a godlike man sent to Earth as our savior is dressed up with impressive special effects on Krypton (where Kal-El’s father Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, sends him to Earth as the planet expires beneath him) and again on this planet, where Superman moves with bullet-like speed in visceral, believable scenes shot like those in the found-footage film Chronicle. There are hardly any jokes in the film, and that’s a good thing.
2. Some weaker elements of the story have been fixed.
Superman’s uniform, which is made of a blue so dark it’s almost black, ditches the underwear worn over the tights. Zod (Michael Shannon, wearing a Ceasar cut) is not just searching for revenge against Jor-El for sentencing him to exile but also has a plan to recreate Krypton on Earth — meaning Earthlings will have to yield to the new master race.
Zod’s explanation of this plan to Superman (Britain’s Henry Cavill) is illustrated with a weird and frightening image that is typical of the film’s understated yet powerful dramatics. Also, Kryptonite doesn’t figure in this story (explain to me again why a rock from his own planet would sicken Superman?), but instead Superman is adapted to Earth’s atmospheric pressure and can’t handle the Krypton-like atmosphere on Zod’s space ship. Also the rearrangement of the timeline to move back Clark Kent’s gig at the Daily Planet is a clever idea.
3. The action scenes pack a wallop.
Director Zack Snyder, who did the strange bomb Sucker Punch as well as 300 and Watchmen, keeps you waiting for a long time before the inevitable fight scenes, but when he does he gets you wrapped up in the booming destruction with an intense, chaotic documentary-like style reminiscent of images on news channels or “Storm Chasers” rather than dumb set pieces like the ones in Iron Man 3.
The majority of the movie is shot with hand-held cameras, aka shaky cams, which can be abused and frequently are, but Snyder makes you feel the speed and the force when Superman and his tormentors from Krypton duke it out in Smallville, Kansas. Moving the action to a dusty cow town from the usual glamor spots like New York and L.A. also helps to refresh the comic-book formula and enhances the all-American roots of Superman.
4. Henry Cavill is better than Brandon Routh.
Okay, that’s not saying much, but Amy Adams is better than Kate Bosworth. Okay, that’s not saying anything. The two leads don’t have a great deal of romantic chemistry, but they work fine together and Cavill does show some heart in his scenes with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane who play Clark Kent’s parents. Man of Steel would be good enough to make you forget all about Superman Returns, if you hadn’t forgotten it already.
5. It’s dark enough.
Watchmen might have been the darkest superhero movie ever made, but audiences were repelled by it. Man of Steel, while it lacks the sense of history or political allegory that gave the Dark Knight films such a strong foundation, is adequately broody and soul-searching. In this retelling, Clark Kent spends his youth fleeing one place after another because he keeps getting labeled a freak, but he can’t come right out and be an American hero because his (overly) cautious father advises him that the world won’t be able to handle his gifts and what he means. That kind of internal struggle makes for a compelling and relatable character, even if Cavill is not the stone-cold charmer Christopher Reeve was.