Man of Steel – my long, intensely spoiler heavy review

June 15, 2013 § 8 Comments

I went into Man of Steel wanting to love it so badly that it actively hurt me a little. I was tense. And for almost all of the film’s run time, I did.

That’s not a small achievement – I’ve been burned on Superman movies before. After Superman II, it felt like Hollywood just completely lost touch with the character. And while Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns wasn’t terrible, making it a kind of sequel to Superman II and casting Brandon Routh to essentially be Christopher Reeve was a mistake that couldn’t be recovered from. For the past few years I’ve had to take solace in animated films because while Marvel has absolutely dominated cinematic offerings, DC has built up a pretty solid animated wing. But with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy redefining the Caped Crusader for modern audiences, it was inevitable that he’d get the chance to do a Superman movie. And make no mistake – Zach Snyder directed Man of Steel, and his influence is felt, but the film is a Nolan movie. Bringing Goyer (the writer or co-writer of the Batman trilogy) in is a statement that this film, directed by Snyder or not, is of a piece with Nolan’s previous offerings.

And if there’s one thing Christopher Nolan loves to do, it’s wring you out. I walked out of The Dark Knight feeling like a sponge that had been squeezed for two hours. Man of Steel takes that, adds in a script that uses flashback liberally to set mood and tone, and gives us a Superman for the modern age – a Superman that incorporates elements of every single Superman who has gone before. There’s some of the original Superman’s humor and one particular scene that calls back to how the Superman of the late 30’s could be a bit capricious, there are elements of the Weisinger era (played way down, but you can’t have a Krypton with weird beasties and aerial cities and not nod at Mort Weisinger) and the late silver age, then what is today called the bronze age (when I was a kid we just called it comics) including themes and motifs that come from Byrne, from Waid, from Morrison and even Moore. And in that combination Nolan finds a way to absolutely reach into the heart of a long time Superman fan and twist.

From here on out, I am going with spoilers. You’ve been warned.See, I was fourteen or fifteen when John Byrne took over as the writer/artist on a revamped, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman comic. And I’ll never forget his time on the comic.

He threw out too much stuff I loved for me to forget it. He got rid of the Weisinger Krypton, rendering it a cold and sterile machine world where all Kryptonians were born in pods, created via eugenic selection and extracted DNA – Kryptonians never mated, never even touched each other (in one scene, Lara, Kal-El’s genetic mother sees a scene of humans working on a farm and recoils in horror at the idea of touching dirt or exposing your skin to the air) and so their world had become a sterile one where new births were only initiated to maintain a steady population rate. Krypton’s death wasn’t tragic, it was a mercy killing. Byrne got rid of Superboy (which caused huge problems for the publisher as a whole later on) and stripped down just about everything he got his hand son – Superman’s powers, his villains, everything got modernized and in some cases shrunk down in scope, in scale, in a sense of wonder or grandeur. It’s the endless problem of Superman – balancing the character between being an almost fairy tale figure and keeping him relatable.

It’s been thirty years, and it’s time to accept the fact – Byrne’s legacy lives on in the modern interpretation of Superman as a character. Waid’s Birthright, which tried desperately to return silver age elements to the character, ends up as a refrain that recapitulates the basic structure of the Byrne Superman. Oddly enough, in constantly attempting over the years to bring those silver age elements back, authors like Waid or Busiek have essentially buttressed the Byrne version of the character, etching it into relief. And Man of Steel, named after the six issue limited series that launched the Byrne era, is as much inspired by Byrne’s run as Nolan’s Batman trilogy is inspired by Frank Miller’s legacy, good and bad. It would be a mistake to call this purely Byrne’s version – as I said, there are elements from the entire run of the character’s existence, and the Krypton we see on screen is a fusion of Weisinger’s and Byrne’s, with traces of the Busiek arc and the New Krypton style – but it’s time for me to get down to why Byrne’s influence is so important to this movie.

Superman kills General Zod in this film.


I admit it, when I saw this moment, it hurt me. I sat there in my seat as Zod insisted that either he would die, or Kal-El would, and his whole world with him, and I flashed back to the end of Byrne’s run and I knew. I knew what Nolan was going to do. And I seized up. You have to understand, if you’re a long term Superman fan you grew up with the Code Against Killing. Superman doesn’t kill. Superman doesn’t kill. It’s such an important taboo to the character that when Alan Moore had Superman kill Mister Mxyzptlk he does so because that act would be the end of Superman, and thus the only way his Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? could end. In essence, it was so crucial to the character that he not kill that killing would kill him. So, since he was effectively clearing house on the character anyway, Byrne decided to strike down even that. In his last storyline, Byrne had Superman face off against the classic Phantom Zone villains, including General Zod. (I could explain the whole pocket universe thing, but just trust me, it was complicated.) And at the end, Zod threatened to murder everyone in the world when he got out of the Phantom Zone. He mocked Superman, saying that he’d get free, and he’d go to his world and kill everyone on it. He’d already killed an entire world full of people, what’s one more?

And so Superman executed him. This is the end of Byrne’s run on the character (I covered the effect it had on the character in this essay a few years back) and it was, and remains, a hugely controversial decision. To be fair, Goyer’s script gives a much more clear cut reason – in the movie, there’s no phantom zone projector to use to send Zod back, the other kryptonians having been sent with the destruction of Superman’s pod and their own ship’s phantom zone engine. Zod is threatening not only to kill Superman and everyone on Earth, he’s directly using his heat vision to threaten to murder local civilians and Superman had no real way to confine or hold Zod – there’s no Kryptonite in this story, and the only means to weaken a Kryptonian, exposure to his native environment (removing his powers) has been destroyed along with Zod’s ship. In essence, there is no way to stop Zod but to kill him. In the comics, Superman kills Zod because he fears what he might do, based on what he’s already done. It’s an execution. In the movie, Superman kills Zod because he can’t stop him any other way – it’s suicide by cop, as an enraged Zod sees his failure to transform Earth into a new Krypton (wiping out humanity in the process) as a failure of his life’s entire purpose. If Zod can’t make a new Krypton on the ashes of the Earth, he’d rather die.

I won’t lie. I have been thinking about this moment non-stop since I saw it. It hurt when I saw it. It took a movie I was enjoying, reveling in like a child on Christmas morning, and slammed the brakes so hard that I went through the windshield and into a wall. I remember sitting there muttering ‘no no no no no no no’ before that moment where Superman snaps Zod’s neck. I can still remember that feeling of shock, of disbelief, on seeing it happen. And when Henry Cavill’s Superman wails in shock and horror at what he’s just done, I sat there and stared in shock and horror myself.

Superman doesn’t kill.

Except that’s not really true, is it? The end of the Byrne run that begin in his Man of Steel is in death. Superman kills Zod. And I mentioned before that this movie takes from every era, and if you read the original comic book appearances of Superman, the character does things like crashes himself directly into aircraft with people in them, deliberately kills the Ultra-Humanite with a ray gun that Ultra was trying to use on him (Ultra doesn’t stay dead, but that’s hardly due to lack of effort on Superman’s part) – the Code Against Killing that feels so ingrained to the character was invented in the 50’s.

People are going to pin the decision to have Superman kill on Snyder, but I don’t think that’s fair. This feels like a Nolan move. This feels like how Nolan works, how he finds something central to the audience’s perception of a character and twists it, uses it to engage you on a deeper level. Can Superman be Superman if he kills? The title of the movie is to me a clue to where that element comes from. I’m still not decided on how this one moment affects the characterization or the film itself. It was powerful enough to almost stop my heart, metaphorically. It’s a gut check and one I’m not sure all fans of the character can accept – if your concept of Superman is purely the silver age, then no, you can’t. But I’m not sure mine is. So I’m sitting here, two days later, and I’m still wrestling with that moment and what it means, which frankly isn’t bad for a comic book movie. I sure as hell wasn’t wrestling with Avengers two days later. Iron Man 3? That movie was gone the day I saw it. This movie? This movie demands thought.

Superman doesn’t kill, except when he does.

Okay, so that’s where I am on that moment in time. It changes the tenor of the movie so completely that I can’t say if it elevates it or damages it – before that moment, though, I was basically loving the hell out of this movie. I loved weird alien Krypton with its weird alien animals and floating cities and bizarre technology. I loved Jor-El as a thinking action hero and Lara as the one who made the final decision on Kal’s fate. I liked how Shannon and Crowe played off of each other, and how you could feel that Shannon’s Dru-Zod actually desperately wanted Jor-El to side with him, how it cost him to lose that chance. The idea of Kal-El as the first natural birth in Krypton’s history and the last it would ever see was powerful. I’ve seen criticism of the Krypton scenes as being too science fiction, but frankly, Krypton has always been science fiction. My only lament was that it wasn’t even weirder. I would have loved to have seen some modernized version of a thought beast.

The film’s back and forth narrative, using flashbacks liberally, does a good job of setting up who Clark is and why he does what he does. Before the costume, he’s trapped between wanting to help and needing to keep his secret – the scenes with him as a child show the terror of a young boy who has no idea why he’s so different and gives a sense of the tension the Kents had to go through in teaching him how to be human. If I have one complaint about the film’s pacing, it’s that it can feel like an ever accelerating train rushing ever onward, ever faster – both Nolan and Snyder have a tendency to hate to let a film breathe and its really apparent here that we’re not going to get many moments to sit back and relax. The closest we get is during Lois’ search for the truth about the alien craft and her encounter with Clark, and I liked that she manages to find him all on her own – it’s a nice touch that this Lois just plain figures out who Clark Kent really is. She’s one of the world’s best reporters and we get to see that in how she alone tracks him down.

Cavill has a hell of a hard job here – he has to convey in turns vulnerability, confidence and even a little swagger at times. His Superman isn’t an aping of Christopher Reeve, and that’s an excellent thing – as much as I loved Reeve and his portrayal, it’s been over thirty years and its time to let it go. One scene in particular really did a lot to make me believe his version – when he finds Lois at his father’s grave and they talk about why he hides who he is, and we find out how Jonathan Kent died. It’s a good scene and one that works both in terms of why Lois would agree to hide his secret and in terms of why he’d be willing to go through such lengths to hide it himself. It also goes a long way to redeem Costner’s Jonathan Kent – I was livid at the idea of a Jonathan Kent who’d tell Clark he might have been better to let people die, but seeing him die to preserve his son’s secret cemented how important he thought that secret was to keep, and seeing Clark, his heart breaking but having to honor his father and prove that he is his father by allowing his death did more to show the limits of a Superman than ten speeches could have. Sometimes we can do something, but shouldn’t.  Michael Shannon’s Dru-Zod is a hard man, certainly not evil by his own lights, someone born and bred to a role that no longer exists who can’t let go of what he believes to be his duty. The hints of a friendship between his Zod and Crowe’s Jor-El are very well handled, but in the end I think Shannon may lean too much on his character’s anger and not enough on his love for his people. Still, it was nice to see that while he was willing to kill Kal-El, he didn’t immediately leap to that, trying instead to recruit him. I think it’s kind of telling that Zod never even offered to spare Earth if he got the Codex. Humans simply didn’t even matter to him, they weren’t even worthy of not stepping on.

There are some flaws overall – that unrelenting pace, for instance, just won’t let any ideas breathe, and the end fight sequences are extremely heavy on the property damage. It gets distracting to keep wondering if anyone could possibly have survived in Metropolis. Clearly the end of the film implies that the Daily Planet building did – I have to wonder how. Its too bad, because the fight scenes themselves are amazing. The initial fight in Smallville between Superman, Faora and another phantom zoner (they never name the second guy, he’s just a big dude, so I called him Non) is spectacular. It’s nice to see that while the other kryptonians are as strong as he is, they don’t have his control. I also really liked how, even though the actual item of kryptonite itself isn’t in the film, the motif is kept – being exposed to a kryptonian environment weakens Superman, makes him sick and costs him his powers which is a nice thematic touch – while the first half of the film sets up that Clark is different from us, the second half emphasizes that his strength comes from Earth, that he is at his heart a human being who chooses to protect us because he is, ultimately, a son of Earth. And so being exposed to Krypton, his birth planet, actually weakens him because it is the touch of the dead world trying to reach out of its grave. “Krypton had its chance!” It’s also telling that the other kryptonians can’t handle their powers without layers to protect them from Earth – stripped of their armor and naked to the world, it causes them pain. Only Zod manages to overcome this, and even then he only does so when he’s accepted his own death – Zod only becomes a match for Kal-El when he is embodying the dead world of Krypton and trying to rejoin it in death.

In the end, I find myself spending time thinking about this movie. Is it the greatest intellectual film ever made? Of course not, it’s a movie about flying space aliens punching each other and melting things with their eyes, come on. But it manages to combine spectacle and depth, it has solid to excellent acting, it manages to be a popcorn movie and have some substance at the same time. I can’t say I loved it, although that’s because it didn’t want me to love it – what it wanted from me, it got. I don’t have a star rating for you, or a number. I will say this – in a summer full of action and spectacle, with Iron Man and Star Trek, this is the first movie I’ve seen this summer that I felt anything about afterwards.

It’s a good movie. It’s a hard movie to take, in places. People you love die. People with good intentions do horrible things. Choices cost the people who make them. This is a Superman movie that asks you big questions, and doesn’t answer them for you. I spent yesterday in shock, to be honest, and I actually hated the movie, not like a bad piece of art (because it is anything but that) but rather like a person who had wounded me inside. It took me that long to think about it, to critically weigh the experience, and I’m still weighing it. It’s worth your time.

§ 8 Responses to Man of Steel – my long, intensely spoiler heavy review

  • joey says:

    great review, the scene when he kills zod is a “whoa what just happen moment” but I get it, this is not a cartoon where he is considered a “boy scout” this is like they said if this would happen in the real world choices and sacrifices must be made and him being superman he made the ultimate choice. the small relationship building with him and Lois I’m sure will be put in the next movie now that he works with her. great movie I wanna go see it again

  • Thanks for the link from WI for the full review. After reading your (relatively) short Twitter review I was hoping for more insight into your thoughts on the film. I definitly wanted to add my $0.02 so I apologize in advance for the length and rambling nature of my comments below.

    As I sent via Twitter, there were several, what I think are, purposeful punch-in-the-gut moments in the film, designed to evoke that feeling of shock even if you’re not exactly sure why. That visceral feeling of “holy crap”. Certainly when he kills Zod. That moment evoked audible gasps and exclamations in the theater that I watched the film. But also the one you point out as well, the heavy amount of property damage. It’s been more than 10 years since 9/11, but for many that are in their 20s and above seeing huge building tumble and crash to the ground, the plumes of debris clouds, people covered in white dust… while one may not recognize it consciously, it creates another of those visceral reactions. I think that’s all very purposeful. It heightens the feelings of peril and loss in what could have been a popcorn “kick his ass” fight, maybe without the viewer really consciously aware of why but coming out of it out of breath and emotionally spent. Comparing the fight to the Metropolis Zod/Superman fight where the greatest danger to the people there seemed to be being blown off your 80’s roller-skates.

    I think this is the “Batman Begins” for Superman. A rebirth of the character and who he is out of costume. You get much more of a sense in this movie that, unlike the comic in many ways, the real identity is not Superman with having to be disguised as Clark Kent. This was really a coming of age tale of Clark Kent choosing his destiny with his donning of the costume less about defining him than acknowledging his choice. I think that, more than anything, is why the title of the movie emphasizes the Man more than the super.


    Dave Wolff

  • Review Reply Addendum:

    I had a thought that got orphaned in the release of being able to share my thoughts on the film. I am thinking perhaps, having killed Zod, that this is Snyder/Nolans origin of “Superman’s Code Against Killing”. I’m not sure I would agree with the thought process, but I can certainly see the groundwork having been laid for it. Can it be argued that the man who has committed the horrible act may have a greater reason to never commit that act again than the man who has never felt the soul crushing pain it’s evident Clark feels after killing Zod? He has had to let his father die (killing him through lack of acting) and then killed Zod purposefully, even though he felt he had no choice. I can see that this may play into the upcoming movies as his motivation to never ever kill again either overtly or through inaction. To an audience used to anti heroes who kill and quip their way through a movie, this may provide the understanding of why Supes doesn’t just use his heat vision to lobotomize his enemies or punch them into the sun.

    Just a few more thoughts from a movie I enjoyed and still am working through. Maybe another viewing or two to help =) I loved all the little nods and winks throughout. As you said, a melding between the strange other-worldliness of the pre-Crisis Krypton and the sterile emotionless Bryne Krypton. Lana Lang. Pete Ross. The Lexcorp tanker truck. Jor-El’s tale of Krypton to Clark with the male and female Kryptonian holding up the baby pod (mirroring the statues of Jor-El and Lara holding up the globe of Krypton in the comics/cartoons). So many details along with those smile moments and the punch in the gut moments. I’m sure to pick up more on further viewing!

    Dave Wolff

  • Kevin says:

    Great review…and I am in the same boat with the killing of Zod (though admittedly, not quite as upset). I think that this could be the beginning of a new, modern Superman franchise, and I hope the movie is successful (it’s opening between other biggies, so there’s a chance of it having a less-than-desired showing at the box office). Cavill’s acting was good, and his facial expressions even better (his look of determination when flying up to blow up the terraforming machine was an awe-inspiring moment to me).

    I hope they do another Man of Steel movie, and I hope it stays “real” (not campy, like the Silver Age and the ’70s Reeves movies…that time is past). While I would like to see Luthor, I would also love to see Brainiac (perhaps the two teaming up, like in the past). I would like to see Darkseid, but I can appreciate saving him for a possibly JL movie.

    Again, great review -spot on in many cases. I, too, was a little disturbed by some parts, but overall I found it the best of the Superman movies since the original Reeves flick.

  • Tim Cotrell says:

    First of all loved your review/thoughts on Man of Steel. Second, it kinda bugged me you kept calling it a Nolan movie. Goyer and Nolan had writers block on the Dark Knight. They break for 2 weeks to come up with an ending. Instead Goyer comes back with an idea for Man of Steel. Nolan liked his idea, got a WB guy there, and they green lit the movie. I guess by calling it a Nolan film you mean his hands were all over it then, yeah, I agree. But Goyer not only scripted it, it was his idea, thus I’d call it a Goyer film directed beautifully by Snyder and Nolan had his hands all over it. Either way, I pretty much feel the same way you do about the movie.

  • Carcotas says:

    I know what the critics has said. They complained about too much action, superman being too serious, lack of romance, etc. Since Zack Snyder directed this movie, I don’t think he cared about the critics. Don’t get me wrong, he DOES care about the fans’ opinion. Seems like he really wanted to really satisfy the fans. I see why critics complained about too much action. For me it’s just his way to satisfy the viewers. This is the kind of movie that is just really satisfying. When the movie ended, I got that ‘satisfying’ feeling instead of the ‘wanting more’ feeling. It’s like it was really enough.

    Even Snyder’s best movies (before this) which were 300 & Watchmen didn’t have more ratings than 64% on Rotten Tomatoes. I think the fans should have anticipated the bad reviews. His style is actually what critics hate. The over the top action and CGI is actually his trademark. So, even from the beginning, I think this is actually the kind of movie the producers wanted. About the lack of romance, I really do think it’s saved for the sequel. The sequel will definitely explore more about the relationship between Clark and Lois. This film focused on 2 aspects: the origin (krypon,struggle finding his place) & the action (Zod and his army). Don’t expect humor or romance.

    The visuals were spectacular! What’s best about this movie is its action scenes. The action were just relentless. I think the fans would not be disappointed at all. Yes, I know there is only a very few humor this movie but that actually doesn’t even matter. The battle between Superman & Zod will definitely ‘wow’ everyone but the critics. I mean who cares about the critics opinion? A superhero movie MUST NOT be judged by the critics opinion, what’s more important is the audience’s opinion about the movie and especially the fans’. I think the movie really delivered. Most people will definitely like this movie. I am really sure that many fanboys will consider this as the best comic book of all time. This is a MUST SEE for people who like action movie. The action were better than last year’s The Avengers.

    The sequel really have a great potential. Considering the minimum amount of romance in this movie (since they just knew each other, and superman was also more focused on Zod), the next movie could explore more of that. One of the things missing from the movie was also the presence of Clark Kent at the daily planet. It’s one of the trade marks. But, I believe the sequel will show more scenes in the Daily Planet which is interesting to see.

    As a conclusion, I think Man of Steel is so far the best action movie this year. This movie really is a Snyder movie. But it also has a quite lot of nolan-esque feel to it especially in the around first 45 minutes.

    If this was compared to Iron man 3, if Iron man 3 was a 7, this movie is a 8.6.

    More about the movie you can also find it here

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