I’m not a fan of Superman. I became a comic fan while Superman was dead. That should tell you something. A hero who can not be harmed and cannot be tempted by very definition has no appeal to me. In fact, everything I've witnessed with Superman, barring special events in which he fights other Kryptonians, there is only one reason this is even a series: Lois Lane's tendency to get herself captured. Silly Lois, don’t you know only Superman should investigate things? A silly girl such as yourself could get hurt, don’t you know?
Believe me, I’m going somewhere with this.
The movie begins on Krypton, where Scientist Jor-El is trying to convince the government that the planet is imploding as a result of harvesting materials from the core of the planet. No, correct that. He’s lecturing them for doing so, and they don’t disagree with his conclusions at all. The response of the leaders of this technological paradise is “Well what were we supposed to do about it?”
From there, Jor-El has conflict with the militant Zod. Zod was an occasional villain of Superman’s in the Silver Age. Actually, he can be compared to Green Lantern’s arch-rival Sinestro. Both of these two villains debuted in 1961 and had a fairly equivalent number of appearances in their first two and a half decades. The difference is, Sinestro continued on in Crisis on Infinite Earths and later events, coming to be one of the premiere villains of the DC universe, while Zod was banished from the new direction Superman took after Crisis. In the 1990s he became a little more obscure, appearing only via imitations and alternate universe counterparts, much in the way Supergirl was killed off and replaced with Earth-2’s Power Girl. In 2006, Zod returned to comics, making a brand new impressions on fans that had probably never heard of the name.
My editor at this point is telling me that Zod featured heavily in Superman films of the 1970s and ‘80s, and has since become a common name. Now, he’s hurting me, punishing me for not having seen these films.
Watching this film, I find it hard to believe that Zod’s appearance is anything less than a reference to the villain’s popularity strictly from the previous films, which is a bad place to start. Otherwise, Luthor or even Brainiac would be a great villain for a film, something that could really be given a modern spin as well as giving Superman a chance to be Earth’s hero. Instead, we get the villain from the earlier Superman films, tied inexplicably in with the titular character’s birth as Kal-El. If the scene I described earlier doesn’t show that the Council is irredeemably stupid, holding the knowledge that Krypton is doomed and the entire civilization is going to die, they decide to punish Zod’s rebels by exiling them. Off-planet. In another dimension. So that all of the rebels live, and the law-abiding citizens die. Krypton is less a tale of over-complacency and too much thirst for technology than it is the lifetime winner of the Darwin Award, isn’t it?
From there we get a standard superhero origin, with some changes. All of the morals and things that are usually added, not for the sake of story but out of some sort of obligation, are left out of here. Saving people just comes naturally to Superman, and he starts doing it offscreen. The only parts of the origin that we see are the ones that are relevant to the conflict between Superman and Zod - his Kryptonian origins, the way he overcame the sensory overload, and similar topics. A version of the Fortress of Solitude is somewhat referenced, somewhat explained, and then pushed aside for things that are relevant to the plot.
But there’s another element that’s always an important part of the origin: the love interest. Mary Jane Watson, Pepper Potts, Carol Ferris. Actually, the last one is closer to the mark. Both Carol and Lois, in previous incarnations, made up for their frequent Damsel-in-Distress-ism by being cut-throat businesswomen. This doesn’t entirely excuse their roles, in my opinion, but at least some of the times Superman saves Lois, it’s because she’s in a role where any man or woman would have been murdered by the villains of the story and Lois is just that focused on putting her job before her welfare. Like Green Lantern, Man of Steel saps these harder, less immediately likable aspects from the character, making her nicer and more supportive and...not Carol Ferris, and not Lois Lane. I could call her LINO, but I think that was beat into the ground with Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. In any case, everything that stood about this character, that made her so enjoyable to watch on the rare occasion I watched Superman the Animated Series is gone.
It’s not just the separation of this character from the classical one, or the fact that they included a meeker, less intimidating woman as a character in the film. It’s the variety we get, and the fact that Warner Brothers has now intentionally taken two strong leaders who don’t take crap while still not needing to be the superhero themselves and replacing them with women who might not necessarily lie down and give in to pressure, but exist entirely for the purpose of supporting the male characters and making them feel in control. I praised Pepper Potts because, despite existing in a role that might be difficult for the viewer to internalize, she embodied ideas that you rarely see in cinematic women. Carol and Lois embody many of those same ideas and mentalities (minus the “silly woman” thing I talked about earlier) in progressively more relatable packages, yet either Warner Brothers as a whole or directors Martin Campbell and Zach Snyder making individual choices felt that these characters were too intimidating and had to be softened into a role of pure support, preventing them from being characters that can act (or even exist as independent characters) on their own. David Goyer’s scripts aren’t traditionally any better, but there was enough wiggle room in Man of Steel’s script for Dana Delany’s Lois to rear her head.
The rest of the film is essentially visual magnificence. This is something that the generation of superhero films starting in 1999 (although arguably we’re in a new generation that began in 2008) has excelled in. This film, with a visual range from red to black, to grey, to blue, has a better range than many and as a result comes off stronger. Until the 3D kicks in.
I watched this film in 2D, and it was pretty obvious where 3D was intended to be a major selling point of a scene. That’s one problem with big budget releases this year; they often seem to rely entirely on the 3D gimmick. Few films are actually filmed in stereo, even in post-Avatar days, but all of them are filmed with 3D in mind, it seems. At times, Man of Steel gets to the point where it feels claustrophobic without 3D glasses, where everybody seems to be standing shoulder to shoulder, with the understanding that the 3D will add some depth to the room to keep it from feeling like everybody is standing in a narrow hallway.
The end result is that Man of Steel is your standard superhero film. It features a workable origin, a workable conflict, and workable characters, without bringing anything spectacular to the table that makes it stand out among the crowd. It looks good, but is dragged down by its reliance on 3D. The characters have layers worth seeing and discussing (an argument can be made for Zod being merely a product of his society, and everybody has difficult decisions to make), but this is ultimately hurt by an outdated mentality of fearing a woman with some independence. Man of Steel is a Superman reboot made in 2013, and is no more or less than that would lead you to expect.