After the usher rips your ticket for Man of Steel, there's one essential thing you must do before entering the theater: forget everything you know about Superman. Ok, maybe not everything; he's still that bullet-proof, muscle bound, heat-vision emitting champion of good from planet Krypton, but the atmosphere, tempo, and tone of the world he inhabits is drastically different here. In a word, he's been Batman-ified; he's as serious as a heart attack. And it makes sense. After all, the project was produced by none other than Christopher Nolan himself, with a script penned by David S. Goyer, the often (but not always) amazing scribe of Nolan's Dark-Knight trilogy.
So does the mega-heavy makeover work in its favor? Definitely! Are there downsides as well? You betcha! So let's talk about all that is awesome with Man of Steel first. Right off the bat, relative newcomer Henry Cavill is a total upgrade from the last man to don the red cape, Brandon Routh (then again, a ferret in tights probably would have been an upgrade too). Next up, the movie is like candy to the eyes. The production design and special effects are so relentlessly cool that you can almost find yourself trailing off from the story because you're too busy ogling it all. Also, in terms of the action, it's straight up nuts. There are fight scenes in this movie that make the brawls between Thor and the Hulk in The Avengers look like a game of footsie. And finally, veteran character actor Michael Shannon (aka, the most intense man in the universe) turns in a movie stealing performance as the power-mad General Zod. If it were any other year, he'd receive the Best Villain of the Summer award, but this year, he had Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness to contend with, so Shannon is a very close runner-up.
And the downsides? Well, in all honesty, there's only one that springs to mind, but it's glaring and massive. Man of Steel is utterly humorless, to the point where it takes literally an entire hour before Superman even cracks half a smile. That's no fault of Cavill's, he makes the most of what he has, but the wonderful (and methinks) essential Superman-charm of old is nowhere to be found inside Goyer's script and Zack Snyder's direction. This approach works great in the Dark Knight series, but only because the character and world of Batman lends itself to that wall-to-wall bleak approach.
As for what you can expect story wise, it does pick bits and parts wisely from the first two (and best two) Superman films, and throws in a great deal of it's own for good measure. It's far more concerned with Superman's journey from childhood to adulthood, and relates these elements of the story in a cleverly placed series of flashbacks. It's through these flashbacks that we get to see some of the most moving sequences of the film, like a young Clark Kent saving a busload of his drowning school mates from certain death. Although it doesn't take directly from the Superman inspired series Smallville, we get to see some of the life defining moments the show gave us; like when Clark's adopted father (played here with heart by Kevin Costner) reveals to Clark that he's not of this world.
Once Kent truly becomes Superman, not a second later Zod and his murderous minions appear and that's when the action really kicks into high gear, and the final forty-five minutes are filled with more deafening crashes, explosions and high-velocity punches than just about any film you've ever seen. The result is exciting, but does it really distinguish itself from most big budget action films? You'll have to decide what you think for yourself. For me, the total lack of humor and tongue in cheek charm was a bit of wet blanket. I found myself thinking, this is a pretty good movie, but not necessarily a great Superman movie.
About fifteen years ago, I was lucky enough to see Superman II on the big screen. In the middle of the film, a pudgy-cheeked little kid in overalls, who couldn't have been older than five, stood up from his chair, extended his fists forward and started running back and forth through the aisles as though he were flying. It was super disruptive, but it was also awesome. The crowd burst out in hysterical laughter and I felt lucky just to be a witness to it. Here was this child who was so bowled over by the spirit of Superman that he couldn't contain himself, the movie gave him no choice, he just HAD to get up and fly. I really doubt that same kid would have that inclination today. He'd be dazzled by the effects, wowed by the intensity of the fights, and he might even curl up and cry at the sight of Shannon's General Zod, but there's no way he'd fly across those ailes.
So overall, Man of Steel is a bit of a mixed bag. As spectacle, it's top notch, and with a supporting cast featuring the likes of Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, and Russell Crowe (here as Superman's father), you really can't go wrong. In fact, those who've always found Superman too tame for their taste might find Man of Steel a remarkable improvement. There's no doubt you will be entertained, but just don't go in with the expectation that you're going to see the same Superman who led you to tie a sheet around your neck and zoom across your living room as a youngster.
What did you think of Man of Steel? Will you see it if you haven't yet?