Man of Steel is a movie that gets as many things wrong as it does right, and as a result is both an exhilarating and frustrating experience. Meant as a reboot of the character after Bryan Singer’s lifeless, disappointing Superman Returns fizzled at the box office seven years earlier, the movie retells Kal-El’s (Henry Cavill) origin story one more time, from the destruction of Krypton to his childhood on Earth to his reluctant but eventual acceptance of his destiny as humanity’s protector when renegade Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) comes looking for a fight.
What makes Man of Steel different from 1978’s still-classic (and yet to be bettered) Superman is the movie’s tone and esthetic, which are dictated by David S. Goyer’s screenplay and the presence of producer Christopher Nolan (who also worked on the story with Goyer). Of course, these are the two men primarily responsible for the “dark, gritty and realistic” nature of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and they’ve imprinted that same worldview on Superman, with varying degrees of success.
After all, unlike Batman, you can only get so “realistic” and “gritty” with Superman. He’s an alien, for one thing, sent from a planet where the technology is virtually indistinguishable from magic. And while Superman has certainly had plenty of moments of doubt, indecision and suffering throughout his long comic book history, he’s simply not the tortured soul that Bruce Wayne has always been. While director Zack Snyder delivers on epic visuals and some superb superhero moments, the movie only infrequently captures the majesty, fun and awe of Superman the way that Richard Donner’s film (and, to a lesser extent, Superman II) did.
Henry Cavill fills the suit well but only intermittently projects the charisma and good-naturedness achieved so effortlessly by Reeve. Cavill’s Kal-El is another variation on the reluctant hero, in a mythos where reluctance has never really been part of the character before. Shannon is a formidable and more complex Zod than the cartoony Terence Stamp version of the earlier films, while Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner bring wisdom and compassion respectively to Kal’s two fathers, Jor-El and Jonathan Kent. Meanwhile, Amy Adams is confident and attractive, but neither conveys the pluckiness of Lois Lane nor generates real romantic heat with Cavill.
Snyder knows how to deliver on spectacle and imagery – and does well enough on character moments – and provides plenty of both in Man of Steel. A common complaint about Singer’s film was a lack of action; no such worries here. The final third of Man of Steel, if not more, is devoted to an almost non-stop battle between Kal (who is only called Superman once in the movie) and Zod’s refugees, all while Zod’s massive World Engine begins pulverizing Metropolis as part of the general’s plan to remake Earth in the image of Krypton. Fans who wanted for years to see Superman and an equally powerful foe punching each other across the sky and through buildings won’t be disappointed here, even though the battle eventually becomes exhausting.
While Man of Steel is entertaining and occasionally great – if fundamentally flawed – the film’s Blu-ray release is exceptional. The image is razor-sharp and incredibly detailed, despite some slightly off CG here and there (and there is a lot more CG in this film than you may initially think). Man of Steel has what seems to be a deliberately muted color scheme – ranging from the golden hues of Krypton to the grays of Metropolis during the final battle – but all the shades look rich and full despite not being the most eye-popping colors on the spectrum.
As for the sound, better buy yourself a piece of property far away from anyone else before even thinking about cranking up this baby. The DTS-HD 7.1 mix will knock you out of your shoes and chair as if you’ve been punched by Kal yourself, especially during that last act full of destruction and battle. The surround separation is excellent, and even the quieter moments in the film are distinguished by a constant stream of sonic activity, right down to the peaceful sounds of breeze and birds in the scenes set at the Kent farmhouse.
The bonus features fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to being impressive and comprehensive. Included on disc one with the film itself are five features. The 26-minute “Strong Characters, Legendary Roles,” while purporting to be about the history of the Superman mythology, focuses mainly on the actors playing the characters this time around, with a few nods to the past. “All-Out Action” (also 26 minutes) examines the intense training of the actors as well as the work of the stunt team and the execution of several major action sequences. In “Krypton Decoded,” actor Dylan Sprayberry, who plays Clark as a teenager, hosts a seven-minute look at the sequence in which Krypton is destroyed. Also present is a two-minute animated short created by Snyder and Bruce Timm that celebrates Superman’s 75th anniversary with the kind of soaring excitement we’d like to see more of in the film itself.
We did say five features, right? Yes we did, but if anyone can figure out why “New Zealand: Home to Middle-earth” – a seven-minute featurette related to The Hobbit – is included here, please let me know. As reported elsewhere, there is no context and no reason for the piece to be included on the Man of Steel disc, indicating some sort of quality control lapse somewhere along the production line.
Disc two contains “Planet Krypton,” a somewhat amusing History Channel-style documentary on the history of Krypton as if it was a real place. But the centerpiece of the second disc is “Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel,” which is literally a second presentation of the film, only this time interspersed with cast and crew interviews, production featurettes and behind-the-scenes footage that appear in panels next to, above and below the film image. Running nearly three hours, this amounts to essentially a visual commentary track as well as an ongoing documentary that you watch alongside the film. It’s not our preferred way to view a movie, but there is a lot of fascinating and thorough information about the movie’s creation and plenty of surprising tidbits – like the fact that General Zod’s uniform is largely a CG creation – something we still find somewhat astonishing given how realistic it looks.
In the end, Man of Steel is not the amazing new Superman movie we’ve wanted to see for decades, but that film occasionally peeks through. If you enjoyed it on the big screen, and certainly if you are a Superman enthusiast and completist, it deserves its place on your shelf next to the rest of Kal-El’s cinematic adventures.