Since the new cut of Justice League is out and I have had a chance to watch the DCEU, I am going back and revisiting each movie in the series. Then, I am talking about my thoughts on each movie, with the added context of the cinematic universe. This is Man of Steel, the first part of the series.
This 2013 movie kicked off the DC Cinematic Universe. Starring Henry Cavill as Clark Kent and Amy Adams as Louis Lane, this movie follows the introduction of Superman into the DCEU. He must grow up with his extreme power and learn to accept his differences with humanity. He must also fight a villain from his past.
This movie is complicated to me. It is not excellent, but it is not terrible either. There are many things I enjoyed about it, but also many points where I did not enjoy it. The beginning dragged, Superman’s characterization was weak, and the characters and action did not fit with the emotional tone. Yet, the visuals and soundtrack were strong.
The first half of the movie was the weakest section. Scenes showed Clark’s young life alongside his travels and job searching in adulthood, and they were a little too jumpy and unfocused for me. The scenes lacked any connection other than Clark being in them. The past jumped around in different events where he would use his powers or struggle with his life due to his frustrations with his origins. His present followed him jumping from job to job and moving whenever anything would happen where he would need to show his powers.
The scenes lacked major connections, which was distracting. The present-day scenes especially were frustrating, because he kept jumping from job to job and location to location, and the movie never established any of this. This left me wanting to see more about him shifting his identity and looking for jobs. I would have liked more connection in these scenes, more intentional placement for them, and more information on the job jumping so they were clearer.
Superman’s character was not strong enough to lead the movie in my eyes. This was not due to Cavill’s acting, but rather more due to writing. His character is essentially just to “do the right thing.” His conflicts, such as doubts about becoming superman or killing Zod, just did not seem strong enough.
The hesitation towards his powers was almost entirely put on him by his father, and that part never made sense to me. Why is it such a bad thing that he shows his powers? His father constantly pushed that on him, even to the point of telling him it would be better to let people die than use them. I was confused because when he used his powers, there was not much backlash. The army was hesitant towards him at first, but they did not do a whole lot after he demonstrated that he was on their side.
No normal people seemed to care about his powers a whole lot in the movie. This does get explored a little deeper in Batman V Superman but is barely shown here. The only scene where this is explored is in Clark’s childhood, where he saved his bus and other parents were shocked, calling it an “act of god.” While yes, the attention might not have been ideal, this scene alone did not give enough to make that conflict the core of the first half of the movie.
I understand that the point was that humanity was not ready to accept him until he had to show himself when Zod arrived, but it just took me out of the movie. Why would people oppose him if he helped them? This is not necessarily a bad plot point; it just does not have enough context in the movie for it to make sense. The director was trying to establish that Superman had doubts about becoming his super alter ego, but it seemed too forced to me.
I feel like adding scenes towards the beginning of the movie showing a young Clark using his powers and losing control, and maybe causing destruction or death, could have done this way better. It could have established a clear motivation for him to avoid falling into his role as a hero, as he would have faced backlash and fear from people around him. This could have been a far stronger character study than just his father telling him that people would fear him if he used his powers.
Character and Tone Mismatch
One of the biggest issues I had with the movie is the strange juxtaposition of corny characters, dialogue, and acting, with overly indulgent visuals and a dark, brooding tone. This conflict took me out of the movie throughout the whole run time. The characters, especially General Zod, had exaggerated dialogue and acting, which was not necessarily a bad thing. However, the story and tone were dark, the characters were emotional. and the events they went through were brutal and intense.
The movie prioritized moments, actions, and spectacle, over story and character. This felt haphazard in this movie because it tried to have deep emotional themes as well, which did not work with the weak characters and story.
The movie would have worked better for me if the direction had either gone one way or the other. It could have been darker and more brooding, with the dialogue and acting being toned back in favor of prioritizing the emotions. The movie could have focused on characters, motivations, and struggles, over visuals and fights. This would have unified the movie and made the emotions much more tangible.
The other direction that it could have gone, which I think would have worked great, would be to go into the exaggerated route. This is where I think Zach Snyder works best, like with 300. The story, visuals, and fights could have been pushed to the top. The movie could have been pushed to a self-aware level of exaggeration, creating a humorous tone and matching the acting and dialogue.
That being said, the visuals were impressive for the time. The visual effects were generally solid, and much of it still holds up today. The camerawork was alright too, with a couple of excellent shots, especially in the space scenes.
While the tone did cause some issues with me, the visuals did match it overall. The majority of the shots were pretty dark and muted, with many focusing on characters’ faces to capture their intense emotions. While much of it was exaggerated, it did connect well to the tone overall.
I was impressed by the designs of the Kryptonian ships and armors. I feel like a lot of science fiction designs can tend to look the same, and it was refreshing to see unique designs. I also feel like the designers did a good job of matching Superman’s outfit with the more somber tone. The colors were more muted, the design was simplified, and the suit was given more texture. This fits with the dark, gritty take on the universe.
The soundtrack was good as well. There was diversity while still maintaining cohesion. However, it did get old fast due to the repetition. This becomes much more of an issue in later movies, where nearly every scene with superman uses some version of his theme from this movie.
Rewatching this movie after getting through the Snyder Cut in the DCEU, I will say that it does not hold up as much as it used to. It was a very slow movie. It felt very bogged down, especially in the first half. There were good parts there, but there were a lot of bad.
Overall, I would give the movie a 6 out of 10. It is a different take on Superman than the norm. The visuals and tone are a bold choice, and I feel like they work well at times. The casting is good. However, there were a lot of problems with the movie, most notably the strange juxtaposition of over-the-top action and dialogue with a deep, brooding, and emotional tone. It just did not feel cohesive. I feel like it is solid, but not enough to support being the origin point for a cinematic universe.