Man of Steel – Review

© Warner Bros. / DC Entertainment

From its very first second Man of Steel is big. Then it gets bigger and bigger and louder and more destructive and crashes and lens flares and explosions and more and bigger and bigger…

In an early scene young Clark is overwhelmed by the scope of the world he sees. This is true for the entire film.

The first fifteen minutes of Man of Steel are easily the most compelling, an extended prologue as Jor-El struggles against his doomed planet. Unfortunately the lack of a title sequence makes the next half hour a never-ending origin story that has been presented and re-presented a dozen times. Director Zack Synder intersperses scenes of Clark bumming through a series of labor jobs with a running chronicle of childhood traumas: a bus crash, a tornado, bullying, lens flares. Whereas most films use flashbacks to build character, Man of Steel uses them to establish a pattern of set-up, disaster, lens flare, close-up, explosion, bigger explosion, lens flare. And just when you think there will be a moment of peace a fighter jet spins out, explodes, lens flare. The result is two hours of pure sugar rush and lens flares building more and more and more rubble on an empty foundation. Like Krypton, Man of Steel’s core is so hollow that its mass quickly crumbles. Even Clark’s relationship with Lois, traditionally his strongest tie to humanity, is shallow.

While the attempt to throw a little dirt on the boy scout is nice, and there is a place for darkness in the Superman mythos, the unrelenting doom leaves no space to breathe. There’s none of the inherent awe in seeing a man fly.

It’s unfortunate as the tools are easily there to place Man of Steel among great superhero films. This is the single most captivating visual representation of Kryptonian power in any medium. The ground trembles as Clark leaps into the sky, dust clouds plume behind him, villains move so quickly they blink out of existence, every action has a sense of gravity and the environment reacts to Superman exactly as it would. Meanwhile Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon, each playing complex characters with nuanced motives, create wonderful, intense scenes rushed away by a falling building and lens flares.

Man of Steel is not a bad movie, it’s just an incomplete one. It’s heavy on the super and light on the man.

Lens flare.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.


  1. Patrick Renfrow

    Going to have to disagree with you on this one. I found this to be the quintessential MODERN (keyword there) take on the last son of Krypton. Superman has never been portrayed on the silver screen in this manner, and I think that this “reimagining” (which, for the first time, actually led the filmmakers to draw more from the source material, as opposed to completely reinventing the story) is precisely the shot in the arm necessary to making this franchise relevant once again.

    The other live-action films, serials, and television series for the most part have played down Supes’ alien origins, instead focusing more on his coming of age in Smallville. Well, not here. This is a hardcore sci-fi epic, the opening invoking more of a ‘Star Wars’ feel than anything we’ve seen from any of the recent offerings from the superhero genre (aside from ‘Green Lantern’, but screw that piece of crap), spending nearly as much time on Krypton as in Kansas, with ships & costumes that look like they walked straight out of a reboot of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’. And I believe that it was a brilliant decision, because in constantly reminding you that Clark/Kal-El is indeed an alien, it makes his choice to embrace humanity all the more compelling. Which is in contrast to the main antagonist, General Zod (who is actually much more of a brilliant & nuanced character here than Terrence Stamp’s moustache-twirling über villain), cold, merciless & single-minded in his purpose, who shows what Clark could’ve easily become if not instilled with the Kents’ values as a child. And Russell Crowe & Kevin Costner both chewed every bit of scenery given to them as Supes’ dueling father figures.

    And yes, it’s true that of this 2 & 1/2 hour film, approximately 45 minutes to an hour of that time is purely dedicated to fight scenes. I mean, earth-shattering, super villain smackdown the likes of which has never been filmed. It makes the New York City showdown at the end of Marvel’s “The Avengers’ look like a schoolyard scuffle. Which is where MY only minor gripe with the film comes in to play. Though the super-fights are beautifully choreographed and executed, the CGI is at times… well, very obviously CGI. Like Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ CGI. And to be honest, on this scale it’s to be expected, and it honestly does not take you out of the moment as much as you might think.

    I cannot wait to see where they take the franchise from here, and I personally feel that you’ll leave this film believing that a man can do so much more than just fly.

    • The Pop Mythologist

      Thank you, Patrick, for your rating and review. I think I stand somewhere between you and Jess and largely agree with both of you, in fact. With Jess, I agree that in its ambition to stage some of the most spectacular superhero action sequences, it does lose some touch with the “man” in Superman (not totally but enough to keep the film from reaching the kind of greatness worthy of an icon like Superman). It’s not for lack of trying, as the moments between Clark and his foster father, Jonathan Kent (capably played by Kevin Costner) as well as his natural father, Jor-El (also well done by Russell Crowe) were, for me, among the best moments in the film and gave it the little poignancy that it did have. There just wasn’t enough of it.

      I also don’t have a problem with the action sequences and stuff blowing up per se. It just becomes so much more cathartic and effective if there’s a solid emotional foundation propping it up. Again, that foundation isn’t absent; it’s just not as sturdy as it could be. In this respect, the first two Richard Donner films were superior. We felt Clark’s humanity, his doubts, his pain. Reeves brought a beautiful vulnerability to the role. Cavill does a good job with what he’s given in the script but it’s more of an angsty moodiness. And while I logically gave him the benefit of the doubt that he loved humans so much he was wiling to sacrifice Krypton’s survival, I didn’t really *feel* it. He grows up being bullied, humiliated and ostracized, and I know Jonathan Kent’s influence was supposed to superseded that somehow, but again, I didn’t see enough of that to be fully convinced that Kal-El could come to love his human tormentors more than his own people.

      I also agree that one of the crucial elements, Clark’s relationship with Lois, felt superficial this time around. It’s just a natural consequence of giving more precious screen time to explosions and less to human interaction.

      Patrick, I agree with you that by making this version more explicitly sci-fi, the film is at once staying closer to the comic book roots (at least as far as the origin is concerned) and emphasizing the gravity of Kal-El’s decisions to embrace humanity as his own. Visually, the art design of Krypton was beautiful and the FX are now good enough to make the battles as epic as they could be drawn in the comics. But, again, as technically impressive as those scenes are they don’t carry the same weight that they could have.

      I also don’t mind the darker approach at all, though I hope that the imprint Nolan has indelibly left with his Dark Knight trilogy doesn’t make this too much of a trend for its own sake. In Superman’s case, however, even though he’s a very idealistic character, there is definitely room, as Jess points out, for these darker elements. After all, Bruce Wayne may have lost his parents but Kal-El lost his entire planet. He’s even more the orphan than Bruce was.

      The length was no problem at all and, if anything, it’s not enough for ‘MoS’s ambitions. Richard Donner’s 1978 film was over 2 hours too. But most of it was for character development so when the action does get going, there’s more at stake. IMO, there’s nothing in ‘MoS’ that’s as powerful or beautiful as the scene when Superman (Reeves) is so heartbroken by Lois’s death that he pushes the limits of his power and literally turns time back.

      Anyway, I could go on and on. The point is that while I mostly enjoyed it, my feelings are mixed. And I’m slightly disappoint not because it was a bad movie but only because I care about and love this character and because I think the movie had the potential to be magnificent but just doesn’t quite get there.

    • Jess Kroll

      Hi Patrick, thanks for the comment. As implied, if not mentioned, I thought the scifi aspect of the movie and General Zod were the best parts. I would however contest that only 45-60 minutes were dedicated to fight scenes. The throbbing pain in the back of my head for a good hour and a half tells me it was a lot more than that. CGI is to be expected from a movie like this, and I have no problem with it. What I do have a problem with is the constant use of shaky cameras and lens flares. Those immediately indicate that there is an observer in the scene. Who are they? Why are they there? Are they making a documentary? Why? How did they get permission? And boom, reality of the film is destroyed. Further, when a film like this is always action, action, ACTION it needs just as much time spent on character to provide meaning. There were a few scenes with the dad, great, but there were just as many times in the film where I actually found myself thinking, “What is happening and why do I care?” Action movies are built on having quiet moments so that the audience feels the difference between slow and fast. If not, as Daniel mentioned, the audience feels numb. By the time the BIG fight occurs in the third act, there have already been so many big fights that we can’t tell the difference and just want a chance to not have our senses assaulted. We’re not Superman, we need to have adrenaline breaks. They also make it so that the filmmakers don’t have to keep scaling upwards into a 30-minutes CGI fest that becomes a jumbled mass of Transformers 2-style twisted metal and close-ups. My point is, I liked the story that surrounded the action, as it appears you did, there just wasn’t enough of that story between those fight scenes.

  2. I completely disagree. Completely!

    By immersing the story in a pseudo-real world while presenting the grandest superhero feats imaginable, MAN OF STEEL arguably reaches (almost) the heights its producer, Christopher Nolan, set for the superhero genre in his masterpiece DARK KNIGHT trilogy. Its genuine emotional core and moral complexity combine to form an potent foundation for its appropriately relentless action on an appropriately god-like scale. The film achieves a level of greatness that soars high above any meager attempts at qualification. The film is somber in tone and you’ll struggle to find a joke here and there, a great thing, as lightheartedness is never a compulsion for me to see a film.

    Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill have come together to emphatically state that the king has returned, to the sounds oh Hans Zimmer no less, whose breathtaking score – his best yet – recalls GLADIATOR and THE LION KING. The highlight of the film was the humanizing of both KAL-EL and ZOD, and when, as an audience member, you’re indecisive of who to root for – the flawed hero or tragic villain – you know the outcome will haunt you long after the experience has ended.

    Is it the year’s best film? Perhaps not. The film has notable flaws, much of it in the overabundance of action that can become tiresome after a time, albeit remaining seamless and beautiful all the while. Its certainly too grand to merely be labelled a blockbuster event, although it surpasses each and every blockbuster released this year. No, MAN OF STEEL is an art film of the highest caliber and bears everything the heart of a filmmaker aspiring to be great: Emotion. Spectacle. Soul. Direction. And Story.

    • The Pop Mythologist

      You also make some very good points. Personally, I also enjoyed the somber approach. It’s a reboot, after all. No point in doing it if it’s just going to do it the same way. And I think everyone who has commented or reviewed so far can agree that this dark tone in itself doesn’t hurt the film at all. But for me, personally, it didn’t feel as fully fleshed out as in the Dark Knight films. The dark tones felt like more of a cosmetic change in this case, although I did think that both Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner both brought a certain weight and gravity to their roles that complemented the melancholy tone. And Michael Shannon’s Zod was quite brilliant. Some people might criticize both this film and the DK trilogy for being “humorless,” but I, for one, sometimes tire of some movies’ perceived need to always be funny. I appreciate gravitas. Superman and Batman are both heroes that deserve to be taken seriously and it’s a nice contrast to movies like ‘Avengers’ and ‘Iron Man 3’ which pack in the humor.

      Also, although you clearly like the movie very much, I’m glad you also feel that although the action was very well done, it bordered on overkill. Yes, it was appropriately epic and godly for godlike characters battling it out, but personally I just tend to get a bit numb when movies pummel you with that amount of relentless on-screen destruction. Still, I did like it enough overall to want to see it again. And, who knows, I might come out the second time feeling a bit differently. That does happen for me quite a bit. I just thought it could have been even better than it was.

      I like this discussion so far. I hope people keep commenting!

    • Jess Kroll

      Hello Raoul, thanks as well for the comment. As you can see in the review I mentioned Zod as a nuanced character and cited him as one of the best parts of the film. I have to say that I wasn’t so impressed by Cavill’s performance other than really looking the part. He did more posing than acting. It’s really telling that the emotional scenes, those which are there, were carried by Costner, Crowe and Shannon. Especially in the end you have Crowe and Shannon having the intense, character moments while Cavill is off causing yet another explosion. The dark aspect as well was appreciated. I personally always found Superman a little too corny to really enjoy, he’s DC’s Captain America, only way too powerful. You mentioned the Dark Knight trilogy. What those movies did best were having small, non-action moments, and even short burst actions, and only two or three huge action scenes. The truck flip wouldn’t be as memorable if it was happening in every other scene. You also mention Gladiator, which is a great example of using quiet to emphasize loud. As for Kal-el and Zod, Zod was great, Shannon’s break at the end was intense and effective and seemed to be from a completely different and better movie, I enjoyed his part thoroughly and yes, for a time, questioned why I should hate him. But on the other end of that equation you had Kal who never seemed to make a choice in the film, which is the defining trait of a protagonist. That, in my opinion, made the film feel hollow.

  3. I disagree. While it’s true the action in the third act is repetitive and unnecessarily cluttered with fist fights and destruction, the characterization of of Kal-El was so strong that I was able to forgive the film’s shortcomings. Man of Steel is a triumphant reboot.

    • The Pop Mythologist

      Allan, you and I used to talk about the first Richard Donner movie. As I remember, you loved it just as much as I did (unless your feelings about it have changed). They are two different interpretations, obviously, but it is interesting to compare their different approaches to certain aspects. For me, I can see that Goyer (one of my favorite writers, btw) and Snyder tried to bring him to life, but for me the Reeves version still felt like a more real and more relatable character, though I would have to watch both movies again to clearly articulate exactly why. In certain ways, just due to the very nature of Superman, he’s obviously not relatable in the traditional sense, but what has always made him a profound character are his human-like feelings underneath the godlike exterior. With the Cavill version, although I could see, on the surface, that he was struggling with certain feelings, I didn’t quite feel this as much as I did with the Donner-Reeves. It was close but not quite. I want to see it again, though, as second viewings often make me change my mind. What was your own take on this?

    • Jess Kroll

      In my opinion, Clark wasn’t much of a character. He’s more of a blank slate with paternal maxims and patriotic hues than a rounded character. As Daniel said, there was nothing to relate to. Protagonists make choices. Other than those in his flashbacks, like saving the bus and not saving his dad, Clark doesn’t struggle with them. He dives head first into whatever path is directly in front of him. Now if we saw him struggle with some of the different options then he’d be more interesting, but that’s not Superman. He must always do exactly what is right without hesitation. And that’s not human. Human’s doubt things. We worry. It’s those shades of gray that make for good characters. Clark has no gray.

    • Patrick Renfrow

      I don’t really agree with the statement that Clark was a “blank slate” (definitely got some SERIOUS “daddy issues” though) as much as I thought that Goyer had written him as a not-so-subtle flip side to Nolan’s Bruce Wayne/Batman; both defined pain and fear as the human experience. In ‘Batman Begins’, Wayne embraced his pain and fears, weaponizing them in his fight for Gotham, and utilizing his strength to push himself harder & faster than a normal man typically could. In this, which may as well have been called ‘Superman Begins’, Clark is portrayed as being much more haunted and lost than ever before. He doesn’t know where he comes from, and try as he might, he knows that he can’t really relate to humanity. He has to maintain focus at all times, his fear stems from losing control and something bad happening to these fragile beings as a result. He’s and Batman are both tortured souls that eventually find their true purpose, in as many different ways as they are similar, and they both have to make some rather severe sacrifices to do it. I don’t feel that this was Clark’s movie, that’s been firmly set up for the next one. This was all about Kal-El’s journey. The outcast, the alien, struggling not only to find answers about who his people are and where he comes from, but who he is as a man, regardless of his species. And I think that his battle with Zod, both internally as well as with super-mma throwdowns, is integral in providing those answers. And that’s why I think that his relationships with Lois and his mother were played down, this movie was not about grounding Kal-El, this was about him learning to fly, literally and metaphorically. When you finally see Clark at the end of the film, I couldn’t help but think of David Carradine’s beautiful monologue from ‘Kill Bill’: “As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating.
      Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.
      Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.
      Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S” – that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.
      Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak… He’s unsure of himself… He’s a coward.
      Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

    • Jess Kroll

      That’s true.
      Too bad so very little of it is actually in the movie. Oh well, more fight scenes!

    • The Pop Mythologist

      Patrick, “Super MMA throwdowns,” lol. I’d forgotten about that monologue in ‘Kill Bill.’ It’s actually a good monologue, I think, and very Tarantino-esque, but I don’t agree with the final conclusion of it. I don’t think Kal-El/Superman dresses and acts the way he does as Clark Kent as some kind of Ayn Randian critique or caricature of the general weakness or cowardice of humanity. That would totally belie the love and compassion that compels him to protect people. I think Clark’s mannerisms are, in a way, a genuine extension of the more human side of him that did grow up feeling insecure and uncertain.

  4. MAN OF STEEL May not be the best Superman movie ever made but definitely it is the biggest and worthiest of the character Superman. A lot of critics are upset about the lack of Superman/Clark’s wit, charm and humor and yeah I missed it too, but on the other hand the film amply compensates with stuff that we always wanted to see in Superman movies but never could. I remember way back when I was watching Matrix Revolutions I so wanted it to be Supes and a big baddie from outer space to level the skyline of a metropolis than Neo and Agent Smith. Yeah this movie delivers that in aces. A lot of people are complaining about the 45 min action set piece in the end, but come on: this is what me and the millions of fans worldwide paid their money for. I seriously don’t want Superman matching his wits with an evil megalomaniac anymore, I wanted him throwing his fists against someone equal to his power in sheer physicality. Here we see that but not just against Zod but a multitude of others as well and how Superman fights against the insurmountable odds and attains victory in the end. Snyder took the right decision to steer away from previous Superman movies in mood and present us something that was never touched in there. The absolute power and physicality of Superman. Now that it has been established I believe the next movie will be more about the Superman we know and love and like all successful franchises the next movie will be the biggest and the best Superman movie ever. My two thumbs up for Man of Steel, a must watch for everyone.

  5. I saw The Man of Steel yesterday. The movie is full of violence and noises. I miss the Christopher Reeve’s Superman series that I grew up with, haha. Besides, this new superman obviously mimics Jesus’ life, which seems too lame to me.

    • The Pop Mythologist

      Thanks for your comment, Gloria! I also miss the Christopher Reeves Superman. 🙂 I think he did an excellent job with the character. Actually, Superman was always a superhero character that was intended to symbolize Christ, in a way, so I don’t mind that part. But I agree that ‘Man of Steel’ was very noisy and violent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.