The Bottom Line
Should you see it?
Although he lacks the same vulnerability, Man of Steel does for Superman what Batman Begins did for the Dark Knight.
The film begins as you might expect, on Krypton in an extended prologue featuring some of the most magnificent art direction and set design of any movie in recent memory. It's a true vision of the future, and one forged from the dark metal of Alien and Blade Runner, making Man of Steel perhaps the truest science-fiction comic book film ever made. Russell Crowe appears as Jor-El, a Kryptonian leader who believes his planet is on the verge of annihilation thanks to the depletion of its energy resources (sound familiar?). He delivers his son, Kal-El, amongst the chaos and immediately packages the boy in an escape pod. He also infuses the infant with the "codex," which adheres the DNA of everyone on Krypton to the child's blood cells, thus ensuring the future of their race.
A parallel plot line reveals the Kryptonian leaders are the target of a military coup, led by the idealistic General Zod (Michael Shannon), who seeks the codex himself. He's arrested and exiled to a black hole along with his cohorts. Soon, the planet implodes as Jor-El predicted, but young Kal-El is safely en route to Earth. Crowe and Shannon are marvelous here. The two commanding actors lend the opening the gravity it deserves and the prologue sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Years later, we meet Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) on a fishing vessel. The alien infant has become a drifter, traveling the world alone, working dangerous jobs, and saving lives in the process. At a remote outpost, he discovers a giant structure encased in a glacier. Scientists are baffled, but Clark investigates and finds an alien ship, his Fortress of Solitude. Using a Kryptonian key, he triggers his father's consciousness and Jor-El appears to him. Imbued with purpose, Clark dons an "S" emblazoned blue suit and sets out. He also discovers he's been followed by a Martha Gellhorn clone named Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who'll stop at nothing to get the story.
Snyder peppers Man of Steel with flashbacks to Clark's youth in Kansas. Raised by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), the boy struggles to fit in. He suffers from sensory overload, a big drawback of being a Herculean alien on Earth, but he learns to control his powers. It's here, in childhood, the seeds are planted for the boy to become something great. An emotional scene shows Jonathan telling Clark he's not from this world, but he was "sent for a reason." The idea of fate plays into the many Christian themes of the film, but we'll get to that.
Clark's solitary life is shattered soon after discovering his origin when Zod and his minions arrive on Earth. The General wants to rip the codex from Kal-El and promises Earth's destruction if he's not turned over. Clark surrenders, but soon realizes Zod intends to transform Earth into a new Krypton using a gravitational device called The World Engine. Superman is mankind's only hope.
Following the Batman Begins model, Man of Steel strips Superman of his cartoonish qualities, canon be damned. Gone is the bright blue, red, and yellow suit. It's been dulled out and the "S" redesigned. Gone is the curl in the hair. Gone is the Kryptonite Achilles' heel. Gone is the bumbling Daily Planet alter-ego and the phonebooth, replaced here by the fearless chisled drifter. Goyer and Nolan use their Batman recipe to make Superman darker and tougher than ever before. You won't catch Miss Teschmacher rescuing this guy from a swimming pool.
It's hard to dispute this is as an original vision of a character that's been done ad nauseum over the past 80(!) years. Superman's been rebooted from the ground up and it's undeniably aggressive. It's as if the character had never been done before. This notion is evidenced in a number of ways. We find Clark leaping (as in "a single bound"), not flying, when he first starts using his powers. But the big one is all the Christian symbology, a nod to Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were inspired by the Old and New Testaments when creating the character.
The symbols are fun to pick out. Some of them are obvious, like Superman floating out of a plane—arms spread wide as if nailed to a cross—while others are less overt. If Superman is Christ, that makes Jor-El God and General Zod Satan. Bear with me now. Jor-El may not "love" man, as God does in the Bible, but he does give up his only son. "He'll be like a God to them." Jor-El's wife says. Kal-El isn't birthed from a virgin, but he is the first naturally-born Kryptonian in centuries—a miracle, in other words. Jor-El also "plays God" by laser-blasting those DNA codes into his son.
Growing up on Earth, Superman knows he's destined for greater things, but he hides his powers, even "punishing" himself by taking dangerous jobs while "wandering" the globe. He has many moments of doubt and pain before embracing his true "fate": to "save" mankind and show them the light. "Give the people an ideal to strive towards." Jonathan tells young Clark. Snyder also uses lens flaring to give Superman a sacred glow (check out the poster at right and this one and this one).
As for Zod, he's "cast out" of Krypton before "falling" to Earth. He "tempts" the son of Jor-El, inviting him to join him in restoring their home planet and civilization. But Superman refuses and "sacrifices" himself for the good of mankind by waging war on Zod, withstanding a beating of biblical proportions in the process.
Remember that pummeling New York City took in last year's The Avengers? That was nothing. The continued one-upmanship in the action comic genre continues unabated in Man of Steel as the final showdown between good and evil is waged in the ruins of Metropolis. The film's final hour is incessant, lightning-quick action that's technically fantastic, but is it viscerally engaging? I can't say I was moved by this picture. Nevertheless, Man of Steel remains an exciting new chapter for the world's first superhero (with apologies to Flash Gordon, John Carter, Buck Rogers, and Jesus for that matter). It does Superman justice. The Man of Steel is back, resurrected if you will. It's the answer to our prayers.