Man of Steel is, easily, the best Superman movie. Aside from a few minor tonal missteps, one could even argue it’s a perfect Superman movie. But it makes one mistake that drags on it.
First, the good. This is actually just a good movie, no matter how you slice it. The MVP of the cast is easily Kevin Costner, who delivers a note-perfect performance of a decent man who fears for his son. Costner’s performance gives the movie an emotional weight it would otherwise lack. This isn’t to knock Henry Cavill, who does an excellent job as an emotionally complicated Superman, but Costner isn’t burdened with the job of hitting things that keeps Cavill from fully fleshing out his character.
The real news, though, is that Zack Snyder has grown up. There’s no more goofy gimmicks, no more ramping, no more chest-thumping; this is the movie of a filmmaker secure in his talent and striving to hit the right tone. He nails it almost every time; the only time the movie ever tilts into obvious is a scene in a church where Snyder can’t resist putting Jesus over Superman’s shoulder. Even the movie’s most over-the-top moments are restrained, especially by Snyder’s standards, and that’s saying a lot for a movie where at least an hour of it involves punching people through things.
Approaching it from a comics nerd’s perspective, this is a clever blending of damn near every great Superman story that also puts to rest a lot of the usual complaints about how “unrealistic” movies about a flying man from another planet are in ways that are often elegant. This is happy to take from the comics, the Donner movies, drafts of the script to other Superman movies, anything involving Superman, really, and it makes them a cohesive whole. Lois Lane is important to this movie, in multiple ways, for example, although to be frank of sheer necessity the script gives certain actors short shrift. Laurence Fishburne has barely anything to do as Perry White, although the movie does manage to find him one scene that he plays for all its worth.
Which leads us to the one real problem in the script. Kryptonian bloodlines are obviously consanguine, that is, they’ve got a limited gene pool, and apparently that has given even the most noble and intelligent Kryptonians a painful disease wherein they are forced to recap the previous act of the movie they’re in for anybody in the audience who ducked out for nachos or to take a dump or something.
Seriously, this happens with every act in the movie. The worst offender is an overly elaborate sequence involving moving statues that does absolutely nothing except sum up everything we just saw. Then Zod takes over with this shtick not once but twice, laying out that he escaped from the Negative Zone, and then at the very end, where he gets us up to speed on his motivations. Although that last actually is saved by Michael Shannon, who strikes a fine balance between subtle acting and bringing the ham throughout the entire movie.
Honestly, one suspects if anybody is to blame, it’s the studio, panicking because some idiot in a focus group wrote that he didn’t understand what was happening on a card. One suspects there’s a “director’s cut” we’ll be seeing on home video that dumps these sequences. It doesn’t ruin the movie but it’s like a small child clinging to the back of a long-distance runner; he can’t quite do his best.
But that’s a minor flaw. There’s so much that’s great about this movie, so much that makes it a great movie for anybody who loves Superman or who has never touched a Superman comic, that it’s hard to offer it any abuse. One hopes for the sequel, though, that they’ll have found a cure for Recap Disease.