Nothing can quite compensate for the abandoned sequel to Bryan Singer’s great Superman Returns, but judged on its own merits, Man of Steel proves an excellent entry in the pantheon of oversized blockbusters, given Zack Snyder’s great eye for kineticism and how beholden he is to rousing moral codes. The filmmaker’s obsessively manicured, self-aware spectacle brings to life even the weary genre conventions of David S. Goyer’s boilerplate screenplay, sweeping aside the majority of its by-the-numbers narrative in favor of untempered feeling.
Commencing with a credit sequence, all elemental textures and sensations, that literally births the central hero (echoes of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” music video), the film implies that maternal sacrifice is at the root of all myths. It’s also a surprisingly thoughtful work in its examination of political and personal responsibility (by the time a teenage Clark Kent is seen reading Plato’s The Republic, the reference is almost beside the point), and ultimately a call to arms against warfare of both the physical and ideological sort. The second-half visceral deluge brings to mind Truffaut’s comments about the impossibility of making an anti-war film, yet the Man of Steel’s many seemingly at-odds qualities are indicative of both Snyder’s growing talent for corporate-financed subversion and its titular hero’s status as a bridge between two worlds. It’s militaristic, sans fascism, and patriotic without being nationalistic—a bizarre amalgamation of hard science fiction, overt religious allegory, and a relentless salvo.
It’s also very much a historically present-tense film, giving us a Superman for a post-9/11 world—not unlike Superman Returns, albeit more explicitly. Opening with the destruction of Krypton as a result of an overused, fracking-like method of resource-extraction, the film is quick to contrast that planet’s demise—spewing geysers of fire before chillingly collapsing into a miniature star—with the political and environmental tumult of our own world: burning oil rigs, melting fields of ice, corporations run amuck. Man of Steel attempts to reimagine the Superman legend, but it’s also enhanced by a forthright acknowledgment of its influences and an acute appreciation for the sci-fi canon—one that’s ripe with social commentary (a young Clark can only see his classmates’ insides, providing a potent visual/political link with John Carpenter’s meta-allegory They Live), spirituality (Superman’s surrender evokes the military greeting party of The Day the Earth Stood Still), and unrivaled cinematic beauty (a Kryptonian nanotechnology ravishingly evokes the cinema of Georges Méliès). Much more has been made of the film’s third-act mass destruction, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, delectably batshit) wage war of Godzilla-sized proportions in a still-populated city. Your mileage will vary based largely on your investment in/adherence to the Superman canon, but to these eyes, the titular hero’s lone instance of lapsed judgment—namely, taking the escalating fight straight to the heart of Smallville, where innocent bystanders abound—is easily forgivable, if for, admittedly, inextricably personal reasons: Only someone looking for a blind-rage ass-kicking would be foolish enough to threaten Superman’s mother.
However you feel about this film’s hour-plus cacophony of chaos, there’s no fault to be found in this 1080p presentation, which renders every detail with immense clarity. The handful of instances of softness can be attributed to the abundance of CGI, particularly during the blurry flight sequences, but the transfer itself remains immaculate. Black levels, skin tones, and colors are superb. The 7.1 audio mix is equally stunning, immersive even in the film’s quieter moments, organically layering Hans Zimmer’s gloriously redundant soundtrack with every fiery explosion, shattered skyscraper, and thunderous fisticuff.
The special features are hit and miss. "Strong Characters, Legendary Roles" examines this film’s reimagining of the Superman myth, and for fans of the film, it’s a well-spent half hour (among the highlights is Michael Shannon sporting a seahorse T-shirt). "All-Out Action" is the black hole to that featurette’s quasar, spending a thoroughly uninteresting and nearly equal period of time on the physical training and stunt coordination that went into the film. The trite "Krypton Decoded" looks at the effects work of Krypton’s destruction and runs a mercifully short seven minutes. Rounding out disc one is a two-minute animated short produced for Superman’s 75th anniversary (sans even a passing reference to Superman Returns) and a seven-minute, thoroughly unnecessary advert for Peter Jackon’s Hobbit films. Disc two sports the best and the worst of the set. The former: "Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel," which could have also been called the super commentary, runs about three hours, intercutting interviews, production footage, alternate angles, and various insights into the filmmaking process while the movie plays. The latter: "Planet Krypton," 18 minutes of literal-minded, thoroughly boring claptrap that treats the film’s history of Krypton as a given fact. A UV digital and DVD copy of the film round out the set.
Like a Brazilian wax for the brain, Zack Snyder’s divisive reboot of the Superman franchise will continue to obliterate your senses in this impressive combo package.