2013 was a strange year for DC and Warner Bros.
Just one summer earlier, their primary competitor Marvel had overtaken the world with The Avengers, which broke every record in the book and amassed over $1.5 billion around the world to become the highest-grossing superhero film at the time (third overall, behind only Avatar and Titanic).
A few months later, DC’s critically acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy concluded with The Dark Knight Rises, which drew a billion dollars at the box office. Director Christopher Nolan and leading star Christian Bale both insisted that they would hang their capes after this Batman trilogy, so the DC was really left with nothing but a clean slate… and a lot to catch up on if they wanted to create their equivalent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (to think historically, Avengers was inspired by the Justice League.)
By 2013, DC was well-aware of Marvel’s Avengers franchise, which had been in the works for over five years by then. According to some sources, DC’s own Green Lantern was a litmus test back in 2011 for if they could eventually set up their own Justice League, but when that film tanked tragically, all attention shifted to a Superman reboot that would pioneer the beginning of what we now know as the DC Extended Universe.
The film was titled Man of Steel, a leaf out of 2008’s The Dark Knight, which was named after Batman’s epithet. That wasn’t the only similarity, because DC pretty much modelled the entire Man of Steel after Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed trilogy.
Nolan himself was hired as co-producer and co-writer, and together with director Zack Snyder, crafted the austere, haunting tone of Man of Steel. Just like the Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel was a dark and serious commentary on humanity, void of the family-friendliness and humor that informed superhero films in the previous decade (this mood would seep into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice three years later).
In other words, DC tried to make a Superman version of The Dark Knight. But while it should have been a success, seeing how the world had relished in Nolan’s trilogy, the formula just didn’t recreate the same magic of the Nolan films, starting with the new movie’s leading man.
Warner Bros casted then-relatively-unknown British actor Henry Cavill, who while arguably even easier on the eyes than Christian Bale, lacked the visceral, personable charisma to front the new Superman movie. It wasn’t that Cavill’s performance as the new Clark Kent was poor; he just failed to exude the magnetic appeal like Bale had (who was ironically more stoic in his portrayal of Bruce Wayne). Meanwhile across studios, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans were making the media swoon as the Avengers’ leaders.
The film itself was a huge cause for concern. It was a movie overblown by excessive length, uneven pacing and melodrama that I absolutely hated.
Man of Steel starts with a longwinded 20-minute introduction on Krypton that plays too many cards prematurely. It stretches General Zod’s treasonous uprising so thinly while over-ambitiously accommodating tons of dialogue, his arrest (“I WILL FIND HIM!” yells Michael Shannon’s villainous character) and his eventual incarceration in the Phantom Zone.
Like many experimental films with Nolan attached, Man of Steel’s narrative is not simply linear, which challenges the movie’s pacing following that dreadful introduction. Frequent flashbacks to Clark Kent’s adolescent and teenage years depict his struggle to stay in the closet as an atypical superhuman being, including one scene seemingly inspired by The Wizard of Oz.
A random tornado hits Kansas, and in true melodramatic fashion, Clark is prohibited by his adoptive father from saving him (he is heroically wiped away by the torrential winds). I don’t know if the scene was meant to be nod to Oz or the death of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben; a milestone in the superhero’s rumination of his and heroism.
Man of Steel tried very hard to shove that Dark Knight-style commentary about humanity into the audiences’ faces. Somehow, DC and Warner Bros had forgotten that Batman and Superman were fundamentally different. While Batman is an ordinary (albeit rich) human underneath the mask and hood, Superman was always an extraordinary alien from galaxies away. Why make a Superman version of The Dark Knight when you could really make Man of Steel out of different steel?
When the story picks up again in the middle of the film, Superman is confronted by the alien villains for the first time, and love interest Lois Lane (played by the lovely Amy Adams) is selected as hostage aboard the alien space ship.
Conveniently, she becomes instrumental in sabotaging the ship and saving Clark, by instinctively uploading a computer-ghost of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) into the ship’s mainframe and wielding an extraterrestrial gun in which she fires perfectly against trained alien lieutenants. It’s all quite bizarre.
Superman and Lois escape, causing a battle to ensue on the ground between Zod’s soldiers against Superman, as well the various product placements fighting against each other for screen time,
When Zod commences his terraforming of Earth, Man of Steel slides down the path of a gratuitously disaster film with overused storytelling devices, including a damsel in distress buried under rubble, and a soap opera of a climax where Superman himself bawls during a train station hostage situation. I recall rolling my eyes when I watched the film in theaters five years ago.
This melodramatic, unevenly paced storytelling, coupled with the movie’s solemn, serious tone that elicits no laughter, made Man of Steel a film you could hardly call an entertaining 2.5-hour watch.
Financially, Man of Steel performed acceptably, grossing $668 million worldwide against a $225 million budget. It outgrossed 2006’s Superman Returns ($391 million), Green Lantern ($219 million) and even all of Marvel’s films that preceded The Avengers, including the two Iron Man flicks.
However, the movie deservingly received mixed reviews, aggregating only 55% on Rotten Tomatoes. Interestingly, Man of Steel would emerge the DCEU’s second highest-rated film five years later, topped only by Wonder Woman.
Today, Man of Steel is considered one of the better films in the DCEU, which truly puts things in perspective. DC has put out baffling movies since Man of Steel, particularly its sequel, Batman v. Superman, the most hated of the lot.
As for me, I can’t say I’ve grown to appreciate this movie in the last half-decade, but I do reminisce how DC and Warner Bros hadn’t stuck their foot in too deep yet when Man of Steel was the only movie in their franchise back then. It’s quite tragic to think how many bad decisions they’ve made since, so I can still seek a certain comfort in this movie, released at a time that predates the disasters that eventually unfolded.