People hate Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and a decade later, I can’t figure out why the movie didn’t register with audiences more. After making a splash during its opening weekend, Man of Steel dropped like a rock at the box office and ended its run with a good, but not great, $600 million, resulting in a never-ending course correction (exacerbated by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) at Warner Bros. that continues to this day. 

Man of Steel became the best-selling Blu-ray of the year, which means somebody liked it. Yet, the continuous outcry from moviegoers would lead you to believe Snyder directed this generation’s Howard the Duck. Some say it’s too dark, violent, intense, and loud, while others lament the lack of goofy Marvel humor and an overrun dance of relentless action.

Man of Steel deserves more credit

Rather than recreate the gee-whiz innocence of Richard Donner’s equally dazzling Superman: The Movie, Snyder crafts a darker character study centered around a god and chronicles his transformation from a displaced outsider to a literal member of the (Daily) planet. As portrayed by Henry Cavill, Kal-El winds up on Earth after the planet Krypton explodes, wiping out most of his people. Luckily, he lands in the arms of Jonathan and Martha Kent, who hide him from the world, knowing that his emergence will drastically change the course of history. As Kal-El, adopting the name Clark, grows, he discovers immense superpowers and must decide how to use his newfound abilities — for good or evil. 

This is all old hat, but Snyder goes deeper, turning Jonathan into a world-weary, practical man who loves his son, but fears what he could become if pushed in the wrong direction — so much so that (in the film’s goofiest scene) he willingly sacrifices himself to preserve Clark’s secret. In many respects, Jonathan’s beliefs are entirely justified. When Clark reveals himself to the world, the powers that be react with force and he must choose whether to aid his adopted family or remain loyal to his Kryptonian roots.

Snyder doesn’t stop there. In a clever twist on the Superman tale, the second half of Man of Steel transforms into a full-blown alien invasion film. Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian general, arrives in search of Kal-El, and his sudden appearance thrusts our hero into a war he’s not prepared to fight, resulting in a massive confrontation that nearly levels Metropolis. 

Zod is a fascinating, devoted leader whose sole purpose is to serve Krypton. He’s not evil, but he cannot see beyond his objective. He’s a great foil to Superman’s sympathetic guardian.

Less impressive is Lois Lane, here forced into the story to add half-hearted romance. Amy Adams does what she can with the character, but Snyder never figures out her purpose. She needlessly takes part in the climactic action and seemingly beeps around the sprawling city of Metropolis to aid the plot. In hindsight, the character should have appeared at the film’s end when Clark ventures into the Daily Planet and assumes his role as a mild-mannered reporter. Lois doesn’t ruin Man of Steel, but her presence adds nothing vital to the narrative. 

Other supporting characters are more impactful. Lawrence Fishburn is fantastic as Perry White, Russell Crowe brings a gravitas to Jor-El, and Antje Traue offers the perfect blend of menace and sexiness as Zod’s loyal follower Faora.

While the human elements work incredibly well, Man of Steel’s make-or-break point falls on its abundant action. If the first half leaps through its plot in a single bound, the second half explodes off the screen in a cacophony of violence that leaves viewers breathless — in a good way.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned how much I love the Smallville battle, which pushes a reluctant Superman into action. At this point, he’s reckless, tossing bad guys into gas stations and allowing destruction on a massive scale. He has no other choice and relies more on impulse than strategy. When Faora and Nam-Ek toss Superman to the ground, he responds by blasting them with his laser eyes in a violent display of frustration. For all his peaceful aspirations, Superman is still a weapon of war, capable of leveling cities and destroying worlds (as revealed in the later films). He’s dangerous, but that’s one of the character’s most intriguing traits — he’s a walking nuclear weapon desperately trying to find his place in the universe. 

Snyder paints his battles on an epic canvas. When Superman and Faora fight, they smash through buildings, blow up trains, and wipe out entire streets. I struggle to recall a comic book action sequence that rivals this (except for those found in Snyder’s other works):

Later, during the Battle of Metropolis, Snyder frames the event as a full-on alien attack. Jets fall from the sky and explode into buildings, skyscrapers crumble, and thousands die — a ballsy, harrowing action sequence with high stakes. Superman and Zod inevitably come to blows, and their match is appropriately grand, each punch resulting in cataclysmic damage. At one point, Zod tosses Superman through six buildings — it’s beautiful to behold.

Also, Hans Zimmer’s score is divine.

Why Man of Steel is divisive

My brother and I dreamed about a modern Superman movie with this kind of scope as kids. Superman II teased us with a similarly-designed finale but lacked the technology to sell the scene. Marvel borrowed elements of Man of Steel for The Avengers but shied away from the abject terror of this situation. Snyder dives right in, showing what would happen if two super-powered beings went toe-to-toe in the middle of a densely populated city. This is the kind of shit you see in animated films, TV shows, and comic books but not on the big screen.

While people accept the onslaught on the page or in animated form, they outright reject Snyder’s brand of action on the big screen.

It all comes down to personal preference. Look, I grew up with Christopher Reeve’s Superman. I ran around with a towel draped over my back, pretending I could fly. I collected action figures, comic books, and trading cards. I spent hours listening to John Williams’ iconic score. When Superman died, I was heartbroken. When he returned with that awesome mullet, I rejoiced. I lived through Dean Caine and Smallville. When Bryan Singer unveiled the first trailer for Superman Returns, my soul leaped out of my body.

Superman has been and always will be my hero. 

Yet, I’m willing to accept different takes on the character. Man of Steel may not evoke the whimsy of Donner’s original film, but it doesn’t try to. Snyder’s Superman is a modern-day take on the spandex-sporting hero, darker, more mature, and heavier. His journey is far more complicated, filled with treacherous obstacles and difficult choices. I find the picture fascinating and endlessly thrilling.

So, again, I say I don’t get it. With Man of Steel, Zack Snyder crafted a spectacular motion picture summer blockbuster that takes some bold swings. I applaud its ambition. Sure, some of it is clunky, but few big-budget tent poles are as audacious as this Superman tale. So I guess I’m surprised at the vitriol — people seem to have Man of Steel for everything it’s not rather than enjoying it from the film it is. 

I doubt we’ll ever get a summer film like Man of Steel again. Here is a motion picture made by an auteur with a vision. During a watch along, Snyder pointed to a distant moon floating in the background of the opening Krypton scene and explained how Doomsday — the real Doomsday — caused its destruction. This is a man who genuinely loves comic books and was excited to build DC’s vast universe. Luckily, he primarily fulfilled his vision with Batman v Superman and Justice League, but it’s a shame he couldn’t complete what he started.


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