#3 in my ranking of the DCEU franchise.
#4 in my ranking of the theatrically released Superman films.
There’s something big and ambitious and earnest about Zach Snyder’s take on Superman that I find really admirable. Not everything in this movie works, but the mythic scope and embrace of the idea of gods coming to fight it out on Earth is handled with such weight and energy that I get swept up in the spectacle every time.
Snyder took the well-worn story of Superman’s origins and recast it rather dramatically in a couple of different directions. The first is aesthetics. Krypton looks browner and weirder than we’d seen it in film before. There are giant monsters and an embrace of weird science fiction visuals in how Krypton’s technology works. There’s also an embrace of a handheld camera that evokes independent filmmaking, especially in smaller moments. I remember when the first trailer dropped and people were saying that it almost looked like a Terrence Malick movie. Sort of (there’s too much of an embrace of lens flares), but it certainly provides an interesting contrast with the epic visuals, giving it an inherently grounded feel while dealing with a rather zany story of supermen and terraforming machines.
The second different direction largely focuses on John Kent, Superman’s adoptive father from Kansas. The movie decides that it wants to explain Clark Kent’s hiding of his power out of fear and a question of trust. The closest this movie comes to a strong theme is this idea of building trust in the face of something new. It pops up from time to time and gets mildly explored, but the film is much more of a character driven exercise in its first half and a plot driven one in its second. The first half is about Clark Kent’s lifelong quest to find a way to belong while having incredible powers no one else has and protecting himself from what he imagines to be a paranoid and violent reaction to his presence should it become widely known. Still, he can’t help but try and make the world better around him, so he saves kids from a bus crash despite his father’s insistence that it might have been better to let them die rather than risk revealing himself, and he rescues some oil rig workers despite coming away with nothing and needing to move on to another life again.
The irony is, of course, that he’s so strong that mankind could probably never hurt him, so the fear is less about his personal safety and more about the unpredictable results of his reveal. What happens after he finally figures out who he is and where he’s from when he finds a long lost Kryptonian ship? It’s his announcement to the universe that he is there, and Zod shows up. Zod, Krypton’s general who tried to lead a coup in the planet’s final decadent and collapsing moments and was punished in the Phantom Zone, comes back with the objective of rebuilding Krypton. Superman’s actions on Earth bring Zod there. Driven to insanity, he wants to terraform Earth into a new Krypton, no matter the living denizens, and exact his revenge on Superman’s father at the same time (with some extra stuff about a genetic codex imbued in Superman’s genetics put there by his father). This plot doesn’t really develop until the second half of the film, which I have no problem with.
The problem is really with Zod himself. I like the idea of Zod more than the execution. Michael Shannon is stilted as the dedicated antagonist, and his dialogue is often the most unnatural sounding of any of the principals. This is probably be design, giving him a different cadence from the rest of the characters to imply a different culture, but it comes off as stilted rather than elegantly natural. Part of that is the dialogue as written, and part of that is Shannon himself who haltingly moves through every line. Still, I love his plan and the epic fight that breaks out.
The terraforming of Earth as a threat provides room for some incredible destruction. I know some people have problems with the scale of destruction throughout the movie, but I love it. This is a fight between gods. On the one side are a group of malevolent warriors who think of nothing of the lives they endanger. On the other is a greenhorn hero who is suddenly faced with a fight he can’t handle on his own.
The fight that erupts in Smallville is a favorite. It starts with Superman attacking Zod directly after they threaten his mother in order to find the craft that Superman came to Earth in. It turns into a two on one beat down as Superman tries to fight off two Kryptonians. The US military gets involved and starts firing at both sides, and Superman ends up gaining the first trust from the official governing bodies on the planet through his actions. It’s the fight over the terraforming machines that really stands out, though. The leveling of Metropolis has a scale and terrifying feel to it that I love. The gravity field that pushes down on the buildings, leveling them to dust, while Zod crashes the Kryptonian ship into buildings, toppling them over, is quite a sight. The fist fight that breaks out between Zod and Superman in the sky is less impressive, and the final moment where Zod is going to kill a random little family is poorly set up, though the idea of Superman having to take the solution to an extreme to ensure Earth’s safety is an interesting one in general.
I love the ambition of the film. It’s desire to reach beyond mere spectacle and enter into something of mythic scale is quite well handled. I also like Superman’s challenge in finding how to make himself known to the world, and it ultimately comes out of necessity and to make up for his own contribution to the violence being visited upon Earth. It’s rough, though. Zod is poorly written and delivered. I think the stuff from Clark Kent’s childhood in Smallville might have worked better as a sustained sequence instead of snippets going back and forth. Overall, the movie feels like the product from a promising first draft screenplay that needed another couple of passes, but I still really like what I got.