RETRO REVIEW: Man of Steel

Sometime in the next couple of months, HBO Max is going to release the “Snyder Cut” of Justice League. That film was started by Zack Snyder and finished by Joss Whedon. Those two filmmakers could not have been more different, and the story of how the film got made ended up being more interesting than the film itself.

A Snyder film, or a Whedon film?

Justice League’s director credit goes to Mr. Snyder. Yet, we’re learning more and more than Mr. Whedon’s content was at least half of the film, and that the final result was much more a result of that Whedon sensibility. It was lighter and jokey than previous Snyder films, and much more like Avengers than it was like previous Snyder-helmed DC films.

The result was largely panned by critics who found it generic, unfocused, and confusing. I have to agree. I recently watched Justice League intently, hoping to have a comparison between it and the upcoming Snyder cut. It wasn’t easy. The film’s villain has no depth, the effects were not memorable, and the jokes fell flat. The best part of the film was Wonder Woman. She, like the audience, seemed in constant disbelief that she was a part of this whole mess.

So, I looked back at where it all began.

I decided to rewatch Man of Steel.

Man of Steel was the 2013 film that officially launched the “DC Expanded Universe.” Marvel had been experiencing massive success with its own cinematic universe, and the folks over on the other side of the aisle wanted to catch up. They started with Christopher Nolan, who had literally resurrected the Batman franchise. Mr. Nolan took on production roles and brought in Zack Snyder to direct, who was known for his dark takes on traditional material and his ultra-memorable visuals.

I’ve reviewed the films of Zack Snyder beforeMan of Steel owes a lot to those earlier films, both visually and in tone. It’s much more of a Snyder film than a Superman film. Comparing Man of Steel to Watchmen, it’s easy to see the same devices, the way that today’s graphic novels inform the shots and dialogue.

Man of Steel is a jarring change from the 1970s and 1980s Superman films. It’s much more grounded in reality. It addresses how a child really would experience superpowers, and how the country at large would react to evidence of an ultra-powerful alien hiding among us.

Just seven years prior to Man of Steel, Superman Returns had bombed hard. The film was envisioned as a follow-up to the Richard Donner/Richard Lester films of the 1970s and early 1980s. The tone of those films seemed a bad fit for the 21st century, and many felt that Superman was a dead franchise.

A reboot for the 21st century

Unlike Superman Returns, Man of Steel reboots the franchise. Starting fresh with a new perspective, you see characters that seem much more at home with the time in which they live. Lois Lane is given an upgrade to be more than a damsel in distress. Clark Kent’s arc seems real, the story of a child who has lived through the loss of a parent. The intentional cheesiness of prior iterations is gone, and replaced with realistic explanations of even the most meaningless trivia.

The film is a masterwork of visual effects, for its day. By introducing simulated camera shake and a wider angle to many effects shots, they seem much more like cell phone video. Therefore they seem much more realistic. The CGI uses then-new particle systems to allow for shots full of dust and little bits of debris. This technology first gained acceptance in films like Transformers, and by 2013 it was very common.

A 2021 perspective

Krypton, from 1978’s Superman: The Movie.

By 2021 standards though, this film doesn’t hold up incredibly well either visually or in any other way. I was surprised at how dated some of the effects looked, especially the Krypton ones. Those effects look especially video-gamey. And this is a problem, because your relationship with this sort of movie starts with the effects. The practical-looking Krypton effects of 1978’s Superman: The Movie are, in many ways, better than this 2013 Krypton, perhaps because they are by necessity less ambitious.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Man of Steel is that although it was progressive it its day, it’s not progessive in ours. Yes, Perry White is Black. Lois Lane is one of the best reporters on the planet. But, put that aside and you see a film full of largely white men, where people of color and non-cis-males have nothing to do. One of Zod’s lackeys is female, just as she was in Superman II. But overall you get the feeling in Man of Steel that all the movement and development lays solely in the hands of the cis, white, male characters.

Even more, although the world is tense and cynical at the news that an alien lives among them, there’s none of the severe denial or posturing that have become so common in public life since 2013. The obsession with our phones was there in 2013, but it wasn’t as ingrained as it is now. It seems like Lois Lane had to work very hard to track Clark Kent’s real story. Today it wouldn’t take much more than a Google search to get a hundred relevant results.

The next phase of DC

As much as I’m a fan of Warner Bros and DC, it’s hard to know if their plans for the DC multiverse will really pan out. I go into detail on those plans here. The plan is to let the different TV series, animation and movies all live together, linked by the idea that they’re all slightly different universes in a larger multiverse. This means that we can explore a universe where The Joker is a regular guy who’s just fed up (as in The Joker) while we can also see The Joker as an over-the-top psychopath with a terrifyingly fake visage in Birds of Prey/Harley Quinn.  Jared Leto’s character might someday meet Joaquin Phoenix’s.

And I wonder if that’s going to really make sense to a casual viewer. I’ve complained before that you have to now have some understanding of 23 movies and several TV series in order to appreciate the latest Marvel film.  Now, with DC you have to understand all the films of the last 40 years, all the comics, all the TV shows… will it be too much?


I guess we’ll find out when Zack Snyder’s Justice League finally airs.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.