In the pantheon of superheroes, Superman is the most recognized and revered character of all time. Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is a young twenty-something journalist who feels alienated by powers beyond anyone's imagination. Transported to Earth years ago from Krypton, an advanced alien planet, Clark struggles with the ultimate question 'Why am I here?' Shaped by the values of his adoptive parents Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), Clark soon discovers that having super abilities means making very difficult decisions. When the world needs stability the most, it comes under attack. Will his abilities be used to maintain peace or ultimately used to divide and conquer? Clark must become the hero known as Superman, not only to shine as the world's last beacon of hope but to protect the ones he loves.
Christopher Nolan's 'Dark Knight' trilogy has had a tremendous impact on the way filmmakers and studios now approach comic book adaptations. They're now taken with a more serious, often quite dark and very much post-modern tone, interestingly exploring the psychology that makes up a superhero and how he handles the weight of responsibility as protector of humanity's own path towards destruction. Arguably, Ang Lee's largely disappointing 'Hulk' and Bryan Singer's excellent 'X2: X-Men United' were really the first films to touch on these themes; however, Nolan took it further, went deeper and traveled into darker territory. Today, the movie superhero is no longer a comic caricature, but a flesh and blood character, almost human, struggling with grave moral demands that adults can appreciate.
Frankly, these more thoughtful aspects to comic-book superheroes come as little surprise, they're familiar themes that have been enjoyed by devoted fans and have already been acknowledged and discussed by academics for decades. The only real surprise is that it took movie studios this long to finally give comics the respect they deserve. Then again, maybe it's not that much a surprise, all things considered. Nevertheless, we're here now, and filmmakers are unafraid to posit our heroes as heavily flawed individuals with quandaries, damaged goods who must overcome their imperfections and personal dilemmas to aspire for greatness. There's also something inspiring in seeing what we previously thought of as perfect as only being good at hiding their inadequacies.
One aspect within the Superman mythos not often enough explored for mainstream audiences is the character's desire to know more of his origins and the dilemma over his foreignness. From a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer — the same pair that made 'The Dark Knight' movies a success — almost the entire first half in 'Man of Steel' is dedicated to this personal struggle with self-identity. Although Clark Kent (Henry Cavill doing his best but never becoming wholly convincing) is adopted by two very loving parents (a surprisingly good Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and raised in the American heartland of Kansas, he must cope with the fact that he is different from others, that he's an immigrant (or an illegal alien, to be perfectly honest) in the truest sense of the word, a being caught in the middle of two seemingly opposing cultures. This is a fact his parents have chosen not to keep secret from him.
With glitzy, overtly-stylized directing from Zack Snyder ('Watchmen'), the film opens with a stirringly sentimental and feverish spectacle of Jor-El (a rather stiff Russell Crowe) defending his family and the future of his species against a military coup d'état led by General Zod (Michael Shannon in a splendid and memorable role). The scene then plays like an unknown, subconscious presence shadowing the rest of the story, which later becomes a heavy emotional burden when Clark learns he's actually Kal-El, the last son of Krypton. From there, the narrative is told mostly through flashback, revealing small glimpses of a person desiring for acceptance from a harshly judgmental society but denied so often that it grows into a weight of sad memories. After witnessing the death of his human father in a situation in which we know he could have done more, Clark wanders the planet in search of the purpose for his being on Earth while also using his special abilities when the situation requirs them.
Personally, I love that the filmmakers would be so bold to do this — to have the otherwise seemingly perfect Übermensch (the philosophical concept that essentially inspired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) question his very existence in an imperfect world. This central dilemma is wonderfully encapsulated by the lessons of Clark's father and Lois Lane's (Amy Adams in a role dramatically different from the comics) untiring search for the mystery man who saved her life while she was snooping around a military base in the Arctic. When questioning her pursuit, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, editor of "The Daily Planet," puts it very succinctly and frankly, a question that in turn reveals a major flaw within us as a supposedly open-minded civilization. This, in turn, places Lois in a dilemma that complements the script's central theme.
'Man of Steel' is the sort of Superman movie I've always wanted to see explored on film: for all his perfections, he struggles with the weight and responsibility of being the savior of humanity and the burden attached to that abstract idea. The moral compass he strives to find and personify is not created from simple black-and-white questions, but gray, murky, and troubling decisions riddled with uncertainty and painful consequences. This is what leads our hero to make a difficult choice when battling Zod, another being guided by his own personal moral compass of wanting to ensure the survival of his species, to do something we wouldn't imagine Superman to do. And like our hero, the movie itself is rather imperfect as well (with awkward, sloppy editing, for one thing), but 'Man of Steel' is terrifically entertaining, supported by a thoughtful and weighty script that by and large has me forgiving its flaws while remaining thrilled by its positives.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings 'Man of Steel' to Blu-ray as a three-disc combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy. Inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase with a glossy slipcover, two Region Free, BD50 discs are accompanied by a DVD-9 copy of the movie containing a small collection of bonus material. At startup, viewers can skip a couple trailers to a menu screen with options along the bottom, full-motion clips and music.
The Man of Steel makes his big debut on Blu-ray with this highly-detailed and impressive 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Shot with a combination of traditional 35mm film and the Red Epic digital camera system, this latest reiteration of the legendary superhero looks his best with a thin-layer of grain throughout, providing the movie with an attractive cinematic quality that's consistent. The video comes with a couple scenes that are softer than others, but they don't distract from the well-defined moments that show distinct lines in buildings, spaceships and various other vehicles. Facial complexions are very revealing with excellent lifelike textures, and the clothing, especially the Kryptonian outfits, exposes every stitch and thread of the fabric.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the gritty cinematography of Amir Mokri favors a stylized and heavily subdued look, giving the film an overcast and somber appeal. Several flashes of the currently popular orange and teal palette sprinkle the image with some boldness and life while primaries come through richly-saturated and cleanly-rendered. In Spite of a noticeable toned-down contrast, the picture still yields remarkable clarity and resolution in the far distance, revealing the smallest window or tiniest antenna atop buildings. Black levels are inky and true with penetrating shadows that never take away from the background information. Overall, the high-def transfer is top-notch and sure to satisfy.
The Snyder-Nolan-Goyer collaboration also yields some amazing results in the audio department with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that will leave fans cheering for more. From the start, the movie opens with a wall of sound that doesn't let up until the last of the end credits, filling the screen and the room in general with the music of Hans Zimmer. With a remarkably detailed and sharply extensive mid-range, the listener can enjoy each note and individual instrument within the orchestration. The dynamic design is full of warmth and fidelity, peaking into the upper frequencies with incredible, room-penetrating clarity while still maintaining superb distinction and intelligibility in the dialogue. The low-end is quite responsive with a decent authoritative punch that reverberates through the room and adds weight to the action and music; only, it never really digs very deep or extend far into the lower depths.
Rear activity is equally exciting, delivering a consistent wave of discrete effects that fill the room with an immersive 360° soundfield. During action-packed sequences, anything from jets, helicopters, alien spacecrafts and Kryptonians speeding across the sky pan from one speaker to the next with exhilarating realism and flawless movement. Every explosion unloads a surge of gravel, dirt and rock that then rains down all around with amazing clarity and continues to bounce further away. Subtle atmospherics, like leaves blowing in the wind, birds flying overhead or city traffic, are employed to fill in the quieter, dialogue-driven moments, making this lossless mix a top contender for one of the best Blu-rays of the year.
From a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, 'Man of Steel' surprises with its thoughtful reimagining of Superman's origins and the personal challenges he faces in his journey to becoming the iconic hero he's known for being. Director Zack Snyder brings his usual bombastic flair but manages to deliver the sort of comic book adaptation fans love to watch and will hopefully serve as the beginning of a new franchise. The film debuts on Blu-ray with excellent video and a reference-quality audio presentation that will satisfy home-theater enthusiasts everywhere. With a nice collection of supplements adding to the overall package, Superman fans should be more than happy with their purchase.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.