When Man of Steel first came out four years ago on the date of this post June 14, it was a shock to the system. There's really no other way to put it.
Let me be clear though, I DID like it from the beginning. Visually in terms of cinematography and effects, it was by far the most impressive Superman movie that I had ever seen. He had never flown like that, fought like that or looked like that on screen. It was nothing short of epic from the first viewing on.
The thing is, something was different that first time. REALLY different, and I wasn't sure what it was. I knew it was going to be a modern day story set in a world close to our own. I knew it would be more fantastical than Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, which grounded everything about Batman in a sense of strictly plausible legitimacy. I was ready for how different this movie was going to look and sound than anything else we had seen from WB and DC in the past.
What I wasn't ready for was the tone, the character beats and the story itself. Sure the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the movie was a rebooted telling of his origin, how his father Jor-El risked everything to save him from the destruction of their home planet Krypton, but as soon as Kal-El got to Earth everything was different. It was uncharted territory and while I was definitely intrigued by it, I didn't know what to make of it and neither did my friends. No one I knew hated it, but we all felt like something was off about it that first time we watched it.
It wasn't until I watched Man of Steel a second time, which led me to watch it a third time, a fourth, fifth, sixth and more times until I lost count, that I realized what it was that was bugging me about the movie. There was a little but loud piece of cognitive dissonance that was in my head the whole time I watched it in the theater that I couldn't identify, but now I heard it loud and clear after multiple viewings:
"This isn't the Superman I'm used to. I'm still stuck in "Reeve" mode."
It was as clear as day at that point and the reactions of other people who were also iffy on the movie or flat out didn't like it, confirmed my revelation. Through the previous five Superman movies, I was only used to one version of the character, one interpretation of his story in live action cinema, and because I liked most of them including Superman Returns, my mind was expecting that status quo to continue. When it didn't, it took me awhile to realize it and I was open minded enough to see what was going on.
This "new" Superman was one where Lois Lane knew who he was from the beginning and was immediately one of the people keeping his identity a secret for the good of not just mankind, but also Clark Kent himself, which also served to establish a deeper connection between the two that more plausibly led to their love by the end of the movie. This Superman wasn't an all powerful Deus Ex Machina that we willingly gave our confidence and trust to out of habit; he was a flawed, conflicted "human being" that struggled with the nature of his true existence and the fear of what the world would do if they knew about him. This Superman didn't have enemies that harbored grudges against his father and simply wanted to rule the Earth; they were enemies who saw an opportunity to rebuild their obliterated world upon the "husk" of Earth and took measures to make it happen, forcing Kal-El to defend what was ultimately his home and his people, even if his original people were threatening them.
Make no mistake, Man of Steel "humanized" Superman for the very first time in cinema history and finally made the hero a relatable character for others to see themselves in, which goes against all of the previous Superman movies in every possible way. In those movies, he was the symbol of what mankind hoped to aspire to be but knew they would never reach, which is why they needed him as badly as they did. In this retelling Superman IS mankind, or was at least raised and molded by mankind in a way that the only thing that makes him "better" is literally his abilities, but it is those abilities that gives him the chance to be what mankind aspires to be, even if not everyone wants him to be that. He has our values, our morals and our principles and his power allows him to reach heights with those tenets that we as mere mortals couldn't even begin to reconcile. In this regard, Man of Steel is not a classic hero versus villain conflict with a black and white focus. It is instead a tale of a man, an immigrant raised in a different culture to become one of them, finally recognizing what he truly is and using that ability to help and aid the people he identifies with the most: human beings.
Henry Cavill looks, speaks and acts the part of both Clark Kent and Superman with such perfection that he is able to blend the both into one character at times in the movie, especially with Amy Adams' Lois Lane, which is just another thing about the movie that was bold and daring at the time to humanize the character that is arguably the most well known and powerful superhero of all time. Instead of giving him a version of General Zod to fight that was cartoonish and one-dimensional, they actually made Zod a tragic and coldly logical villain with a completely fleshed out purpose for his evil plan. We have seen his world destroyed, we have seen his passion for his people and we understand his motivations for why he is doing what he does, which makes his rage all the more plausible in the final battle and Michael Shannon brought a gravitas to the character that simply hasn't been duplicated since in a comic book villain. Too many times, especially in origin stories do we see a villain used strictly as a plot device to advance the main character's journey into becoming a hero. This one didn't do that and instead taught a masterclass on how to build a proper comic book movie villain without taking the focus away from the hero's origin story.
I wasn't able to see all of this the first time I saw the movie because I simply wasn't ready for it. I had so many years of other kinds of comic book movies made along a more standardized template that to see one that outright defied that template and boldly told a brand new story about arguably the most iconic superhero in history was too much for me at the time. Thankfully, I didn't give up on it like so many others did and I have come to understand just how incredible and thought-provoking Man of Steel is, making it one of the best comic book movies ever made without question. While it is still polarizing to this day, as is its direct sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it is the most ambitiously definitive Superman movie of our time and set the tone for the beginning of the DC Extended Universe as a franchise, which after only four years is still really just getting started.