The planet Krypton is facing total annihilation. Before that happens, though, a desperate and anguished couple slip their newborn son, naked and wriggling, into a small spacecraft and send him soaring off to a new world a universe away. They rocket him to a planet called Earth. On that blue orb bathed by its yellow sun, their baby is taken in by a Kansas farm couple with the last name of Kent.
Of course it does. It's the origin story of one Kal-El, aka Clark Kent, aka Superman—a boy from another world who's destined to gain superhuman powers and do miraculous things.
In this version of the comic-book-to-big-screen tale, though, Clark's human parents earnestly worry about what could happen to their beloved son if someone found out about him. They're sure that even in their middle America hometown of Smallville—a tiny little town filled with large hearts—people wouldn't fully accept having an alien in their midst. And so they warn their boy to keep his many abilities hidden.
That's not so easy to do, of course, when you're a kid who can see through people's skin or hear a pin drop on the other side of town. And it's not so simple when you're a hormones-raging teen who can bend steel with his bare hands and shoot lasers from his eyes.
So by the time Clark grows into a young man, he's feeling pretty lost, pretty confused and pretty alone. He wanders to the four corners of our globe, taking odd jobs and trying to keep himself invisible.
But he just can't keep himself from being helpful.
When things go wrong and people get hurt, he can't help but brave a fire to save someone, or stand as an unmovable wall between the innocent and their tormentors. He can't resist the idea of being the guy who aids the needy, no matter how wise his parents' warnings may be.
So when a surviving Kryptonian general named Zod appears in the skies over Metropolis, with threatening words and deadly intentions, Clark can't keep himself from doing what he must.
And he must …
… speed faster than a bullet.
… leap higher than tall buildings.
… use all his power to protect his adopted world.
… put himself between the predators and the prey.
… stand strong for what is right.
This is, after all, not a task that just any man can face. This is a job for a superman.
Clark is an extraordinary man of character who comes by his heroism tendencies honestly. His Kryptonian parents, Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, put their lives at risk to save their infant son and stand up to the evil schemes of General Zod. And by way of hologram/near-sentient computer program, Jor-El encourages his adult son to stand strong for the people of Earth, saying, "You can embody the best of both worlds."
His earthly mom and dad also give him some direct examples: During an unexpected tornado, Jonathan Kent puts his own life at risk to save others, clearly showing his son the meaning of self-sacrifice. He talks repeatedly to his boy about the importance of good choices and solid character. And when a preadolescent Clark is having something of a breakdown thanks to the onset of his supersenses, it's Martha Kent who talks him through it. "The world is too big, Mom," Clark cries from inside a locked closet at school. "Then make it small," Martha coaches him lovingly. "Focus on my voice."
So when Clark finds out about his otherworldly origins, he beseeches his father, "Can't I just keep pretending that I'm your son?" To which Jonathan immediately embraces the boy and retorts with a breaking voice, "You are my son."
Those kinds of parental moments of love and instruction are obviously reflected in Clark's subsequent choices, large and small. Even when he's in the heat of thunderous battle, he takes the time and puts in the extra effort to deflect harm from an innocent or break a wounded soldier's fall. And it's these kinds of others-focused actions that eventually motivate human soldiers and civilians alike to unquestioningly accept the alien Superman as one of their own—belying the Kents' fears of his probable rejection.
Clark is initially ready to calmly sacrifice himself for his earthly allies, only resorting to violent confrontation with his villainous foes when he realizes that they intend to destroy the humans anyway. And Clark's and his parents' selfless choices are readily mirrored in people like reporter Lois Lane and editor Perry White, who reach out to help those in need even as impending doom marches their way. Some even give their lives to fight the evil they confront. And Lois gamely volunteers to follow Zod's soldiers to captivity rather than start a human vs. alien firefight.
Of note: Artificial population controls are subtly decried as having disrupted/destroyed Krypton's civilization.
The Superman stories have over the years developed a significant spiritual standing, with the man of steel serving as an analog for our heavenly Savior. He's an only son sent to Earth to be a shining light in our darkness and an all-powerful paragon of truth and justice. As a baby he's adopted by Martha and Jonathan, and he grows into someone who can defy the laws of physics in grand ways while championing the weak in nearly every way. He's a superhero who sets out to save a humanity in desperate need. It's never a perfect allegory, of course, but it's generated countless conversations, articles, sermons and books that explore the rich subtext inherent in this once humble comic book tale.
With that as a backdrop, it's quite remarkable to note that this Man of Steel movie is one of the most spiritually symbolic and Messianic-image-packed treatments made about this character. Here, Clark Kent even comes to understand—at the age of 33, no less—his responsibility to step up, face off with and destroy an ultimate evil that threatens all mankind.
But that's at the end. At the climax. All through this film, dialogue and images hint at connections between Superman and Jesus. Several people, from Jor-El to Jonathan to Zod's female second, Faora-Ul, talk to Clark about his ability (or lack of ability) to save the people on his adopted planet. Superman levitates with his arms spread in a cross-like form on several occasions. When he goes to church to ask a priest for advice, the camera's eye frames a stained-glass representation of Christ over the young Clark's shoulder. The priest tells him, "Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later."
After Clark rescues a bus full of children, a kid's mother states, "This was an act of God!" Clark asks his dad, "Did God do this to me?" When Lara worries about her infant son's safety on Earth, Jor-El assures her, "He'll be a god to them." Bad guy Kryptonians tell Superman that "the fact that you possess a sense of morality and we do not" gives them an advantage. "Evolution always wins," they say.
Also: We learn that most Kryptonians were engineered, essentially, for whatever their lot in life was to be. In other (spiritual) words, they have no free will. Superman is the exception. He was born naturally—the first natural birth on that planet in centuries—and he is therefore free to "choose" his own destiny.
Clark and Lois share a lingering kiss. Another woman calls him "hot." Lara sports some cleavage. A computer program briefly displays a silver statue-like image of what appears to be a bare-breasted woman. A very buff and muscular Clark is seen with his shirt off on several occasions—once when he steps out of a blazing fire, his clothes burning off his body (leaving only tattered trousers). Clark confronts a guy in a bar for grabbing a waitress's rear.
Concussive explosions, demolished buildings, riddling bullet sprays, roaring lasers and heat beams, and all manner of scenery-destroying action are the order of the superday. The alien attack, for example, causes rubble to fall on screaming, running crowds, and it's implied that Metropolis is nearly leveled from the impact of incredibly destructive alien beams, human military bombings and strafes, and the collateral damage of superpowered beings smashing through entire city blocks of concrete and glass and steel as they pound, pound, pound each other in extravagantly ultraviolent ways. Cars and trucks are picked up and tossed like crumpled wads of paper.
Children scream and gasp for air as their bus slips beneath the water of a lake. Lois is struck by a menacing robotic arm, and we see a small circle of blood stain her shirt. Clark catches her and cauterizes her stomach wound with his heat vision. A man is caught in the swirling winds of a tornado. Pilots tumble out of their crushed planes, and people fall out of demolished buildings.
On Krypton, we see Jor-El and General Zod fight, the two aliens battering each other viciously. Zod ends up with a slashed wound on his face, and he ultimately kills Jor-El with a large-blade stab to the abdomen (just offscreen).
Zod picks Martha up by the throat and throws her to the ground. Heat rays from Zod's eyes destroy a room and threaten civilians cowering in a corner. He shoots an older woman with a Kryptonian ray gun, and she crumples forward, dead. When Clark steps into Zod's ship with its Kryptonian environment, he grows weak, collapses forward and spits out blood. We see fields full of skulls, and several decayed/petrified corpses.
[Spoiler Warning] Superman intentionally kills someone in this movie, snapping his assailant's neck. He does so to save others, of course, but it's still a highly unusual turn of events for this superhero.
Crude or Profane Language
"Effin'" stands in for the obscenity. There's one s-word. We hear four or five uses of "a‑‑," and one or two each of "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n." "D‑‑k" is used as a put-down (by a middle school boy) and a crude reference to establishing who has more clout. "Oh my god" is spit out two or three times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several customers in two bar scenes have glasses of alcohol and bottles of beer. Lois swigs from a small glass of scotch. Clark drinks a beer. (He also has a beer poured over his head by a drunken bar patron.)
Other Negative Elements
An unexpected onset of X-ray vision allows a young Clark to see right through his teacher and classmates, giving him a scary/gross view of their skeletons and beating hearts. He steals some clothes after losing most of his in a fire. Lois runs from the FBI in her effort to hide Clark.
"It's the most realistic movie I've made," director Zack Snyder (who helmed Watchmen, 300 and Dawn of the Dead) told the L.A. Times. "There's no tongue in anyone's cheek. I'm not apologizing for Superman in any way. I'm saying, 'Superman is a thing that must be taken seriously and embraced and understood.'"
Indeed, his version of the now 75-year-old superhero story is straightforward and earnest. It's an honest-to-goodness sci-fi opera that reflects both the classic roots and the modern comic book sensibilities of its well-known superhero legend.
That's not to say there aren't loose threads to pick at on this supersuit. A death dealt by Superman's own hand, for instance, is a choice that flies in the face of the bulk of the hero's canon. It's a seemingly unavoidable consequence that leaves the superguy in anguish, but one that purists will hate, nonetheless, and that more casual fans will likely find a bit disquieting. And while we're on the subject of death, there's the hard-core action flick side of things to consider:
Man of Steel certainly doesn't skimp when it comes to all things flying faster than speeding bullets. Its pace is quick, even frantic at times, and its CGI spectacle is brain-rattling. The sheer destruction wreaked upon Metropolis alone—with brawling supers and alien spacecraft bulldozing skyscrapers into dust while earthling multitudes scamper and run and, surely, perish by the thousands in the rubble—out-whiz-bangs even Marvel's The Avengers. (And that's not entirely a compliment; you can think of large portions of this film as Transformers: Dark of Krypton.)
But then we come to what Snyder calls Superman's "inherent goodness." The director says, "If you really think about it, you still want him to be right and to make the right choices and to do the right thing. I think that we all hope for that in ourselves, and I think that's what always has made him a very interesting character. He's a Christ-like figure. There's no two ways about it."
And Snyder leaves that inherent goodness and Christ-likeness in his film for all to see. (Through the cascades of sci-fi dust and debris, of course.)