Man of Steel Review
He can’t fly, but he can leap over tall buildings.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an excellent Superman film. The original 1978 flick and its sequel Superman II, both starring Christopher Reeve as the iconic hero, remain classics but the past thirty years have not been kind to his legacy. Superman III featured an incomprehensibly campy tone, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was catastrophic in every way imaginable, and even Bryan Singer’s highly anticipated reboot, Superman Returns, managed to disappoint in a number of respects. It’s now 2013 and yet another series reboot, this time helmed by polarizing action director Zack Snyder, has hit the big screen in a big way. While this film may be exactly what many mainstream audiences were looking for, I can see comic fans walking out with mixed feelings.
The film opens in the twilight of Krypton’s life. This planet seems harsh, cold, and desolate, in spite of an elegant culture and advanced technology. Society appears both beautiful and full of cracks, exactly as it should have been presented. Without dipping into plot-heavy exposition, Jor-El (perfectly portrayed by Russell Crowe) manages to convey how dire the planet’s situation is while also presenting the central conflict between virtue and General Zod’s skewed views of “the greater good.” Zod (played by a scenery-eating Michael Shannon), attempts a coup against Krypton’s stagnated government, but fails and is sentenced to spend the remainder of the planet’s life in The Phantom Zone with his crew of misfits. I doubt every member of the audience will fully appreciate the attention to detail and subtle nuances of this sequence, but I can’t stress enough how well executed it was.
When we are later introduced to Jor-El’s son Kal-El (or Clark Kent as he’s colloquially known on Earth), we find him to be a troubled young man. It’s apparent that he has a habit for never staying in any one place for too long, and saving anyone who might be endangered. There are several sequences with him aiding those in need before disappearing altogether, all of which are spliced-in with flashbacks to his all-American childhood. In a case of puberty gone wrong, the sun’s rays on his Kryptonian genetics made our hero be seen as the town weirdo, with his only refuge being his nuclear family. Clark’s human parents sincerely love him, but fear what others might think of what he really is. The quick jumps between past and present may feel disorienting for some, but these flashbacks are all wonderfully shot and add some much needed soul to the dark blockbuster.
Once he’s met his arbitrary heroism quota, Clark heads to the arctic and infiltrates a government investigation of an ice pack. A Kryptonian spaceship has apparently been buried there for an unreasonable amount of time, and — naturally — it holds both the keys to Clark’s long-lost heritage and the inciting force for the film’s plot to arrive. In one sequence, our hero manages to meet Lois Lane, have a heart-to-heart with an avatar of his Kryptonian father, and alert a vengeful General Zod to his presence. From this moment on, the flick moves at a breakneck pace, in a manner analogous to a steamroller going downhill.
Action tends to lose its effectiveness when not used sparingly. The one-on-one battles are definitely “super” and rich with spectacle, but it’s hard to care about plot events when it feels like people have been punching each other for forty minutes straight. This demonstrates a lack of restraint on Snyder’s part, but it doesn’t really impact the film until its climax. In the most pivotal moments of the film’s runtime, Superman does something Superman would never do. Without spoiling the final moments, I can say that the titular Man of Steel is perverted by one violent action so fundamentally incorrect that it makes me question what the hell Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan were thinking.
In terms of aesthetics, I was really excited to witness a darker, grittier Superman film. However, inspired visual effects and above average cinematography didn’t stop Man of Steel from feeling without heart. This film is very grey, however, it feels more morose and depressing than it does realistic and gritty. It doesn’t help that the 3D post-conversion is as tremendously half-assed as it is. I watched this film in IMAX 3D and could have done so without donning those ugly 3D glasses once. Sure — many things explode and anything Kryptonian is aesthetically impressive, but my eyes were hardly satisfied with this incredibly loud blockbuster.
The acting was mostly top-notch, with Henry Cavill providing an inspired Kal-El. In spite of narrative inconsistency and an ill-fitting theme, Cavill perfectly demonstrated both Clark’s uncertainty and Superman’s status as a paragon. Zod, played mincingly by Michael Shannon is over-acted and boasts more desperation to his character this time around. That said, I can’t say Shannon’s portrayal is of the same quality as Terence Stamp’s. All other cast choices make little-to-no sense. Amy Adams is no Lois Lane. It feels as though she’s the biggest square peg in this flick, and I can see why she was passed-over so many times before now. Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, and Kevin Costner put in magnificent performances, but each of their characters have so little screen time that it’s hard not to wonder why they’re even here.
In the end, it’s hard to love or hate Man of Steel. There are a lot of things which the film is able to nail: a capable actor in the cape, a strong villain, interesting visual effects, a rich backstory, and a (mostly) strong supporting cast. However, the soulless action-packed last half, superfluous love interest, inconsistent and meandering narrative, and dark theme are so ill-fitting that most fans of this treasured icon of heroism will likely walk away with at least a tinge of disappointment. Personally, I feel like a follow up could be much better providing there is a greater adherence to the virtues of Kal-El’s character and more restraint on Snyder’s part. In the meantime, this is what we have: an origin story which entertains, but doesn’t even attempt to raise the bar.