Principal Cast : Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antjae Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Russell Crowe.
Synopsis: Clark Kent, an alien child rocketed to earth from the doomed planet Krypton, is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, growing up with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. When the Earth is attacked by soldiers from his former homeworld, Clark must become the hero Superman, to fight evil and save our world.
Take that, Avengers!
After a monumental promotional campaign, a scrabble of pre-release buzz and the lofty weight of an entire comic book company’s expectation – not to mention the general public’s – we finally get a Superman for the new millennium. After Bryan Singer’s stillborn homage to Richard Donner grossly underwhelmed fans (although bizarrely, critics liked it) back in 2006, it seemed like Superman would never be given the same reverence and respect we saw in the 1979 film, a film which bore Christopher Reeve to superstar status; indeed, Superman Returns offered us a limp, turgid, mopey Supes more concerned about his offspring and relationship with Lois than anything approximating excitement. With Man Of Steel, director Zack Snyder and über-director/producer Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy) attempt to re-energize a franchise sorely in need of adrenaline. Problematic for the character of Superman is that he needs a truly worthy opponent, and it’s my opinion that a modern audience would never have gone for a scheming Lex Luthor with a land-grab opportunity as the bane of Clark Kent’s life. Snyder, best known for his visually unique takes on Spartan warfare (300), the near-unfilmable comic book legend of the 1980’s (Watchmen) and the relaunch of Romero’s Dawn of The Dead, as well as the lackluster SuckerPunch and the animated wonder Legends Of The Guardians, brings the wonder, the awe and the sheer magnificence back to the look and feel of Superman’s story, and regardless of what you might think of the story, the acting or the way it turns out, there’s no denying the man has made an awesomely gorgeous movie. So what of the plot, the characters and the overall result of Man Of Steel? Is the film yet another misfire on the part of filmmakers to turn the DC Comics properties into a successful franchise in the same way Marvel is going about their Avengers saga? Is Man of Steel one of the great comic book films of all time, or is it merely an also-ran, a harbinger of doom for future DC characters and their potential for filmic success?
On the distant planet of Krypton, scientist Jor El (Russell Crowe) must outwit the leader of a military coup de dat, General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is unaware of the impeding destruction of their precious homeworld. Zod sees himself as the great protector of Krypton, and will do anything to save it. However, when his coup is defeated, Zod and his troops are sentenced to The Phantom Zone in punishment. Before Krypton is destroyed, however, Jor El sends his infant son, Kal El, in a rocket, to a distant planet – ours. Growing up, the young boy is named Clark by his adoptive parents, Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). As he begins to exhibit bizarre powers, such as the ability to see through objects, Jonathan explains his alien heritage, and how he should keep this aspect of his life a secret – the world is not ready, apparently, for confirmation of alien life. Clark grows up to become a man (Henry Cavill) wandering the Earth, seeking a purpose in life, living a hermit’s existence, before his secret is uncovered by reporter for the Daily Planet, Lois Lane (Amy Adams). When the banished General Zod discovers the existence of Kal El on Earth, he arrives on the planet and threatens global destruction unless our hero returns to the fold. From there, Clark/Kal El must decide whether he will return to his Kryptonian roots, or remain aligned to humanity and serve as their protector against this impending threat.
Before getting into the review proper, I should point out that I am a massive Superman fan. Have been since the early 90’s, although exposure during my formative years during the 80’s also ensured I had more than a passing attachment to the Man of Tomorrow. Having read comics seriously for more than 20 years now, I think I’m well placed as a fan to explain whether Man Of Steel hits the right notes from the perspective of someone with a vested interest in the franchise; it’s a sad fact that the enormous shadow of Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the character has hung over any attempt to revive Superman on screen, usually with screeching fanboy hate towards anything different from what Donner and Reeve accomplished nigh over 30 years ago. Some people, it seems, can’t let it go. Reviews of any Superman project since have lamented the lack of Reeve’s sly in-on-the-joke winks and good-old-boy demeanor, as if that portrayal was the only one worth noticing, which has frustrated this longtime fan ever since; considering the volume of iterations of the character in comic form over the years, why is it not unreasonable to accept that an alternative version of Superman is equally as acceptable as the much lauded Chris Reeves version? Therefore, this review of Man Of Steel will be comparison-free as much as possible; Snyder and Co have tried to hit reset as much as possible from past iterations of Superman, and I’ll give them the space to do just that. The distance of 30 years should warrant at least that much respect.
Man Of Steel is, bluntly, an orgy of spectacle and action. The mantra of bigger, better, faster, louder seems to have been at work here, with Zack Snyder’s crisp, definitive vision for the film a shining example of modern-day blockbuster film-making. Eschewing clean-cut humor and a sense of the sublime, Snyder, together with current Warner Brothers Godfather, Christopher Nolan (he of the recent Batman trilogy), and screenwriter David S Goyer, have tried to put the “super” back into Superman, to varying degrees of success. As an action film, Man Of Steel ticks all the boxes, delivering a jaw-dropping sense of epic scale and magnitude. Metropolis crumbles with the onslaught of Zod and his battle with Superman, with the deft visual effects giving us so many “money shots” of action it makes The Avenger’s final New York sequence look like a slight skirmish. I’d hate to be a property investor in that city, I can tell you. The film starts large, and goes up incrementally from there. From Jor El’s Kryptonian battle and defeat, to Kal El’s end-game showdown with Zod, Man Of Steel delivers gargantuan moment after gargantuan moment, constantly trying to one-up itself in a seemingly endless stream of killer shots designed for trailers and eventual YouTube parody. It is exciting in the most bombastic, erection-giving manner for a fanboy possible.
Does that make it a bad film? In some eyes, probably. In mine, not at all. I don’t mind a Superman film where Superman actually does stuff, rather than ponce about all mopey or lift giant rocks. It’s obvious to a comic geek such as myself that the film is, in many ways, trying to foundation a franchise of sequels, which is fair enough considering the money spent on getting this thing to the screen. Sacrificing some character moments is probably to be expected of a modern updating of the concept, although while I’d hate to see any eventual sequels squander the opportunity to build on what Goyer and Snyder have achieved here, criticism of the movie could probably be laid on this element. A preponderance of exposition that doesn’t really add any weight to the film, a film where the central character traverses a sea of conflicting emotional states, brings little heft to the film’s dramatic arc, albeit only perhaps to propel our titular character towards being the hero we all know and love. Goyer’s script has some clunky elements, sure, but then so do most comic-book films that try and bring the fantastical to life. The film has a predisposition to being a little too serious, which wasn’t a problem for me (I mean, must Superman crack jokes while saving people every five minutes? He doesn’t in the comics!) because it helped lend credence to the seriousness of the scenario of the story. Generally, though, I thought the tone of the film was as believable in a real-world context as possible, considering aliens have arrived and only one of them is on our side.
A lot of early reviews have criticized scripter David Goyer’s apparently cavalier approach to the “fun” of the Superman mythos. Which is fair enough, I guess, if you’re looking for another Tony Stark. Superman’s comedy act came with Richard Donner (and to a larger extent, the oft-reviled Dick Lester) so it’s about time a more melancholy, more emotionally angst-ridden Superman was given to us – my question has always been; why should Superman be a fun-ride at the park? He’s a man with serious powers, with serious consequences, and serious villains, so why shouldn’t he take them seriously? If Superman were real, I’d hate to see him joking about, having a laugh with Lois while skyscrapers crumbled around them. That said, Man Of Steel is noticeable in the lack of humor it elicits, even for a summer blockbuster. The script’s overly portentous (as opposed to pretentious) scripting pits Kal El against a truly apocalyptic enemy, Zod, even though Zod himself is a somewhat sympathetic villain. This makes the stakes incredibly high, so a lack of laughs could reasonably be expected.
Once the film hits its character-driven stride during its scenes with Ma and Pa Kent, Clark growing up and spending time “finding” himself, Man of Steel shapes up as an emotionally weighty prospect and propels the narrative towards a somewhat elegiac climax of what Clark should do with his powers, and how he should fit into society. Goyer’s script – or perhaps Snyder’s penchant for jaw-dropping large-scale action, a lot of which sees the denizens of Metropolis flee from (or killed by – another bone of contention for fans) toppling skyscrapers as indestructible characters are hurled through them – sees the third act descend (or elevate, if you’re a fan of such stuff) into a CGI free-for-all, and it’s here where the film does stagger under its own weight at times. The first act, which sets up the characters, and the second act, which explains them, all lead into a blistering third act which essentially tears them apart. Hard as it is to swallow, the action-packed third act is definitely the weakest part structurally (which is kind of ironic considering the structural damage to Smallville and Metropolis taking place) even though it is precisely what a Superman film ought to be. Superman needs to be challenged physically, if not mentally, and Zod’s attack on Earth certainly does that. Whether it’s entirely a successful story path to take will depend on your enjoyment of urban destruction (and I love that!) but if there is a narrative weakness to Man Of Steel, it’s probably that.
Snyder’s direction is exemplary from a technical perspective. His penchant for speed ramping and slo-mo is gone, replaced by an apparent penchant for Firefly-esque digital rack-zooming – the kind of thing JJ Abrams overused in Star Trek. At times, this effect makes for discombobulating viewing during the film’s enormous finale, as shattering infrastructure and in-peril humans spill into frame and across it without a lot of foundation, but on the whole, Man Of Steel looks gorgeous regardless of it. Snyder’s style has, largely, been derided throughout a lot of his more recent filmography for being emotionally distant, perhaps even aloof (Sucker Punch elicited barely a ripple in heartbeat activity from this jaded viewer), yet Man Of Steel’s core themes of ancestry and belonging are given central consideration by this usually flash-bang director. The character beats are uniformly excellent, while the action is wholeheartedly thunderous, and I appreciated all of it. Although the balance between the two wasn’t always even – the action vastly outweighs the emotion at times – I could appreciate what Snyder was trying to accomplish in setting up this brave new world of DC heroes.
The cast are generally excellent, although due perhaps to there being such a large supporting roster, many of the roles felt underwritten (if not entirely underdeveloped). Henry Cavill brings a square-jawed solidity and sense of presence (as well as a natural-ness I’ve not seen in any Superman performance to-date) to his portrayal of Superman, while Amy Adams has spunk as Lois – she wasn’t my ideal choice, but I warmed to her as the film went on. Her scenes with Cavill, as few as there are, have a definite spark that I can’t wait to see built on in future installments. Cavill fills out the costume really well, and he absolutely nails the sense of abandoned alien-ness Clark must feel when he’s given the opportunity to “return” Krypton to glory. Michael Shannon delivers psychotic like nobody else for his portrayal of Zod, even though his role in the film is largely relegated to the third act; the major battle between Kal El and Zod is probably the one all Superman films have been waiting years – nay, decades – to see done well. And it is. Two super-powered beings going at it, with state-of-the-art visual effects, has always been something Superman had as potential, and finally, Man Of Steel delivers. Both Kal El’s father figures, Costner and Crowe, are solid in their respective roles, although I did think Costner’s Jon Kent was underused, whereas Crowe’s repeated return via holographic form throughout the film did start to wear a little thin – that’s just me, though, because both Crowe and Costner provide the film with what emotional substance Goyer gives us. Crowe especially, in his scenes early on Krypton (prior to becoming an afterlife hologram) returns to the action-man status Gladiator afforded him; the beard may be greying, but he’s still got it. Laurence Fishburne is given little to do as Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet (and completely unlike Spider-Man’s J Jonah Jameson), which was disappointing, but Morpheus can still deliver the goods with even a thinly written role such as this, and the film’s epic battle climax is the richer for his presence. Diane Lane manages to eke out a decent characterization of Ma Kent, even though the film is slanted mainly towards the male perspective (to me, Pa and Ma Kent worked best as a team bringing Clark up with his values, but Man Of Steel lays all that heavy lifting at the feet of Costner’s Pa – not a decision I agree with, but for this film it kinda worked) and I hope and pray her role in the inevitable sequel is larger.
Perhaps one of the greatest joys in watching Man Of Steel is seeing the scale of the destruction caused by Zod’s invasion and the ensuing super-brawl. Moral issues with this aside (more on which is contained in the spoiler section below), the film delivers some of the most visceral, heart-pounding spectacle I’ve ever seen in a modern motion picture. Whether the emotion of the story gets to you or not, there’s no denying that Snyder has truly brought the “super” to a Superman movie. Characters crash through buildings, leveling entire blocks of Metropolis with an utterly alien disregard for human life, alongside giant space-craft crashing upon and through swathes of prime business district, sending people scattering for their lives. Superman’s heat vision (and Zod’s for that matter) is one of the better design aspects of the film in my opinion, with the more organic blast of radiant heat seemingly drawing from the energy reserves of the Kryptonian body and erupting, volcano-like, out into the world. It’s less Donner’s Star Wars laser effect, more living molten lava effect. Of course, one of the key elements to Superman as a character is his ability to fly – now, we’ve seen flying in film before, and to a fair degree I think we’ve seen it done about as well as we ever will, but Man Of Steel takes the Iron Man approach with ratchet-zooms and shaky-cam speed wobbles to convey a large amount of the film’s breathtaking flying effects; that, and CG body doubles. Watching as Kal takes off for the first time, leaping across continents, before finally defying gravity completely, was one of the moments I had most anticipated, and Snyder delivered the palpable joy Kal El must have felt at that moment. Thrilling. Which sums up a large amount of Man Of Steel’s gargantuan action sequences.
Critically, I can’t go much further without considering the film’s primary weaknesses, such as I saw them. Man Of Steel’s incredibly fat cast roster limits the amount of time we can spend with everyone we meet (even at two hours and change, the film – if you’ll pardon the pun – flies past at a rapid clip) and this brevity does tend to undermine a lot of the emotional angst Snyder and Goyer obviously tried to insert into the story. Kal El and Zod aside, even Lois is shortchanged a large amount of screen time in favor of the action sequences, and as much as I hate to admit it, I really think leaving her in such a reactionary role as she plays here works against her relationship with Clark. In the comics, stuff happens to Lois that she is the catalyst for it, yet in Man Of Steel, a lot of what happens with her around, happens only because she’s there at the time. Folks like Harry Lennix (representing the suspicious military arm of the US Government) and Richard Schiff (playing scientist Emil Hamilton, whom fans of the comics would know but casual fans will just see as “scientist guy standing and staring a lot”) are wasted in smallish roles, while Chris Meloni (from TV’s Law And Order) does the square-jawed American hero (in the non-Super sense, that is) with aplomb, although his character is effectively a 2-dimensional slate on which Goyer’s thinly plotted Rah Rah America cliche limps into view, sweats a bit, looks tough, before “gotcha-ing” one of Zod’s henchwomen, Faora (a steampunk-sexy Antje Traue). Glimpses of Superman’s comic history are shown through Clark’s school life, namely Lana Lang and Pete Ross, both of whom one might expect to have larger roles in any sequel, but casual audiences will never appreciate their inclusion thanks to Snyder’s gotta-get-to-the-good-stuff style.
Man Of Steel is nothing if not fast paced. Where Donner’s Superman took until well over the hour mark for Christopher Reeve to don the famous suit, Man Of Steel accomplishes that feat within the first forty-odd minutes. Using the flashback method, Snyder intercuts between Clark as an adult, and Clark as a young lad growing up in Kansas, using life lessons learned through his childhood to propel the “older Clark” narrative along as he hits character bumps along his journey through the world. It’s an effective method, this style, and it allows Snyder to keep his major players in the film well after they’ve left this mortal coil (Jor El especially), but what it also allows Snyder to do is bustle though some potentially thought-provoking moments with a very thick, coarse brush, instead of a delicate, intricate artist’s tool of finesse. Clark’s rescue of some trapped oil riggers would have ordinarily been a major set-piece in any other film, but in Man of Steel it’s almost an afterthought, a moment designed to show Clark’s selflessness. Does it work? Yeah, it does, but the impact is lessened because ZAP we’re onto the next Big Action Sequence faster than a speeding bullet. In fact, this is the film’s major issue – it’s so fast paced that we’re not given any real time to bond with these characters in any meaningful way. Even Clark’s arc in this film seems annoying to Snyder’s desire to bring on the destruction, although it’s fairly obvious that Chris Nolan’s restraint prevailed more often than not in this regard.
All that being said, Man Of Steel is still a huge step in the right direction for Warner Brothers, a studio languishing with a lack of being able to get its major hero franchises off the ground again. The Dark Knight trilogy aside, Warners have not yet been able to match Marvel’s Avengers initiative with regards to critical success (Green Lantern was brave but disappointing, and Superman Returns sucked ass – let’s not even think about Catwoman!) but it’s with Superman that I believe the corner has been turned. For all its flaws, for all the controversy the fanboys might like to ply it with, Man Of Steel stands proudly as a giant kick-start for the new direction Superman is going in. It’s epic – and by epic, I mean E.P.I.C. – in size, scope and scale, the cast are all set for some great times in the sequels to come (c’mon, like there won’t be!), and Cavill makes a terrific leading man – here’s hoping he has more fun with Lois the next time (watch for the last few lines in this film…. if that’s not funny, you have no sense of humor). I wanted to adore Man Of Steel, but I didn’t. I really, thoroughly, totally enjoyed it (and it’s going to blow the hell out of my home cinema on BluRay, natch), but several of the aforementioned missteps Goyer took with his script just prevented it from being truly revolutionary. Is it a genuinely great film? No, not quite, but it’s entertaining, thunderous, awe-inspiring, and at the very least, a damn good place to start.