The Good: Character, Most of the performances, Special effects
The Bad: Plot progression is painfully predictable.
The Basics: A complete reboot of Superman, Man Of Steel presents a more angsty version of Clark Kent and Kal-El and a bigger threat to Earth in his first real adventure.
I am not a fan of Superman. The character spent decades as a monolithic ideal who evolved from an ultra-powerful man who helped cats out of trees into a blandly virtuous, virtually invincible fighter for peace, justice, the “American Way” and the protection of Earth. In recent years, the Superman comic books have moved away from the absolutism that defined the character, but he’s not been placed in a situation like Wonder Woman where to save the world from an unstoppable killing machine, a human being has to die, like Wonder Woman did in The OMAC Project (reviewed here!). So, the idea of the new reboot of the Superman cinematic franchise with Man Of Steel had no inherent draw to me and, if anything, I was biased against it.
First, I felt bad for Bryan Singer and Brandon Routh. For all of the problems with Superman Returns (reviewed here!), Routh’s performance was not the reason the film failed. Routh took the blame much like Eric Bana did for Hulk (reviewed here!). And after seeing Immortals (reviewed here!), I was not convinced Henry Cavill was the one to take up the role of Clark Kent/Superman. But, with Man Of Steel he lands it and the film works becoming a surprisingly compelling super hero film that ups the stakes for the DC (cinematic) universe and gives viewers a smarter superhero film than they have seen in some time.
As an environmental calamity sweeps over the ancient planet Krypton, the infamous General Zod seizes the opportunity for a political coup. Opposing his political action, but agreeing with his desire to save the Kryptonian people, the scientist, Jor-El, makes a final bid to save the genetic coding of the planned Kryptonians. Sending his newborn son, Kal-El - the first naturally born Kryptonian in generations - off-planet, Jor-El seeks to save the Kryptonian genome. With his political revolution ending in failure, Zod and his forces are sentenced to a sleep prison in the phantom zone where they survive the destruction of Krypton.
Meanwhile, on Earth Kal-El grows up as the son of Jonathan and Martha Kent. Raised to be virtuous, kind, and giving, Jonathan also raised his adopted son to be cautious and not reveal his extraordinary abilities – like amazing strength and speed. Despite some incidents, like saving a bus load of children from an accident as a youth, Clark Kent (as Kal-El goes by in his life “passing” as a human) gets by. In his young adulthood, though, he begins to feel isolated and he starts to avoid people in order to not have his incredible abilities discovered. His journey of self discovery brings him to an abandoned craft frozen beneath a glacier that was also from Krypton. There, under the tutalege of a holographic version of his father he learns of his Kryptonian heritage.
In exploring his abilities, Kal-El comes to the attention of the U.S. military and Lois Lane, intrepid reporter from Metropolis. The curiosity about his nature, though, quickly is trumped when an alien invasion force arrives. Led by General Zod, Jor-El’s enemy, the Kryptonian force comes for Kal-El and when Zod’s forces begin laying waste to Earth, Kal-El decides to step up and become humanity’s savior.
Having recently watched the 1970’s Superman (reviewed here!), it is worth noting that Man Of Steel distances itself well from that vision of Superman. Man Of Steel is darker and works to fit Clark Kent into more of a real world than a fantastic or cinematic rendition of our world (though everyone looks Hollywood beautiful in Man Of Steel). Thus, Man Of Steel sacrifices much of the charm of Christopher Reeves’s Superman in favor of an outsider protagonist who is caught between using his powers to help people and struggling to avoid persecution that his alien nature will bring from the xenophobic and fearful humans (who could desperately use his help).
The biggest tone change is the lack of humor in Man Of Steel. This Clark Kent is not an “aww shucks” farm boy, he’s a guy who has methodically covered his tracks to avoid making a splash until normal human incident after normal human incident conspires to reveal his true nature (by him using his extraordinary and inhuman abilities to help other people). Man Of Steel has a few amusing lines, but for the most part, it is a much more stark, character-driven piece with a protagonist who is far more consciously created as an outsider than prior renditions (at least cinematically) of Superman have been. This, naturally, is expected of the director of Watchmen (reviewed here!) and Zack Snyder’s trend for delivering characters who face overwhelming odds and making smarter-than-average super hero films remains unchallenged.
Significant in Man Of Steel is the tone. The set-up for Clark Kent and coming to terms with his identity as Kal-El is appropriately belabored and conflicted, drawn out until General Zod returns to the narrative. But when Zod arrives at Earth, the film takes a somewhat troubling turn toward the familiar. Man Of Steel was delayed from a planned release last year and while the studio’s reason might be that they wanted to get the effects (especially 3-D conversion) right, it is not long into Zod’s reign of terror that loyal viewers of DC-based films will suspect that they did not want viewers to start noting the plot comparisons (the whole “under siege” plot) with The Dark Knight Rises (reviewed here!). And as one of the few fans of the cinematic Green Lantern (reviewed here!), the whole DC Universe problem with Man Of Steel is certainly the lack of presence of the space cops of the galaxy. After all, prior incarnations which had Clark Kent as the sole surviving Kryptonian did not exactly warrant the presence of the interstellar police force, but in Man Of Steel, Zod and his allies come in force with an invasion plan and weapons which seem like they would fall pretty safely under the purview of the Green Lantern Corps . . .
. . . so, Man Of Steel is plotted like a super hero origin story. That’s fine, it is what it is. The character front has Man Of Steel making a fresh take on the familiar elements of the Superman story and it makes Kal-El’s alien nature – something which the graphic novels have only focused on in the past few decades as a source of conflict with the more refined version of Lex Luthor – an issue that is presented in an unfortunately realistic way. Yes, human beings are not the most accepting race and Jonathan Kent is proven right for urging his son to be cautious in his exposing himself to humans. Human xenophobia and fear is a predominate theme in Man Of Steel (much like fear was in Batman Begins) and writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan do a decent job of making the film about more than just an alien with incredible abilities and, instead, about broader themes about the state of humanity and how we treat one another. Fortunately, Clark Kent’s ethics prevent him from simply imposing growth on our backwards planet – a point which is driven home when General Zod and his soldiers come to extort humanity and destroy the masses who cannot reasonably stand in his way.
On the acting front, I wanted to start my commentary of Man Of Steel with the note that my longstanding disdain of Russell Crowe’s narrow acting range does not prevent me from openly acknowledging that he takes the role of Jor-El (who comparatively has exceptionally little screentime) and makes him empathetic and seem like a father deeply torn between having the life he wants (with his family) and trying to protect his son and his planet. Crowe is decent for the part of Jor-El and his performance makes the mentoring that Jor-El provides his son seem like more than banal exposition or bland moralizing and actually seem inspiring.
The supporting cast in Man Of Steel is fleshed out well. Like Crowe, Kevin Costner is given the role of Jonathan Kent, which could have been presented as campy or over-the-top and Costner delivers subtle and restrained. Michael Shannon’s General Zod is powerful in voice and posture, even if the character is incredibly monolithic and utterly unsympathetic and Richard Schiff and Christopher Meloni make their roles as Dr. Emil Hamilton and Colonel Hardy seem like quite a bit more than background characters. Schiff and Meloni embody their characters in such a way that makes them seem like their entire existence does not revolve around Kal-El, like they were living in a world before his appearance and they have other things going on besides him and the plot of Man Of Steel. I like the sense that such comparatively minor characters have an identity that is not simply built around the one story. Laurence Fishburne is characteristically great as Lois Lane’s boss at The Daily Planet, Perry White.
That brings us to Amy Adams. Adams plays Lois Lane in Man Of Steel and she brings all the pluck and determination fans of the Superman franchise would expect from Lois Lane. More importantly, Adams has great on-screen chemistry with the film’s star Henry Cavill.
Henry Cavill is more than just a pair of toned pectoral muscles and abs that won’t quit as Kal-El. Just as Christopher Reeve brought a wholesome and obviously kind disposition to his version of Clark Kent, Cavill is able to portray conflict and uncertainty well . . . then change it up plausibly with powerful and unafraid. At his best, Henry Cavill uses his eyes to emote and express the idea that Kal-El is terrified of what the people in the world will do to him, while knowing that he could change everything. His scenes opposite Michael Shannon’s Zod give him the chance to both show of physical strength and spout noble aphorisms.
On the effects front, Man Of Steel is good, but not (pardon the pun) super. I cannot speak to the 3-D, but the standard CG effects look great, though many of the attack sequences happen at a speed that does not allow the viewer to appreciate them or the consequences of them. So, for example, the shots of Kal-El’s cape when he is in his Kryptonian suits looks real (Snyder and his effects team got the effects right) and the digital models of Cavill when he is flying look like they are in the real world as well. But at the other end of the spectrum, characters moving with super speed are basically a blink of an eye and buildings fall and ships fire without enough time to truly appreciate the level of special effects devastation as the scenes are occurring. Snyder owes a great debt to Firefly (reviewed here!) for the style with the camerawork blending with the effects and at times it is nauseating, but in general the effects are decent.
Despite the issues where Man Of Steel is plotted like a familiar super hero origin story, the film feels fresher than most and is not only solidly entertaining, it makes a decent commentary on the human and alien here on Earth.
For other live-action DC superhero works, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight Trilogy
Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989 - 1997
For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the film reviews I have written.
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |