Man of Steel (Review)

MAN OF STEEL (6/14/13; Comic Book Adventure; 3D)
Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Russell Crowe
SCR: David S. Goyer, story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
DIR: Zack Snyder
MPAA: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.
2 hours 23 mins.
(Warner Bros)

It’s almost impossible to discuss the merits of a new Superman movie without comparing it to what came before. We are, after all, talking about a franchise celebrating its 75th anniversary, and over the course of three-quarters of a century, people form opinions. From the big guy’s red underwear trunks (or lack thereof) to the constantly sliding canon, to the adoration for the Richard Donner-Christopher Reeve films, it goes on and on.

But on it’s own terms, the expensive Man of Steel is a wholly daring, mostly entertaining reboot that positions the Last Son of Krypton for his next franchise run on the big screen. Famously produced by Christopher Nolan, the stalwart visionary behind the Dark Knight trilogy, and infamously directed by Zack Snyder, a man mostly known for loud cartoony spectacles with great visuals, this Man of Steel falls somewhere in the middle.

As an origin story, the boldest choice was to re-imagine the planet Krypton as having an otherworldly ecosystem that would be at home in an Avatar sequel, and arguing that mining the planet’s core was the reason for its demise. As in the 1978 version, planetary politics results in the banishing of evil, ambitious General Zod (Michael Shannon) to the Phantom Zone after an attempted insurgency. And once again, the center of reason belongs to noble Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who sees launching his only son off the dying planet as not only way to possibly save his life, but preserve the Kryptonian race.

Retelling the story about how young Clark Kent comes into his own and discovers his enhanced abilities while being raised by human parents is a tale as familiar as Romeo and Juliet. Everyone knows the beats, so the real trick is pulling off the execution. Man of Steel accomplishes that feat with aplomb by integrating it with adult Clark’s existential journey to become the world’s savior.

The other minor change this film gets right is by not making Superman completely invulnerable in which only the tired trope of Kryptonite can weaken him. Sure, he may be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but it’s not like he can’t get his ass kicked under the right circumstances. After all, steel buildings and oil rigs are still awfully heavy. Watching the Man of Steel being put through his emotional and physical paces humanizes him, and makes him more relatable than the Brandon Routh version, who could bounce bullets off his eyes.

As someone who loathed much of Snyder’s previous work (Sucker Punch, 300, that owl movie) with only a passing respect for what he attempted with Watchmen, I was impressed that the director found the right emotional beats when it mattered the most. Then again, I might be getting ahead of myself. We are talking about Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Russell Crowe here. When this trio follows their instincts to the core of the material, it serves them very well. And as much as I expected Crowe to be hammy in a Brando sort of way, he plays Jor-El with the right combination of nobility and parental intensity.

Henry Cavill is great. He has the look, the optimism, and the vibe that a great Superman should have. By necessity – and because glasses really aren’t the best way to conceal one’s identity – the script rethinks Clark’s relationship to ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and it’s a smart move.

For some reason, prior to its release, everyone loved the idea that Superman Returns (2006) would be an homage to the aforementioned Donner films, complete with an encore of the gorgeous John Williams score. However, once fans actually saw that film, they realized that you can’t go back. It seems to become a big deal that Superman never punched anybody, and that there was very little action.

You wanted action? Be careful what you wish for.

My only complaint about Man of Steel – and it’s a big one – is about the endless, bludgeoning level of destruction. Once it starts, it never stops. After spending a good hour setting up a rich mythology, and rebooting likable characters, General Zod arrives, demanding the surrender of Kal-El. For the good of the people who have no idea who he is yet, Clark surrenders and the movie enters the delightfully rarified space that allows the Superman character to flourish, the relationship between him and Lois (Amy Adams) to deepen, and for the plot mechanics to do their thing.

That’s when the mayhem begins. And it’s not just the wonton destruction of the occasional big city building, or a fight that happens in the streets of Smallville. No, this is global destruction on the level of a Roland Emmerich movie such as Independence Day, and it goes on for days. And let’s face it, when two beings who have enhanced strength and abilities start pummeling each other, leaving citywide destruction in its wake, and nothing seems to work, shouldn’t one of them eventually decide to try something different? Shouldn’t the filmmakers?

The reason why Donner’s 1978 movie is so beloved has nothing to do with the action or the FX (which really haven’t aged well at all). It’s the characters, stupid. It’s Christopher Reeve’s dual performance as bumbling Clark and heroic Supes. It’s Margot Kidder’s layered Lois, Marc McClure’s earnest Jimmy Olson, Gene Hackman’s pompous (and humorous) Lex Luthor, the bumbling Otis, the barking Perry White. All completely entertaining.

Man Of Steel, which is strangely devoid of much-needed humor, gives us iconic characters recast in a more realistic light, but where’s the scrappy fun? And since this is mainly Clark’s journey, the movie doesn’t offer up much in the way of Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) at all. Jimmy Olson is now Jenny Olson, a character who establishes herself not by being capable or witty within the walls of the Daily Planet, but by quickly becoming the damsel in distress once the city starts falling apart.

The biggest problem is that this battle royale between two worlds is the kind of epic finale one would expect from the end of a trilogy, not the beginning of one. Because, even if they bring in Lex Luther, Kryptonite, and Nuclear Man for the sequel, how can you possibly top an Earth-shaking (literally) plot to terraform our world at the hands of a Shakespearean-level Kryptonian super villain? Somehow the idea of an earthbound businessman obsessed with real estate seems a little quaint.

Again, on it’s own, ignoring everything that has preceded it, Man of Steel works as a film. The performances are strong, the mythology is solid. The franchise is once again in a good place. But if the cinematic adventures of Superman are going to endure for another 75 years, the powers that be are going to have to remember to lighten up a little and have some fun.



Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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