Movie Review – Man Of Steel

Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” (2006) promised to be the grand return of the world’s first superhero after a series of sharply-declining sequels, a series that began as an epic pioneer of superhero cinema (“Superman: The Movie,” 1978) before dying a painful death due to dated fads and irrelevant themes (Richard Pryor’s involvement in “Superman III”, 1983, and pandering to anti-nuclear-war sentiment in “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”).

Zack Snyder’s “The Man of Steel” manages to take all of the ill will and negativity towards prior installments as well-heeded advice on how to construct a great Superman film and does just that.

The cast is fairly solid across the board, with each major actor (and there are plenty of them) being given their moment(s) to shine.  Laurence Fishburne as Perry White puts more into a character than he has done in years, while Antje Traua as Faora delivers a strong screen presence, despite being a 2-dimensional character with only a couple of scenes. Kevin Costner’s few scenes as Jonathan Kent are memorable and have enough weight to be felt throughout the film. The same can be said about Russel Crowe as Clark’s Kryptonian father Jor-El, who slightly (but not drastically) improves from his lackluster performance in “Les Miserables.”

Michael Shannon’s Zod is a completely different interpretation of the character from Terrence Stamp’s flamboyant mustache-twirling villain, making him a borderline-unhinged-but-slightly-held-back character whose sole one-track mission is to return the Kryptonian race to its former glory. While this isn’t so much of a Lois and Clark romance film as the previous incarnations, Amy Adams still brings a lot to the character, despite her reduced role, deftly balancing between headstrong reporter and occasional damsel in distress, without ever appearing recklessly stupid like some versions of the character.

But, of course, most readers will want to know about the Man of Steel himself and I can say Henry Cavill makes a fantastic Superman. Cavill exudes both confidence and uncertainty, sometimes at the same time, to great effect.  He knows he must appear as a symbol of hope to the common people, but still wonders what father he should follow, their legacies both etched on his face he learns to be both a beacon of hope and a defender of the weak.

From the very opening shot, the film makes it quite clear that this is a full-fledged reboot that will completely ignore the previous films, as we see Kal-El (Henry Cavill) being born on a Krypton without a single crystal in sight. It’s made clear early on that this will be a very different take on the character than what we’ve seen in other movie incarnations: the design and overall feel of this universe is totally different from what has been seen previously, allowing the story to breathe more without the constraints of prior continuity.

And what a serious spin on the mythology it is, as there is very little comedy to be seen in “Man of Steel.”  I, unlike many critics, appreciated this approach. When it comes to understanding which superhero films should be more serious and more comedic, one needs only to look at the comics themselves: Marvel and DC. The Marvel comics have been known well for their upbeat and self-aware entertainment value, focusing more on flashy spectacle and over-the-top characters, so it makes sense that films like “The Avengers” or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Mantrilogy to be a more all-audience affair.

Those who read current Superman and other DC books tend to understand not just Batman, but Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and many others tend to be weightier in their themes and the situations they deal with. The DC stories tend to be a little darker, with more focus on how the characters are affected by the events that unfold around them, and the burden of their heroism, than simple action spectacle. With this in mind, I have always considered Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie” and its sequels to represent the Superman Stereotype — the smiling uninteresting boy scout who always has an easy solution to almost every problem he faces.

What “Man of Steel” finally gets right, in a fairly no-nonesense fashion, is the burdened and conflicted god who must learn how to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders as portrayed by DC Comics themselves. It seems to me that this is one of the reasons there has been such a divide between fans and critics over this film: the critics whose only exposure to Superman was the Donner and Singer movies were the ones who disliked it and the fans who read about a totally different character from the films. Being fairly familiar with the comic book version of the character, and favoring this version over the films, I can confidently say “Man of Steel” is the definitive interpretation of the Superman character to date, portraying a far more interesting and in-depth portrayal of him than Donner’s original and all its following Hollywood incarnations.

And I also want to emphasize that this is Superman we’re talking about, death of Zod and hundreds (or possibly thousands) of hapless Earthlings still considered. Despite many claiming this isn’t a true interpretation of Superman due to him killing the main villain at the end and causing tons of destruction in his wake, I’m here to say that the Superman we all know and love has, in fact, killed before, so these criticisms against this movie are invalid.  Superman has made mistakes, such as, in the original film, allowing a nuclear bomb to obliterate California (I know he turned the world back again, but that was a story cheat from lazy writing, if you ask me).

Fans and critics have been talking about the ending as though Superman has never before killed a single being in his entire 75 years, but that is simply not true.  It would be different if Superman didn’t show remorse at the end, but it’s very clear that he does, screaming in agony, knowing the horrible deed he had to commit to save the world.

This also brings me to the point of all the destruction caused in the film. Now, this is a criticism I do not understand at all. Many have asked why Superman did not take Zod to a location away from Metropolis to a less populated location. Well, why didn’t Spider-Man ask the Green Goblin nicely to “take this outside” of New York? Why do the Fantastic Four not drag Dr. Doom away from the city before having their weekly throw-down? Did everyone just forget about all those poor people that probably died in the background of “The Avengers”?

This film does have its share of small shortcomings, particularly involving the visual aesthetic. The cinematography and the camera angles combine to make the movie feel a bit dirty and uncomfortable at times, especially for close-up shots. Colors are not very vibrant and perhaps there are a few shadows too many on the faces of various people throughout certain sequences, making the picture look grittier than I think Snyder meant for the film itself to be. While this does not ruin the film by any means for me, I did find these moments at times distracting.

I agree with many of the critics in that I have some difficulty connecting to the secondary and tertiary characters, although I wouldn’t say the actors would be to blame. “Man of Steel” is structured very much like “Batman Begins,” in that the audience is immediately thrust into the main story at the first frame, but then flashbacks flesh out the main character’s backstory. While this perfectly for Christopher Nolan’s first Caped Crusader film, Snyder’s (and probably by extension writer David S. Goyer’s) take on this structure suffers, due to making certain characters feel more like caricatures. While I said Costner was great as Jonathan Kent, he’s a very one-dimensional story element that feels like he’s saying the same thing over and over in each Smallville-related flashback. That’s not to say the scenes are not emotional or unimportant, but Costner’s character could have been more interesting than what ended up appearing on screen.  Amy Adams as Lois Lane also gets lost in a giant shuffle of mythology-building and montage-style storytelling, so that her kiss with Superman during the third act feels very unearned, shallow and just way too Hollywood. Had Snyder known Warner Bros. would green light “Man of Steel 2” earlier, I would hope he and Goyer would have decided to prolong the big kiss until the second installment.

Response to “Man of Steel” is split right down the middle: those who loved it and those, in my opinion, who will come around to liking it for what it is. I predict this will be much like the initial response to “Batman Begins”: many disliking it because it disregarded Tim Burton’s films, before coming back around to liking it once the series expanded into “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Despite some minor flaws, this is easily my favorite movie of 2013 so far and has made my Top 5 favorite superhero movies, perhaps even out-ranking “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” It’s an emotional and action-packed thrill ride that boasts everything a good comic book movie should have in spades. It’s a brilliant sci-fi epic, a moving “Who am I” story, and a fun alien invasion action flick that delivers everything it promised us from that first moving teaser back in the summer of 2012.


About Brady Gorman
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