Movie Review: Man of Steel
Superman's relationship with film has been interesting to say the least. The first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve was an absolute classic. Although the director's seat switched hands, Superman 2 is a great follow-up, and there are now two good versions of it. I have never seen Superman 3 so I can not comment on it. Superman IV is one of the most famous flops in superhero history. Then again, it was made on a shoestring budget. The series laid dormant for a while, but not for a lack of trying. The book The Greatest Sci-fi Movies Never Made chronicles the troubled history of the studio's attempts to bring Superman to the silver screen again. However, in 2006, audiences were treated to Superman Returns. The movie made money, but it was not the smash hit the studio wanted and it left audiences wanting. (In fact, it topped a list of disappointing movies comprised by yours truly.) With the Batman films still making money hand over fist and comic book movies being hotter than sunburn, it made sense that Warner Brothers would try rebooting Superman again.
Naturally, Man of Steel begins with the Last Son of Krypton's origins. Most people know this story and can probably recite it. The planet Krytpon is doomed so Jor-El sends his son to Earth. There are a few new twists in the classic formula: The planet is doomed from plundering its resources. Kal-El is perceived as a special child because he was born naturally after centuries of children being born with built-in traits. Also, General Zod is staging a revolution and murders Jor-El. Much like the 1978 film, he and his cohorts are sent into the phantom zone for their crimes. Kal-El lands on Earth and dons the role of Superman: However, there are growing pains as he adjusts to his powers and tries to fit in despite of them. He strikes up a relationship with Lois Lane as she tries to uncover the secret of Superman. However, not all is well as Zod and his fellow criminals escape the Phantom Zone and want a piece of Kal-el.
When it comes to Superman, there are some big shoes to fill. Superman is already one of the most iconic characters in American history. And the aforementioned Christopher Reeve films have created such an impression that it is hard to imagine Superman in any other way. Who doesn't think of the iconic John Williams theme when they think Superman music? That is also one of the reasons Superman Returns fell flat: It clung to the Reeve films so much that it ended up being some weird hybrid between a sequel and a reboot without really establishing its own identity. So the good news is this movie does establish its own identity.
Casting a character as iconic as Superman is always tough. I have always believed that Superman is a character that is best suited for an actor that is not a household name. If someone like George Clooney or Will Smith were behind the cape, it would really take away from the illusion. Not to mention Christopher was such a perfect fit for the character in terms of looks, voice, and personality that it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role - like imagining someone besides Peter Falk playing Columbo. While Henry Cavill has experience, he was not exactly a household name. And yes, he is a good Superman. Aside from having the right look, Cavill has a great presence, and when he speaks, there is a certain weight to everything he says.
This movie does bring a few clever ideas to the table. The change from living on Krypton to living on Earth is not so easy for Kal-el. Since his senses are heightened, Kal-el has a hard time drowning out ear-piercing noise and focusing on people when everything is in X-ray. General Zod has a pretty clever plan as he not only wants revenge on Supes, but he plans on recreating Krypton on Earth. One of the draws of any superhero movie will be the action scenes and this movie does not disappoint in this area. Superman and the Kryptonian villains have some truly spectacular fight scenes - ravaging cities and taking their battles into space. Now why am I talking about all of these things all at once? Well... this is where the positive portion of the review ends.
The first of many shortcomings arrive in storytelling. This is one of the most convoluted, jumbled films I have seen in a long time. After Superman comes to Earth, flashbacks are randomly interspersed in-between the action. The pacing of this film is all kinds of crazy in the beginning as it hops between Superman rescuing a ship, Superman as a child and Clark Kent working at some dive bar with little rhyme or reason. These scene fragments fly by so quickly some viewers might not just be confused, but they might also suffer whiplash. Some of these flashback scenes are not particularly edited well as some of them end abruptly (the scene with young Clark at school comes to mind). The flashbacks also make no chronological sense: The film continues to show flashbacks of Jonathan Kent long after the character dies! Kind of takes the punch out of his death, does it not? As good as the ideas of this movie are, everything feels like an afterthought. The idea of the Kryptonians turning Earth into Krypton is a cool idea, but the why and what it would do never feel fully developed. The movie is roughly two and a half hours and it still feels like everything is rushed. On the bright side, the movie is a very breezy two and a half hours.
In terms of performances, do not expect to hear a lot of names from this called out at Oscar time. Yes, I did like Henry Cavill as Superman, but the man has nothing to work with! Cavill's Superman comes off like a good performance trying to escape bad writing. He spends most of the movie moping, and his personality is never truly defined. The filmmakers seem to think the roles in this movie just define themselves. Think of it this way: Audience member - "Who is Superman?" Filmmakers - "He's Superman!" This problem runs throughout the movie and puts a serious damper on the performances. Although it seemed like an unusual choice, I was excited to hear about Amy Adams as Lois Lane - because I am a big fan of Adams. I knew she was not going to be playing this in her normal bubbly demeanor as if she were playing Giselle or Amelia Earhart. Her performances in movies such as The Fighter show she can do drama, but someone seemed to have sucked all the charisma and charm out of the lovely redhead. Not to mention, Lois is... kind of useless in this movie. Michael Shannon is pretty forgettable as Zod while Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe seem to be on auto-pilot.
Zack Snyder's style leaves a lot to be desired as well. I have enjoyed some of his films in the past. Watchmen was good as was the Dawn of the Dead remake so I know the guy has good movies in him. Aside from the aforementioned shoddy editing and pacing, this movie also has a lot of gratuitous shaky cam. Prime example: What should be an emotional scene between Jonathan Kent and young Clark Kent is ruined by said shaky cam. There is also some truly shameless product placement from IHOP. This movie's morals feel all over the place. A lot of the movie is spent discussing the role of the hero and the ideals he must maintain, but little of it pays off. Without giving anything away, Superman does something by the end of this film that seems a little out of character without a moment's hesitation or regret. Then again, that might actually lead to some character development. And clearly, that is not what the filmmakers were going for.
With Christopher Nolan producing this film and the Dark Knight trilogy being fresh in people's minds, analogies between this film and the Dark Knight trilogy will be evident. As a huge fan of said Dark Knight trilogy, I was still worried that those films would seep into this one. Regrettably, this shows up in the film's tone. Between the murky cinematography, wooden acting and generally darker tone, this movie is straight-up gloomy! To be fair, there is nothing wrong with superhero movies being a little more serious. And it is a refreshing break to see a superhero movie where the characters are not just tossing out one-liners to an unheard laughtrack. However, I can imagine the Dark Knight films telling this movie to LIGHTEN UP! Even the Dark Knight films had some comic relief (even if some of it was dark humor). Then again, when this movie does attempt some one-liners, it is easy to see why they stayed away. Then again, this movie does have one serious laugh... although it certainly had to be accidental. The scene where Jonathan Kent dies at the hands of the tornado is so unintentionally hilarious that I would rank it up there with nuking the fridge in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
In conclusion, Man of Steel is a letdown to say the least. With a few good ideas and a good actor donning the blue and red, this movie had things going for it. However, execution is everything, and with a lousy narrative, underdeveloped characters and many questionable choices, I can not recommend Man of Steel. Oh well, maybe they will get it right with Man of Steel 2.
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