Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…holy crap! I was just killed by falling debris.
And that about sums up Man of Steel, the new Superman film from director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan. The level of carnage on display by the film’s end is truly astounding, made all the more so apparent by Snyder’s lingering shots of crumbling skyscrapers. It is all in service to a brand new approach to telling Superman’s origin story, an approach that rejects the more Earth-bound nature of the Christopher Reeves films in favor of the gonzo science-fiction potential of the tale. However, does this new version of Superman with its grimly serious plot and visually impressive, relentless action sequences actually manage to make us care about the carnage?
The answer is “not enough.” Man of Steel features Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight trilogy co-screenwriter David S. Goyer’s love of jumbled narrative and spectacle action but also their weakness for blunt emotional statements and awkward exposition. It also features Zack Snyder’s flair for video game-like visuals and “isn’t this badass, you guys?” action bravura, but also his weakness for lack of emotional engagement.
Their unique take on the oft-told Superman story is apparent from the get-go. The Superman origin story, with its obvious parallels to the biblical figure of Moses, is well-known. A son named Kal-El of a dying planet is sent to Earth via a space ship by his parents who hope an abandoned baby on a foreign planet makes it out a-okay, and if anyone ever wants to track them down to be accused of negligent parenting they’ll have to address their complaint to “we’re dead now; what part of dying planet didn’t you get?” avenue. However, Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder looked at this as something which has never before been used to its full action-packed potential.
As a result, Man of Steel opens with an excruciatingly long 18-minute sequence on Krypton where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) tells us way more about Kryptonian politics that we might have ever cared to know. It turns out Crowe was not simply cast to show up and collect a paycheck, as was the case with his cinematic forbearer Marlon Brando who played the same role in the earlier films. Instead, Crowe’s Jor-El is a man of action who flies a freakin’ dragon-like creature and falls carelessly from high distances like an action star who knows they’ll somehow make it out okay. He also stares down an advancing general, Zod (Michael Shannon), leading a planet-wide rebellion to whom he speechifies about principles and lapsed ethics before laying the smackdown.
The temptation during this entire sequence is to cry out for it to get to Earth already as it’s called “Superman” and not “Superbaby on crazy sci-fi planet with action hero dad.” Thankfully, once on Earth the film bypasses the Superboy stage, which is instead relegated to periodic flashbacks, and jumps straight to 33-year-old Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) who is not a reporter here but instead a listless drifter. This means a quick introduction to the uniquely calming presence of Henry Cavill and his instantaneous “Oh, that’s absolutely Superman” visual appeal. In barely 5 minutes of screen time, Kent is already off doing the Superman thing just without the suit and cape and oddly pompous self-moniker of Superman.
The plot which unfolds involves a Clark Kent taught by his adopted Earth father (a pleasantly effective Kevin Costner) to hide his abilities from a world incapable of accepting him until the right time came along. As such, his is a meager lifestyle, living from odd job to odd job, and running away whenever he is forced to use his powers. His path intersects with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), as she is investigating a mysterious ancient object found frozen in the ice of Antarctica whereas he is also on-site but in search of any sign of his Kryptonian parents. This portion of the plot holds some delightful surprises for those who think they know exactly how the Clark Kent and Lois Lane relationship will go, even if the sexual tension between the two is a bit lacking.
This is where Nolan/Goyer’s touch, both of whom devised the story for the film although only the latter wrote the screenplay, becomes most apparent. Their Dark Knight angle to the story, i.e., grounded in the real world, is to consistently re-iterate that the real world would not be able to accept the knowledge that someone like Clark existed and had been living among us for 33 years. This knowledge haunts Clark and is the driving force behind most of his life. Humanities’ small-mindedness is mostly represented in the flashbacks to Clark’s youth when his acts of heroism are greeted with suspicion. This translate to Costner basically teaching Clark, “If you happen to just let some people die that you could have saved would that really be the worst thing in the world?” This aspect of the film does not quite work as well as it should have, partially because…
*Here Begins Deeper Spoilers In Which I Discuss The Villain’s Plot, Which The Trailers Already Gave Away*
The world only ever finds out about Clark through ultimatum. Along with his small army of Kryptonians, General Zod shows back up, his new black/white soul patch-esque facial hair the only indication of any aging in the past 33 years, and demands that Earth hand Kal-El over in 24 hours or else he will destroy the planet. So, of course Earth is going to freak the flip out, and the military and the FBI are going to converge upon those who might deliver them Kal-El. It’s not that they’re necessarily freaked out to discover there is a superhuman alien amongst them – it’s that it’s either the entire planet or him and, well, they just don’t have the time to get to know him before they make their decision (or at least have a chance to see him shirtless).
This results in an already much-maligned sequence of the film in which just in case we didn’t get the subtext of a 33-year-old not-quite-human sent to Earth by a higher being asked to sacrifice himself for the good of all humanity Snyder hits over the head with it. Clark has a conversation with a random priest (no, seriously, just a random priest never seen before or after) in which the entirety of the frame is occupied by a stainglass window painting of Jesus in the background and to the left and Clark (new Jesus) in the foreground and to the right.
To this point of the film, and we’re talking over an hour into a two hour plus running time, there has been periodic action and mostly in the flashback sequences (one of which involves the most random “Hey, Clark, is it just me or is that an F5 Tornado that just dropped from the sky?”/”Shut up dad, you’re not my real dad anyway”). However, the cutting back and forth between present and past and the exposition we get from a holographic version of Jor-El has equated to a somewhat meandering pace, often saved only by the at least decent performances from most of the actors. Once Zod comes back, though, it is all-out war, and the film stacks knock-down, drag-out action set pieces upon one another, if by knock-down I mean Kryptonian vs. Kryptonian action and by drag-out I mean each sequence in question is too long.
The prospect of finally being at a time where special effects can do a Superman fight scene justice is remarkably exciting, but the actual end result wears out its welcome rather quickly mostly because if you have a bunch of supermen fighting each other but there is no kryptonite which makes them vulnerable/beatable/killable then where’s the real suspense. Well, the suspense, in that case, would revolve around the safety of the innocent bystanders, but holy crap is this not a film which cares about them at all. The collateral damage from fight scenes in Smallville and Metropolis must easily reach catastrophic proportions, and in the film’s final act at moments one might expect Superman to save the day the triumphant moments are granted to side characters meant to be champions of humanity yet barely have names we ever hear. There is one character placed in peril and has another character yell out her name out of concern, and the audience would be forgiven for thinking, “Did we even know that girl’s name until now?”
One character who emerges from the film’s cast member bench is Antje Trau as Faora, Zod’s second in command. Her quiet menace and matter-of-fact speaking style along with her considerable physical prowess, making Superman look pathetic (granted, she has the advantage in a 2-on-1 fight) equates to a far more effective villainous presence than Michael Shannon, who stares very intently or yells loudly or, well, those are pretty much his only two moves.
*No Real Spoilers from This Point Forward*
On the technical side of the film, Snyder and cinematographer Amir Mokir employ probably more handheld shots than would have been advisable. It is rather easy during the fight sequences with one super speeded villain fighting our super speeded hero to lose track, if just momentarily, of which blur is which. The film is a little better at Krypton vs. Human action. The orchestral score from Hans Zimmer is not nearly as overbearing as his work in The Dark Knight Rises, but it was a mistake to not utilize the full version of his majestic new Superman character theme (the one heard in the film’s first trailer) until the end.
The script has big ideas one suspects might have been better handled by Christopher Nolan the director and not the producer. Even then, there are characteristic Nolan touches, such as the refusal to ever call the character Superman – or at least he never calls himself that – and one too many unfortunate expository moments (e.g., Lois describing herself to Laurence Fishbourne’s Perry White as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, as if he didn’t know that already). There is also an overbearing seriousness that mostly sucks any joy out of the story, making the 3 or 4 total jokes in the entire thing incredibly welcome relief.
Basically, this is what you need to know about Man of Steel-the first half gives us a slightly new origin story that jumps back and forth between past and present and drags under its own weight, and the second half gives us lots and lots of fight scenes at which we are supposed to marvel. The film isn’t entirely successful at getting us to care about the fights though. Cavill is rather fantastic and likable, managing to make the king of bland, Superman, slightly less bland, and Adams is a good Lois Lane, even if the sparkage between her and Cavill could use a couple extra volts. It is not a horrible film, for as spectacle film-making goes it has that in spades, it’s just not, well, super. Superman – the Man of Tomorrow – will still be waiting tomorrow for a really good Superman movie.
That’s Good: The spectacle on display is impressive; Henry Cavill is Superman; Amy Adams makes for nice modern Lois Lane; Antje Traue’s Faora is a kickass secondary villain/sidekick to the main villain
That’s Bad: Opening Krypton sequence is way too long; Michael Shannon is all screams and little nuance; Russell Crowe is used far too frequently as a storytelling crutch; not a lot of real suspense; the central idea of humanity’s failure to accept an alien in their presence doesn’t work as well as they think it does
Can I Go Now?: Seeing this film at a midnight screening in Kansas was especially interesting considering the smattering of knowing laughter/chatter/applause whenever Kansas State University was mentioned, the Kansas University football team depicted on television, or Clark shown wearing a Kansas City Royals t-shirt.
See It – Rent/Stream It – Skip It: Rent/Stream It if you like Superman stories otherwise Skip It
Man of Steel is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language. You can search for local showings via Fandango.
- A very strong new kid: Man of Steel delivers the goods with a straight face (indyweek.com)
- Snyder Proves The Magic Touch… (tomcoxfilmreviews2013.wordpress.com)
- Action-saturated Superman reboot a dour, humorless epic short on charm, emotion (dailyherald.com)
- Review: Man Of Steel (maahinandfilms.wordpress.com)
- Superman’s Reborn in Grand Fashion. (tfeast.wordpress.com)