Is Man of Steel the answer to fanboys prayers in the modern era of comic book franchises populated by Batman’s The Dark Knight, The Avengers, X-Men and Spider-Man? Well, it’s without question at least a very bold brooding new take in bringing the most iconic cape wearer in the world into the new tone age of superhero films. But it doesn’t soar as high as I would have liked in regards to Kal-El’s journey to becoming the hero we expect, choosing instead a darker brooding origin path typically reserved for Batman rather than Superman.The iconic grand daddy of all costumed superheroes gets a new lease on life in this very serious and ambitious big screen epic. Us older folks can finally safely stash away and move beyond our memories of the Christopher Reeve legacy, who first made us believe a man could fly in 1978. Completely rebooting and additionally skipping over the big budget mis-step that was 2006’s Superman Returns (itself a quasi follow up to Superman II‘s storyline), Warner Bros. tapped their resident mastermind behind the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, and big screen eye candy wizard Zack Snyder to take Superman into the modern tone age of superhero films. Yep, that means desaturate the colors of that iconic blue and red costume, lose the outer under trunks, and let him fly as a alienated outsider full of self doubt who is reluctant to reveal, much less use, his unearthly powers for the greater good.
The general jist of the well known origin story remains the same, as some things you don’t mess with, but the players may change. Baby Kal-El is rocketed to Earth by his parents Jor-El and Lara (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) from the doomed planet Krypton. He lands in Smallville, Kansas and is raised as the mid-westerner farmboy Clark Kent by Jonathan and Martha (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). One day takes to the air and embraces his role as Superman, Earth’s greatest protector when he’s called upon.The all too serious tone of the film goes above the bar set with some of similar comic book based series these days, though not on par with the incredibly shadowed aesthetic of The Dark Knight. Nor should it be. Superman and Batman, though traditionally DC Comics Justice League comrades, are polar opposites on the superhero work ethic spectrum. But Man of Steel brings him closer to Batman’s level of inner conflict and ambiguity than the relatively high-spirited quick witted adventures we’ve seen in Iron Man or the other Marvel Studios franchises.
We are introduced to the infant Kal-El in a gloriously rendered sequence on Krypton, an advanced alien planet ruled by a genetically selective race of warrior-esque citizens. Jor-El, a highly regarded scientist knows the planet is doomed by their own doing, and sends his only son off to Earth with a vital Codex that will insure their race can flourish on another world. This does not sit well with military zealot General Zod (Michael Shannon), who calls for a coup, fails at it, and along with his cohorts, end up banished to the Phantom Zone. Zod vows to track down the son of Jor-El in revenge, no matter the cost. The villains are spared from Krypton’s destruction from their Phantom Zone imprisonment and eventually locate Kal-El on Earth 33 years later (one of several Christ-like comparisons). In an alien invasion style announcement to the people of Earth, Zod demands custody of Kal-El, or else things will get ugly. And they do get ugly.
Clark Kent is living a life as lonely drifter, going from one low key odd job to another, constantly keeping out of trouble, and hiding his god-like powers the best he can. Nonetheless, intrepid Pulitzer Prize winning Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is hot on the trail of the mysterious super being who, despite his best efforts, has demonstrated his amazing abilities on the down low on several occasions. Kent knows little of his true origins beyond that he is not of this world, but manages to track down an ancient ship buried beneath the Arctic ice. Using a relic from his own spacecraft, he is able to unlock the secrets of his rightful Kryptonian heritage.
This is a dark origin story that offers little regarding the high moral standing Superman we know and love. Relying heavily on flashbacks, Clark lives his childhood out as introvert, unsure of his true place in the world feeling vulnerable, despite being invulnerable. Clark questions why God made him different and Pa Kent’s “You were sent here for a reason” finds a meaningful echo from incarnations past. Jonathan Kent sees to it that Clark should hide his abilities, while Jor-El decrees Kal should use them to lead humanity, shining in the light of the yellow sun that grants him his powers as a symbol of hope. Yep, there’s a lot going on here.
Our new Superman Henry Cavill brings a striking new brooding presence to Superman. Much like Daniel Craig did for James Bond, he exudes a physical chiseled force that is to be reckoned with. When he throws a punch, you know its best be not be on the receiving end of it. His dark demeanor here is matched by the darker colors on the world famous costume. Cavill is sadly subdued playing this loner who hid from the world all his life, and acts on behalf of mankind only when his hand is forced by Zod to surrender or bear witness to its prompt destruction. As par for the course of the story, there is far more pain in his eyes than confidence, which adds to Man of Steel‘s alienation as a standard Superman tale.
While we know Superman becomes the ultimate force for good, never are spoken things like “truth, justice and the American way,” nor forced do-gooder lines that are so morally upstanding that you would refer to him as the world’s biggest Boy Scout (which is still an amazing standing testament to Christopher Reeve’s classic portrayal of the character). This is an origin story for 21st century Superman, and its through the critical life altering decisions made by Kal-El in this film that he will become that very Man of Steel we are more familiar with down the road.
What stood out the most here for me was its whole hog commitment as a sci-fi alien invasion film, and not by any means embracing the safer path of a action/fantasy superhero flick (which the Superman character typically lends himself to). If Marvel has drawn its line in the sand by producing high octane crowd pleasers, Warners and DC have now RSVP’d their Hall of Justice for stories about heroes with troubled beginnings.The film hits a boatload of fanboy bullet points. It delves deep into the alien Kryptonian culture in detail never presented before on the big screen. Russell Crowe makes a fine Jor-El, bringing the necessary weight and gravitas to the character, and plays a rather major part in the film. The awe inspiring physical repercussions of Superman’s powers in the real world have never been realized to this extent either. You are meant to feel him build up the necessary momentum to defy gravity at lift off when he soars to the air. He attains super speed and breaks the sound barrier accompanied by sonic booms and bursting cloud trails. As a child, we witness Clark rightfully frightened and overwhelmed by his developing super senses.
We all know Superman is fairly indestructible, as are Zod and his soldiers on Earth, and these invulnerable characters spend a lot of time kicking the bejeezus out of one another the likes of which has never been seen before in a movie. With appreciation to the attention to detail, the villains are trained fighters and as a result have the advantage to soundly defeat Kal-El who has never needed to spend a nano second of his life learning any means of hand to hand combat. But instead he had decades to adapt to his powers where the Kryptonian invaders are susceptible to be completely engulfed by sensory overload, overwhelmed by their sudden abilities.While the extensive granduer of the FX are extremely impressive, there is so much out of this world spectacle to it much of the action lacks the feel of any real world sense of danger.
Despite its attention grabbing quick cutting and booming sound design, the film is guilty of jumping from one soulless massive sequence to another. A few scenes with old school practical effects could have grounded the pic a little further in the reality it sorely wants to plant Superman into.Seeing Ian McKellan’s Magneto lift real cars up into the air and violently crash them to the ground was highly effective in X-Men, as was Pyro’s hell-on-earth inferno attack defending the Drake family home in X2: X-Men United. It felt real because those effects looked real on set. Yes, Superman’s abilities far outclass those particular mutants’ powers and require grander effects, but Man of Steel is SO big, it almost feels like its breaking out the over excesses reserved for an over the top sequel. And theorizing how they will surpass this in scale in the follow-up will be interesting, and don’t get me wrong, I really hope they do. Frankly the big finale of Man of Steel easily humbles The Avengers‘ decimation of New York City.
What is sorely missing are the stand up and cheer-worthy hero shots. In addition any sense of discovery, wonder, or flat out gee whiz moments are too far and in between. Cavill is rarely given the opportunity to smile, not that he should in this arc of self discovery. Perhaps these are necessary steps in the intended path of Kal-El’s overall hero’s journey, but the script’s cold lack of charm detracts from the expected superhero movie feel good factor.The final act is a frenzy of high speed action and violence, and blows an awful lot of studio cash on lavish CGI heavy sequence after sequence of invulnerable Kryptonians throwing and thrashing each other through buildings. Director Zack Snyder is not at a loss when it comes to delivering big screen spectacle. But when you try to get into these battles which decimate blocks at a time of Smallville and Metropolis, there is so little personal connection to either city from Superman, whether it would involve him saving the lives of citizens he knows or preventing the destruction of historic locations. The all out CGI circus aspect robs us of any sense of drama and danger. There was a greater sense of tension watching Margot Kidder hanging on for dear life from a damaged helicopter atop the Daily Planet Building than watching Amy Adams plunging to Earth from a space ship (both scenarios share a common happy ending).
I can’t not recall marveling at the then revolutionary rain-drenched aerial fight scenes between Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix Revolutions, and thinking how awesome Superman II would have been had visual effects been up to snuff back in the pre-CGI optical printer hey day of 1980. Now for all intents and purposes, plus an additional decade of FX advancement, we finally get that epic Zod versus Kal-El battle and yet I felt so little suspense when invincible characters take on other invincible characters enhanced by the modern movie magic and very little connection to the flashy extended spectacle of it all. But this is all part of the expected over apology for the disappointing lack of action in Superman Returns.
The ensemble cast works well here. Cavill is inspired casting, this guy IS Superman, but has yet to truly have the opportunity to test his acting powers by balancing the dueling persona trinity of Kal-El, Superman and Clark Kent. But I look forward to his next appearance wearing the “S.” Michael Shannon makes a formidable intimidating villain in General Zod, and has great scenes with his various co-stars. Adams brings a no-nonsense take to Lois Lane and her Daily Planet editor finds a fresh face in Laurence Fishbourne. Kevin Costner provides the true heart and soul of the film as Jonathan Kent, and should have had a bigger role to add more mid-western morals and good old fashioned humanity the script’s alien-centric twists and turns.While succeeding on many levels that will provide much glorious geek glee for my fellow fanboys, it manages to come up short on sufficient charm and warmth. Plus its overall void of any wit infringes on its inclusion into the league of all around accessible comic book movies. Man of Steel instead heavily plays more towards flat out science fiction, which has the potential to both surprise and, for lack of a better term, alienate the mainstream audience. As for our new Superman himself, fret not he’s a hands down winner. You can see the inherent intense charisma of Henry Cavill just waiting to reveal itself fully, but his place here forces him to come off as cold and disconnected as the main character. Granted Superman’s origins are based in sci-fi, but his Earthbound upbringing as a human being walking among us is what should make him relatable.
Man of Steel is foremost a love letter to the fan boy community. It’s a bold, smart and explosive film that succeeds without question in redefining Superman, but it’s also another case of needing to first utterly wipe the slate clean in order to get the story where it needs to be for the follow-up where we jump right into the thick of the action. Following this path is understandable given the character’s rich history, and the only choice left was to torch it all and start over by adding the modern perspective to an icon that has been saving the world for 75 years. David S. Goyer’s dense screenplay doesn’t fall short on pushing attention to detail when redefining a well known story, and re-launches it towards a promising future.
While there is a soul to be found buried deep in this epic interpretation of Superman, Man of Steel is ultimately the means to an end to get Kal-El comfortable in his role as the Last Son of Krypton living among us on Earth as its protector in the sequel. Man of Steel is undoubtedly and without question a must-see film (my personal cavets be damned), and successfully leaves us completely in the proper place for Superman’s promising next big screen adventure. But overall it could have nonetheless provided us with a lot less drama and a little more fun in getting to its intended destination.
Man of Steel opens in theaters in 2D, RealD 3D and IMAX 3D on June 14th.
REVIEW RATING: ★★½
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishbourne
Screenwriters: David Goyer
Studio: Warner Bros.
Running Time: 143 minutes