Man of Steel

star2 star1 1/2

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan (story). David S. Goyer (screenplay)   

Main Cast:

Henry Cavill – Clark Kent / Superman

Amy Adams – Lois Lane

Michael Shannon – General Zod

Russell Crowe – Jor-El

Kevin Costner – Jonathan Kent

Diane Lane – Martha Kent

Antje Traue – Faora-Ul

Harry Lennix – General Swanwick

Richard Schiff – Dr. Emil Hamilton

Christopher Meloni – Colonel Nathan Hardy

Ayelet Zurer – Lara Lor-Van

Laurence Fishburne – Perry White

Dylan Sprayberry – Clark Kent (13 Years)

Cooper Timberline – Clark Kent (9 Years)

Mackenzie Gray – Jax-Ur

Michael Kelly – Steve Lombard

Julian Richings – Lor-Em

Christina Wren – Major Carrie Farris

Joseph Cranford – Pete Ross

Jadin Gould – Lana Lang

Running time: 143 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Year of Release: 2013 


To sum up: Superman returns in a quest for peace against the evil General Zod. But can their epic struggle make this Superman THE movie? 


Born on Krypton and raised on Earth, you had the best of both and were meant to be the bridge between two worlds.”


        What do we do with a problem like Superman? He’s the original super hero; the capstone of the D.C. Comics universe, but out of vogue in our modern world with its preference for darker heroes and moral ambiguities. Last seen on the screen in 2006, Superman Returns was a continuation of the Superman series created in 1978 by Richard Donner. Though it performed well, the Box Office results were underwhelming enough to ensure that, in spite of the respectful tone that director Bryan Singer engendered to it, the continuation of Donner’s Superman universe was no longer the way to go. Maybe the film wasn’t violent enough.

        And so, we're given another reboot to the Man of Steel, called, ironically, Man of Steel. This time, it’s directed by Zack Snyder who brought two previous comic book adaptations to the screen with 300 (2007) and the highly debated adaptation of Watchmen (2009) and demonstrated an assured hand in translating those comics with, at least, amazing visual accuracy. And in a not too surprising move, Warner Brothers enlisted the aid of Christopher Nolan, hot off the success of his Batman trilogy, as the producer of the film.

        And it was this combination that began the worries that always accompany these types of films. Though he can create amazing spectacle, could Snyder bring to Superman an emotional human story, something that was somewhat lacking in his previous films? In looking to Christopher Nolan, was Warner Brothers and D.C. trying to bring a moody darkness to the light that is Superman because that is the trendy thing to do? In short, how would Snyder and Nolan interpret Superman, a character who is miles away in tone and attitude from the more popular Dark Knight? How good would the movie be?

        And the answer is that the film’s pretty good. Good enough that, in spite of an overabundance of action, a plot built more on exposition than on characterization, and a tone that’s deadly serious (I mean DEADLY serious), I came away entertained and looking forward to seeing more of this Superman.

        Our story starts with a prologue. In the far reaches of space on a planet known as Krypton, a lone scientist named Jor-El (Russell Crow) has determined that his world is doomed. Overmining of the planet’s core for energy has ensured its destruction and Jor-El is pleading with the ruling council, which has long presided over an inward looking and ever more stagnant civilization, to do something about it (which they won't). Acting alone, Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) is forced to save what he can in the short time that remains and rockets his son Kal-El to the planet earth and with him the Kryptonian codex, a genetic key to the survival of the Kryptonian race.

        At the same time, the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), whose sole purpose is to ensure the survival of the Kryptonian civilization, has decided to stage a military coup against this same planetary council because he doesn’t like the way they’re running things either. Though he is quickly captured, he learns what Jor-El has done and swears that he will track down his son and get that codex.

        Meanwhile, young Kal-El lands in Kansas where he is discovered by a Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Dianne Lane), who name him Clark and raise him as their own son. But Clark is learning that he is different from the other boys and girls, and will spend his youth trying to learn who he is and what his place in the world is to be.

        That is how we meet the adult Clark Kent (James Cavill), who is wandering the earth like Caine from Kung-Fu, doing various good super deeds in anonymity. But ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) stumbles upon this stranger and is determined to bring his story to the world. And lest we forget, General Zod is out there and will eventually come calling.

        As seems to be a commonality with films directed by Zack Snyder, the faults within the film are centered mainly around the plot and characterization. In this film, there is a seeming need for a comprehensive inclusion of too much plot, which creates an awkward pacing that has the characters spending time explaining things, which prevents an emotional story to develop, which does not allow many of the film's dramatic moments time to breathe, so that these moments would feel like a natural progression of events and allow the actors to, well act (or more specifically, react). Instead, the film rushes on from scene to scene.

        Heck, we have a whole movie shoved within the prologue alone. Follow this. During the film’s opening sequence, we are introduced to the planet Krypton, Superman’s birth planet; we meet Superman’s Parents Jor-El and Lara; Jor-El’s revelation that Krypton is doomed; and the introduction of the stagnant Kryptonian governmental body. But wait, there’s more! We meet General Zod who attempts to overthrow the Kryptonian government, gets captured, sentenced and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone. Oh, and don’t forget the export of baby Superman. All of this is presented in a cozy twenty minutes. "Just the facts, ma'am."

        Later, when young Clark Kent discovers that he’s an undocumented extra-terrestrial, his adoptive father, Jonathan, delivers a concisely written monologue that makes sure to touch on all the mandatory beats that Clark’s not a freak, he’s special, he’s here for a reason and he must learn what that reason is no matter how long it takes.

        When adult Clark Kent discovers his Kryptonian origins by activating a holographic image of Jor-El, the scene goes straight to plot summarization. Clark isn’t really even allowed to react to coming to the end of his quest of searching for who he was and why he is here.

        Jor-El: I am Jor-El. I am your father. Your name is Kal-El. You’re from-
        Clark: Wait. You’re my father?
        Jor-El: Yes. My name is Jor-El. You’re from-
        Clark: Wow. Um…this is incredible!
        Jor-El: Yes it is. You’re from the planet Krypton. It was-
        Clark: I mean all these years, wondering who I really was, feeling lost and-
        Jor-El: Yes. About Krypton. It was destroyed because we did not see the
                   coming disaster in time. But you are still in danger-
        Clark: Man! This is a big moment for me. I’ve always wondered about my
                  father. What you’d look like, how-
        Jor-El: Anyway. You’re still in danger from General Zod (Here’s your costume,
                   by the way). Zod was-
        Clark: Father, to finally get to meet you. There’s so much I’ve wanted to ask.
        Jor-El: No time. The film’s running over two hours already.
        And because the film tries to include too much, it creates the problem of quickly and neatly introducing and resolving a situation, often in the very next scene. When it’s three sequences like the ones mentioned above, it’s awkward enough. But it seems as if the film’s whole narrative is approached in this way.

        On Krypton, things are going bad in the worst way and Jor-El and Lara must save their son by finding a suitable planet in which to send him. The choice of Earth, the powers that Kal-El will develop and the almost godlike destiny that will result are made at the very, very last minute.

        One day at school, young Clark’s vision and hearing powers all seem to kick in at once, causing him to have a public breakdown that mother Martha will need to help him with.

        Later on, Clark tries to learn to fly and has trouble; starting out only able to leap but not stay aloft.

        But don’t worry, he’ll have all of these licked in just a few minutes of screen time.

        On the plus side, I liked the visual look of the film. From Krypton and it’s muted, tunneled underground environment, to Smallville, which well captured the middle Americana vital to forming Clark’s values, I was pleased by the set and costume designs. Heck, I even didn’t mind Supe’s new outfit, sans the outer trunks, and more muted in color. I thought it was a nice simplification of the fabric that was worn underneath the layers of armor and accoutrements that all the Kryptonians wore.

        I also enjoyed the film's intriguing take on Superman which is its most daring departure from Superman lore. Snyder and writers Goyer and Nolan move away from Superman automatically being a bright beacon of hope to the world. In our modern, untrusting, almost paranoid world, he is met with a good amount of distrust, especially from the government. I think it's a more realistic approach (he an alien after all) and certainly not unusual, as it is one that is currently being played out in the comics. Though to many, that is part of Superman's problem.

        And most importantly, I enjoyed the action. It’s exciting to see Superman in a fully realized fight with modern special effects that can convincingly render all of the powers and abilities that Superman is known for; the flight, the vision, the super-strength and super-speed. This film is loaded with many exciting moments that make the it worth watching.

        But this being a Zack Snyder film, what should really come as no surprise is that he crams this film with so much action, that you become exhausted by the repetitious nature of it. With punch after punch, our opponents pummel each other over and over and over (and over and over). But even though Superman’s facing off against people as powerful as he is, and you would think they should be able to hurt each other in some way, it’s really the real estate that suffers the most in this film. This is a fight that seems to take out every single building in Metropolis. Ok. We now know that special effects have perfected the art of C.G. building destruction. Thanks guys.

       So how does all of this affect Cavill’s take on Superman? It limits a lot of the opportunities he would have had to make the character his own. With his muscular build, chiseled features, and jet black hair, there is no doubt that the handsome Cavill certainly looks the part. And it’s nice to see a modern hero who didn’t look like he detoured to L.A.'s "Queen Bee Salon & Spa" to get a body wax. He does well with what he’s given and doesn’t make an acting choice that seems awkward or out of place. Cavill definitely makes an intriguing Superman presenting himself as strong both morally and physically and I definitely enjoyed watching him play the character. But ultimately, unlike Jackman’s Wolverine, Bale’s Batman, Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, or even Reeves 1978 Superman, Cavill doesn’t come across as a definitively iconic. The former own their parts, Cavill simply plays his.

        Amy Adams plays a good Lois Lane. She has the convincing maturity of a seasoned professional (ah, it’s nice to see grown ups play these parts). In other words, yeah, I can see her playing a reporter. I found her role interesting because it was one of the few parts of the story that felt naturally paced and not rushed, as her Lois was tracking down the secrets behind this mystery man. And if there’s anything that will make her memorable as a Lois Lane, it will be her serious professionalism as a reporter. Beyond that, however, she does not pepper her character with any interesting personality quirks that make her distinct. And unfortunately, she and Cavill do not demonstrate much chemistry. They are not awkward together, but the romance that they share comes more from a function of Superman history dictating that Lois Lane is Superman’s girlfriend.

        Since 1982, with his iconic performance as General Zod, Terrance Stamp, in creating and perfecting the personality quirks of a comic book villain, has cast a long shadow over the cinematic Superman series, as well as setting the standard for all comic criminals to follow. They all must be arrogant to the point that everyone around them, including their closest allies (they don’t have friends), are vastly inferior. They all must be opposed to the hero because they are narcissistically insecure of the positive perfection that he represents and they can never achieve. They all must crave power, usually for the sake of craving power, but also because the egotistical needs mentioned above convince them that they can personally do it better. In short, all baddies that followed have, in some way, been required to kneel before Terrance’s stamp on Zod.

        Now poor Michael Shannon has stepped into the fray by not only having to distinguish himself amongst 20+ years of comic heavies, but by playing the very same character. Luckily, because of the film’s far more serious tone, he’s able to steer clear of most of Superman II’s modest malevolence and be more than a person who simply craves power and wants to rule. He’s interesting because of the type of character he is, a person who’s whole purpose in life was the preservation of Krypton. Now, Zod serves a purpose in being a useful antagonist in that he forces Clark to choose what kind of person he will ultimately be. And in spite of a line reading at the beginning of the film that reminded me of Sting’s “I will kill him!!!” squeal from 1984’s Dune, Shannon plays it mostly low key; allowing his glowering scowl, punctuated with a steady verbal menace, to become (almost too much) his performance.

        The other important players in our little drama are Russell Crow and Kevin Costner. Crow was a very good choice to play Superman’s father, Jor-El. With his weathered voice and noble countenance, Crow gives Jor-El the correct amount of wearied sadness that a man faced with losing all that is dear to him (his son, his wife, his whole planet) and knowing that there is nothing he can do but preserve what little he can. Crow has more to do than Brando’s Jor-El from 1978’s Superman. He isn’t saddled with grandiose speeches pontificating the nobilities of his intentions. And maybe most importantly, he can move around the room twice as fast.

        The strongest moments, dramatically, involve Kevin Costner playing Superman’s adoptive father, Jonathan. Costner is good in that he is one of the few actors who can give his character an honest rural feel that a Midwest farmer should have. And if it is questionable in how Jonathan sometimes councils Clark on the extent to which he should hide his powers, Costner plays his moments well, balancing the love he has for his son while showing the fear he has if his son’s true nature is discovered. Also good is Dianne Lane as his adoptive mom, Martha, who also provides another nurturing side of Clark’s well rounded upbringing. Though it is clear that the father figures of this little story are allowed the most attention, she's does well with what she's given (which isn't enough). 

        Make no mistake. It these moment above all else, that show Snyder at his most mature as a film maker. These are the moments with the best acting. These are the moments with the most genuine warmth for the characters. These are the moments that are allowed to play out in as much as Snyder is willing to let them play out. If there are moments of love, grief, longing, and loss to really connect the audience to a character, it will be these sections of the film. These are the most important to forming the core of who Clark is and this is where Snyder succeeds; because though he is an alien named Kal-El known to the world as Superman, in his moral center, he is Clark Kent.

        So, in spite of the film being packed with too much exposition; in spite of the film spending too little time on true dramatic moments that could have fleshed out the characters; in spite of the film raising problems or questions and resolving them almost immediately; in spite of this film taking itself way too seriously; and in spite of there being too much action on a level that would surely kill thousands and a resolution that has thousands questioning the very nature and character of this new Superman; the film was executed well enough that I keep going back to the film. I enjoy the flawed but grandiose "gods among men" approach that the film was trying to explore while not losing the humanity that makes up the core of Superman. Heck, I just love the character of Superman; and it takes a lot for me to give up on the character.

So, guilty I am over this Man... of Steel.


(2014. Reviewed by Frederick Holbrook)


    Back to Home