Man of Steel - Movie Review

As a child of the 70’s, the cinematic version Superman means a lot to me.  He is, in fact, my favorite and most meaningful superhero to date.   Every couple of years, I find myself defending what Bryan Singer did in Superman Returns, as well as defending Superman as the overgrown Boy Scout that people accuse him of being as they hold up their Wolverine and Batman idols and shove them in my face.  Superman is passé, they say.  He’s old-fashioned and not relatable to the modern age.  Boring, they cry.  He’s too perfect, suggest others.  And yet, items with his family crest continue to sell.  Mugs with the Superman emblem continue to pop up in retail stores.  His t-shirts practically fly off the shelves.  Children are somehow born with the knowledge of his origin story.

Yes, Superman is still with us.

Warner Bros, David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300, Sucker Punch) – in an effort to keep Superman relevant to modern day audiences in this post-Batman Begins world – have assembled, with the release of Man of Steel, yet another origin-heavy Superman movie that might sit nicely alongside Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy but doesn’t really do the beloved character the justice he deserves.  Something is missing here in this retelling; something very, very important.  It’s his humanity.

Somehow – with all the tinkering from Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder – the filmmakers have made the character too modern in this very bombastic re-imagining and, consequently, very, very cold and (if you can imagine it) conflicted toward protecting mankind.  I have never felt more “alien” to this Kansas-raised, Krypton-born superhero than ever before.  In an effort to make Superman less cringe-worthy to modern audiences, the filmmakers have presented the character as a cold and distant and bullied outsider who – while discovering that his alien-born family name stands for hope – struggles with an imperfect legacy embodied by General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his plan for Krypton’s transplanted future here on Earth – but, specifically, North America.

The action and destruction-heavy story – written by David S. Goyer – is a metallic reproduction of the classic origin story of Superman (Henry Cavill) with only a little of the heart that graced what came before.  Maybe Nolan’s Batman fanatics will applaud this move.  After all, there’s only a fleeting mention of Lex Luthor (in that a Lexcorp tanker gets hurled at Superman) and no Jimmy Olsen and – gasp – no real bumbling Clark Kent as news reporter.  Time will certainly tell if other Superman fans will applaud these changes.  While I don’t really mind them, I can’t help but notice that – with all the fighting and screaming and cannonballing of baddies going on – there’s very little humanity to connect with.  At least Superman Returns had its fair share of fist-pumping moments and lump-in-the throat sympathies.  Here?  This is like getting hit in the face repeatedly by Superman himself.

In Snyder’s version, Superman is a bullied outcast facing a clash of identities brought on by a fellow Kryptonian, General Zod (Shannon), as the General searches for the Kryptonian codec that he plans to terraform Earth with.  Superman – for a long hour  – struggles with coming to terms with his birth name, Kal-El, and his alter ego, Clark Kent and wanders from town to town and job to job until a strange spacecraft is discovered under the Northern ice by himself and investigative journalist Lois Lane (a very, very underused Amy Adams), who follows Kent into the cave, and then gets attacked by the ship’s security system.

Raised with humble values of the Kent family (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane – but mostly Lane), as Clark he is taught to keep his super talents hidden (because the world is too big and unaccepting) and told not to draw attention to himself even if it means not rescuing people who ought to be saved (Moore, Oklahoma, my hat’s off to you).  As Kal-El, son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe who is in this version far, far too much), he is primed to be the savior of two worlds.  Everyone else hates him…especially Zod and his followers (who seem to grow and grow in numbers as the film progresses), now freed from the Phantom Zone.  It turns out Superman isn’t as alone as he thinks he is.

This is an effects-heavy CGI Armageddon-like assault on the senses, people.  I saw it in 2D and I feel for those who will see it in 3D.  Snyder, who I have CONSTANTLY defended in previous reviews, displays very little of the technical nuances that made Watchmen so meaningful.  (Note: he’s dropped his signature stylized slo-mo effects so purists need not worry.)  The emotional beats – every scene Costner is in – that really need to register do so barely.  Why?  Because the momentum that surrounds these flashbacks is locked inside a Michael Bay summer blockbuster.  Far, far too much of Man of Steel is endless on-screen spectacle and whirly-bird snake-forming machinery that makes little sense to the mechanics of the story but look all kinds of super slick for post-modern audiences to gawk at.  How are we to care for this caped alien savior when all he does is mope (like a true alien shoegazer) and then smash his way through walls and walls of skyscrapers and about $140,000 worth of product placement adverts? (I noticed every obligatory sign.  You will, too.)

The humble main street of Smallville is decimated in what amounts to a battle of might lifted straight from Richard Lester’s Superman 2 and then multiplied by 20 with the presence of the American military who are, at once, very paranoid about Superman and Zod.  Metropolis – after an airplane slams into a building and topples over (shades of 9/11) - is also leveled in one explosion after another.  Humans are flattened in cars.  Some folks in the city get rescued by Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and other Daily Planet reporters but most are not so lucky and end up consumed by – don’t laugh – Zod’s “world engine” as it plows through the other side of the world.

Maybe you see the problem here.  The size of this picture is not quite right for human consumption.  After a prolonged (and familiar) origin story, Man of Steel becomes a huge two set piece action spectacle.  When this robotic puppy amps up, all human connection is lost and it becomes a gigantic forty-minute battle of alien vs. alien with a couple of American bombs dropped in for good measure.  Yes, Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder take this all a bit too seriously and return us to the idea of a father-and-son relationship narrative a bit too late for the climax to make much of an impact.  Our necks are already snapped by too much Megatron-like maneuverings from Zod and other cool-looking (but soulless) fallout.  Where does that leave Clark Kent?  And the romance between himself and Lois?  Cutting room floor material, I guess.  It barely registers here.  Superman catches Lois.  They kiss.  Sigh.

It’s not all dour news.  Cavill has the chance to be remarkable in the role.  There are flashes of it here.  They just need to figure what direction they are headed toward with this updated character.  Costner is sorely underused here; relegated to flashbacks here and there as Superman warms up to the idea of being Earth’s savior.  The effects are pretty and the exploration of Krypton as tech and science heavy civilization is really interesting.

But this picture is a bit too uneven.  There are pacing issues galore.  Quick.  Slow.  Quick.  Slow.  Flashback.  Flashback.  Quick, again.  They’ve given us a marginally conflicted Superman but the “romance” between the damsel in distress Lois Lane is … just to placate people.  It simply does not work here.  Crowe is about as engaging as the computer program he becomes on Earth…which is unfortunate.  And would someone please tell Hans Zimmer that percussion-heavy soundtracks and a couple of short farts from a french horn does not a melody make?  Please?  His tones worked in Inception and, for the most part, in The Dark Knight but for Man of Steel?  No.  They needed the classic John Williams score.  It, like the DC character, is iconic.

There’s a darkness to Man of Steel; a darkness which shouldn’t be ignored.  With Metropolis leveled and then suddenly rebuilt, a mixed message is being sent to the audience.  Batman Begins and its sequels were all about the consequence of identity.  So what is Superman about if cities are rebuilt within minutes?  There's no consequence to the amount of fictionalized destruction on the screen.  You felt the ick and ills of Gotham City.  And I felt every single building drop in Metropolis – it becomes, essentially, one big Ground Zero – but there’s, unbelievably, no real consequence to all this destruction.  It was all for show and not for effect.  To me, this seems to betray the creative team's central idea in updating the character.  What if the world continued to distrust him?  To bully him?

I’m a bit disappointed by Man of Steel.  Maybe my expectations were too high to begin with.  Maybe I like my Superman a bit more … human.  People will disagree over this one for years.  I’ll say this much, at least the movie ends with a very good place to begin.  Warner Bros will make another one with Cavill.  They have every reason to improve on their reboot but I hope we can be – once and for all – done with the origin retelling.  My unborn child already knows the story.  I’ll see this again, I’m sure, but I can’t quite fall into step with Snyder on this one and I really, really, really wanted to.  I did.

For someone who gets his power from the sun, there is simply very little warmth to Man of Steel.

2 stars



Man of Steel - Movie ReviewMPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.
: Zack Snyder
: David S. Goyer
Henry Caville; Amy adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane; Russell Crowe
Genre: Action | Adventure | Fantasy
Man of Steel
Memorable Movie Quote: "People are afraid of what they don't understand."
Warner Bros.
Release Date:
June: June 12, 2013
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
No details available.

Synopsis: A young boy learns that he has extraordinary powers and is not of this Earth. As a young man, he journeys to discover where he came from and what he was sent here to do. But the hero in him must emerge if he is to save the world from annihilation and become the symbol of hope for all mankind.[/tab]