Man of Steel (2013) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence and some language
Running time: 143 min.
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Henry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Ayelet Zurer
Camei: Carla Gugino (voice)
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: David S. Goyer
Review published June 16, 2013
Director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch, Watchmen), Dark Knight trilogy producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Jumper) return Superman on the big screen, and that's not an easy task to do for a character this iconic, which the Bryan Singer and the makers of Superman Returns in 2006 can attest. Unlike that film, which tried to reboot at the same time stay in continuity with the Christopher Reeve series, this one is a full-scale reimagining of the Superman mythos. The visual splendor of Zack Snyder is on full display, and what a magnificent looking piece of cinema it is, as the director does well playing somber and slow during the first hour-plus of build-up, only to finally get a chance to let it all rip in grand fashion for a lengthy showdown between godlike beings battling it out on Earth for the fate of two separate races. Unfortunately, Snyder unleashed also proves to be Man of Steel's undoing.
The film starts off with the imminent collapse of the planet Krypton, where the powerful General Zod (Shannon, Mud) tries to take over the system in an attempt to save the planet, while the great Jor-El (Crowe, Les Miserables) and his wife Lara (Zurer, Angels & Demons) secure the escape for their infant boy, Kal-El (Cavill, Immortals), as well as a codex containing the DNA of Krypton's unborn future, to a remote but habitable (for Kryptonians) planet Earth. Zod and his cronies are apprehended and sentenced to the Phantom Zone, where they eventually are released in the aftermath of Krypton's demise. Zod will stop at nothing on getting that codex back and trying to resurrect the people he feels sworn to protect, regardless of whatever means he must perform to do it.
Meanwhile, Kal-El is on Earth, raised on a farm in Smallville, Kansas by Jonathan (Costner, Mr. Brooks) and Martha Kent (Lane, Secretariat), who keep the boy's superpowers and origin under wraps for fear of the havoc it would cause the populace should they discover the boy they've called Clark is really an alien from outer space. Years later, Lois Lane (Adams, Trouble with the Curve), a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, investigates the apparent discovery of an ancient vessel of unknown origin in the Arctic, and in the discovery, she spies and follows Clark, who is also there trying to discover his origins. Clark reveals to her his powers, which she uses to write her latest smash expose, but the story is squashed by her editor, Perry White, who also fears what shockwaves such a story would do to the people on Earth. But the people of Earth son discover anyway upon the arrival of General Zod and his crew, who are there to find the way to their people's restoration, even if it means destroying Kal-El, and the rest of Earth, in order to do it. Clark soon finds that, to protect his adopted people, he must emerge to the world as their savior, and put his life of care and protection behind him once and for all.
One of the more interesting things about the story, co-developed by Nolan along with Goyer, is that, unlike previous tellings of the Superman story, it is told in non-linear fashion, with key events (such as the finding of the craft containing baby Kal-El) told in dialogue rather than shown, with occasional flashbacks to Clark Kent's childhood to fill in some of the thematic gaps that resonate later in the story. As most who watch Man of Steel will be intimately familiar with Superman's origin, this brilliantly takes away the bulk of the overhead in having to walk us through it yet again, which leaves more time for exploring other areas of the story.
Goyer and Nolan draw parallels between Superman and Jesus, from the protection of his natural parents and his narrow escape from the clutches of a powerful tyrant, to the keeping the public knowledge of his 'specialness' under wraps until his thirties, to the motifs of Clark's destiny to be the savior of all of mankind someday, to the occasional shots of Superman holding his arms out to the side to resemble Jesus on the cros.s There is even one scene set in a church in which the visage of Christ is seen just behind Superman. Like Jesus, there's also a powerful 'real' father and a supportive adoptive human father for Kal-El. It's perhaps not a coincidence that this father-son narrative would see a U.S. release in theaters for Father's Day weekend in 2013.
Snyder's visual style, especially when paired up with Hans Zimmer's (The Dark Knight Rises, On Stranger Tides) soaring score, is something breathtaking to behold. The best scenes of the film are the ones without dialogue, using visual cues and a variety of different camera angles to frame the man of steel in ways that add to the mystique and nostalgia of the piece as a whole. It takes a while to get going, with very little in terms of full-fledged action scenes in the first half, but one still gets the feeling that all of this slow burn is necessary to capture the essence of the man who is Clark Kent before we see him do battle as Superman. It's also an interesting choice to make Man of Steel a mostly humor-free effort (there are a couple of jokes right at the end), continuing Goyer and Nolan's theme of bringing out the darker side of being a hero that they explored so well in the Batman series.
Henry Cavill fills in the role quite well. As Clark, there isn't much to his personality, but then, that's really Clark in a nutshell; he's supposed to be a square. Nevertheless, Cavill does embody the look of someone with the weight of the world, and possibly two worlds, on his shoulders, and though some may prefer the charismatic take by Christopher Reeve to the more dour turn by Cavill, once the series is grounded in a normalcy in the reality of a "day job" for Clark and a potential romance with Lois, we'll likely see more the entertaining nuance in the performance.
The supporting cast is mostly fine, with Amy Adams, in a role that probably doesn't really need someone of her talent or stature, still being the right mixture of sass, intelligence and vulnerability as Lois, despite her lack of raven hair, rather than the airhead or perpetual damsel in distress she's often written to be. It's interesting that they cast an obviously older actress (38 years old) to play opposite 30-year-old Cavill, though Margot Kidder was also four years older than Christopher Reeve in their Superman movies, so perhaps it's not a stretch. Goyer and Nolan smartly avoid the main contrivance of having Lois being too stupid to realize that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same by having her figure it out right off the bat, which also deepens the bond in their relationship, as she's a reporter who must keep the scoop of the century hidden from the public for their own greater good.
Costner and Lane are a solid and affecting Jonathan and Martha Kent, while Crowe, who does still live on beyond the destruction of Krypton through having his essence still alive in the relics of Krypton's past to offer guidance to Kal-El, and also to still try, though he's but a shadow, to thwart Zod's plans, is probably the most commanding presence of the film, though the way it's done seems to defy logic, as this "shadow" is not only perspicacious, but appears to be prescient as well (in one scene, he tells a character to move their head to avoid an oncoming punch arriving a few seconds later). Nevertheless, it iseems a wise move to keep him on board to lend some much-needed gravitas. I think the one bit of casting I didn't like is that of Michael Shannon as General Zod; he's a fine actor, especially playing somewhat loopy or psychotic roles, but still doesn't seem seasoned enough to give the part the heft it needs to make him an interesting and formidable foe. Perry White isn't white, played by excellent Laurence Fishburne (Predators, 21), but his race hardly matters for the purpose of the role as the resilient, insightful boss in charge of content at the Daily Planet, so the fit is there.
Though detached and sedate, all is reasonably well and good until the moment that Zod and his cohort arrive at Earth, as the fate of humanity as we know it hangs in the balance in this fight among god-like men and women. Just as Clark had to keep holding himself back in the face of bullies and a-holes and now can finally kick butt, it is in this final hour of mayhem and apocalyptic levels of destruction that Zack Snyder finally gets to cut loose, showcasing some of the most unconstrained CGI-laden destruction ever put to celluloid. And it is only then that we in the audience realize that all of that slow-burn setup conceivably for the purpose of character development just isn't there. We care next to nothing about the people of Earth as we witness countless deaths at the hands of an intergalactic madman, and there isn't a lick of tragedy to be felt for any of them (and by 'them', I mean 'us', humans). We can marvel about how detailed each building looks as it collapses to the ground, and these scenes of brick and metal constructs thunderously burying people under rubble, and merely admire them for their technical grandeur. At no time do we actually have an emotional attachment to any of the characters on the screen, which, in my mind, is a revealing sign that the entirety of the storytelling is a pretty big bust.
But it's not just the lack of emotional resonance that ends up breaking the back of the Man of Steel, it's just how much energy and time Snyder spends on it. Without that feeling of emotion, and without any prolonged moments of awe, we're locked into our theater seats with little to do other than observe a director run amok with a skies-the-limit budget and some of the best computer graphics design animators at his disposal to make his vision of senseless destruction shot in cool ways come to life. If this final hour of battle had been condensed to about 20 or even 30 minutes, we'd have all of the spectacle we could ask for without our minds shutting down to the point of boredom at the extra half hour of seeing little but more of the same. Like another director known for exciting visuals and unbridled need to rip roar action beyond the limits of a story's capacity, Michael Bay, Zack Snyder has yet to grasp the concept that it's OK to not be the biggest, baddest, most explosive movie in existence. A Superman franchise does not need to duel with the Transformers for carnage quotient to draw in interested viewers.
While this first entry is a mixed bag of good ideas to build on and unfortunate elements that erode them (the amount of product placement is astonishing. One minor recurring character who is persistently referred to in the film ostensibly to show he works at IHOP), it does set up the basics of the franchise well enough that the next entry can start fresh at 'ground zero', unencumbered by the lengthy origin sequence and heavy emphasis on Kryptonian elements that aren't as interesting as Superman's wrestling with terrestrial menaces. There is a reference to the existence of Lexcorp seen on the screen, so we'll even get Supes taking on his most well-known nemesis before too long (keen observers also note the appearance of a Wayne Enterprises logo, which suggests a Justice League crossover is being teased).
All in all, despite some flaws that will no doubt disappoint many, it's worth a look for fans and the curious, and does position itself the way it should by the end. We can only hope that Snyder, rather than try to one-up himself, can manage to reel in his indulgences and excess the entire way through on the next go round.
©2013 Vince Leo