Friday, June 14, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: MAN OF STEEL


When I walked out of a preview screening of Superman Returns seven years ago, I was pumped up with enthusiasm and very much looking forward to seeing where director Bryan Singer would take the series next. I thought Singer’s movie had a lot of heart and soul, it looked fantastic, and while it didn’t fully live up to its potential, there was certainly the hope and expectation that Singer would really nail it the second time around. Of course, with the film “underperforming,” that second time didn’t happen, so instead, we now get Man of Steel, which reboots the series from the beginning.  

My feeling is that if you take the best elements of Superman Returns (and yes, I still feel that there were good things about that movie, though I do now acknowledge its many flaws) and combine them with the best elements of Man of Steel, you’d have a damn near perfect Superman film. On its own, Man of Steel is good, not great. A fully satisfying Superman film remains an elusive thing indeed. 

In their zeal to make a clean departure from all of the previous Superman movies and start over again, producer Christopher Nolan, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and director Zack Snyder break from tradition in certain areas, introduce several bold and interesting ideas, and in some instances, directly challenge what most people know about the classic comic-book character.

And yet, probably the most surprising thing about this new film is the fact that so many elements of the older movies are present, if slightly reworked. 

In fact, boiled down to a one-sentence description, Man of Steel is basically 1978’s Superman: The Movie and 1981’s Superman II smushed together into one film. 

It begins on the doomed planet Krypton, with leading scientist Jor-El warning the ruling council that the planet will soon explode. The council members don’t believe him. Jor-El and his wife Lara place their infant son Kal-El into a rocket and send him to Earth as Krypton enters its death throes. At the same time, Krypton’s military leader General Zod and his followers are put on trial for insurrection and sentenced to imprisonment in the Phantom Zone. Kal-El lands in Smallville, Kansas, and is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who name him Clark and raise him as their son. Growing up, Clark discovers that he has amazing superhuman powers and questions his identity. Jonathan assures Clark that he was sent here “for a reason.” Eventually, Clark learns about his Kryptonian heritage from a holographic recreation of Jor-El, who assures his son that the people of Earth are basically good and that he can serve as the light that will show them the way. Then Zod and his people escape the Phantom Zone and threaten Earth. Only Kal-El, having now become Superman, can stop them.

Sound familiar? 

That’s not meant as a knock against the film. Unlike Superman Returns, which strived to graft itself onto the original movie directed by Richard Donner (and, to a lesser extent, Superman II), Man of Steel has its own feel, its own style, and its own sensibilities, even though it’s telling a story we’ve more or less seen before.  

I actually conducted an e-mail interview with Snyder several months ago, when I was still serving as an editor for Scholastic News, and he told me, “Man of Steel is a [mixture] of many Superman story lines. We really tried to [use] the whole Superman mythology.” That is definitely the case. 

There are additional clear references to Donner’s work in this film. For example, the fact that Superman’s stylized “S” is actually a Kryptonian symbol—and that we first see it being worn by Jor-El at the beginning of the film. 

Longtime Superman fans will undoubtedly pick up on nods to the 12-issue DC Comics mini-series Superman: Birthright, which featured an expanded version of the character’s origin. Man of Steel’s depiction of Clark’s somewhat complex relationship with his adoptive father Jonathan Kent is clearly derived from this comic-book story. The long-running “pre-Superman” TV series Smallville also seems to have been a major source of inspiration, particularly where Clark’s relationship with Lois Lane is concerned. And bits and pieces are taken from the memorable run of Superman comics produced in the late 1980s by writer/artist John Byrne—most significantly, a key moment that happens toward the end of the film echoes a pivotal story that Byrne did. I suspect it will generate a lot of discussion and controversy, and I’m very curious to see what the reaction will be. (For the record, I’m not really opposed to the moment itself, but I think Snyder and company could have and should have done a better job building towards it in the film. Unfortunately, I can’t go into it any further without spoiling it, so I’ll move on.) 

The film certainly looks great. Its depiction of the planet Krypton is fresh and intriguing, with innovative architecture and technology and nicely designed alien life forms. The fight scenes—beginning in Smallville and carrying over into Metropolis—are long, intense, and brutal. They’re a far, far cry from Superman’s now seemingly quaint confrontation with the three Phantom Zone criminals in Superman II. Metropolis is left looking like it’s been though five simultaneous 9/11’s.   

Where the film stumbles most is in the character department. It gets a lot right, but then doesn’t. Early in the film, the adult Clark, not yet Superman but already using his powers to help people, anonymously saves the lives of a bunch of workers at a burning oil rig. His clothes left in tatters, he steals some new ones out of a parked car. That’s right—he steals them, without leaving anything behind as a form of payment. Come on, even Bill Bixby’s Dr. David Banner would clip whatever cash he had in his pocket to a clothesline whenever he needed to swipe a new shirt or pair of pants. Above all else, Superman—even if he’s not yet Superman—should be a role model.

As noted earlier, Jonathan Kent’s relationship with Clark is more layered and complicated in this film, taking a cue from the Birthright series. Jonathan fears that the world is not ready for someone with Clark’s powers and abilities, and if they’re discovered, the boy will be taken away. So Jonathan insists that Clark not ever use those powers in public, even in matters of life and death. I found the ultimate resolution of this particular story thread hard to swallow, even troubling. 

I was very surprised to see Jor-El portrayed as a kick-ass fighter who was highly skilled with both firearms and hand-to-hand combat. Wasn’t this guy a lab-dwelling scientist?    

And there’s a character named Jenny—she works at the Daily Planet and speculation is that she was intended to be a female version of Jimmy Olsen (though her last name is never given). She’s put in major jeopardy during the battle in Metropolis. I think we’re supposed to care about what happens to her, but she’s such a cypher, so thoroughly a non-entity, that I don’t think anyone does. I know I didn’t, and I was wondering why the camera kept cutting back to her and her situation. The movie’s about two-and-a-half hours long, it didn’t really need this extraneous stuff. (Though it did give Laurence Fishburne, as Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White, something to do in the midst of the action. Whatever. Just didn’t work for me.)   

But there’s plenty of good stuff. For one thing, when Superman successfully takes flight for the first time, we see absolute joy and wonder on his face and he breaks out into a broad smile—something that was completely missing in Superman Returns, in which Brandon Routh looked glum and troubled most of the time. (I don’t blame Routh. I thought he was excellent as both Superman and Clark. It was the script and the direction that let him down, and unfortunately, his career suffered greatly because of it.) And the film does stress that down to his core, Clark/Superman is just a good, decent, caring person, and while watching, you can’t help but think, “Boy, we need someone like him more than ever.” 

And I really like what was done with General Zod in this film. As much as I enjoyed Terence Stamp in the role, you have to admit, his Zod was very thin as a character. All we really knew about him was that he wanted to rule, he wanted everyone to kneel before him, and he wanted revenge on Jor-El and intended to take it by conquering—or killing—his son. That was it. I found this new version of Zod to be far more developed and  multi-dimensional. He’s passionate and angry and right on the edge of insanity, but he also has an actual point of view and you get a real sense of what’s motivating him. And I love how the film shows Zod struggling to cope with his new powers on Earth. 

No matter the issues I have with the script, I have few if any qualms about the casting. 

Henry Cavill fills the Superman suit very well, though I must add that I really am not enamored of the suit itself. Too dark. Too busy. And I miss the red trunks. (On the plus side, I love the “S” symbol on his chest—it’s the right size and the style hearkens back to the Golden Age of comics.)  As with Routh, my only real criticism with regard to Cavill is something that’s completely beyond his control—in this film, he never gets a chance to show whether he has the versatility to pull off the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent. As Christopher Reeve demonstrated so brilliantly, they’re really two separate characters. But due to the nature of this story, Clark Kent—the mild-mannered reporter incarnation, at least—is not a major factor. So there’s not a whole lot of variation in Cavill’s performance when he’s wearing the suit and when he isn’t.




As Lois Lane, Amy Adams is just as good as we all knew she would be when her casting was first announced. (Makes you wonder why Bryan Singer didn’t consider her for Superman Returns—her star was already on the rise at the time, and even back then, she was clearly far better suited for the role than Kate Bosworth was.) This Lois is gutsy, intelligent, wise, and downright adorable (she is being played by Amy Adams, after all).


Michael Shannon brings a menacing energy and intensity to General Zod—and yet, there’s a certain tragic quality to him, as well. As I mentioned above, I really enjoyed this new take on the character and Shannon’s performance is a big reason for that.


Kevin Costner is terrific as Jonathan Kent. He’s really one of the highlights of the film, despite my misgivings about how his storyline is resolved.

And it should come as no surprise that the wonderful Diane Lane simply nails the role of Jonathan’s wife (and Clark’s adoptive mother), Martha Kent. She’s a sensitive, caring, and loving mother who’s there to help and support her son, no matter what. (Incidentally, it wasn’t all that long ago that I felt that Diane Lane was perfect for the role of Lois Lane.) 




As the first actor to play Jor-El in a movie since Marlon Brando, Russell Crowe has some pretty big shoes to fill. But he acquits himself quite nicely, bringing a strength and dignity and presence all his own (along with the aforementioned ability to kick ass in a throwdown).


And Laurence Fishburne is very good as Perry White—again, that should come as no real surprise. His interactions with Adams’s Lois are fun to watch. 


The rest of the cast, which includes Christopher Meloni (as Colonel Nathan Hardy, who doesn’t know whether to trust Superman), Richard Schiff (as scientist Dr. Emil Hamilton), and Antje Traue (as Faora, General Zod’s right hand woman—think Ursa from the Donner films) are all uniformly good.

So yes, there’s quite a few things to like about Man of Steel—but I do have to mention that the score isn’t one of them. I do sympathize with composer Hans Zimmer. He was in the unenviable position of coming up with music for a Superman film that would be a complete and total departure from the indelible, iconic, downright perfect score created by John Williams. In that, he succeeded. The music for this film is completely unmemorable. There’s no main theme. There’s no real hook. There’s just a lot of thrumming and pounding and percussion. It’s not evocative. I don’t know if I ever would have been fully satisfied with anything other than Williams’s material, but I do know that Zimmer’s work for this film did not resonate with me at all.

As the film enters its opening weekend, news has leaked that a sequel has already been fast-tracked, with the director and screenwriter definitely returning. As I was seven years ago, I’m curious to see what comes next. My hope is that with the filmmakers having now remade Superman: The Movie and Superman II in one shot, we’ll finally get the Superman III that we should’ve gotten 30 years ago. 


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2013.

7 comments:

  1. Good review, Glenn! You noted how Clark steals clothes. I seem to remember Smallville's Clark doing a lot of similarly jarring things: breaking and entering and such. Yeah, that's a flaw. Sounds like it'll be fun to see, if not super. Thanks!

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  2. We're basically on the same page, especially in regard to Zimmer's utterly generic score.

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  3. ...we’ll finally get the Superman III that we should’ve gotten 30 years ago.

    *****

    Dave Chappelle as Gus Gorman!

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  4. Agreed. Same flaws as almost everything released today. in a 2 and a half hour movie, there should be enough time for character development, but instead theres the mad rush to blow the shit outta everything in sight. You never get to know any of the characters. Is the assumption that we know them well enough already?

    its a very somber, very post 9/11 retelling. What worked for Dark Night doesnt work for Superman. The incidental and themeless soundtrack didnt help matters either. A lot to like here, but its not a film made for my generation. The Donner/Reevee Superman was truly about hope, without having to point it out as a symbol on his chest.

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  5. I will say that on the subject of "Superman Returns," the only thing that killed it for me was the whole "Superkid/Deatbeat Superdad" subplot. Not really needed. The secene where Superman "returns" and saves the shuttle and jet is the most heroic supers scene ever conceived.

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