Perhaps no 2013 movie has been more hyped or more scrutinized prior to its release than “Man of Steel”. Maybe it’s the talent that’s been assembled both in front of and behind the camera. Maybe it’s the heartfelt desire of fanboys like me for a good quality Superman movie during this current age of superhero cinema. Whatever it is, “Man of Steel” seems destined to disappoint on some levels for some. Well it’s finally arrived and for me it didn’t disappoint even though its a film that I needed to digest first.
This is certainly a different Superman movie than any of the others that we’ve seen which means it will definitely have to dodge its share of criticisms. Some will surely have issues with the different tone of this film and others will struggle with the creative liberties that do strip the picture of some of the things that the other Superman movies leaned heavily on. But when looked at as a clearly distinct Superman picture I feel it holds up quite strongly on its on. I certainly don’t want to discount the problems others may have with the film, but I think it’s a movie that offers a unique vision laced with fun summer action while also showing a level of respect for the source material.
David Goyer and Christopher Nolan put together the story and the directing reigns were handed to Zack Snyder. Their Superman universe starts by placing us into a crumbling planet Krypton. It’s a vision of the planet unlike any we’ve seen before and we get some interesting doses of their society, political structure, and more importantly the danger they’re facing. Due to some ill-advised planetary resourcing, Krypton is on the verge of destruction. Understanding his planet’s fate, Jor-El (wonderfully played by Russell Crowe) and wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) shoot their infant son Kal off the planet destined for Earth. With him is a codex which will ensure the survival of the Kryptonian race. We also meet the megalomaniacal rebel General Zod (Michael Shannon), an old friend of Jor-El’s whose more violent solutions for survival seriously clash with the society.
From there the movie jumps ahead 30 Earth years or so. Kal-El (Henry Cavill) now named Clark, is a wanderer who works as everything from a crab fisherman to a truck stop waiter. Along the way he has left behind numerous stories of his superhuman heroism. Now the tale of his arrival on Earth is familiar enough and the film doesn’t waste a lot of time going back over it. As a baby he’s found by Ma and Pa Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) and raised on their farm in Kansas. We see glimpses of his childhood through a series of very effect flashbacks. I have to say I loved this approach and each jump back into Clark’s past offered an interesting look at the different struggles and hardships he faced. Costner and Lane both give fabulous performances and inject some real emotion into the story.
As you probably guessed Zod and his followers track Kal to Earth and seek him out hoping to regain the codex and restore Krypton in their own genocidal way. It’s here that Clark must either embrace the destiny set before him and protect his new home or watch the human race be destroyed at the hands of his fellow Kryptonians. Through this we get a lot of mulling and conversation about whether or not the human race is ready to accept a super alien species. That’s soon tested after Clark saves the life of the spunky Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who insists on finding out more about her hero.
This Lois Lane is quite different than the versions we’ve come to know and this leads to one issue that I know some will have with the film. There’s a wild inversion of events that takes place in “Man of Steel” than definitely effects the relationship between Lois and Clark. For me, their romance has always been a crucial function that makes his whole story work. Because of the chronological tinkering, I found their romance to be lacking. But it isn’t completely ineffective. Adams gives a nice performance. It’s just that her Lois feels so different than others. She’s also much more out of the element that we’re used to seeing her in. Overall it didn’t seriously bother me but it didn’t always feel right.
While the Lois character may have raised questions, I had none when it came to Michael Shannon’s Zod. From his first moments on screen he comes across as unstable and menacing. Shannon goes after it and I never doubted him for a second. I also really liked Antje Traue as Faora, Zod’s loyal second in command. She’s dry and super serious and she perfectly compliments Shannon’s performance. In movies like this it’s crucial to have a strong villain and Shannon brings that. Many of my favorite scenes feature him and none are better than when he makes his first appearance on Earth.
I’ve mentioned many of the performances but the real question mark for me was Henry Cavill. Could he capture the man of steel in a convincing way? The answer is yes. I liked Cavill here. I do think he’s helped by the screenplay which rarely asks him to do too much. But during the small scenes where he’s needed to exhibit some range he succeeds. This was a big deal because a poor performance from him could have derailed the entire production. Cavill has the look, the physicality, and the commitment to sell the character.
There’s no denying that “Man of Steel” sports a much more serious tone and it lacks the lighthearted playfulness of the other movies. This has proven to be a hurdle that some just can’t get over. In many ways I welcome it. “Man of Steel” gives us a much more serious Superman story but it’s not without its share of funny moments. It just chooses to spend its time delving into some things we’ve rarely seen in the other films. I appreciated that and it’s one of the key things that keeps this from feeling exactly like every other Superman movie we’ve been given.
And of course you can’t talk about “Man of Steel” without getting into the action sequences and special effects. This is where Zack Snyder’s fingerprints really show up. The film looks fantastic and it features some really fun science fiction. Everything including the space ships, Zod and his crew’s wicked armor and air mask apparatus, the destruction of buildings and vehicles, it all is beautifully crafted and realized by Snyder’s keen stylistic eye. And we see that eye at work a lot in this film. There is a ton of action here but most of it is pulled off to great effect. Snyder shows off his effects with skill except for in the big finale. It’s here that about 5 minutes of crumbling buildings alone could have been left on the cutting room floor and the movie would have been better for it.
So how do I summarize all of this? Amid “Man of Steel’s” booming action sequences and sky-high expectations lies a very good Superman reboot that I think shines in its uniqueness. Yes, a few of its directional choices don’t work as well as I would have liked and the final action sequence can be a bit numbing. But this has all the ingredients of being a franchise I can latch onto. I also appreciate that it steered the material away from cartoony and ventured to give us a more stern and grounded story. And I like that it brings the character back from the waste that Bryan Singer left him in. “Man of Steel” gives us someone bound by morals and committed to truth and justice. In other words, “Man of Steel” gives us Superman. All if this led to an experience that I found most satisfying and I’m anxious to see what lies ahead for this franchise.