This review has been edited after some deep introspection and discussion. Something is missed by this film– and because of that lack, there’s a bit of an emptiness to the conflict in this movie.
Is Man of Steel the Superman movie that fans have been waiting decades for? The Superman movie that doesn’t rely on kryptonite to get one over on our caped hero? The Superman film that captures the heroism, the ‘other’-ness, the moral dilemma in being an indestructible force, the vulnerability inherent in a person with such endless power who is also a good person, the potential in his powers? Does it pay the right homage to the established mythology of this hero that so many love?
Not exactly. The truth is that Man of Steel is very close to NOT a Superman movie. It’s more science fiction, centering on the fact that he’s an alien and other aliens are after him. Much of the idealism and heroism that we want from Superman is not there in anything close to the way it ought to be.
That said, Man of Steel is good, benefiting from a great cast and a generally interesting story.
Here is the trailer that a large portion of the human population has seen already:
Released on June 15, 2013
Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Henry Cavill, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Michael Kelly, and Laurence Fishburne
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There is a man who can do amazing things. He saves people through incredible displays of strength and power. Who is this man? He is Kal-El (Cavill), the last hope of a dying world called Krypton, sent to Earth in the hopes of being a bridge between the people of Krypton and the people of Earth. And on Earth, Kal-El nearly has the power of a god.
Man of Steel envisions the Superman mythos as the story of a being who has to decide how he will live on a world that will always see him as different and too powerful. This is an excellent approach to the story, because that is at the very heart of the Superman character becoming a hero.
Also, in Man of Steel, we have a movie that is the story of an alien invasion that must be repelled by one of the aliens– one who has lived among humans and learned to love them.
So we learn about Kal-El, also known as Clark Kent, by following a non-linear approach to the story of his childhood as he struggled to fit in and his parents (Costner and Lane) fought to keep his abilities under wraps. We also learn that he has been trying to find where he came from and what he is supposed to do on this planet. So he is bearded and trying to find clues as to who he is and is trying to just live life on his own terms.
But a bad guy from Krypton shows up and wants to use Kal-El, because Kal-El holds the only way to bring back the people of Krypton. General Zod (Shannon) threatens the entire planet in order to encourage his quarry to surrender himself to Zod and his crew.
At the same time, Lois Lane (Adams), a reporter for the Daily Planet, comes upon the story of this being who has incredible power, and she digs and digs until she discovers the truth of this man, at nearly the same time that he finds this same truth.
There is a connection between these two. Lois is, as expected, a hard-nosed reporter who loves to insert herself into dangerous situations, and when she is faced with something otherworldly, she finds in herself a heaping portion of awe. As for Clark, having someone else to share his secret with makes all the difference for him.
Zod, of course, has nefarious plans for Earth, given that his home planet is destroyed. Superman has to decide if he can trust humanity, while at the same time finding a way to stop Zod, who shares his abilities.
It all comes down to the final 35 minutes or so of massive, city-scale destruction.
Let’s talk about what Man of Steel does right. First off, the casting is as near to perfection as possible. Henry Cavill makes an excellent young Superman, adding a vulnerability to his ridiculous good looks and making it easier to believe in him. Much is asked of him and Cavill steps up. Michael Shannon is bombastic and believable as Zod, his motivations having been honed over decades to a believable zeal. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer turn in excellent performances as Kal’s father and mother, Jor-El and Lara. Crowe is particularly good in that he has to try to infuse the beginning of the film with a heroic purpose.
Amy Adams is all that we could have ever wanted in Lois Lane. Smart, determined, forceful, beautiful, and in appropriate awe of Superman. She gets some of the better lines in the film. Watch for the next-to-last line of the film. And watch how she becomes Superman’s soul companion immediately after the battle with Zod. She knows how what Superman has just had to do has affected him and she is there for him. What can’t this actress do?
Diane Lane is also tremendous as Clark’s adoptive mother.
Consider: Martha Kent has had to be the mother of the answer to that universal question regarding whether we’re alone. She has led Clark through the years of him having to hide his abilities. And now she has to cope with him being the center of the world’s attention. Lane convincingly does all of this and the moments between her and Cavill significantly add to the importance of Kal-El’s adoptive parents in the mythology here.
Then there’s Kevin Costner. The man can act, when inspired properly. He turns in a powerful and important performance here. It’s clear he understands what Jonathan Kent’s role is in molding and guiding Clark as a young man. I wanted those two moments– and you’ll know them when you see them– to last just a bit longer. Let the power of that upheld hand and Costner’s expression have its intended effect on you. His sacrifice there makes all the difference in Superman’s later life and the decisions he has to make regarding humanity. Think what you will about that sacrifice (and I might even agree), it’s still a turning point for Clark. And there, at the mechanic shop. Listen to what is said.
Rounding out the cast is Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, in a role that was somewhat overlooked and a little convenient to the needs of the plot.
Be glad that Jimmy Olsen was not seen as necessary here. Be glad that Lex Luthor, despite one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene, is not an issue.
The characters and their needs, their priorities and goals, their hopes and dreams, all of this is the impetus that drives the story. And that is why the movie works as well as it does for as long as it does.
The non-linear format, where we have flashbacks to Clark’s childhood, does not lessen the power of the characters- it actually helps link the past to these characters’ present and helps us get a better look at who they really are.
More about the writing: This is, overall, a well-crafted film that allows characters to develop and events to unfold in a generally natural way. Some things are cut short, which was unnecessary, given the overlong final battle scenes.
I think it would be very nice if the movie makers could have finally answered the question about how Superman shaves.
I think it would have also been nice to see the decision that Superman makes between learning about his origins and donning the suit. This was not shown adequately.
The pacing is mostly deft, as we see each character in each scene moving toward either a decision or the results of a decision.
The visuals are stunning and mighty. But, combined with an over-loud soundtrack, the visuals at times became somewhat overbearing. Buildings falling, thousands of people dying.
Which leads us to the main weakness of this and other Superman films. But mostly this film.
Superman has endless power and many abilities. X-ray vision. Lasers from his eyes. Near-invincibility. Not needing to breathe for long periods of time. Unbelievable super strength. The ability to fly. Even in space. Super hearing. Super vision. Super speed.
The source of this power is the yellow sun, and this was better explained in Man of Steel than in any other Superman film.
But what powers, out of all of these, does Superman use all the time? Flying and incredible strength. Indeed, in the showdown between Superman and Zod and Zod’s cronies, because Superman can fly, is invincible and is incredibly strong, a city is laid to waste.
Thousands of people had to have died. Billions of dollars in damage. Buildings destroyed, roads demolished, the crust of the earth shredded.
Shouldn’t Superman, even one who has only just begun his life as a hero, have been cognizant of the massive destruction his battle is causing? Shouldn’t this concern him? Why wouldn’t he take the fight to space, where nobody can hear you scream and a building can’t be knocked down because he punches Zod through it?
Wouldn’t Superman know to use his X-ray vision, super speed, super hearing, in a way that helps him plan for where Zod or another enemy is coming from? Surely he can smell or hear or see things better, and his reactions are super fast.
Couldn’t he have found a way to use his laser vision to wreak remote havoc on his enemy?
Also, there is an issue of heroism, true heroism, requiring sacrifice. An important note is that it would have been better for Clark/Superman’s arc if he did not honor his father’s wishes and thus made his own sacrifice in order to save a life. There is very little in the way of personal sacrifice required of Clark/Superman; instead he becomes a defender of humanity after not trusting humanity and then he has a BMD (Battle of Mass Destruction).
These concerns are why Man of Steel, as a movie, falters. The writer/director team did not explore nearly enough the implications and possibilities with Superman’s powers and the hero was far too passive and able to be led by the nose. (Brief semi-spoiler up ahead!) Also, as usual, they found a way to reduce or eliminate his powers, adding some transparent artifice to his conflict.
This Superman was more thoughtful, although nearly as charming and square-jawed, and more genuinely vulnerable than previous ones, with the exception of the rather inept Superman we saw in Superman Returns. Sure, that one was about Superman’s heart and soul, but he was kind of weaker and unbelievably stupid for a guy who has been using his powers for so long.
It was nice to have a thoughtful Superman. But his brain turned off when the battle began, and that’s not okay. His job is to save people, not just have an epic, god-like battle with a well-matched enemy. He should have found a way to take his one-on-one brawl outside of the city. This thoughtful Superman should have done better.
But he didn’t. Because Zack Snyder wanted to knock buildings down.
And as the buildings fell, so did the emotional journey that the audience was on. Luckily, some of it came back in the final scene in the battle (although many fans will absolutely NOT like what Superman has to do to win this battle), but a lot of emotional momentum had been spent by that time. The fight needed to be more personal, more gut-wrenching, and more requiring of personal sacrifice and determination. With a name like Man of Steel, and with writers like Nolan and Goyer this should have been possible; having him be required to have a will of steel would have been more satisfying.
As a final note, how wonderful would it be if a Superman film could explore the moral dilemma that Superman faces daily. He is an extraordinarily powerful being. His dilemma is about choosing when and when not to use his powers. How to use his powers in moderation. The choice to not simply impose his will on nations and people.
In any case, all in all, Man of Steel delivers a good movie, if not entirely a Superman movie. There is a deep and moving emotional core in this film, centered mostly on Clark as he seeks his purpose and also including Lois as she finds awe for a world she’d become cynical about. That deep core is not fleshed out enough, in my opinion, to the film’s overall detriment.
There is very fine acting and production value. The mythology, particularly the origin, of Superman is nicely illuminated. There could have been more fun and whimsy, but the humor that was there was quite deft. There absolutely should have been more personal sacrifice. Where is the heroism if all the hero has to do is flex his muscles just a little harder?
Finally, Cavill’s Superman is one that audience will want to see again in another installment.
Content warnings: Some salty language, plenty of comic/action flick violence (it’s not gory, but very ‘boomy’.)
Writing: 3.5 Acting: 5 Overall: 3.5
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