WARNING: This post contains major plot spoilers and assumes you have already seen Man of Steel.
There are those who say Man of Steel should be judged only on its own merits, without regard to the overall Superman mythos from which it emerges. While there might be some validity to this view, that simply does not work for me. For one thing, based on the previews, I would have never gone to the theater to see Man of Steel had this been about “Generic Superhero X” rather than Superman.
Superman means something to me. He is a character in which I have invested hundreds of hours of my life by watching movies and television series, by reading comic books and novels, and even by writing about those experiences.
So, yes, when I watch Man of Steel, I do bring certain preconceptions with me about the character. However, there is no “one true version” of Superman. He has, at one time or another, dominated every type of media available, and each incarnation has been slightly different. I rather enjoy this aspect, as I often find those differences intriguing.
For instance, the 1990s television series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, gave the action aspects of Superman a back seat to character development and romance. After Christopher Reeve’s four legendary Superman films in the 1970s and 1980s, this focus on Clark rather than Superman was not at all what viewers were expecting. Some never did accept it, but I loved it for what it was.
A certain segment of the fan base has been demanding a more action-oriented take on Superman for years now. I hope they are happy, because now they have it.
Man of Steel may toss aside much of what makes Superman special, but it does deliver mind-numbing amounts of action.
Much like sitting through one of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, it soon becomes tedious to watch computer generated images of Superman and General Zod pummel each other and their environs. They beat the @!#?@! out of each other, yet it is boring.
As has been proven time and again, it takes more than exciting effects to make an interesting movie. In the case of Man of Steel, the quality of those visual effects are uneven – ranging from spectacular to mediocre and borderline poor. Many of the flying sequences left me disappointed, for instance. The overuse of CGI made me feel like I was watching cutscenes from a video game, rather than a movie featuring flesh and blood people.
The movie’s greatest success also highlights its deepest failure. To my surprise, Man of Steel is perfectly cast. Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman does a fantastic job with the material he is given, as does Amy Adams as Lois Lane. In fact, nearly all of the casting decisions work for me.
That such an ideal cast has been assembled for this Superman movie, though, only serves to highlight the weaknesses of the story being told by writer David S. Goyer, director Zack Snyder, and producer Christopher Nolan. The movie is all the more disappointing in not living up to the potential of its cast. Were it not for the cast, it would be much easier to dismiss this movie altogether and not care about it at all.
Man of Steel begins on Krypton with the birth of Kal-El to Lara (Ayelet Zurer) and Jor-El (Russell Crowe). Soon thereafter, Jor-El goes before a council to debate about the imminent destruction of Krypton. It appears that Kryptonians have over-mined the planet’s core and set it on a irrevocable path of destruction.
Jor-El then turns to the audience and says, “Did you see what we did there? We are making a grand social commentary about how you are wasting Earth’s natural resources. Aren’t we clever? And you thought this was just another stupid action movie.”
Okay, Jor-El did not really say that, but he might as well have. This kind of commentary is a tradition in science fiction, true enough, but I prefer a more subtle approach rather than being hit over the head and jarred out of the story. Much the same thing happens near the end of the movie in a quick scene involving a spy satellite/drone or some such. This time, it is Superman himself who turns around to the audience and winks.
Anyway, before Jor-El can finish his debate, General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives and assassinates a member of the council. It turns out that he is upset about the exact same thing as Jor-El, it is just that he is taking a more militaristic approach to defend his planet. Jor-El refuses to join him, but manages to escape.
Biting social commentary aside, I hated the opening scenes on Krypton. Though Crowe is great as Jor-El, Zurer is lifeless as Lara. The Krypton we see never really seems worth saving, and the only reason we care about the baby is because we know he will someday be Superman.
The movie picks up steam a bit when it cuts to Earth. Clark Kent is working aboard a commercial fishing ship when things go wrong, and he ends up saving a ton of lives by using his superpowers. He creates his own urban legends by working a series of odd jobs across the world, leaving whenever his powers come into play. The movie intercuts these “present” moments with extended flashbacks that flesh in Kent’s younger years.
While the flashbacks contain some of the film’s best moments, including outstanding performances by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent, the interruptions eventually become tiresome. While non-linear plots can work in the right hands, the creative forces behind Man of Steel were not up to the challenge.
To me, the flashback device appeared to be an attempt to avoid having Man of Steel labeled as an “origin” movie. Origin movies have taken on a bad reputation lately when it comes to comic book characters. This has much to do with the loud “We want more action!” crowd noted above, who see establishment of characters as “boring.” It is, after all, time away from the CGI slugfest that they all want.
Guess what, despite trying to hide it via flashbacks, Man of Steel is still an origin movie. Though I would have preferred that the powers that be just embrace this, I am actually glad of the flashbacks, intrusive as they may be, for they do offer time for some character-building through means other than punching.
This Superman is different from predecessors in a number of ways. For instance, the Clark Kent of 1978’s Superman (which was, gasp, an origin movie) would have done anything to save Jonathan Kent from his fatal heart attack. “All the things I can do, all those powers, and I couldn’t even save him,” he lamented.
The Clark Kent of Man of Steel, on the other hand, is content to let Jonathan run back towards a tornado to save the family dog and watch him be swept away to his death. This Clark could have acted, but chose to let his adopted father die for fear of exposing his powers to the public too early.
The Superman I know would have found a way or, at the very least, would have tried something rather than just standing there watching someone he loved die.
Notably missing from Man of Steel is Martha Kent’s reaction to Clark’s choice. This begged for a follow-up scene, for she alone knows that Clark could have saved her husband. She knows that Clark let him die. What a great opportunity for drama that the movie chose to ignore in favor of more time for CGI.
In addition to the flashbacks, I also enjoyed Man of Steel‘s take on Lois Lane, particularly that she already knows that Superman is really Clark Kent. Many of my favorite episodes of Lois & Clark come from the time period in the show when she knew Superman’s true identity, so I am glad there were no magic kiss memory wipes here. I am also glad to see touches of romance between the two characters.
The music by Hans Zimmer is bland and never distinguishes itself. Compared to his work on Batman Begins and many other films, Zimmer seems quite uninspired here. I cannot say I blame him.
Though there is a Greatest American Hero goofiness to the scene that should have been avoided, I did enjoy an apparent sound effects nod to the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series in the form of whistling winds during Clark’s early attempts at flying in Man of Steel. It is possible that my ears deceived me, but something in the back of my mind recognized the “flying wind” sound from Adventures of Superman or, possibly, Super Friends. In fact, I used to imitate this particular wind sound all the time when “flying” around the house as a kid in my Superman t-shirt with a towel/cape trailing behind me.
With that in mind, for me, what I find saddest about Man of Steel is that it is ultimately not appropriate for younger children. The wonder of Superman is part of childhood, but now society insists on a Superman movie that children should not even see.
In the end, Superman is forced to break General Zod’s neck in order to save innocent bystanders that would otherwise have been killed.
I understand that there are certain scenarios where even Superman must kill. I even acknowledge this particular instance as one of them.
However, the creative team should have come up with a better solution than having a beloved character twist and snap the neck of his adversary.
Call me old-fashioned, but Superman is better than that.
Perhaps it is, after all, appropriate, then, that Man of Steel does not carry “Superman” in its title.
Story: 4 (out of 10)
Visual Style: 5
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