Man of Steel
Actors: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix & Ayelet Zurer
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan
Studios: Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures
Reaction to the new Man of Steel movie online has been rather divided, from what I can see. Some viewers have applauded it, while others have criticized it for its excesses. Having viewed it in 2D in a rather sparsely attended Friday matinée, I can see validity in both points of view. On one point, I think all would be able to agree that Man of Steel is definitely a spectacle, a huge special-effects extravaganza. In many ways, it’s a tale of two movies, clearly striving to appeal to as wide an audience of blockbuster movies as humanly possible. Ultimately, I appreciated the movie for how it offers an unconventional and unexpected new take on the title character. I love to be surprised, and to come away from a Superman origin flick surprised is something I would have thought to be next to impossible. One flaw with the film is how, in its effort to achieve maturity and legitimacy, it’s failed to leave much room for any sense of fun or joy.
It’s clear from the opening scenes that director Zack Snyder wasn’t going to waste the opportunity of having an A-list actor such as Russell Crowe in what would normally be a supporting role. He transforms Jor-El into a bonafide action hero himself, and it makes for some entertaining moviemaking. Jor-El is the star of the first of two movies here: the sci-fi epic, on bar with the level of Star Wars and other classics in its ambitious world-building and designs. Of course, Snyder, Goyer and Nolan’s vision of Krypton owes a great deal to the creativity of John Byrne. Appropriately, Byrne’s 1986 Man of Steel mini-series and subsequent Superman comics were clearly a major influence on this movie — you can see it in Kelex the robot, Krypton’s reproductive protocols and in the designs for the planet’s high council. I didn’t see any credit for his work (as well as others whose contributions to the Superman mythos, such as Mark Waid, served as building blocks for this movie), and that’s a shame. If DC were on the ball, it would immediately get some of Byrne’s 1980s Superman work back into print with a strong marketing push, as it’s bound to appeal to fans of this movie more than, say Superman Unchained and All-Star Superman.
Henry Cavill’s performance as Superman and Clark Kent worked well, though it still pales in comparison with that of the late Christopher Reeve. He definitely has a greater sense of presence and maturity than Brandon Routh (who was too young for the role of an established and experienced Superman, in my opinion). I was never really all that mesmerized with Cahill either. He does a decent job, but since this was a brooding vision of Superman, it does take a bit of adjustment on the viewer’s part. Amy Adams as Lois Lane was much more impressive. I like that she’s written as being a thoughtful person, not someone who allows ambition or hunger for a story overwhelm her judgment.
Like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Man of Steel boasts a well-constructed story, especially from a thematic perspective. One theme that’s quite obvious is the importance of fatherhood (apt, given the movie was released Father’s Day weekend). There’s room for both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent to provide some true moral guidance to Clark/Kal, and that fatherhood element is bolstered by Russell Crowe’s and Kevin Costner’s strong performances. The latter actually outdoes Crowe, as he ends up making as powerful an impact on the story in a much quieter, less flashy way. I thought the more interesting but less prominent theme was that of purpose. Sure, it’s clear Clark Kent has to struggle with finding his place in a world in which he doesn’t belong, but what caught my attention was how his discovery of his purpose occurs as Zod loses his purpose. Zod’s villainy works well, even when he’s being an over-the-top, genocidal monster, because he’s being true to himself. He’s driven by a mission, by doing what he was literally designed to do. He’s as much a victim of Krypton’s lost values and emphasis on convenience over ambition as the doomed planet itself.
I’m puzzled by Zack Snyder and Nolan’s reinvention of Jimmy Olsen as Jenny, because the character serves little purpose throughout the movie. In fact, I’m not sure she’s ever identified as an Olsen in the dialogue (I didn’t note it, and I was listening for it). Mind you, her part in the film did pay off in the tense scene in which Perry White and Steve Lombard desperately and in vain try to rescue her from certain death, dooming themselves to the same fate in the process. AS obvious and predictable as the scene was, it was nevertheless effective at building tension and emotion, probably more from Laurence Fishburne’s powerful facial expressions. Speaking of Lombard, I’m a big fan of Michael Kelly’s acting, but he was really wasted in this movie. There wasn’t much meat on the bone for the supporting players, and hopefully, that will be addressed in the inevitable sequel.
Christopher Meloni didn’t have a lot he could do with Col. Hardy. He’s a one-dimensional character whose every word and action was predictable and clichéd. It’s not Meloni’s fault, and I did appreciate the casting, as he’s not the biggest or beefiest all-American soldier type. Richard Schiff is a wonderfully versatile actor who was well cast in the role of Prof. Emil Hamilton, but his character is really just a cog, there to provide exposition and, to a lesser degree, to keep the story going where it needs to go. Again, there’s not much there for him to work with, but he’s quite memorable whenever he gets some screen time.
The most controversial scene in the movie, obviously, is the climactic confrontation between Superman and Zod. Obviously, the path of destruction they leave in their wake is meant to dazzle the audience, but it doesn’t add to the story. They’re powerful, we get it; Snyder unnecessarily beats us over the head with it at that point (especially after the more entertaining and comparatively tempered fight scene in Smallville between Superman and two of the Phantom Zone baddies). But what will no doubt stick in some people’s craw (as has already been widely discussed online) is just how the hero ends the threat Zod poses to humanity. It was a shocking moment, something I didn’t expect at first, because it’s not consistent with most interpretations of the title character. But I think it works in the context of this plot and script, especially when Superman’s moral code wasn’t as played up as it has been with other interpretations. It is consistent with Nolan’s take on the genre, as we saw with the Batman’s actions in the most recent trilogy (notably at the climax of Batman Begins). I think it’s a valid take on the character, and it seems pretty clear it’s meant to stand out as an aberration. When considers the context of Pa Kent’s death, it makes a little more sense. Clark learned before his inaction would cost lives, and this time, he didn’t hold back, no matter what the consequence might be to him personally. Furthermore, Superman’s agonizing conundrum at the movie’s peak also evokes memories of John Byrne’s innovative Superman plots from the 1980s.
Earlier in this review, I refer to Man of Steel being made up of two different movies. The first is a science-fiction epic, and the second is a disaster flick. Man of Steel, especially in the third act, has more in common with Deep Impact or The Day After Tomorrow than the Superman flicks of the 1970s and ’80s. It seemed clearly designed to appeal to the Michael Bay crowd while also trying to offer something of more substance and intelligence for a more discerning audience. I think it succeeds in that dual mission, but just barely. It forever teeters on the edge of being unpalatable. I enjoyed it for what it had to offer in terms of new and unconventional perspectives, but it’s easy to see why some would be disappointed. Superman isn’t just an icon — he’s an archetype, and deviating from ingrained, cultural expectations is going to generate some understandable backlash. 7/10
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