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Review: “Man of Steel”

The short review: The filmmakers manage to deliver a fresh and new take on the very well-worn Superman origin story, but it does devolve a bit into repeated action and demolishing cities.

Man of Steel

The long review: Though I’ve always been a DC Comics fan, I’ve never really been much of a Superman guy, except in that brief period in the ‘90s when the Bruce Timm animated series was on Kids’ WB and everything was awesome. Usually, I just think he’s too powerful and not a particularly interesting character. Still, it’d have been hard for me not to be excited by the prospect of a new Superman film, called Man of Steel, produced by Christopher Nolan, written by David S. Goyer, and directed by Zack Snyder. Would they be able to make him a more complex and compelling character? Would they manage to give a real-world context for his abilities, as they promised? Would they find a new way of telling the origin story every person in the entire known universe already knows? Would they make it more than just super-powered people punching each other? The answer to many, but not all, of these questions is: Yes.

Origin stories are always the easiest to tell, but they can become tiresome over and over again. This hasn’t stopped comic books from rebooting or tinkering with the beginnings of various heroes over the years, nor has it stopped studios from making these stories again. If the next Batman movie is just the origin story again, I’m probably going to be upset. But, Superman’s start hadn’t been seen on the big screen since 1978, so, no matter how familiar, the decision was justified. That, of course, means we start on the planet Krypton, an advanced but arrogant and pompous civilization that refuses to believe when Jor-El (Russell Crowe) warns them about the planet’s impending doom. They have more things to worry about, as General Zod (Michael Shannon) is preparing a coup, because evil. This leads to Jor-El sending his only son, the first naturally-born Kryptonian in centuries (everybody’s farmed nowadays), somewhere out into space, to be hailed as a god, probably.

The Krypton sequence goes on much longer here, and with more flying creatures, than we’ve seen previously. In fact, Jor-El is much more of a character than he’d ever been before, sort of a bigger character than Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) even. This is fine, because the design of Krypton and all the Kryptonians was among my favorite stuff in the movie. It looked fantastic, and the reason behind the various symbols and costuming makes perfect sense within the world established. Why do they all seem to have different Earth accents? Who knows? The bad guys even have a good reason for being bad, even if they are misguided and unwilling to listen to reason. More about them later.

Man of Steel 3

What we’d expect to be a series of scenes of Kal-El’s ship crashing through to when he’s an adult Clark Kent is not what we get. Next we see grown up, bearded Clark working aboard a fishing boat and performing an act of superheroism that forces him to leave, lest he be found out. I like this aspect of the movie a whole lot. Clark knows he’s special, but he’s trying to find out why and how to be a part of it. We do see scenes of him as a child and finding things out, but we only see them when they become important to the current narrative, and they jump around in time periods depending on what works best thematically. They’re more like Clark’s memories than his backstory. Because the Superman origin is so in the zeitgeist, they only need to touch on pieces, how Clark had to learn not to let his anger get the best of him, how he had to try to be the bigger man because he could easily tear anybody apart if he wanted. It’s these things that give the character a lot more depth and make him more than just a do-gooder Boy Scout, but it also never gets too navel-gazey. Sure, there’s a bit of Space-Jesus talk in there, but only just a bit. It threads that needle very nicely.

Man of Steel 2

Clark learning about his past, and at the same time, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) trying to piece together his life based on eyewitness accounts, is great. She meets him before the suit, so to her, he’s just a guy, and that’s fantastic. And she’s not a dummy. She’s actually a smart reporter who figures things out. They spark a friendship and he, as always, is there to catch her the thousands of times she gets thrown off of things. Not in a stupid or eye-rolling way, but because she’s in the thick of things a lot. I liked that.

The performances are quite good, especially from Henry Cavill as Clark/Kal/Super. He’s impossibly handsome and incredibly ripped but he plays the character as he should be played, as a good guy who doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s aware of his abilities and willing to use them, but he’s not cocky or even very confident in them yet. In contrast, Michael Shannon is frothing with anger, bitterness, and hate and does a really terrific job of it. Adams, Crowe, and Costner are pretty great in their roles and the less flashy characters like Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White, Richard Schiff’s Dr. Emil Hamilton, and Christopher Meloni’s Colonel Hardy do a bang-up job. The only casting misstep is Diane Lane as Martha Kent, who just seems to be trying to evoke an eccentric old biddy the whole time; really no idea why.

The direction is really where I am of two minds. On the one hand, a lot of it looks utterly gorgeous. Landscapes, be they real or computer-generated, look terrific, especially with Superman flying over and around them. Man of Steel lacks the glossy sheen of something like The Avengers, but that’s only because it’s closer in tone (though not nearly as dour) to Nolan’s Dark Knight movies. Seeing the guy in the cape jumping and flying around is something every kid, even a 29-year-old not-Superman fan like me, can get excited about. In this way, and in the overall look and composition of the scenes, Snyder does a truly bang-up job.

But “bang-ups” are at the crux of what I think the film didn’t do so well. The action scenes are at times hard to watch, because they’re trying to make them frenetic and “realistic,” and you just lose track of what’s happening. The camera isn’t fast enough to keep up with the speed at which things are happening, which is a bit absurd. There’s also the problem that, at a certain point, you’re just watching one super-powered person punching another super-powered person through buildings and across landscapes and accruing an incalculable amount of collateral damage in the process. Poor Smallville barely has anything in it, yet it’s on the main street that Superman and some U.S. military helicopters decide to battle two Kryptonians. Metropolis has it even worse. Sure, there’s the mayhem and destruction caused by the plot of the villains, but why should there then be an even more destructive battle between Superman and Zod. How can you claim to have the best interest of the people of Earth in mind when you wantonly level whole blocks of a major city while attempting to “save” it? It made the New York destruction in The Avengers look like some fireworks hit it. Maybe make Zod fly to the middle of nowhere to battle? That work for anyone else?

Those complaints (and a few weird plot conveniences I won’t get into) aside, Man of Steel is the best version of Superman on the big screen possibly ever. It’s not anywhere near perfect, but it’s a whole lot of fun and explores some interesting themes. If they’re setting up a series where he goes into outer space and fights huge aliens, I’ll be all for it, although if it’s just a bunch of invasions or mad scientists trying to take over Earth, it might get a bit old. With the exception of Dawn of the Dead, which will always rank at number one for me, I think this is Zack Snyder’s best film. And me, a dyed-in-the-wool Batman fan, would totally go see another Superman movie with these same creative people involved. But, maybe, leave the skylines intact.

Did you see the movie yet? Post your own thoughts below, and, please, no spoilers, okay? Also, let’s note here that the movie’s co-producer Legendary Pictures owns Nerdist Industries but the site remains ediorially independent.

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22 comments

  • Lets examine the major complaint most have with the film: that Superman doesnt kill. If you believe that Superman is above killing then you dont know anything about the character. All you know is the pre conceived notion of the “family friendly” films Richard Donner made. But lets see if you people remember this….Superman 2 in the fortress at the end Superman KILLS Zod by throwing him into a pit. How about the awful Superman 4 film? Superman essentially kills Nuclear Man by throwing him into a nuclear reactor to rid him from the city. I dont recall hearing anyone object to those… Look at what he did to Doomsday for heavens sake. Gold/Silver age eras in the comics Supes has killed around 6 or 7 different people. So in conclusion on that regard you have no valid point.

  • I’d mostly agree with the author here, I’ve a few major gripes but overall it was this is the best Superman film to date. It was a compelling origin and I believed in Clark’s dilemmas and arc.
    But it was stuff like the presence of the staff of the Daily Planet in the last sequences which got on my wick. It felt gratuitous and at times, ridiculous. And then there were the fight scenes : Surely the worst part of it, but still better than any in Avengers Unite or Transformers or any other cgi action fantasies of late. The problem is that they dragged on forever and with absolutely no stakes or importance to any one action. IMO fights are best kept short and simple. Go ahead and lob a few cars and cast members around, but by the 3rd time this scene, I’m yawning. They did at least get the number of participants right. Goody vs. small number of Baddies. No maelstroms of armies or swarms of unimportant disposable parties.

    SPOILER ALERT: I felt that the last action sequence was totally unnecessary. Zod could’ve been removed with the rest of the baddies. There was a jarring change of dynamic. One moment the characters couldn’t hurt each other and could spend 20 minutes smashing each other, then with no obvious change in situation we’re expected to believe that every movement counts. If that’s how you’re going to end it, can we get there without all the eye bleed.

  • Why would Zod not want to fight superman in a populated area, that was something he knew about kal-el. Is how Zod ends up dying Kal-el had no choice but to kill him.

  • Amazing movie. Nothing more to say really. Other than to those nitpicking critics who are obviously far to intelligent for they’re own good. Ignore them and go see this piece of cinema magic. Is raised the bar. How they follow it I don’t know but I have faith that finally these charterers are being treated with respect by film makers.

  • I loved this movie and thought it was hilarious during the Zod fight when the car fell on Superman and he just swatted it away like a fly on his shoulder. A nice little touch that shows that not too many short cuts were taken. They set out to satisfy out craving for kick-ass action, and they delivered.

  • I enjoyed the movie but then I’m a huge Superman fan. I was glad to see more of krypton and what happened (although I thought the dragon thing was stupid). Exploring Clark becoming superman was a great idea. Compared to other superheros I’ve always thought Superman was pretty complex…being that he has three identities Kal El, Clark Kent and Superman. He is also very isolated in a world of human beings. I thought an origins movie was a great idea.

    My problem was that the actions seemed to be shot in confus-o vision. “What the hell was that” was basically what I was saying. Also it seems to always amaze me in superhero movies (even the original superman movies) that when two superhumans are fighting that normal people are just hanging around. Why are these people hanging around? Buildings are collapsing and things are exploding and people just going about their daily routines.

    The fighting sequences were a little much but still I enjoyed the movie

  • Was this one of the “few weird plot conveniences (you) won’t get into”? The fact that Zod orders Lane to join Kal on the trip up to the mothership. I don’t recall Zod asking her to DO anything, once she was there, or even interacting with her in any way. She reacted to Kal’s weakness in the unfamiliar atmosphere, and then got thrown into the Kryptonian equivalent of a locked closet.

    Of course, if Lane HADN”T been along for the ride, Kal couldn’t have given her the magic key, which so conveniently moved the story forward.

    I thought it was an excellent film, but, that one issue really kinda stuck in my craw.

  • The most important question: “Was it entertaining?” Most definitely. All in all, this isn’t a terrible movie. It’s fun for adults, has some language issues to keep in mind for young ‘uns, and has a lot of violence. The good: The stuff on Krypton is very well done, and gives a much better idea of what that world was like, the villain is well played and his motivations are very understandable, the music is amazing. The bad: Most of the time the camera was too shaky to follow what was happening on screen, some of the CGI was less than stellar and tended to be more distracting than anything, EVERYTHING is blue tinted (thus making it pointless and distracting), there are more than a few times when the action on screen is about as comprehensible as a running garbage disposal, and some of the dialogue/delivery is truly cringeworthy. In the end, I feel this is just another lackluster and somewhat painful film to add to the already depressed DC movie Universe.

  • Nobody can deny that Snyder gets an A for effort. It’s about time somebody tried telling a story like this with a slightly different approach, and in a way that wasn’t just directly copying Nolan. Would’ve been easy to make this “Superman Begins,” but it’s his own thing, and that’s great.

    I think we’re only gonna see more diversification of superhero storytelling methods, with stuff like the Edgar Wright Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, and that’s a good thing.

    All the filters mess with my head, though.

  • 1001 times better then Superman Returns (2006), which had an awesome cast but it’s plot s-u-c-k-e-d the life out of things … was this a perfect film? Is any film perfect? I’m not a film snob – if I like it? I like it! (and I did) If I don’t I don’t waste time talking about it (I waste time trying to get the time I lost back (lol) …. I honestly hope the blu-ray / dvd offers an extended version (and I think those who’ve seen the film would agree)

  • Debbie D.,
    I thought about the ending as well and after contemplating the choice that he had to make, it supported a past event (regret, actually) that shaped him as an “Superhero”. Since he experienced such pain in the past, he made the only choice that he could with the options that were available. The outcome was so raw and real that it made the movie even better (in my humble opinion).

  • The end….without spoiling it, defiles Siegel and Shuster. It’s like Batman showing up with a .45 pistol attached to his utility belt. It goes against all that is Superman. And spoiled for me the beautiful Krypton, the all-around excellent supporting cast, and overall excellent lead actor’s performance. What you stand for in that symbol is EVERYTHING. And the choice he made at the end was not a part of that.

  • Those many blocks destroyed in Metropolis was caused by the gravity machine, not Superman. He was at the other side of the planet trying to destroy the other one when Zod started zapping down on Metropolis destroying whole city blocks. And during their final fight, it was Zod who was leveling buildings, and he shouted loud and clear before their fight that he would kill as many human beings as possible to hurt Superman.

    Supes even asked the help of the military because he could not be in two places at the same time; namely, the Indian Ocean and Metropolis. It is surprising that many critics missed this which is an essential element in understanding why Superman cannot save everyone.

    Regarding the battle in Smallville and the casualties, I noticed that although Supes crashed into buildings, such as a restaurant, none of the inhabitants were actually harmed, other than, obviously, Faora killing soldiers in the street. There was this scene in which Superman tried to fly off into the sky carrying the big Kryptonian brute out of Smallville, but Faora hit him hard and both of them took turns beating Supes up. Maybe the camera work was too fast that you or maybe many critics did not notice these little details.

  • Your complaint was actually my favorite part of the movie! I thought to myself, and told my friends afterwards, this is exactly what would happen if Superman got into a fight with General Zod in the middle of a New Yorkish earth city! Destruction, devastation, chaos, casualties, damage, etc. Remember, when Supes and Zod clash, it’s no longer Zod chasing Kal, it’s the other way around. If Zod is in the middle of the city, that’s where Superman has to go fight him. Zod chose the location, not Superman. The movie was excellent, and I want the blu-ray NOW, so I can enjoy it again on my home theater!