A film review by Craig J. Koban June 20, 2013
MAN OF STEEL
2013, PG-13, 148 mins.
2013, PG-13, 148 mins.
Henry Cavill as Superman / Clark Kent / Amy Adams as Lois Lane / Diane Lane as Martha Kent / Russell Crowe as Jor-El / Michael Shannon as General Zod / Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent / Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy / Laurence Fishburne as Perry White
Directed by Zack Snyder / Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
MAN OF STEEL intuitively understands something that perhaps no other past SUPERMAN film did:
Kal-El is indeed the “Last Son of Krypton,” which makes him, yup, a lonely extraterrestrial from outer space.
lies the key psychological intrigue with the 75-year-old Joe Shuster and
Jerry Siegel creation: Superman/Clark Kent may indeed have god-like powers
that allow him to leap tall buildings with a single bound, but deep down
he’s a fringe figure, an outcast, and simply is not one of us, despite
his otherwise human appearance. Every comic book aficionado thinks that Batman is the
ultimate superhero loner, but even he could live within his own world as his
alter ego with relative normalcy. Poor
Clark has to pathetically exist at a constant distance from just about
everyone around him.
film’s title would suggest (this is the first of its kind ever without
even the name Superman in it), MAN OF STEEL promises to take the iconic
character in bold and audacious new directions, and on this level it
certainly does triumphantly soar. Just
as he did with a then-struggling Batman film franchise, Christopher Nolan
(producer and co-writer here with David S. Goyer) has overseen another
redefinition of a classic comic book character for modern day consumption.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the pitch perfect
Richard Donner SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE from
which balanced sly humor and a relatively jubilant spirit through and
through (it still remains the greatest of the SUPERMAN films, if not one
of the finest superhero films ever).
Nonetheless, instead of taking the been-there, done-that approach
to Superman, MAN OF STEEL opts to roughen up his boy scout, do-gooder
mythology and takes him to darker emotional places.
will never be as ominous and gritty as Batman, but in this new film the
ultimate costumed crusader is less about unwaveringly fighting for truth,
justice, and the American way as he is about struggling to trust and
defend a society that is afraid of him and perhaps doesn’t initially
appreciate his sacrifices. MAN
OF STEEL always emphasizes that Superman is really a highly reticent Jesus
figure from a galaxy far, far away. When
he does finally accept the blue and red uniform of a hero, he does so
almost with apprehension. Hell,
even the bright blue, red, and yellow of his famous outfit are more
subdued and muted now; the murkiness of their palette kind of mirrors the
man’s somewhat cold, detached, and conflicted mindset.
STEEL, despite all of its inherent divergences away from the well-known
Superman mythos, still contains familiar elements, especially in regards
to his origin (albeit, with tweaks here and there to keep it fresh and
alive). The film opens on the
doomed planet of Krypton, before shown as a city made of crystals and now
is a sprawling alien landscape that seems to affectionately appropriate
design elements from films as far-ranging as STAR
WARS to AVATAR (nonetheless,
it’s a marvel of visual effects dynamism).
Jor-El (a rather fine Russell Crowe, playing Supe’s father as a
kick-ass action hero/thoughtful scientist) sees that his planet is doomed,
which results in him placing his infant son Kal-El (the first naturally
born baby on Krypton in centuries) in a spacecraft and shuttles him off
to Earth. Before he can do
this, Jor-El clashes with former friend, now enemy, General Zod (Michael
Shannon, in all of his creepily effective Michael Shannonian glory), who
a political coup against the planet's leaders that fails and leaves him and his conspirators sentenced to
time in the Phantom Zone.
rest of the film – much like BATMAN
BEGINS – tells Superman’s further origin story through a
well-paced series of flashbacks and flashforwards.
Instead of seeing infant Kal-El found by his Earth parents, we zip
forward in time to witness 30-year-old Clark (Henry Cavill) working odd jobs
in an apparent desire to hide his true nature, even though he manages to
reveal it when called to save people in need.
The film then cuts back to key moments of Clark’s upbringing,
during which his human parents, Martha and Jonathon Kent (Diane Lane and
Kevin Costner, both sweetly sincere and earnest) teach their son how to
both cope with his powers keep them a guarded secret.
We are whisked back to the present when an intrepid, Pulitzer
Prize winner Daily Planet reporter, Lois Lane (a top notch, emotionally
tough, and spirited Amy Adams) seems determined to find out the true
nature of Clark’s heroic deeds (he has a knack for vanishing shortly
after he does them). Concurrent
to this is the emergence of a freed-from-the Phantom Zone Zod, who has
made it to Earth and demands Clark to come out of hiding and
surrender…if not, then Earth will be destroyed.
The problem for Clark is trying to decide if the time is right for
humankind to learn about his real identity and what he’s capable of.
MAN OF STEEL achieves the relative impossible by both honoring and
confidently subverting Superman’s well-established and entrenched comic
book roots while, at the same time, offering up an epically staged
sci-fi-/action film of an unparalleled scope and scale that this series
has never seen before. The film is
as thoughtfully rendered as it is bombastic, which is a tough dichotomy to
pull off well. Unlike, say,
the recent STAR TREK reboot
sequel (which just wallowed in lazily riffing on famous scenes
from past TREK adventures), this Superman entry rather pointedly tells
viewers that this take on the character is going to be refreshingly
different. Gone is the
limitless optimism and sense of frivolity of Superman himself and ushered
in is a portrait of an outcast that has had to deal with the emotional
trauma of knowing that, one day, he will be called on to be a messiah.
Henry Cavill is an absolute perfect physical embodiment of the
comic character, but his performance is much more low-key and layered than
most will give him credit for. Going
for Christopher Reeve-like mimicry would have been a fatal mistake here; Cavill
instead craftily plays his otherworldly titan with a world-weariness, a sense of
wounded alienation and nagging uncertainty.
Superman has never been so vulnerably portrayed in a film, which
makes him a more intrinsically fascinating figure of pathos this go around.
mistake about it, though; MAN OF STEEL is a tour de force work of
propulsive action and visual effects majesty.
I may have forgotten to say that the film was directed with an
assured hand by Zack Snyder, who is no stranger to reboots (see DAWN OF THE DEAD)
or comic book film franchises (his adaptations of 300
and WATCHMEN are thanklessly decent). Using every modern technological trick at his disposal,
Snyder holds nothing back in terms of staging the Kryptonian versus
Kryptonian spectacle that we have always dreamed of, but have never
adequately received due to limitations in past movie magic.
Key highlights include Superman battling two of Zod’s henchmen
that lays the small town of Smallville (and innocent IHOP, Sears and
7-11 stores) laid to apocalyptic waste.
Then there's the climatic donnybrook between Superman and Zod
that flattens Metropolis in manners that makes the destruction in INDEPENDENCE
DAY look quaint by comparison.
Sure, some of the imagery here perhaps echoes 9/11 a little too
much for its own good, but there’s no denying that these scenes
kinetically deliver on their intended oomph factor.
STEEL is not as perfectly granite-jawed as its title hero, though.
Cavill and Adams, although good together on screen, don’t have
the same chemistry of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, and their love story is
more muted and hushed this go-around.
Sometimes, the film also seems to battle with its zeal to provide
summer popcorn action and be a touchingly introspective portrait of its angsty
main character. There’s also
not much lighthearted joy or merriment to be found here…but maybe
that’s a welcome thing. MAN
OF STEEL represents what an effective reboot should do – go back to the
drawing board, start from scratch, and do something revitalizing and
novel. It presents and
radically redefines Superman in an agreeably modernized vein that revives
a character that’s been on cinematic life support for too long (sorry, SUPERMAN
RETURNS, you meant well). What
Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder have done is show us a Superman that needs to
convince himself that he needs to be super and protect those that may or
may not trust him. That’s
the trial by fire of every hero, whether he hails from Earth or not.