If there has ever been any superhero who has stood out as an American icon, it would have to be Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joey Shuster in 1938, most people will agree that the Man of Steel has made a massive cultural impact over the last seventy-five years. There are, however, some who dismiss the hero and his stories for being too light-hearted and cheesy. And to be fair, Superman is indeed cheesy. Given the past Superman films, there is no denying that they have succeeded a level of cheesiness and light-heartedness. The original 1978 film directed by Richard Donner is widely considered to be one of the first, if not the first, major superhero film to jumpstart the popular genre of film that we know today. It was epic, cheesy, and an all around feel-good flick, especially for the time it came out. Donner’s Superman does happen to be one of my favorite superhero films. The equally amazing Superman II deserves recognition for being a great continuation of the series, but then the franchise was savagely murdered by the abominations known as Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Then several years later, we had the lackluster effort Superman Returns make its way into the Superman film canon. Even though it was praised by most critics and despised by most fans, I personally regard it as an okay film. So naturally, there had been a lot of anticipation for the new Superman film entitled Man of Steel. When I walked out of the theatre after seeing the film, an employee smiled at me and said “I hope you enjoyed the show!” I smiled back at her and said “I tried.”
Talk about a major disappointment, especially when you have Christopher Nolan, the man in charge of bringing Batman back to big screen popularity with The Dark Knight trilogy, responsible for both producer and story. Joining him on the story is his Batman co-writer David S. Goyer, who specifically wrote the screenplay for Man of Steel. You would think a powerhouse duo like would be able to handle a character as important as Superman in line on the Reboot List. But it certainly did not help to have Zack Snyder in the director’s chair. The man is responsible for hits like 300 and Watchmen. Slow-Mo Snyder surprisingly does not use any of those tricks in Man of Steel, but he did manage to make it a complete snore-fest, devoid of any real character development and strong performances. It is one of the many reasons why this film does not work. It also seemed pretty obvious that Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer wanted to replicate what Nolan and Goyer did with Batman. Yes, this is pretty much the Batman Begins of the Superman franchise. Now to be fair, that would not necessarily be a bad idea if done well. I have no problem with a serious Superman film. However, Man of Steel decides to go the extra mile and make it an all-out grim film with a darker-than-needed tone and lack of any joy or humanity that Superman has always been known for. I won’t lie, I’m not an incredibly big Superman fan, but even I know that you can’t make “truth, justice, and the American way” look like “a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.”
Man of Steel essentially goes back to basics with the origin story of Superman. The first twenty minutes takes place on the planet Krypton, where it almost looks like something out of Avatar or John Carter. We see the landscapes, structures, and even some creatures. It does well with establishing the atmosphere of Superman’s home planet. But Krypton’s core happens to be faltering. Scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have now become the parents of Krypton’s first naturally conceived child in a long time, whom they name Kal-El. At the same time, Jor-El is doing best to convince the main council of Krypton of the planet’s decadence. The council is also being threatened by General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his group of rebel followers. In order to preserve the safety of Kal-El after the planet is destroyed, Jor-El steals a genetic codex and installs the genes in his son to preserve the Kryptonian race and places him on a spacecraft bound for Earth. Zod then kills Jor-El and he and the rest of his followers are banished to the Phantom Zone. As baby Kal-El is flown away to Earth, Krypton explodes. Now, this is obviously similar to the beginning of the Richard Donner film. And it’s not surprising that comparisons to the original 1978 film will be made. However, in Man of Steel, the film takes a detour away from showing baby Kal-El crash landing on Earth to cutting immediately to the present day, where a now-grown-up Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is working on a fishing boat. So yeah, it jumps from origin story to “Deadliest Catch starring Clark Kent” to him saving people from a burning oil rig in the middle of the ocean.
I’m apologizing in advance for the upcoming constant comparisons to Superman, Superman II, and Batman Begins, but Man of Steel has decided to be even more like Batman Begins and feature a nonlinear structure. At times, the film randomly cut to scenes from Clark’s childhood in Smallville, Kansas. One scene shows a nine-year-old Clark (Cooper Timberline) traumatized in his classroom due to his developing ability of X-ray vision. He then gets some help and comfort from his adoptive mother Martha Kent (Diane Lane) by telling him to “make the world small, focus on her voice and pretend it’s an island.” Another random addition is thirteen-year-old Clark (Dylan Spayberry) saving his classmates from a sinking bus after it crashes in a river, showing his super-strength. After this incident, he gets a lecture from his adoptive father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), and even suggests that “maybe” Clark should have just let the kids on the bus die. What is the logic behind this? So Jonathan can make sure Clark can keep his powers a secret until the world is ready for someone like him. “Maybe” they should have died? Sure, this one word may have killed Jonathan’s reputation a bit, but it’s really David S. Goyer who is at fault here for writing sloppy dialogue. As an adult, Kent feels responsible for the eventual death of Jonathan (I’m not giving anything away here because it’s pretty obvious he’s gonna die) after a not-so-realistic tornado sequence. So he journeys off into the world to find himself.
As Clark reaches the Arctic during his adulthood, he comes across a crashed Kryptonian space shuttle where he activates a program that allows him to communicate with a hologram of Jor-El, who explains to him his backstory. This attracts the attention of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a reporter for the Daily Planet in the city of Metropolis, as she also discovers the spacecraft and considers writing about him, although her boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) declines it due to the ludicrous nature of possible “aliens” living on Earth. But aside from activating the ship, Clark inadvertently frees Zod, his sub-commander Faora (Antje Traue), and his crew and they arrive on Earth. They demand that Earth turns over Kal-El, due to their believing he has the codex. This attracts the attention of the whole world as well as Lieutenant General Swanwick (Harry Lennix), Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni), and Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff). Lois also finds herself caught in the battle between Kal-El, who is finally dubbed as Superman, and General Zod as they threaten the existence of the human race. Now Clark must realize the potential of his status and powers and must protect the planet and the ones he loves, including Lois and his mother Martha.
On the surface, Man of Steel does follow both the remake and reboot formulas, deriving off of Superman, Superman II, and Batman Begins, but also a little bit of The Amazing Spider-Man. Both films have a much more serious tone than its predecessors by having them start all over again with its comic book film adaptations, but they manage to just show us what we are already familiar with. There are certainly new tweaks due to the dark tone and given the nonlinear structure, it certainly adds to making it a new way of seeing Superman on film. Sadly, this does lead to the two biggest problems of Man of Steel: the script and direction. Most of the dialogue comprised is flat-out boring. Nearly 90% of it is either too much exposition or really dull conversations that are nothing to care about. Honestly, the serious levels are off the charts in this charmless picture. It is generally expected of reboots to give audiences something new while keeping the same ideas of the original story, but Superman is getting too serious here. And worst of all, it dives deep into generic blockbuster territory. No joke, but if you took out the fact that this is a story about Superman and just made it about a guy with superpowers and had to save the world from evil aliens through way too much CGI, you pretty much just have a brainless and soulless popcorn flick. Or maybe if you are a big Superman and you end up liking this style, that’s good for you. No, seriously. If you do like Man of Steel, I’m proud of you. Because that means there are people who see it in a whole new way that I’m rather curious about.
Extreme disappointment also goes for the performances. I would like to clarify that none of these actors were miscast, but the reason why we cannot connect to these characters emotionally and buy the performances of the actors is because Snyder has directed the majority of them to be robots. The biggest question is how well Cavill does as the titular character. He’s fairly new to superstardom, despite being on The Tudors and in Immortals in 2011. But based on what he was given to work with, he does fine as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman/thank God he’s not doing a Christopher Reeve impression. But we also have the wasted talents of several other accomplished actors like Adams, Shannon, and Crowe. Adams, who is one of my favorite actresses, tries her best to be the tenacious and witty Lois Lane that we all know and (not really) love, but by playing it too seriously with no spunk, she falls flat. Even with ridiculous lines about “d*ck measuring” and “having to take a tinkle”, she’s barely effective. Shannon’s portrayal of Zod is perhaps one of the most boring onscreen comic book villains since Iron Man 3. I do give him credit for not trying to mimic the original Zod performance by Terrence Stamp and even he has a memorable line during the opening sequence, “I will find him!”, despite that he says it repeatedly then.
Russell Crowe, who was last seen in a less-than-impressive performance as Inspector Javert in Les Misérables back in December, nearly proves himself to be a decent Jor-El. He’s not Marlon Brando, but was he supposed to be? I mean, you have to admit that Crowe has a cool voice and it serves for being soft when it comes to saying goodbye to baby Kal-El and informative when it comes to teaching adult Kal-El, even though it’s a lot of exposition. Amazingly enough, Kevin Costner, whom I have generally dismissed as being nothing but bland, proves to actually be one of the film’s “better” performances. He has this persona of a hard-working, rural American father figure that actually works someone like Clark Kent. Diane Lane is perhaps one of the best performers as a delicate and gentle mother to Clark, despite some obvious aging makeup that she had to go through. Laurence Fishburne, now the first African American actor to portray Perry White in a Superman film, was a good choice, especially during the third act when he and his employees Steve (Michael Kelly) and Jenny (newcomer Rebecca Buller) escape during the destruction of Metropolis caused by Zod (we’ll get to that soon). Even Kelly and Buller are fine. Although I wonder if Buller’s Jenny is a female substitute for Jimmy Olsen? But if there has to be a scene-stealer in this dull film, it would have to be Antje Traue as Ursa…er, I mean, Faora. The German actress is a newcomer to American cinema and she stands out as being more diabolical and scary than Shannon’s Zod. She has a dark look and dark attitude and does most of the battling against Superman. Maybe she should have been the villain. So even though the majority of the characters in this film have little to no personality, the actors tried their best.
Next to the improper story structure and weak direction given to weak performances, Man of Steel also suffers from some horrible camerawork. Cinematographer Amir Mokri, whose credits include Bad Boys II, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and the upcoming The Wolverine, does not keep a single still shot in the entire film. Everything is shot in some sort of weird hybrid of the styles of Darren Aronofsky, Terrence Malick, and a Bourne film. Since when do we make art house superhero films? We don’t, that’s the point. Even though Snyder uses no slow-motion, I feel that would have been a much better idea instead of having the battle scenes shot with either too much shaky cam or extreme close-ups. Or worst of all, using both at the same time. He does not give the audience enough room to grasp what is going on, even though that what really isn’t going on is character development. Going back into the ideals of being a generic blockbuster, Man of Steel has a problem that was actually the opposite of what one of the main problems of Superman Returns was: too much action, especially in the third act with its overabundance of CGI. The film is so bent on focusing way too much on the “Super” rather than exploring what make the “man.” You’re probably thinking “But it’s a superhero movie! Things are gonna be destroyed” True, but it seems like Synder, Goyer, and Nolan substituted opportunities for good character development for unnecessary action. Superman and Zod created more destruction to Metropolis than the Avengers did to New York City and the Transformers did to Chicago combined. It’s also especially embarrassing during a scene in the middle of the film where Superman and Faora massively fight their way through several obvious product placements like 7-11, iHop, U-Haul, and Sears, but that’s a nitpick, I guess.
There are some positive notices in Man of Steel. Aside from the adequate performances, the opening sequence on Krypton is pretty stellar. Seeing the pain that Jor-El and Lara that have to go through with sending their infant son away is the closest that the film gets to an emotional level. Even moments like the main council is being infiltrated by Zod, Jor-El flying on a winged creature of Krypton, and Lara watching her planet die also reach levels of engaging. Speaking of Zod, even though Michael Shannon had little to work with while playing such an iconic villain, he does manage to ham up his portrayal. When it comes to Michael Shannon, hamming it up is something I have always appreciated. One pivotal scene where Zod interferes with the connection of every television on Earth as he makes his threat to turn over Kal-El was quite terrifying. It is one of the many highlights of the film that is not a downfall, for once. Most of the scenes involving Clark and Martha are quite touching, which again is thanks to Lane’s performance. Lane is very soft and heartwarming in the film, and that is something we should have needed more of. Also, to the credit of Snyder, he does manage to give Man of Steel something that I always look for when it comes to superhero films: size. The film feels big and it knows it. There are even a couple of funny moments, but nothing to memorable, nothing knee-slapping funny (thank goodness) but sadly no charm either. And we have Hans Zimmer to provide an impressive musical score. Because let’s be honest, you can never go wrong with Hans Zimmer.
There is a moment at the end of Man of Steel that may be controversial for fans, but it did not bother me due to the fact that it was essentially the best choice to end all the CGI madness. I certainly did not keep my expectations high for this film, because I do not get excited for films anymore. But Man of Steel is nothing to be excited about. Say what you will about Superman Returns, with its poor casting choices for Superman and Lois Lane and having too much drama, but I will say that at least it had both the size and spirit of Superman. Special thanks goes to the usage of the John Williams theme and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Man of Steel does not have the spirit that I was looking for. Instead of being CGI of Steel, it should have had a Script of Steel. Instead of overwhelming action sequences that pretty much made the film look like Transformers, there should have been a balance between that and drama. And instead of dark and gritty drama, the filmmakers should have known better than to make a Superman film that does not instill audiences with some sense of hope. Maybe if somebody like Steven Spielberg came on board to direct, he could have given a sense of seriousness with the right amount of light-heartedness Man of Steel should have had. What Nolan and Goyer did with Batman Begins and its successors was meant to be an inspiration for future reboots. Even though there is influence in Man of Steel, it is still an unsatisfying picture, and a real shame due to the amount of talent on board. We don’t specifically need cheesiness, but we do need something salvageable. I’m not asking for Man of Steel or any new Superman films to replicate the original films, but even though audiences are more cynical and critical than they were back in 1978, that is still no excuse to make what is basically just another formulaic action/sci-fi flick.
Two out of five stars.
Man of Steel is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.
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