Review: Man of Steel – Up, Up, and awry

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Man of SteelI love the character of Superman, and although he may not be my favorite comic-book hero I still admire what he symbolizes and his rich pop culture history. So needless to say, I had very lofty expectations for Man of Steel, the latest movie redux of the Superman mythos. Unfortunately, my dreams of an exciting reboot of the film franchise, one that might potentially lead to a Justice League movie, have been laid lower than an ant in the miniature city of Kandor.

My faith in director Zack Snyder (Watchmen and 300) and writers/producers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (from the Batman/Dark Knight trilogy) has seriously waned. These Hollywood heavyweights, who once seemed to be incapable of doing any harm to their comic-book source material, may have finally “jumped the shark” with this latest not-so-super effort. (I was not thrilled with last summer’s The Dark Knight Rises either.)

It would be impossible to match the tone of the original Superman films (I & II) or to fill the shoes of Superman actor Christopher Reeve, so I don’t hold it against the Man of Steel filmmakers for not even trying; but they should have at least made an effort to capture the magic of the original movies, instead of the almost completely humorless and heartless product they’ve delivered.

The origin of the Man of Steel is mostly intact as baby Kal-El is rocketed to Earth by his Father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) from the late great planet Krypton, just before his home planet explodes and dies. On Earth, where our sun gives him enormous power, Kal-El is raised as Clark Kent by the humble and honest Kansas farmers, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who teach him red-blooded, Midwestern American values.

In this new version of the tale there is quite a bit more backstory regarding Jor-El, who it turns out is both a scientist and a very capable warrior (dare I say – a badass.) Krypton itself is also much more developed than we’ve seen on film before, with flying dragon-like creatures used for transportation (in addition to futuristic spaceships) that reminded me of Avatar.

Man of SteelBefore the doomed planet of Krypton is destroyed, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a military coup of the Kryptonian government but is thwarted by Jor-El – who is in turn killed by Zod – who is sent into the Phantom Zone prison for his crimes. Apparently just staying on a planet that is doomed to explode is not punishment enough; but Zod and his cronies come out on top when the exploding planet actually frees them from the Phantom Zone.

Zod then locates Kal-El on Earth after a beacon is inadvertently activated at the Fortress of Solitude (although Supes’ arctic hideaway is never referred to by that name in the movie.) The General then comes to Earth to seek revenge on Jor-El by killing his only son, and to recover the Kryptonian “codex” that was sent to Earth with Kal-El.

But the codex, which contains the DNA (or some other such molecular information) of every Kryptonian citizen, is actually within Superman’s blood, and just as Kal-El is beginning to learn the full capabilities of his powers, he is faced with an epic battle against Zod and his minions and the fate of the Earth is in his hands.

Before I go off the deep end in my criticism of this film, let me first say that despite its many issues, I didn’t hate the Man of Steel, there’s plenty to like and although the film did not fulfill my fanboy fantasies regarding what the perfect Superman movie should be, it does have its moments.

Although the father-son relationship is not as well-developed as I would have liked, I really enjoyed the sequences with Kevin Costner as Pa Kent and for me his character was the soul of this otherwise spiritless story. I can’t say I’m as happy, though, with the kids who play the young Clark Kent at different ages, but I’ll forgo bashing the child actors here.

Of all the Superman films that have been made, this movie makes the most overt attempt to symbolically align the story of Superman with the story of Christ, and at one point even has Clark in a church asking advice as to whether he should sacrifice himself for the good of mankind. The way this scene unfolds could be interpreted a couple of different ways, and even though it plays a little awkward (perhaps intentionally), for me it was one of the most poignant parts of the film.

As a movie fan, I also liked many of the visual hat-tips to classic movies that are littered throughout Man of Steel, with my favorite being the High Noon like showdown on the Main Street of Smallville; and although this new movie goes to great lengths to distance itself from the prior Superman films, it still pays respectful homage to those movies.

Man of SteelFans of the Superman comics will also enjoy several nods to the super-source material (comic-books.) The long-ignored Pete Ross (Superboy’s friend) makes his film debut and a young Lana Lang also makes an appearance. The female villainess Faora (Antje Traue) appears as the most interesting and impressive baddie in the film (in my opinion overshadowing Zod) and I’m sure that fans with their super-senses primed will discover many hidden treats throughout the movie.

I also truly liked Henry Cavill in the role of Superman. He’s a decent actor and physically looks the part, even without the costume. I can’t put any of this movie’s misfortunate turns on this actor and if we do in fact see a sequel (which is allegedly already planned) I hope to see him as the Man of Steel again – but preferably in a much better film.

That’s the good news, now to this movie’s many issues, the worst of which is its extended battle sequences between Superman and the army of Zod, proving that you can indeed have way too much of a good thing (if wanton destruction of the planet and the cities of Smallville and Metropolis is considered a good thing.) After an extended period of watching these fights my brain felt as if I had gone twelve rounds with the Kryptonian villains.

To make matters worse, there is no new ground covered in the quality of the special effects for this movie and at this point we’ve seen it all before. Some of the flying effects were quite good, but other sequences looked like they might have been lifted from outtakes of the original 70s film. This may have been caused by the muddled 3D effects or the low-contrast filter tint that Snyder uses in his films, but either way the result is often not good.

The usually talented Amy Adams as Lois Lane (With red hair?) was completely miscast in this movie and I never for a moment believed her portrayal of the seasoned female journalist/Superman’s girlfriend; and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) along with the rest of The Daily Planet crew seemed to have no useful purpose and were a complete waste of screen time – with reporter Clark Kent never playing a part in the picture at all. I’m okay with leaving these characters out of this reboot altogether, but if you’re determined to put them in the movie at least have them serving the story in some way.

Another big issue for me is the way in which the narrative is played out. The film jumps around more than the Man of Steel does himself and his childhood origin is all told in intermittent flashbacks. As mentioned, the interaction between the young Clark and foster dad Jonathan Kent are some of the best moments in the film, but they are scattered so sporadically through the 143 minute running time that you never get to truly enjoy them. There is another issue with Pa Kent that I can’t get into for fear of spoilage, but it is a pivotal plot point that is ill-conceived and almost unintentionally laughable.

Man of SteelMan of Steel is in desperate need of a re-cut, but in addition to multiple scenes that are unnecessary, there are plenty of gaps that should have been filled. Like how did the Kents find Kal-El? Yes, I know that everybody already knows this, but if your goal is to reinvent a character, then you’re not really allowed to rely on common knowledge to fill plot holes (at least I think that’s a rule – or it should be in this instance.)

I can live with undisciplined editing, overlong running time and counterproductive characters, but my biggest problem with the Man of Steel is that it is missing its heart. The film ends with a perfect flashback sequence showing a young Clark with a red towel tucked into his shirt as he plays with his dog and strikes the famous hands-on-his-hips Superman pose (you may have caught this scene in the film’s trailers as well.) That one shot sums up the heart and soul that should have possessed this entire movie, but the film disappointingly falls short on that promise.

I get where Snyder, Goyer and Nolan are going with Superman; they’re trying to make his story more gritty and realistic (like what Nolan did with Batman) and I’m okay with that, but I feel like the essence of Superman was lost in the confusing narrative, extended fights and muddy character development. Maybe if they had shown Superman directly saving some of the thousands of people who surely die in the battle of Metropolis, instead of focusing on the seemingly never-ending combat with Zod, I might have felt more in touch with the hero I know and love.

So Man of Steel is a tough one to evaluate, my right-brain is disappointed that this film was not the creative and inspirational achievement I had dreamt it would be, while my left-brain wants it to still be successful so that they will make another (hopefully better) sequel. I want to watch this movie again with my lowered expectations and without the annoying and darkening 3D effects (which I hate in almost any movie), and maybe I’ll come away happier than I was with my first viewing – because with Superman, there’s always hope. Grade: 6.5/10

Photos © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures

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About the author

Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.

1 Comment

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  • First, I hate reviews that just flat-out start telling you what happens. It’s tough to write about a film AND keep the plot points vague at the same time, but that’s why not everyone’s good at it. You need to give clear impressions not clear descriptions.

    I’d give Man of Steel the same 6 or 7 out of 10 given here and agree with much of what was written -except I don’t think Amy Adams was miscast. The whole film was just misdirected and poorly written. Make her a brunette and write her better. Not her fault. This goes with the valid point here that several other
    characters were shoved in for no good reason. Casting was solid in a very flawed film.

    The film also mostly looked great. I personally love the muted color style and there were tons of outstanding shots -when
    you could actually SEE them for half a second. There was so much abuse of a ‘shaky cam’, and hardly any scene was allowed to last more than 20 seconds ruining so many of them.
    This needs an ‘un-director’s cut’ of heavy editing.

    Here, and in other reviews, the main problem is described as ‘lack of heart’. That’s somewhat valid because of the massive shallowness and overboard-ity of destructive action. But the film ‘does’ try to convey heart all over the place. The problem is that it’s all scattered about a rushed, mess of a story.

    I also saw it in IMAX 3D, and that was a complete RIP-OFF. It was ‘post-process’- meaning filmed in 2D, then turned into 3D later on computers. The result is that nothing at all comes ‘forward’ from the screen -like any of the explosions where that should be ‘demand’. Because this process makes ‘flat layers’ of images, they kept the effect so subtle that 80% of the time there was little impression of 3D depth at all. 100% money grab. This fake-3D costs a half-mil to add and will pull in 20 times that or more in premium ticket fees.
    See it in 2D and it’s not an issue, though. The reviewer should’ve noted that this is a fixable problem, while none of the other problems with the film are.

    The biggest issue is the writing. I can forgive minor logic lapses, let one or two key points that make no sense slide, but this film is riddled with illogical nonsense from beginning to end. To detail them all would tell almost the entire story. Everything expanded about the classic, simple Krypton origin was a confused mess. The whole film seemed like it was just lazily stealing key ideas that fans liked from other movies like -Star Trek, Matrix, Avatar, Spider-Man, ID4, etc. to make a generic, fill-in-the-blank ‘Summer Action Blockbuster’.

    I’m not sure why the reviewer thought Zod’s second was more interesting than he was? She was certainly hotter, but she was a completely, intentionally, mindless character. She fights. She’s heartless. That’s it. I think they said her name once and she had about two lines. Zod at least had a lot of dialogue attempting (illogically) to explain his villainous motivations. The others were just cool-looking, but now-typical ‘distopian stormtrooper’ extras (see a billion other videogames and movies for more examples).

    There’s also apparently a ‘controversial’ moment in the film that’s getting two totally different types of reactions -both of which are childish, myopic and shallow. One is from fanboys saying ‘that’s not canon!’. This is a lazy, groundless argument. Superman has like 80 years of hundreds of writers and countless stories where almost everything has been done. The only argument should be if something doesn’t make sense, not that it broke some imaginary rule. And this was one of the
    rare moments where something actually made sense.

    The other complaint is a moral one, but the scene in question couldn’t have been more B&W on what the moral thing to do was. Anyone objecting on moral grounds is blindly naïve, and wouldn’t be able to look at the real world rationally, either. It might’ve been best to just not have that scene set-up to play out like it did, but that’s not the conclusion anyone else seems to be making about it.

    I await someone making a Blu-Ray-ripped ‘phantom edit’ of this that could easily raise it up to a very solid 8.
    Such potential lost. SO much money squandered. Too bad it’s a
    $big hit$ and they’ll just do it again.

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