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

Comics Featured Movies Sci-Fi/Fantasy

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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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.