Film Review: “Man of Steel”

14feb5e5d26812ef15bc61I don’t pay a lot of attention to press kit material, but a quote from director Zack Snyder in the Man of Steel notes bears repeating. “We knew the action had to be bigger than big, with heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat thrills. We never lost sight of the fact that we were making a Superman movie.” His producer wife, Deborah, chimes in on their goal: “To make Superman relevant for today’s audiences, to make him fit into our world.”

Mission accomplished“–as a former president once said of some business that turned out to be rather incomplete. On its own terms, Man of Steel is a success, an update of 75-year-old comics mythology free of the “truth, justice, all that stuff” ambivalence of the only fitfully fulfilling Superman Returns (2006). It knows what it wants to be, and owns it. But it’s the latest in a lengthening line of superhero and sci-fi/action adventure blockbusters (many, like this one, produced by the deep-pocketed Legendary Pictures) to leave me queasy.

Beginning with the birth agonies of Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), wife of scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe), on the dying planet Krypton, Man of Steel dispenses with the four-panel lightness, urbane wit, and  heartfelt romantic comedy of the Richard Donner/Richard Lester epoch of Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1981) to bring Superman into “our world”–one of pain, suspicion, and darkness. Thanks to producer Christopher Nolan, whose wildly popular Dark Knight trilogy dictated that black be the new color for superheroes, everyone suffers, or at least droops, in the gray- and brown-toned hues of cinematographer Amir Mokri, which render the famed red cape a deep burgundy. Jor-El and Lara lose their naturally conceived son, a rebuke to the dynastic, genetically pure bloodlines of Krypton, within minutes of his birth, and Jor-El his life to the fearsome warrior General Zod (Michael Shannon), whose life is dedicated to preserving the Kryptonian life and ways. Zod and his minions, numbering the feral Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), are exiled to a “somatic cleansing” version of the Phantom Zone. Krypton, strip-mined out of existence, explodes, as Hans Zimmer’s droning fanfares struggle to emerge from the thunderous sound mix. Only 123 more minutes to go.

amy-adams-henry-cavill-man-of-steel-skipHere this disguised origins story splinters for some time into flashbacks, as experienced by the 33-year-old (hmm) Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), who, enroute to the Arctic to uncover his destiny, performs anonymous good deeds. It’s not been a wonderful life for the Smallville resident, thick with bullying and evasion, as he hides the true extent of his Krypton-derived superpowers on the counsel of Ma (Diane Lane) and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner), going so far as to stand down when Pa faces a threat depicted with Old Testament furor. In a nice switch from the same old that works (and some of this rethink does), the intrepid Lois Lane (Amy Adams), investigating a mysterious craft in the icy climes under the wary eyes of the US military, immediately deduces that the handsome stranger she meets in a crevasse is the alien visitor she’s tracking for the skeptical Daily Planet. But there’s no time to waste on night flights over the poles and other falling-in-love fancies–Zod, freed from confinement by the shock wave generated by the collapse of Krypton, has found the son of his frenemy, and is determined to use him in his plan to remake Krypton on Earth.

Here I part ways with Man on Steel. I can’t say I was having a good time with it before Zod’s onslaught; “fun” isn’t part of the Nolan, or Snyder, aesthetic (if there was a laugh in the Snyder-directed Dawn of the Dead, 300, or Watchmen, I must have missed it as I cowered in my seat). But I was absorbed by the changes, large and small, to the established mythos, the little call-outs to the Supes of yore (handled much less self-consciously than in Returns), and the occasional grace notes, like Lane gently talking the boy Clark out of a schoolhouse dilemma. I didn’t mind that David S. Goyer’s screenplay, which Nolan had a hand in, was accumulating incidents, the more actionful the better, at the expense of character development and some sort of emotional throughline. I figured that would come, now that Lois and the subject of her “super” story had met.


Man-of-Steel-EW-2-ZodWhere did the terrorists win after 9/11? At the boxoffice. I’d put the summer of 2005, with Nolan’s Batman Begins and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, as the start of a wave of movies that weave 9/11 issues and imagery, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes exploitatively, into their storylines. It doesn’t always bug me; Iron Man 3 found satiric humor in the cultivation of terrorism and the advance of the surveillance state. Man of Steel, though, is wanton, and I write this as someone usually unoffended by onscreen urban chaos. Once Superman is summoned by Zod (in an eerie, quiet sequence, one of the movie’s strongest), he is thrust into wholesale carnage that none of his abilities can solve, as the general, having laid waste to Smallville, erects planet-smashing devices in Metropolis and the Indian Ocean and attempts to grind the world into submission. “That was sick,” my wife, who fled the collapse of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, said afterwards, following the fall of skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper–and, once the last shard of glass seemed to have broken, the start of another city-wasting dustup, during which Superman finally gets mad. Man of Steel goes well beyond comment, or catharsis, into all-out 9/11 destruction porn, a sodden, dispiriting spectacle far removed from the simple, ever-“relevant” pleasures of comic books and this particular hero. Snyder and Nolan aren’t the first filmmakers to get drunk on the possibilities of digital effects to masturbate the rabble that presumably oohs and ahhs over this sort of thing, but I thought they were sharper than this. Contrary to his aims, Snyder hasn’t made a Superman movie; he’s made a Zod one, and no wonder that character, ferociously played by Shannon, is more vivid than the pleasant, if largely unsmiling, Cavill, or Adams, an effortlessly enchanting presence at odds with all that hardware and firepower.

In another fleeting instance of charm, Man of Steel closes with another “birth,” and the promise of a sequel that will strengthen the weak bond between Lois and Clark–and introduce a human-sized menace whose logo can be spotted amidst a sea of product placement. If there is to be a next time, and the filmmakers can ever get over all that tiresomely angst and annihilation, more man, less steel, please.

  • BobCashill

    How excessive is MAN OF STEEL? So excessive that Russell Crowe (in a dry, familiar performance; why not him for Zod?) flies a dragon early on. There’s no reason for him to fly a dragon, or for a dragon to be on Krypton at all. (Its arthropod-ish stylization is kind of neat.) But, it’s cool, and it can be budgeted, and maybe it can be sold as a toy. We’ll see if the irrepressible Guillermo del Toro can come up with as he goes the Legendary route with PACIFIC RIM next month.

  • DwDunphy

    As I’ve expressed on many occasions, and God help us all will probably need to do so many times more, I am tired/tired/tired of the fall back position that darker means serious. While I cannot speak to this movie as I haven’t seen it, I can say that I have seen armloads of movies lately that are, at their core, profoundly silly and lacking in logic full-stop. But because everything was draped in black and smeared in muck, and the soundtrack throbbed with aching oboes and violas, it was all supposed to feel portentous and “real.”

    Bull. The problem remains with the audience that still gets off on the misery trip, and until the classic collapse of this trope occurs will still get off on it, then the Beast Of Emo Cinema will continue to feed itself sick.

  • BobCashill

    MAN OF STEEL is to SUPERMAN what STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is to STAR TREK, with Zod pretty much equivalent to Khan, and given as much emphasis. I had a better time with DARKNESS, which at least announces its destination in its title. But we’ve been there too much these past few years.

  • Guy Smiley

    Bob, and D.W., get over yourselves. I had a blast watching Man of Steel yesterday. All this talk of “darkness” is seriously overblown. Finally, we get a Superman movie that takes the character and his surroundings seriously. If an alien were to be revealed as living among us, we’d lose our collective shit as a species. And yet, that’s an angle that’s never been played in the Superman mythos, so far as I can tell (and I’ve read a lot of Superman comics in my time).

    This is still very much, at its core, who and what Superman is. The sincerity, the hope, the optimism, the inspiration to others, it’s all still there. It’s in a slightly darker package this time (but not nearly as dour as mopey, stalker, deadbeat dad Superman was in Bryan Singer’s film, and it should be noted that the comics haven’t always been totally sunny either) but this movie is still very much a Superman adventure.

    And what an epic, cosmic, sci-fi adventure it is! Finally, we get action sequences and villains that are worthy of the Superman character. No having Superman stripped of his powers, and easily defeated or beaten up, yet again, and we’re finally getting to see Superman truly unleash his powers. Thankfully, there was no Kryptonite (which was always a ridiculous concept anyhow) anywhere to be seen. If TPTB are smart, they’ll leave that MacGuffin out of all future Superman/Justice League movies as well.

    Jor-El jumping on a dragon? It was derivative of Avatar (itself a very derivative film), sure, but I didn’t mind. They made this Krypton a truly alien world, and it was far more effective than that dull, cheap looking (even for 1978) Krypton sequence we got in Superman: The Movie. In every way, manner, shape or form, Man of Steel makes the Donner/Lester movies look like child’s play. Those movies are mostly unwatchable to me now, with only Chris Reeve’s wonderful performances making those films redeemable. We now, however, have a new Superman for the 21st century in Henry Cavill, and he NAILED IT in MoS. There were a few times he smiled and it reminded of Reeve, but generally Reeve wasn’t in my thoughts while watching. Cavill IS Superman now. He was great, and he completely captured the earnestness of the character.

    The movie wasn’t perfect. I had a few (minor) qualms with the script and I thought a couple of choices were odd. I think Clark would’ve saved his Earth dad, in spite of Pa Kent’s wishes, and I think the level of destruction we saw in both Smallville and Metropolis was a bit over top (and made The Avengers look like a walk through the park). They could’ve scaled that back a bit, and they could’ve had some scenes of Supes actually saving people. Maybe then I wouldn’t be wondering how many hundred, or even thousand, people died in the battles.

    But, hey, this is a comic book movie. Let’s assume that Supes was able to keep tabs on a lot of what was happening (x-ray vision, super hearing, etc.) and no one died.

    Taken on its own terms, this was, in spite of the more serious tone, fun time at the movies and it was the Superman movie I’ve been waiting for all my life. The cast was pretty great across the board, and now that we have the origin out of the way and all the pieces are in place, I expect we’ll get a Superman movie that will now take the time to flesh out the characters a bit more. We already have the Lois/Clark relationship established, and I really like the twist in regards to what Lois already knows. Not sure how they’ll get around the disguise of just wearing a pair of glasses fooling everyone else, but I can’t wait to find out!

    Batman Begins remains my favorite comic book movie, and just one of my favorite movies in general (with The Dark Knight right behind it… TDKR was horrible though), but Man of Steel ranks high on my list too. Right up there with The Avengers and the first Iron Man for sure. Miles above any of the other Superman movies too.

    Man of Steel did for Superman what BB did for Batman: It finally took the character seriously and reestablished him for a new age and new audience while still paying respect to who and what the character is. I’m sorry that some people can’t see or appreciate that.

  • Guy Smiley

    So you preferred STID: The Wrath of “Con” over Man of Steel? Wow.

    You’d rather see a brain-dead take on Trek (written by a trio of hacks), a take that pretty much ignores the philosophies that made Star Trek Star Trek, and then has the gall to blatantly ripoff a superior movie (and still one of the great sci-fi movies ever) from 30 years earlier and somehow think its oh-so-clever for doing so, over the first movie to truly take Superman seriously and do pretty damned good job of it?

    Lemme guess, you probably thought Singer’s ridiculous quasi-sequel to Superman II (and almost scene- for-scene remake of Donner’s 1978 Superman) was really clever too.

  • Guy Smiley


    Incidentally, I can imagine some people having a problem with how Supes finally defeats Zod. It shocked the hell out of me, and it bothered me a bit, but ultimately I’m alright with it.

    First, there’s precedent for it in the comics (the “Superman In Exile” story arc from 1987, I believe) and I think you’re supposed to be shocked by it. Supes pleads with Zod before taking his desperate action, and it’s clear that he’s not alright with it after it happens.

    He had to compromise himself, but I wonder if that might result in Supes, making a pledge in the next movie, to not cross that line again.

    Of course, in the theatrical cut in Superman II, it sure seems that Supes and Lois kill at the end of that movie too (though the extended cuts show otherwise).

  • DwDunphy

    Dude, why ya gotta be like that?