Note: Some mild spoilers included.
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! If that sounds a little old-fashioned and cheesy, then the reboot of the Superman series is for you. Unlike its film and television predecessors, Man of Steel dispenses with the cheese in favor of grit, and exchanges familiar character profiles for something more modern and realistic.
In this version of the DC Comics classic, Krypton is rent both literally and figuratively. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayalet Zurer) produce the first natural birth in centuries on Krypton, which takes on a very Brave New World-meets-The Matrix tone in the opening sequences. As the planet reels toward destruction, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup while Jor-El sends the newborn Kal rocketing toward Earth along with the “codex” that can restart Kryptonian reproduction. Zod swears to track down the child, who then lands on Earth.
Up to that point, the Superman canon is relatively recognizable, if significantly appended with more baggage. When we get to Smallville, Man of Steel makes major changes to the Clark Kent/Superman storyline. The circumstances of Jonathan Kent’s death change completely, and Clark/Superman’s introduction to Lois Lane gets turned on its head. The changes, though, integrate well into the storyline and make it a lot easier to dispense with the cheesiness that comes from having a Perfect Being Without Character Flaws at the center of a story, also ridding the story of its central deception in the alter-ego storyline that pretty much casts Lois Lane as an idiot in other incarnations.
The problems with Man of Steel are the way in which the narrative unfolds, and the cinematography. Instead of a linear approach, the film starts jumping around in time when the action moves to Earth. We go from Krypton’s destruction to an adult Clark going walkabout trying to find himself, in a manner reminiscent of Kung Fu or The Fugitive. It reminded me of Jules’ intention in Pulp Fiction to “walk the Earth,” and in this case the search seems to put Clark on the path to his destiny only accidentally. The plus side to this is that it gives us a much more believable Kal-El and a Lois Lane with real credibility, but it’s a disjointed journey until that point.
The cinematography and direction is even more problematic. Not the special effects, which Peter Jackson’s Weta delivers in first-rate fashion, but the supposedly normal cinematography. Director Zach Snyder makes sure we notice him as we get the now-cliched out-of-focus ultra-close-ups, the shaky cameras, the grainy film effects, the blue-wash, and all of the “LOOK AT ME, MA, I’M DIRECTING!” tricks. In space (and on Krpyton), we get the establish-then-rapid-double-zoom-in/out shot Joss Whedon used in Serenity — nearly every time. It’s both distracting and annoying. At times, though, Man of Steel is a visual feast almost on par with Thor, even if a bit overwhelming in its chaos.
With that said, the film is more than worth the flaws. The action sequences are terrific, and the characters more three-dimensional than in previous Superman outings. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) goes from a yellow-journalism dinosaur to a responsible modern editor, for instance, and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) become slightly less saintly and more significant. Costner is especially good, but his key emotional sequence and resolution are practically stolen from Spiderman’s film incarnations.
The real strengths in this film are Henry Cavill as Clark/Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Shannon as Zod. All three come across as much more than the Superman archetypes to which we became accustomed. Cavill, who was one of the best things about the Showtime series The Tudors, puts aside the aw-shucks approach for one of genuine care. Adams doesn’t rely on reporter cliches for her portrayal of Lois, opting for a much more natural approach. And while Terence Stamp’s psychotic and megalomaniacal Zod will always be memorable, Shannon makes Zod a little more understandable — and therefore a lot more consequential, especially in his zeal to protect and propagate the Krypton race even at the cost of genocide.
And there is one other improvement. In past Superman versions, the humans always seem ridiculous, needy, and craven, and not just in comparison to Superman. Man of Steel allows the humans in the story to demonstrate their own strength, even against overwhelming odds, and to demonstrate their own heroism. All of this manages to sneak past the annoying cinematography and direction to redeem Man of Steel, and in some sense the comic-book film genre, too.
On the 5-point Hot Air scale, I give this a 5:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
It’s not Batman Begins, because Superman just isn’t ever going to be as complex as Bruce Wayne, but it’s still the best we’ve seen of Superman on the big screen — by far. However, the scope and scale of the action on Earth makes it very possible that any sequels will end up being a big letdown, not to mention the fact that they may have to explain what happens to Metropolis after this battle.
Man of Steel is rated PG-13, mostly for violence and destruction, which is quite realistic and widespread. It’s too intense for young children, but I think my 11-year-old granddaughter could probably handle it, and most young teens would have no problem dealing with it.
Update: My friend John Hanlon liked it a lot less than I did. Also, earlier today he noted that I’m in a film, too:
I watched the new political documentary "Caucus" last night and was psyched to see that my friend @EdMorrissey had a cameo in the film.
— John Hanlon (@johnhanlon) June 23, 2013
I had no idea that I was in it — apparently, it was from my coverage of the Iowa caucus debate in January of last year. I’ll have to track down Caucus and take a look at it.
Update II: Commenter Libfreeordie wonders why I didn’t mention the sledgehammer allusions to Christ throughout the film; he gives a good rundown in his comment below. I probably should have, but thought that they were ultimately silly and almost a non-sequitur. They would have mattered if Kal-El actually ended up sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity; then Man of Steel would be an allegory to the Gospel, albeit a really weird one. Of course, Superman doesn’t sacrifice himself, because then there would be no sequels. At best, one can say that this film treats religion a little better than most Hollywood films do.