Man of Steel Movie Review
In all honesty, I wasn’t terribly optimistic about Man of Steel. A spate of lousy sequels tarnished the franchise brilliantly, begun by the 1978 Richard Donner original and the 1981 Richard Lester sequel. Also adding to my worries was the selection of Zack Snyder as director, of whom I am not a fan. Add to that my vomit reflex induced by Warner Bros. decision to hand all creative control of DC film properties to Christopher Nolan (another director everyone loves but I do not!), and you can see why I had the proverbial chip on my shoulder.
Walking out of the theater after seeing all 144 minutes of Man of Steel, I was able to breathe a little easier. While hardly a masterpiece, Man of Steel was a well-made superhero blockbuster that maintained my interest throughout a long running time. Despite some serious flaws, it was immeasurably better than III, IV and Returns.
Five months later, here I am revisiting Man of Steel on home video. Watching it again, I find that my initial reaction to the film has held up. It’s a well-made film that falls short of greatness, but remains an intriguing entertainment that could lead to better sequels.
For those wondering, Man of Steel is not a sequel to Superman Returns. It’s a reboot, starting all over again with the beginning of the Superman legend. If you’ve seen the first Superman movie, you’ll know the basics already: evil Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) once again tries to take over Krypton in a coup. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is yet again his nemesis, predicting the end of Krypton once more. Jor-El and his wife send their infant son to Earth.
Now here is where David Goyer’s script takes a turn towards something different. Goyer throws in some neat twists one usually doesn’t find in a Superman movie. General Zod actually has some shades of grey, with his evil rooted from genuinely noble ideals instead of the stereotypical world domination theme of comic-bookdom. Another nice touch is Kal-El/Clark Kent trying to figure out exactly HOW he belongs on his adopted planet. We have all felt like strangers in a strange land at some point in our lives. Lois Lane has yet to be the hardened, seasoned reporter of old. Then there is Jor-El’s ultimate plan for his son on Earth, which is best left for you to discover. All of this material in genuinely intriguing and leaves one wanting to see how this material is deepened in future sequels.
Having praised Goyer for coming up with some sheer novelties, I must now discuss a fault. Undoubtedly urged on by Nolan (who is notorious for doing such storytelling), Goyer went for the now-trendy route of non-linear storytelling, juggling backstory with the modern. We see adult Clark/future Superman (Henry Cavill) struggling to find himself in a strange new world and then abruptly cut to a key moment from young Clark’s formative years. Here is where the movie becomes kind of a mess. Snyder lacks the skills to pull off non-linear, often cutting away with no set-up or transition. Man of Steel is not the kind of movie one can step away from and hope to play catch up.
Despite the flashbacks being awkwardly placed, the content within is quite intriguing. I liked the concept of a maturing Clark Kent suddenly struggling to deal with Kryptonian superpowers that all come charging at once. Also interesting is the role of Jonathan Kent (superbly played by Kevin Costner, well deserving some kind of award recognition), who tries to help his adopted son to not only cope with these strange powers but to keep them secret until the time has come to use them properly. I frankly wish there had been MORE of this material and less of the overlong battle sequence that hoards a full 1/3 of the film.
Another flaw is the overuse of CGI/special effects. I don’t mind a blockbuster using big visual effects. The issue is when such effects are used without discipline. Snyder’s infamous for having all the subtlety of a sledgehammer when it comes to visual effects. It doesn’t change this time around. For example, let’s take the final showdown between Superman and General Zod. Superman’s flying is a rapid blur, which while aerodynamically correct, causes major eyestrain when one endless launch after another blurs on-screen. Then there is that antiseptic blue-hued photography: it may work for Batman, but it just seems wrong for Superman. A sense of humor would have been nice too – this movie is rather glum and humorless. But I can forgive it since this Man of Steel is a more serious attempt at the Superman legend than ever before.
What wrecked Superman Returns was poor casting across the board, especially Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Luckily, Man of Steel gets right what Returns got so desperately wrong. Henry Cavill is the best movie Superman since Christopher Reeve, giving a rich performance in a role that could have been pure cardboard. Michael Shannon is fine as Zod, a different reading from Terence Stamp’s original Zod, but no less effective. Amy Adams had read for the part of Lois in Returns but was foolishly passed over. I give Nolan and Snyder credit for being wise enough to cast Adams this time around. She isn’t given much to do, but she does well anyway. That seems to be her big-budget Hollywood movie career in a nutshell. Russell Crowe easily tops Brando as Jor-El, giving an edgy, effective performance.
It seems as if I’m allowing the long shadow of I and II to cloud my judgment. While their perfection looms large over ANY new Superman project, the truth is Man of Steel is a good movie. It would have been nice had it been a great movie, but after the last 30 years of lousy Superman flicks, I’ll take it. This is a three-star movie that hopefully can spawn a five-star sequel down the road.