‘Man Of Steel’ Strives For Greatness, Settles On Good
Jonathan Kent: You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Whoever that man is, he's going to change the world.
We’ll always have Superman: The Movie. While Superman has arguably been the most recognizable superhero since his creation in 1938 and has remained a national icon, the 1978 film from Richard Donner seems to be the only time cinema had truly done its best to do him justice, let alone be the film that created the template (still in use) for a majority of superhero movies. Superman II is a great example as well, though that film is practically the second half of the first, given that it was part of one big story and shot back-to-back with the first film. For whatever reason, other attempts at a Superman film just cannot seem to do anything else that is interesting with the character, regardless of spectacle, the cast involved, or whoever may be directing or producing. Man of Steel is the best Superman film since the first two Christopher Reeve films, but it still ends up waving off some of the more interesting ideas in favor of letting us see super fights on an enormous scale and settling for bursts of emotional content, amidst an unfocused story. As a person who already does not find Superman to be any more fascinating than the story written around him, the potential for this newest iteration to explore the character is downplayed, despite the film still playing out as a visually stimulating experience in the realm of big summer blockbusters.
Man of Steel is another re-telling of Superman’s origins, with a few twists to the classic mythos. A lot is fairly familiar, with the added bonus of looking pretty awesome. Take the film’s opening act, which finds us on Krypton. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) has just witnessed the birth of his son, whom he names Kal-El, which is followed by him addressing a council in regards to his concern for Krypton’s imminent doom. This meeting is interrupted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who agrees with Jor-El, but is going about the solution in the wrong way; launching a coup and attempting to save only the lives of the brightest and strongest. This all leads to what those familiar with Superman’s origins know will happen. Zod will be stopped and sent to the Phantom Zone, Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) will send Kal-El to earth, and Krypton will be destroyed.
The portrayal of all of this was quite fascinating in my eyes, making me wonder what an entire movie based around Krypton and ending as a setup for a Superman movie would be like. There was so much world-building done in a short amount of time that I was somewhat in awe of the craziness of the spectacle on display, while also now having an answer to one of my biggest questions regarding Man of Steel. What would a film directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) and godfathered over by writer/producer Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy) look like? The answer is an amazing visual spectacle that masks its feelings with confidently stated dialogue by actors taking things gravely serious.
Take the film’s second act as my key argument. Rather than proceed as many origin films would and simply have Kal-El land in Smallville, grow up with an awkward identity crisis, given his weird powers, only to head north and discover his true origins, the film goes for a non-linear approach, which feels more like “Clark’s Greatest Hits featuring Pa Kent”. To be fair, I am not sure if playing these scenes in order would make me react much differently, but regardless, the film wants to sell me on the idea of Kal-El, now recognizing himself as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), being adrift and clueless about what he should be doing with his life. In doing so, we watch a lot of flashbacks to Clark’s childhood; as Martha Kent (Diane Lane) nurtures Clark, while Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) does his best to tell his son how to keep that side of himself under wraps, until he can figure out how to best utilize it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but the film also does not do a lot to make this seem interesting. Instead, Man of Steel comes off like a film constantly battling the weight of a dramatic biopic that lacks more of a sense of fun, without supplanting it with anything more interesting than what everyone already knows about Superman’s origin story.
Finding the right way to handle Superman, the character, is a lot of why I have much more of a need to tackle the issues of the film, rather than really commend the astounding production (for those seeking a shortcut: see the film, its action packed, but certainly no game-changer). Much of the anticipation for Man of Steel seemed to center around excitement for a film delving into the idea of considering what it is to be a hero for the people, getting to the core of how a sense of Americana has built up what it means to be Superman. It turns out that Man of Steel is not really that film. These ideas are wrapped up in various pieces of dialogue by Jor-El and Pa Kent, while Henry Cavill (doing the best with what he has to work with) gives somber looks, before using all his might to fight his way out of situations. I wanted to be more invested in Superman and Cavill does a great job of selling it, when given the chance, but his issues continue to boil down to earth people good, threats bad.
Clark Kent: My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they'd reject me... out of fear. He was convinced that the world wasn't ready. What do you think?
Once General Zod returns and the film moves into its action-heavy final third, any sense of character is essentially out the window, as we watch setpiece after setpiece of some of the craziest action you will have ever witnessed in a superhero movie. It is just unfortunate that there is not more weight behind it, which is funny, given all of the structural collapse seen in the film. While it is fairly standard for a lot of the biggest action to be seen in the last third of any action or superhero film, it works a whole lot better if getting to that point reflected how we began or was simply more fun. Man of Steel does not really have a whole lot of that. There are a lot of various characters telling other characters about things that are important and Kevin Costner speaks softly most of the time, to make sure you know that he’s imparting some good wisdom onto his son, but the film is too unfocused in how to balance that emotion, despite being so anxious to deliver plot point after plot point. Even when the first Iron Man stumbled in some of its setups, the cast was so damn likable and the energy was so apparent that I could have a much easier time looking past its issues.
To touch on the action aspect more and to take a break from deconstructing the troublesome aspects of the film, Man of Steel has a ton of bang for your buck. If the notion at Warner Bros. was to do the exact opposite of Superman Returns and make a film that is less about mopey characters and small bits of action and be more about delivering a film that is all plot, devoid of greater emotional arcs, and full of insanely cool Superman action, then that is what was delivered. If there is something I was not too concerned about, it was how well Zack Snyder could handle the action and he has truly delivered some pretty great-looking action sequences. I have plenty of concern for the amount of destruction displayed on screen, as the movie eventually seemed like less of an action spectacle and more like a disaster drama (We will rebuild and Smallville will rise again!), but so much credit certainly goes to what the special effects teams were able to accomplish in presenting us with a Superman who must take on some tough challenges.
Everyone should be pleased by this grand cast, regardless of how well they are utilized. Amy Adams makes for a fine Lois Lane, even if we don’t see enough of the character’s spunkiness. I don’t think the Daily Planet’s Chief Editor Perry White has ever had a bad portrayal and Lawrence Fishburne holds up that standard, though has little to do. Placing character actors Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, and Henry Lennix in roles as scientists and military men is a nice touch as well. The great Michael Shannon certainly has a lot to chew on as General Zod, while Russell Crowe seems happy to be underplaying it as Jor-El. If I had to play favorites, Diane Lane manages to shine brightest as Martha Kent, who the film is wise to never leave behind, regardless of how much is happening in a story big enough for three films.
Christopher Nolan and comic book movie regular David S. Goyer developed the story and screenplay for this film, but I am curious as to when they felt like they really had a grip on the structure and what this should be all about. We have a lot of characters and a lot of story to tell, but not enough focus. I have gone over the structure, but the film still misses out on capturing something truly awe-inspiring about Superman, despite Zack Snyder’s abilities to really show us the types of feats this man is capable of. Regardless of age and some goofiness, Donner’s Superman was grounded in character and made us believe a man could fly. Man of Steel certainly has the Nolan touch of finding a way to ground a story about a man from another planet, with extraordinary abilities, into reality, but at what cost? He has previously given us films with plenty of emotional depth and I would argue the same for some of Snyder’s films as well. Why is Superman more of a challenge?
Hans Zimmer is the person I find myself thinking about, as I approach the end of this review. For all the love I have for Donner’s Superman, the John Williams score is definitely a major part of that. Zimmer faced a large challenge in developing his own take on a character that has had a pretty iconic theme for over thirty years. To his credit, he succeeds in taking on the challenge and moving it in a different direction for the better. I could say that about Man of Steel as a whole. While the film fell into being what I suspected it to be during the initial trailers that were met with my skepticism, rather than being the truly exciting and inspiring film that I was hoping for, based on the later trailers, it is by no means a bad movie, just an unfocused one. It has wisely moved into a different direction than Donner’s film, which was both optimistic and ironic, but for all its amazement on display, the wonder is undercut by messy emotional resonance. The drumming in Zimmer’s score makes me want to see a Superman film that soars, but instead, Man of Steel kneels before a limited screenplay.
Jor-El: You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.