Movie Review: “Man of Steel” (2013)

“Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?”

“You are my son.”

When the existence of Man of Steel was first publicized over a year ago, the next words on every interested party’s lips were almost invariably “Christopher Nolan”. Flush from the success of Inception and, especially, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan was Hollywood’s new master of the big budget blockbuster. If anyone could successfully reboot the long dormant “Superman” franchise for the Comic Book movie-obsessed 21st Century, the reasoning went, surely it would be him. Suddenly a darker, grittier, more “realistic” Superman awaited us, if we were ready, its quality and resonance all but guaranteed by Nolan’s stewardship. I found it an exciting proposition, mildly at first but then reinforced by a seemingly endless parade of teaser trailers these past few months.

Man of Steel posterThat Man of Steel is, indeed, a successful reboot (well, more or less) probably does have a decent bit to do with Nolan, who produced and contributed to the story, and, one imagines, tried to inject a contemplative note or three into the proceedings. The end result is an almost unparalleled action spectacle that, however, cannot be called an unqualified success, both of which have much more to do with the second name on that endless procession of teaser trailers, the one we all apparently willfully ignored in favor of Nolan’s – the film’s true auteur and architect, director Zack Snyder. “Superman, except grittier” is not a concept that necessarily required Nolan, but in Snyder’s eager hands, which are neither chained nor gloved, it stirs and thrums and kicks violently, almost incessantly, and detonates again and again and again and again.

Make no mistake, Man of Steel is utterly spectacular, wearyingly so almost. If you are looking exclusively for things that go boom, as loudly, in as many ways and with as much tangible impact as possible, your search is officially over. Behold Shang-ri-la. The big budget summer fare of the past several years (your Transformers, your Star Treks, your Iron Mans, your Dark Knights) is pretty much just preamble to this, and it’s entirely possible that, like T2 and Jurassic Park did for the previous generation of digital effects, Man of Steel is going to be the pure action standard the next several summers of blockbusters will measure themselves against. Even last summer’s The Avengers, while easily the superior movie, did not destroy Manhattan with one-tenth of the comprehensive fury with which Man of Steel flattens Metropolis (and drains the West Indian Ocean) in its overheated climax. Nearing the 2-hour mark, I found myself no longer focusing on the explosions but, rather, simply amazed there remained any living Metropolitans to flee the ever-falling debris.

Call it the “Snyder Guarantee”. A hyperkinetic, lyrically visual filmmaker at his best, Snyder may have nevertheless felt himself hamstrung in the past by fantastic but comparatively uncooperative subjects like zombies (Dawn of the Dead), Spartan warriors (300) and earthbound superheroes (Watchmen). But here he has the opportunity to tell the origin story and trial by fire of a superhuman alien who literally has no limits. Given the poor commercial and critical performance of later entries in the “Superman” saga, is it any wonder Snyder, who had to be licking his chops even as he mused whether this might also be his only shot, chose to forego Superman’s intellectual arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, in favor of a 12-round heavyweight championship fight with another, equally unstoppable weapon of mass destruction?

For viewers of a certain age, it will be impossible to see a new Superman without making comparisons to Richard Donner’s original Superman: The Movie and its 1981 sequel, both minor classics in my eyes, which essentially created the modern superhero movie genre. They are not the target audience of Snyder’s reboot (2006’s earnest but humorless Superman Returns was essentially a unofficial sequel to the Donner movies anyway, however unsuccessful), and yet this new film has learned something from the past, extracting the origin story from the 1978 film and the villain, General Zod, from its sequel, as well as making a real attempt to speak to the doubt, isolation and unbearable pressure felt by Clark Kent, an unknowable alien outsider, as the people he loves suffer, stumble and fall around him. He tries to help but is forbidden, and clings to hopeless dreams of normalcy even as he comes to understand otherwise, early and often. Some of the most affecting parts of the film come from seeing skeptical, terrified individuals tentatively beginning to trust him. What a burden, to be the most incredible, most sought after, most scrutinized individual on the planet, the one able to do simultaneously the most good and, if careless, the most harm?

Lip service must be paid. However, these are character points that were glossed over often enough by the Donner movies if they were even present to begin with, though I suppose Superman II did reasonably well by them. If Man of Steel had drilled into these themes further instead of focusing exclusively on mayhem in its second half, it really could have been transcendent, because, honestly, the performances are pretty great (which was the last Transformers movie you could say that about?). Henry Cavill, a handsome British actor long known to me as Charles Brandon on the Showtime TV series “The Tudors” does a solid job of realistically underplaying Clark Kent without turning him into either the “overgrown boy scout” Christopher Reeve embodied in the Donner movies and beyond or projecting the blank slate of Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. He looks the part, which is 2/3 of the battle, and handles the remaining third ably. As Lois Lane, multiple Oscar-nominee Amy Adams is a sublime choice that the film, with its clearly established priorities, doesn’t quite know how to handle. Lois is well sketched early as an ace reporter whose tenacity backs her into a corner, but, after an unconvincing meet-cute, she spends the majority of the film as a glorified cheerleader. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane do good, abbreviated work, largely in surprisingly effective flashbacks, as Ma and Pa Kent.

Though I’ll always admire (and prefer) Terence Stamp’s scene stealing turn in Superman II, go-to modern heavy Michael Shannon is about the only current actor I could imagine making General Zod a successful villain containing more than one note. Shannon’s Zod is a jingoistic super-soldier and Kryptonian insurrectionist instead of a petty megalomaniac ruled by ego. He is ruthless and single-minded in his pursuit of Kal-El/Superman for reasons that, once revealed, don’t excuse his cruelty but do humanize it. His final confrontation with Superman is titanic and, as acted by Shannon, contains the first real pathos of almost any action setpiece in the movie, although by that point, I was a bit too weary to do much more than admire it. Even Russell Crowe does decent work in the showpiece “Marlon Brando” role of Superman’s father Jor-El, although the movie makes way too much of his presence, particularly in the early going when it seems overly dedicated to reimagining the dying planet Krypton in terms of action rather than character. That’s a sin the movie overall is guilty of more than once. Yet in the end, there remains a measure of true resonance.

The dust is still settling on Metropolis a weekend later. It was a fearsome battle, unlike any I’ve seen on screen before, both for better and for worse. Unfortunately, they’ll be rebuilding for years. Man of Steel II has already been fast-tracked, and Warner Bros. and DC believe that the record grosses from this first weekend make the up-to-now problematic “Justice League” big screen adaptation an inevitability. That’s all well and good, but what about Man of Steel? It is involving, and perhaps supremely entertaining depending on your expectations (indeed, audience members will likely each be most involved by different aspects of it). It is an amazing film in many aspects, mostly technical, but frustratingly undercooked in others. It contains excellent individual character work in the service of pure id run amok filmmaking spectacle. It contains fights so ridiculous they look like the craziest video game action you’ve ever seen, or perhaps even imagined.

At the same time, there are such beautiful images and character beats, for which Snyder and Nolan should be commended. Picture the flashback scene of Pa Kent wistfully watching his young caped son actually playing superhero with his dog in the backyard. Picture Superman zooming through the clouds, laughing with joy at the discovery of his new abilities. Picture Superman’s mother watching Krypton’s destruction, helpless and resigned, framed by a window as the inevitable fires come to consume her. At the same time, there’s Snyder’s commitment to action over character to the film’s eventual detriment, however exciting it might be in the moment. Every punch landed by Superman against Zod, or vice versa, is delivered with seismic impact that would instantly kill twenty people stacked atop one another. Skyscrapers are mere speed bumps or check points for one combatant to be flung through by the other, and they splinter and fall with alarming regularity upon what I would imagine is a constantly reducing populace. Superman saves as many as he can, but he can’t ever save them all. That is his burden, one I hope is more fully explored in the sequel. Assuming Nolan rides shotgun, I’d give Snyder the keys again with little hesitation. And, for the record, I think Lex Luthor is just the guy to get a superhero to open up.

“Man of Steel” (2013)  2.5/4 Stars

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