I’m a staunch fan of Superman Returns (more on that in a future post), but the rest of the world wasn’t so much. Thus, with Marvel dominating the superhero movie scene, DC went back to the drawing board with Christopher Nolan and decided to revamp Superman. Putting successful comic book/action director Zack Snyder at the helm and pushing the Kryptonian into a more serious path.
The much-hyped, easy-to-be-excited-for and brilliantly advertised Man of Steel is the result. It is, to give away the review, the Superman movie you’re excited for. Big (and I mean big) action, lots of drama and plenty of Superman being super. However, somewhere in its 90th minute of truly stellar action sequences it forgot to bring along its soul. The one thing that Superman Returns absolutely nailed, is the one thing that Man of Steel is sadly missing.
That came across pretty negative (maybe it should be since it’s a big disappointment), but to be clear this is very far from a bad movie, and seeing it in theaters is highly recommended. While Superman (Henry Cavill) may not grow much as a character, Superman as a guy who frickin’ punches Zod (Michael Shannon) in the face repeatedly is insanely awesome. Snyder’s action sequences are huge, powerful and dominate the film. Super-powered fist fights level entire city blocks and are easily some of the best action I’ve seen in ages. More impressively Snyder’s penchant for slow motion is kept in check, and yet he still manages to competently and impressively pull together complex fight sequences. The action sequences alone are well worth the price of admission.
The plot, not so much. For one, you’ve heard this story before… a lot. The movie is a rehash of Superman’s origins and Superman II. While mostly honoring the traditional Superman origin tale, some changes have been made. We find Clark Kent masking his abilities because Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) doesn’t think the world is ready for him. This is all told in flashbacks as the film introduces us to an adult Clark Kent who is hiding out/looking for clues to his origin in the arctic. Previously, we’ve seen baby Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman get sent to earth just as General Zod kills his father, Jor-El (Russel Crowe). For this, Zod and his compatriots are imprisoned in a black hole until the destruction of Krypton frees them. The band of violent outlaws, hellbent on recreating the Kryptonian race, finally finds Kal-El on earth forcing Clark Kent to become Superman to save his adopted planet.
The film tries to raise a lot of interesting questions about how humanity will react to Superman, about what home is, about faith and belief, and about family. The issue is that most of the movie doesn’t develop any of this because it’s just really stunning action set pieces. For instance, the opening scene of the film is a big action set piece on Krypton featuring Jor-El that blows a big chunk of time and really doesn’t strengthen any of the characters or ideas. I’m not complaining about watching a bunch of awesome action, but while the action sequences move the plot forward (barely) they don’t bring the characters to life anymore or address many of the themes the film wants to tackle. Only one moment at the end of one of the action sequences rings powerfully emotional, but the rest only deliver explosions.
This leads to things feeling a bit rushed. Lois and Superman/Clark’s relationship feels like it’s on fast forward, especially compared to the slow burn of the comics and previous films. Amy Adam’s does her best with only a little, but her Lois Lane isn’t the hard-nosed reporter you’d expect and thus it becomes a bit hard to believe in the relationship between her and Superman. We’re also introduced to a whole subset of extra characters that mean almost nothing yet get to have far to much screen time. When the heart of your main character doesn’t seem to be there, it’s even harder to care about relatively useless sub-characters. There’s a lot of wasted time in this movie that isn’t about developing Superman into a well rounded character.
On the other hand the development of Superman’s relationship with his two fathers is much stronger than the rest. This is clearly the focus of the film as Superman attempts to figure out who he is and both Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner define the man he will become. The father/son scenes are definitely the most interesting of the film and hint at what the movie was going for, but never quite reaches. We’re supposed to see a struggle between Superman and Clark Kent and we get a lot of back story and talk about faith, responsibility and trust, but the character of Superman never really feels like he progresses except for one or two moments. He’s always Superman and never really Clark Kent, and that’s just not that interesting.
As such it’s hard to tell if Henry Cavill is a good Superman or not. He definitely looks fantastic both in and out of his costume, but since there’s almost no dichotomy between him and Clark Kent and most of Superman’s time on screen is spent throwing punches there isn’t much of a chance for him to make a character. Those few chances that he does get (a rather painful and poignant moment at the end, for instance) show that he’s fully into the role, but there isn’t enough role for him to bite into. Superman isn’t far enough gone to be a soulless, cardboard cut out, but there’s a spark missing that was so wonderfully alive in the Donner films and Superman Returns. Unfortunately the end of the film leaves little hope that the character will progress in the way he should, but we can’t fault a film or a character for sins they haven’t committed yet.
What I can tell you is that Michael Shannon is fantastic in every way possible. Most likely possessed by an actual demon, his Zod is bitterly insane. He delivers a megalomaniac that is teetering on the edge of sanity throughout the film. Almost every scene with him becomes twice as good simply because he is there. Much as the fights are worth the price of admission, seeing his Zod is as well.
Before we wrap this up, the score should be mentioned since this will be the first Superman film that didn’t have a score heavily influenced by John Williams legendary theme. While it may be a bit unfair to compare the two, considering Hans Zimmer’s hasn’t had over 30 years to percolate into popular culture, it probably never will do just that. Much like the film itself, the score is big and thrilling, but often lacks the heart and hope that Superman should inspire. Williams’ score literally made you feel like you could fly, while Zimmer’s just tells us that it is pretty awesome to fly.
Much of this review is pretty harsh, and it’s because Superman is an icon and there’s a lot to tear apart in a film that doesn’t get it perfectly right. However, Man of Steel is not bad and has a lot of great aspects that make it an enjoyable movie. What it misses, unfortunately, is the thing that makes great superhero movies great: an intriguing hero. By focusing on the super and not the man, Man of Steel doesn’t deliver Superman. It does deliver lots of really good action, however, so the score below reflects that fact. While it may seem like I’ve torn film a new one I still enjoyed it. It’s a good, fun movie. It’s just not the one Superman truly deserves.