Review: Man of Steel
PLOT: As the planet Krypton is destroyed, young Kal-El is shuttled off to Earth to bridge the gap between the two worlds. After years of living his life as Clark Kent, the being is exposed to the true nature of his past when confronted by members of his own kind.
REVIEW: Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL has moments of wondrous, operatic grandeur within it, even while it basically fast-forwards through the Superman mythos. Mixing in ample doses of iconic Superman imagery, corny Americana and brain-busting sci-fi action on a very large scale, Snyder’s film is both a fitting reboot of Superman and a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s sure to please fans of summer blockbuster entertainment, and purists of the character will not be able to complain too harshly, since the character is respected accordingly, but it’s also not likely to make anyone forget Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN or Christopher Reeve’s unforgettable portrayal of the character.
And that’s okay. I’m sure Snyder, his producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer never truly sought to reinvent the character or his tale so drastically that we’d completely distance ourselves from his comic book/movie roots. In fact, the filmmakers are all too certain that we know all of the beats of Kal-El’s story, which is why much of the film’s first half is sort of like a “greatest hits” of necessary moments in Clark Kent’s life. We know he’s sent from a dying planet called Krypton by a noble father (Russell Crowe, really good), that he’s eventually rescued by good people, the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), and raised as an ordinary boy who is forced to hide his extraordinary abilities. We know that he struggles with his own understanding of the amazing power he holds, that as the son of two worlds he needs to find the unlikely balance between being a god and a farmboy. That he’ll meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams), fall in love and eventually accept his destiny as the savior of a planet that needs him.
Snyder and company hit all these moments knowing we know they must hit them. It’s a Superman movie made for people who are aware of Superman, so in an odd way, it feels old and new again at the same time. There’s no doubt that the filmmakers revere Superman, and the film takes a serious, sincere look at the son of Krypton, even if his story is played out in somewhat perfunctory flashes. MAN OF STEEL gives you like six seasons of “Smallville” in about 30 minutes, dishing out those “important” Superman moments in brief morsels. As a result, the movie often doesn’t possess a strong narrative flow, its reliance on flashbacks and snapshots of Clark’s life has the tendency to halt momentum instead of build it.
Snyder bolsters the story’s atmosphere of hurried impatience with some vivid special effects and set-pieces; of course, there’s always time for destruction and chaos, like when Metropolis is under attack by the determined General Zod or when Clark’s hometown of Smallville finds itself at the center of an extraterrestrial cage fight. There’s no doubt that Snyder does well by the all-or-nothing standards we’ve come to expect in a movie as big as this, and even when it’s being a tad redundant, there’s plenty of flat-out cool fun to be had at the expense of countless buildings and about a million human lives.
MAN OF STEEL isn’t as lighthearted as its predecessors, but thankfully things don’t get too moody or grim (you know, not counting the high death toll), as some may have feared considering Nolan and Snyder’s track records. The film is as straight-faced as any movie featuring spaceships attacking Kansas can possibly be, but what’s important is that Superman, as a character, is handled very well. They’ve kept him an optimist and he's an overall humble, likable guy. I wondered if Snyder would steep Superman in darkness, give him the brooding, self-loathing treatment, but his gentle, almost naive nature is salvaged, and his eventual rise to the role of Earth’s guardian is earned. Superman is allowed to be Superman.
Henry Cavill is extremely well cast in the role. It remains to be seen is he’ll surpass Reeve as the quintessential Superman (hard to imagine), but he settles into the character very comfortably right off the bat, possessing the sweet charm inherent in Clark/Superman. It does not hurt that Cavill is an imposing screen presence, with magnetic good looks and the natural self-assurance that comes with having the “it” factor. He’s a movie star, plain and simple, and he is Superman through and through.
The rest of the cast is rounded out exceptionally - really, this is as good as an ensemble in a movie like this can get. The casting is so crucial because most of the supporting characters are fairly one-note: Lois Lane is determined, so Amy Adams is in intense-but-still-cute mode; Pa Kent is perceptive and the model of an American dad, hence Costner fulfills that need; Ma Kent is giving and understanding, and Diane Lane is instantly lovable, so that match is made in heaven. Laurence Fishburne appears as a take-no-crap Perry White, and he's authoritative in the role, but he's given even less to do than the others.
If there’s any real disappointment cast wise, it comes in the form of Michael Shannon’s performance as General Zod, Superman’s main antagonist. When the casting was announced, Shannon appeared to be an incredibly ideal fit, as he’s never met a strange character he couldn’t sink his teeth into, but here he seems to be phoning it in. He yells, he glares, he appears appropriately tortured by the prospect of his race being wiped out, but there’s just no fun being had, by Shannon or by us while watching him. In all seriousness, his second-in-command (and possible lady love) Faora, played by the bewitching Antje Traue, is a more sinister, intimidating creation. Her brief flashes of fury are rather awesome, and it's a shame we don't see more.
MAN OF STEEL will not make you rethink everything you know about Superman; it’s perhaps not even the amazing movie about the character you have been waiting a long time for. But on a summer blockbuster level, it gets the job done. I'm thinking - betting - the sequel will be even better, now that they've gotten all of this origin story stuff out of the way. Remind you of another Nolan-sponsered superhero..?