Man of Steel review

On Friday, 15 June 2013, I met Ken G., Michele L.D. & Paul D., Beruk A., and Josh C. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham, Mass., for Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie featured solid acting and spectacular fight scenes, if shaky direction and plot.

Superman movie poster
Superman soars again

Plot: I’ll try to avoid “spoilers” here, but note that several of the reviews I’m linking to will have some. Man of Steel is a reboot/retelling of Superman’s origins. Most of the traditional elements are present from the 75-year legacy of DC Comics — to quote All-Star Superman: “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.”

Man of Steel shows the political and scientific stagnation of Krypton. Megalomaniacal General Zod and hopeful researchers Jor-El and Lara-El realize that the end is near for their world and come to different conclusions. Jor-El and Lara send their infant son Kal-El to Earth, where he is raised by Midwestern farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent.

After wandering the world, trying to use his amazing powers to help people, and keeping his identity secret, Clark Kent must face his destiny when Zod and his ruthless followers escape their exile and arrive on Earth. Plucky reporter Lois Lane and the U.S. military have many questions for him, as does a fearful public….

Script: As a longtime comic book fan, I didn’t need to see Superman’s backstory again, but I appreciated that scenes of Clark’s childhood in Smallville, Kansas, and his adult search for direction were handled through flashbacks rather than told in linear fashion. This is not surprising, given writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan’s past works.

I also liked Man of Steel‘s allusions to past Superman comics, films, and TV shows. The dialogue was a bit stiff, with little of the humor of other superhero movies (I’ll compare Man of Steel with some of these below). The cast made the best of it, however.

Acting: Englishman Henry Cavill did a good job of conveying Clark’s everyman charm and Superman’s physicality. His expressions of grief and hope showed how Kal-El was torn between Jor-El and Jonathan Kent before combining their best qualities. Cavill is a worthy successor to the actors who have worn the red cape and blue tights.

Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer get a surpising amount of action as strong-willed Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are good choices to represent Middle American decency as the Kents.

As determined and curious journalist Lois, I thought that Amy Adams was more credible than too-young Kate Bosworth was in Superman Returns. Laurence Fishbourne doesn’t get to do much besides argue with Lois and duck collateral damage, but he was appropriately paternal as Daily Planet editor Perry White.

Michael Shannon had a fanatical glint in his eye as General Zod, who was less regal than Terence Stamp in Superman II. Antje Traue is just as chilling as Zod’s follower Faora as Sarah Douglas was as Ursa in Superman II.

Even the minor supporting roles were filled by decent actors, such as Richard Schiff as Dr. Emil Hamilton and Christopher Meloni as Col. Nathan Hardy, who represent Americans initially distrustful of Kal-El but who learn to respect his patriotism. It was also nice to see ordinary soldiers, so often portrayed as antagonists or incompetent in superhero flicks, as professional and capable of making independent decisions.

Direction: I’ve enjoyed Zach Snyder’s action-packed movies, including the over-the-top 300 and Sucker Punch, fantasy Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga’Hoole, and the surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Watchmen graphic novel, which deconstructed superhero tropes.

He was a good choice to reinvigorate the franchise after Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which was overly reverential to the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner films. Unfortunately, some scene transitions in Man of Steel are very abrupt, and the Krypton’s apocalypse, Clark’s idyllic but troubled adolescence, and huge battles in Metropolis and elsewhere don’t hang together very well.

As with the long-running TV series Smallville, I understand the desire to get away from the campy adventures of past decades, but Superman should be bright and heroic, unlike many of the costumed vigilantes he inspired.

Man of Steel is still clearly in the shadows of 9/11 and Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s Batman trilogy. I think Warner Bros/DC has swung too far in the direction of grim and gritty, even as Disney/Marvel’s Avengers embraced four-color action and fun character moments.

Like Star Trek: Into Darkness, the producers have gone back to a popular sequel villain rather than take a truly fresh approach to recapturing a franchise’s essence while winning new audiences.

Cinematography: Not surprisingly for a Snyder film, the visual effects were top-notch in Man of Steel. We saw more of Krypton than in previous adaptations. It’s no longer a sterile ice planet as in 1978’s Superman but more of a baroque world as in more recent science fiction. I liked the alien technology, armor, and creatures, even if I still miss Superman’s red shorts and less overdesigned costumes.

The fight scenes were very impressive, as Kryptonians pit their super strength, speed, and heat vision against the U.S. military and one another. I was pleased to see full-body, tracking shots in daylight, and I had no difficulty tracking who was fighting whom, unlike many other superhero flicks.

With so much violence and destruction in the real world, it was upsetting to see Smallville and Metropolis get so thoroughly trashed in Man of Steel. Even though we didn’t see civilian casualties, tens of thousands would die as skyscrapers collapse. I would have liked to see Superman make more of an effort to protect innocents, but his feelings of guilt late in the movie were believable.

Score: Hans Zimmer is no John Williams, but his moody and classical soundtrack is a good fit for the Nolan-influenced Man of Steel. There were no memorable musical themes, as in Superman or most of the TV series.

Ratings: Warner Bros. and DC have a long way to go to catch up to Disney/Marvel’s popular movies. Man of Steel is less self-contained than the Nolan/Bale Batman trilogy, but the issue of tone will still need to be fixed if Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern are to be reintroduced as peers of Superman in an eventual Justice League movie.

I like Man of Steel as much as Iron Man 3 and more than Superman Returns, but not as much as the first two Christopher Reeve films or The Avengers. I’d give Man of Steel about a 7.5 out of 10, three out of five stars, or a solid “B.” The consensus of my group was closer to a 7.

I would recommend Man of Steel, which was rated PG-13 for unnecessary language and lots of violence, to fellow superhero fans and to those who hope that DC’s iconic characters will eventually receive their due in modern movies. A new generation has yet to learn what makes Superman the first and finest. Warner Bros. has green-lit a sequel, so let’s hope the next one is better.

Here’s how I’d rate the Superman films, from best to worst:

  • Superman II (1980) ****
  • Superman: the Movie (1978) ****
  • Serials with Kirk Alyn (1948) ***
  • Man of Steel (2013) ***
  • Superman Returns (2006) ***
  • Superman III (1983) **
  • Superman IV: the Quest for Peace (1987) *

After the movie, we went to Lizzy’s on Waltham’s Moody Street for dessert and discussion. After meeting Josh and Rich C.G. for Free RPG Day at the Compleat Strategist in Boston this morning, Janice and I returned to downtown Waltham for the Waltham Riverfest.

The next movies I’m looking forward to are Pacific Rim, Elysium, and Thor 2. In the meantime, may Superman continue to inspire hope and courage….