Film Review – Man of Steel
This Friday marks the release of what is certain to be one of the most highly scrutinized films of this year, Man of Steel. Rebooting the franchise after the lackluster (though underrated) Superman Returns, Warner Bros. hopes to reinvigorate one of their most important properties. This was easily one of my most anticipated films of the year, and based on the early critical response, it might be one of the most controversial.
One of the key points in judging Man of Steel is based on how much value you put into ambition. Much like Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins (Nolan is a producer here, as well), filmmaker Zack Snyder undertook the massive challenge of reimagining one of the most iconic characters in all of entertainment. He created a film on an epic scale that is full of action, and for that he deserves a measure of congratulation. But his ambition wasn’t enough to take the film to the next level—like Nolan did with The Dark Knight—or create a film that will be iconic for a generation (at least not in the manner in which he was hoping).
My biggest problem with Superman has always been that he is so vanilla; he is the comics world’s goody two-shoes. He is so pure and good that he ends up feeling kind of bland. This is one of the strongest parts of the new movie—it adds depth to the character (played by Henry Cavill) in his origin story, through an opening 20-minute chunk of action on Krypton and flashbacks with the Kent family. It certainly isn’t as smooth of a journey as the opening of Batman Begins, but I was excited to finally see a Superman who was unsure of himself and a world that would be skeptical about the arrival of an extraterrestrial who is indestructible. That finally adds a pathos to the story that it desperately needed. Superman purists might take issue with some of the changes to the universe—his relationship with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), how things occur on Krypton, his time growing up with the Kent family—but most of the changes feel necessary to making Superman an engaging character.
The plot gets a bit convoluted as things move along, and eventually the movie becomes a bit of a monotonous action sequence. While I respect what Nolan and Snyder tried to do, so much time is spent trying to set up Superman that by the time the villain General Zod (Michael Shannon) returns to the picture, it feels a bit rushed. It is a lot like James Cameron‘s Avatar: a great concept with muddled execution. But now that the origin is out of the way, it gives me hope going forward. I’m still excited about the potential of a new franchise.
The story notwithstanding, one of the more successful parts of the movie is the casting. Henry Cavill certainly looks the part of Superman, and plays him with a nice subtle manner. One can certainly nit-pick him and his decisions, but I enjoy the character that’s been created; you can appreciate his connection to humanity this time and the challenge it is being a superhuman being. Much like Benedict Cumberbatch did earlier this year, Michael Shannon has the tough job of reinventing one of the most iconic sci-fi villains in General Zod. Unlike Cumberbatch, whose Khan was largely the epitome of self-control, Shannon’s Zod is a completely maniacal menace. Shannon is fantastic in his role, though it isn’t quite as fleshed out as I would’ve hoped. This time Zod’s goal is to recreate Krypton and populate it with what could be described as an “Aryan race” of Kryptonians. Unfortunately for Superman, and Earth, that brings Zod and his destructive mission to our planet. Shannon plays him to perfection and makes the decision to skip Superman’s most iconic villain, Lex Luthor, successful.
The character of Superman presents an interesting paradox: how do you create meaningful action from someone who is so fast and almost indestructible? One of the oft-criticized parts of Superman Returns was the lack of sustained “Superman action,” but that is not a problem here. Superman Returns was frontloaded with a few classic Superman action moments that then faded away, and though Man of Steel saves the action for closer to the end, there is no shortage of it. The action is massive, intense, and at times feels like something taken from a video game (think of the case scene from the opening of Lockout). However, it is also so fast at times it can be challenging to appreciate what is happening. Snyder is no stranger to the use of CGI, and that prior experience is a blessing and a curse. Certainly there are times it is used to create beautiful imagery, but unlike with the Batman character, almost none of the action scenes could be done with practical effects. This takes away a bit from the humanity of the movie.
One of the most significant developments is that Warner Bros. seems to finally be picking up on Marvel’s lead and giving some nods to the general DC Universe. It still feels like a Justice League movie is a distant idea, but the possibility of at least seeing some of their iconic characters team up is thrilling. In the less distant future, I’m curious to see what they do next with Superman (I have to imagine it is Lex Luthor), though nothing is certain at this point. Much like with The Sum of All Fears, or more recently The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, the level of destruction in the movie is epic and feels a bit unsustainable. Now that leveling a city has become the norm, I don’t know how these franchises are going to be able to move forward without the level of danger seeming mundane. Certainly it is great that Superman saves the day, but the number of people who die over the course of the movie is incalculable, and doesn’t quite feel successful. Hopefully they don’t sacrifice story for action going forward.
This movie is going to divide people, with a lot of love and hate being thrown around. I would say that I’m somewhere in between. I didn’t love the execution, but I respect the concept and the ambition. I finally feel like Superman is on the right track, and I’m hopeful for the DC Universe.
Final Grade: B-