In this superhero-obsessed culture/Hollywood world we live in, it’s a wonder that the grand-daddy of them all, Superman, hasn’t had a successful debut in the 21st Century. Obviously I’ve just implicitly bashed 2006’s “Superman Returns,” which I will not be taking the time to discuss beyond this sentence, but I don’t think anyone disagrees that Bryan Singer’s film failed to do the Man of Steel justice.
Knowing they had yet to tap the full potential of one of the greatest characters of all time, Warner Bros. finally committed to bringing in the amount of mind and muscle befitting of Superman and channeling it into a new incarnation. The duo of producer Christopher Nolan (mind) and director Zack Snyder (muscle) promised an intelligent, visually extravagant and emotion-filled blockbuster spectacle. A tall order, no doubt, but they manage to breathe new life and excitement into the character.
“Man of Steel” doesn’t feel like a Snyder film or a Nolan film, and it visually distinguishes itself as separate from the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner “Superman,” whose imagery became the definitive take on the Superman universe. Purists might well have an issue with the liberties taken with the Fortress of Solitude, Phantom Zone and likely more. There are no visual easter eggs or homages to famous dialogue either. “Man of Steel” clearly wanted a fresh start.
It begins fresh as well with an extended sequence on Krypton, which sets up a bit more of the reason Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sent his newborn son to Earth as well as who is General Zod (Michael Shannon). It’s definitely rushed, but in showing us part of the Superman universe we’ve never seen before it manages to keep our interest completely piqued with an array of dazzling action, sets, costumes and CGI.
The on-Earth beginning of the story, the origin of Clark Kent, also goes in a different direction. As Clark (Henry Cavill) ventures through Alaska in an effort to discover his greater purpose, the narrative flashes back to pivotal moments during his upbringing in the hands of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).
Screenwriter David S. Goyer keeps the momentum going forward while touching on the crucial thematic points of Superman’s origin, the bits about keeping his identity a secret and finding his greater destiny, etc. This creative choice also helps to avoid a total feeling of deja vu in experiencing Superman’s origin story yet another time, a fault that many saw in the reboot “The Amazing Spider-Man,” for example. That said, toying with the chronology keeps us from experiencing the greatest degree of empathy for our hero. Fortunately, Cavill plays the role with great humility, so it’s tough not to like this Superman.
As much as the script takes certain liberties with the origin and how its told and also how Clark meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams), it stays extremely focused on Superman and Zod’s invasion of Earth the entire time. So many superhero films get bogged down with subplots, but “Man of Steel” has none. Anything you might deem a subplot directly connects with whatever else is going on in the film at the time.
What Goyer and Nolan have done with the story could spark endless discussion (and in some circles, debate). Anyone expecting an artistic blood transfusion from “The Dark Knight Trilogy” will be let down a tad. Batman’s universe can theoretically be steeped in realism; Superman’s flat out can’t. “Man of Steel” embraces the science-fiction elements of “Superman” and plays them up. Considering one of every two action films these days involves aliens leveling a city, it’s not hard to see why Warner Bros. was more than happy to go in that direction.
At this point we can safely say that the more audiences are subjected to final sequences involving mass-scale urban destruction, the more they will begin to just tune it out. The film doesn’t exactly do a great job of making us care about whether the Daily Planet turns to rubble. In fact, I can’t recall if the word Metropolis is even used in the entire movie. Regardless, the photo-realism of the fight sequences thanks to advances in CGI is breathtaking. Snyder, known for his abundant use of slow-motion, goes hard left with extremely fast-moving, often airborne action and fight choreography that despite the potential for blurry, incoherent CGI, comes out stunningly vivid. Superman’s showdown with Zod’s buddies in Smallville serves as an incredible showcase of the visual effects work on the film. The climactic scene in Metropolis is too, but again, after Superman gets chucked through that 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th building (all in one frame), you stop paying attention and eagerly await how the showdown with Zod will finally end.
Spectacle would be the first way to describe “Man of Steel.” As much as it offers some interesting themes, the film doesn’t take the time to sit on anything. It’s go, go, go in order to fit the origin story and provide plenty of drama once Zod invades. It’s a pure summer blockbuster as opposed to a grittier, more intellectual take on “Superman” (a majority of the time), but it’s infinitely more interesting than similar spectacle films such as the “Transformers” series.
All the elements of the film and characters are pretty likable, but these peripheral elements are underdeveloped. Much like how I felt after seeing “Amazing Spider-Man,” now that the origin story is out of the way, there’s room for a little more complexity in future installments. And if just scratching the surface of this new “Superman” world was this exciting from an entertainment standpoint, getting an opportunity to dig deeper holds promise.
Man of Steel
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan (story), Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (characters)
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe