Man of Steel (United States, 2013)

June 13, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Man of Steel Poster

Note: There is a "spoiler" in passing for Star Trek into Darkness. Not a big thing if you've seen the movie (or even if you haven't) but don't say you haven't been warned. I also refer in vague terms to the ending of this film.

Khan has returned. So has Zod. Robocop is on the way. For '80s films, it's back to the future. How long until Marty McFly takes a detour down Remake Road or along Reboot Lane?

Man of Steel represents the latest attempt by Warner Brothers to revive a Superman franchise that, since its stunning 1978 revival, has been abominably treated for about 30 years (ever since Richard Donner was unceremoniously fired from Superman II). This movie certainly looks and feels a lot different than any of its predecessors, and that's not just because of the crappy 3-D. It's more of a science fiction/fantasy adventure than a superhero movie. In a way that's good, because it doesn't come across like a tired retread of every origin story we've ever seen. On the other hand, it's not good, because the sci-fi feel has been overly influenced by the likes of Independence Day and Transformers. That's right: blow everything up, real good! Pyrotechnics! Special Effects! CGI up the wazoo! For those who crave cinematic mayhem, Man of Steel is right up your alley (and it will make a ton of money). But something important has been lost along the way: heart. This is a cold, sterile motion picture. The characters are so thinly drawn that it's tough to get much feel for them. And one senses that director Zack Snyder is less interested in Superman than he is in the orgy of destruction he gets to rain down on Metropolis. Somewhere, Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay are smiling.

Man of Steel opens with the obligatory introductory Krypton sequence. It's some of the best material the movie has to offer; the dying planet is visually impressive and the acting by Russell Crowe as Jor-El is some of the best work the actor has provided in a long time. Gone is the flat, stilted interpretation offered by Marlon Brando sleepwalking his way through the role on the way to a fat paycheck. Crowe's Jor-El is heroic and charismatic. With Krypton nearing its end, he places his little boy into a spacecraft and sends him to Earth. Meanwhile, the hard-ass General Zod (Michael Shannon in full scenery-chewing mode) attempts a coup, fails, and is sentenced to spend some time in The Phantom Zone for his troubles.

The first time we meet Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), he's trying out for The Deadliest Catch. After saving some men on a doomed oil rig, Clark floats around in the water experiencing convenient flashbacks to his childhood living in Kansas with Ma and Pa Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner). Once these are done, he heads north and, after paying homage to the diner scene in Superman II, reaches the Fortress of Solitude, which is actually a spaceship buried under arctic ice. In that frozen wasteland, he also meets intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who immediately falls for the big hunk after he saves her life. In the spaceship, Clark meets an avatar of his dad and gets his costume. It's around this time that Zod and his followers, freed from The Phantom Zone, reach Earth and Superman must choose between continuing to live anonymously or taking a front seat as the planet's defender. Unlike Zod in Superman II, who came to conquer, this Zod comes to destroy.

Man of Steel is, first and foremost, a great spectacle. The effects work is first rate and the action sequences, of which there are many, are delivered with a kinetic punch. The tone is dour - humor is at a premium and, on those rare occasions when it's there, the delivery is decidedly low-key. The movie wants desperately to be taken seriously and viewed as something more than a comic book film. Perhaps, in the end, that's one reason why Man of Steel rarely feels heroic and never truly soars. Sure, Superman eventually wins but at the cost of thousands of lives (we're not given a specific body count but it has to be very high).

Christopher Nolan's influence will be hotly debated, especially since the producer has been coy about the full extent of his involvement in the final product, stating only that "it's Zack Synder's film." Indeed, Man of Steel is closer to Watchmen than Batman Begins in terms of its look and feel. It's a style over substance thing, spectacle over heart. Snyder never ceases to amaze visually but one could make a compelling case that he "misses" what defines Superman's uniqueness. It makes sense for Batman to live in the dark but Superman has always been a figure of light and truth. That's one reason he's a difficult movie subject because there's no ambiguity about who he is and what he represents, and there's something about the darkness that pervades Man of Steel that feels wrong for the character.

The choice of Henry Cavill to don the cape is inspired; Cavill is easily the most accomplished actor thus far to fill the role and, while no one will ever fully eclipse what Christopher Reeve brought to the screen, Cavill uses Man of Steel as an opportunity to lay the foundation for what could be a long and memorable run. He combines the matinee appeal of Reeve and Brandon Routh with a stronger resume although, truth be told, the screenplay underuses his range. The main requirement for Cavill is to look the part.

As a cookie cutter supervillain, Michael Shannon does a good job overacting. He snarls and yells and exudes menace. He rants and does all sorts of nasty things. In the end, however, it's the name "Zod" that puts Shannon at a disadvantage because it forces him to exist in the long shadow of Terence Stamp. Stamp's Zod is arguably one of the twenty most memorable movie bad guys and Shannon doesn't touch him. The other casting miscalculation is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. The part doesn't fit. On the other hand, there are some great choices, although most of them are sadly underused. Laurence Fishburne makes a terrific Perry White, although he has very little screen time. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are great as Clark's Earth parents although Costner in particular deserves more screen time.

Man of Steel delivers forcefully on its promise to take Superman in a different direction. Perhaps that's a good idea; after all, Richard Donner (with an assist from Richard Lester) has done the "traditional" Superman as well as it can be done. But a lot is missing, and the most telling absence is the element that makes Superman more the hero of his own story rather than the pawn of special effects. This is a less promising opening act than Batman Begins because it mines so little new territory. Remakes like Man of Steel are about intangibles like tone and style and how well the soul of the central conceit has been maintained. Snyder succeeds in making this movie sufficiently different to justify its existence. The open question is whether this Superman can spearhead a franchise that aspires to greatness or whether this new "dark vision" is merely window dressing.

Man of Steel (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 2:28
U.S. Release Date: 2013-06-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1