By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Michael Shannon, Antje Traue, and Laurence Fishburne
In modern times, Superman has seemed like a manufactured shadow representing the good super hero that has long since become a niche for its era. The first two Christopher Reeve starring feature productions based on the character, in addition to containing (the first) Star Wars trilogy era style special effects, defined what the definition of a super hero was for people outside the comic book world. The Superman film series, as most do, teetered off into peppered territory until they cultivated in director Bryan Singer’s 2006 take on the character called Superman Returns. The resulting film, while I am not as big a detractor as most, took a beating from fans but still managed to gather up almost $500 million at the box office. Which leads to the film at hand now. Warner Brothers, after seeing their Batman franchise revived by The Dark Knight trilogy, took it upon themselves to hire director Christopher Nolan to try and do the same for Superman. This time finding himself in the sole role of producer and armed with a script by co-Dark Knight scribe David Goyer and Watchmen director Zack Snyder, Nolan’s cocked & ready to fire Man of Steel production would seem to be not much more than a self serving piece of entertainment. An almost $200 million bet to see if they can in fact capture lightning in a bottle for a second time. After all, look at the billions of dollars that the Dark Knight trilogy brought in. However, in thinking about how this film could possibly tell the same origin story that we have seen many times, I began to realize that a new take on this aspect of Superman’s (or Kal-El’s, depending on who you ask) beginnings is really the only place to cinematically take him. Because otherwise, you have an invincible character whom you have to come up with villains for. Which then delves into Nuclear Man territory. You have to see him conflicted in an almost stage play/apprehension type of way in order to tell a diversified and interesting story. In any event, the resulting entire film is an angst ridden, lavish production that is more grounded in grit and feels like an almost super hero version of a James Bond drink. Only in this case, it is both shaken and stirred.
Make no mistake about it. Nolan’s name may be plastered all over the ads for Man of Steel. But he has made it abundantly clear that this is not a case of Spielberg and Hooper on the set of Poltergeist. Man of Steel is Snyder’s film & vision. And to his credit, he seems to realize that audiences are akin to how Superman came to be. So, in trying to tell his back story as succinctly as possible he gives an almost hallucinogenic feel to it. Newspapers and flashbacks are key here. And it actually serves the story pretty well. As a matter of fact, there were a few good director decisions that Snyder made throughout Man of Steel. While his vaunted long takes were fully on display here, they are well used. Also, Snyder is known for his slo-mo almost as much as Abrams is known for his lens flares. And if there was anywhere I thought I would see them it was Man of Steel. What better way to show how stylistic of a director you are than by filming Superman fighting in slow motion (which Singer did at least once in Superman Returns)? But it seems a few meetings with Nolan has made him phase these qualities of his style out, and I would even venture to say that this is Snyder’s best job as a director.A big problem with Man of Steel is that there is no essence to the title character’s personality. In fact, the film seems almost completely void on that aspect of his character. It is not helped by the film’s lead. As much as Superman Returns was a disappointment, one thing I would not do is put down Brandon Routh’s performance. All of that film’s issues lied with its script. But I felt the way Routh portrayed the character was not a detrimental factor in its result. Here, I was really back and forth on Cavill. Sometimes, he completely embodied the character (everything leading up to his first flight.) But there were others (especially in his exchanges with Shannon’s Zod) that almost made me turn away. His Clark was not much more than him playing dress up without showing much change to his personality. No, I was not expecting a Reeve-style case of bumbling through revolving doors and tripping over his own feet. But at least give it a bit more dynamism and identity to the role. It was a see saw performance that I felt really hurt the film.
The one performance in Man of Steel I legitimately did like was Adams’ Lane. She has a certain charm to her that combines with the slightest hint of the personality she displayed in her ‘Joisey girl’ from 2010’s The Fighter. My favorite moments of character exchanges happen when she is onscreen. Shannon is how you’s expect him to be, as he pretty much hams it up as Zod. The way he expresses why he wants (almost needs) Superman so bad are narratively and performance- enhancing strong. Costner definitely embodies the country boy style father that I would expect Jonathan Kent to have. And his motives for why he wants so bad to uncover Clark’s true origins actually put me in mind of Chloe from Smallville. Not good when dealing with a film trying so hard to modify an existing mythology. Maybe it was because we have seen it so many times. But when Kent’s demise eventually comes, it was almost as if Goyer’s script was so self-conscious on what came before it that any hint of heart is thrown out the window. Also, the way Goyer’s script diversifies itself by narrative changing the way he dies was another big blow to the film’s overall quality. It put me in mind of how Uncle Ben died in last year’s Amazing Spiderman. And if you read that review, you know how I felt about that.
The film’s script also kind of put me in mind of The Amazing Spiderman, as it feels as if it wants to be layered, but comes off as nothing more than delaying the inevitable action. It also is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, as the dialogue is at times laughable, and Goyer decided to include at least one character that I was not expecting to show up onscreen. But they did not add as much to the story as I would have liked (even if one is hinted at as being the next film’s main villain. That’s right. There’s a tease at the end of Man of Steel.) In fact, the one surprise that did get me was composer Hans Zimmer’s score. After listening to an online released sample a few weeks ago, I was not impressed with where the score was heading. Admittedly, it is a huge undertaking to try and follow what John Williams was able to do with that first score thirty-six years ago. And while this score does not come close to matching that one’s overall quality, the way it grabs your emotions, during Superman’s first flight especially, was magnetically spellbinding.
Man of Steel’s effects were about as big and sound as you’d imagine (lots of explosions) and as you’d expect from a Snyder film, its best moments come during its bouts of action. But, I will say it again: this film is one that is vacant from the disposition that should come from a reboot of a character such as Superman. Its hints of civil unrest and angst driven sub plots hurt it. Overall, I would call Man of Steel a very commendable, but not great addition to the comic book film genre. A nice use of its coat of stylistic gloss and Snyder’s directing skills save it from being overly gaudy. But in my honest opinion, this is not the Superman film that fans of the character have been waiting for. It’s admittedly better than any of the Superman films we have gotten the last three times, but nowhere close to being the genre changing film that first one was all those years ago.