Review: “Man of Steel”

With the books closed on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Warner Bros. Pictures finds itself in desperate need to jumpstart a new superhero franchise under the DC Entertainment banner. If the studio is to have any hopes of competing with the wildly successful Marvel films and finally achieve a super-ensemble Justice League film, their first stride towards that direction needs to be a steady one. This sounds like a job for Superman…

But the road to what is now “Man of Steel” was not easily paved. The film is a direct result of the ultimate failure of Bryan Singer’s 2006 misfire, “Superman Returns.” The nearly forgotten film managed a worldwide gross of $391 million, but floundered in its effort to re-establish Superman as a big screen presence. The film attempted to borrow all the magic established from Richard Donner’s beloved “Superman: The Movie” without creating any of its own. The end result felt more like a fan homage than a proper sequel and failed to resonate with mass audiences.

“Superman: The Movie” is still considered by many to be gold standard when it comes to superhero films. With the aid of a terrific screenplay, first-rate cast, flawless production design and of course the iconic score by John Williams, the 1978 film dazzled audiences. The film brought the character of Superman to life in way that simply wasn’t possible before.

“Man of Steel” sets a new course by not being tethered to previous films. It stands as its own entity, a unique and often bold approach to the origins of a character who’s been in the public consciousness for 75 years. However, upon viewing the film, it became clear that both the success of “Superman: The Movie” and failure of “Superman Returns” loomed large over its production. In some ways, it suffers from avoiding elements that worked in the former and failed in the latter.

The result it is a bit of a compromised origin story and at times, an uneven film. While far from perfect, the film is certainly entertaining and will likely thrill general audiences and at the very least satisfy most ardent fans. Thankfully, there’s no cringe-worthy pieces of dialogue or out of character moments (aside from perhaps one that will likely divide fans). In fact, apart from some intrusive pieces of product placement, there’s nothing overtly offensive about “Man of Steel,” which is a relief.

“Man of Steel” forgoes a linear narrative structure in favor of showcasing key moments from young Clark Kent’s life in flashbacks. After an infant Kal-El is rocketed away from the doomed planet Krypton, the film sidesteps the origins of his arrival on Earth by cutting to an adult Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) who has essentially sequestered himself as he wanders through various odd jobs in search of his true identity.

Henry Cavill portrays Clark Kent as man with many inner conflicts and does a terrific job. However it’s his portrayal of Superman where he truly shines and is nothing short of perfect for the role. His delivery is commanding and authoritative with no trace of his native British accent. If there is one positive aspect to take away from this film, it’s Cavill’s confident portrayal as Superman. Fans can rest assured that they have a solid Superman for years to come in Henry Cavill.

The other standout performance comes from Russell Crowe as Superman’s Krytonian father, Jor-El. His turn as Jor-El is more about giving a commanding presence than it is an acting stride, and he does a magnificent job. Kevin Costner is equally impressive as Jonathan Kent, Clark’s Earth father and while only seen in flashbacks, he gives the film some much needed heart and warmth. His presence is a bit hampered by the non-linear structure of the film and we’re left wanting more scenes with him.

Michael Shannon is General Zod, a Kryptonian insurgent who travels to Earth in search of a crucial piece of technology he believes was sent along with an infant Kal-El. Like Superman, Zod takes on god-like powers thanks to Earth’s yellow sun. The character is a bit of a one-note villain and Shannon’s portrayal is a little on the dull side. There’s no charisma or flair to General Zod. Lex Luthor probably would have made better sense as Superman’s first true adversary, but being that the iconic villain was used in the two films “Man of Steel” tries desperately to avoid, that was never going to be an option.

The rest of the cast are adequate. Amy Adams is a perfectly capable Lois Lane, the intrepid news reporter for the Daily Planet. Though at times Adams exudes more “cute” than the “spunk” the character calls for. Diane Lane portrays Clark’s mother, Martha Kent, who serves as a steady, calming presence and also gives a terrific performance. Laurence Fishburne is fine as Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet, Perry White, but he isn’t given much to bite into. In fact there are scenes between White and his fellow Daily Planet staff late in the film that seem unnecessary and out of place.

“Man of Steel” was directed by Zack Snyder (“Watchmen”, “300”), who’s hiring drew some controversy among fans. As a director known for mainly B-list fare, Snyder was indeed a considerable gamble to helm such an A-list project. Thankfully, any doubts are alleviated as most of the film’s problems lie in the screenplay and not with the director. Aside from minor issues I had with the slightly darkened and muted tone to the overall picture, Snyder delivers effectively and avoids some of his more irritating staples.

The screenplay was penned by David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”), based on a story Goyer devised with one of the film’s many producers, Christopher Nolan. There’s no real Nolan-esque touches in the film, but the screenplay accomplishes a contemporary take on the character while still adhering to the canon of the Superman legend. It also achieves something previous films rarely touched upon, making Superman relatable as he struggles with conflicts of identity and finding his place. Even with those conflicts, there are thankfully no hints of brooding or cynicism to the character.

For a film of that carries so much weight on its shoulders, I would have expected the special effects to be first rate and virtually flawless, but unfortunately that was not the case. Overall, the effects are fine and there are no glaring problems, but much like the film itself, they never reach extraordinary proportions.

The film is heavily entrenched with sci-fi elements and aspects like spaceships are convincing, but never mind blowing. The planet of Krypton, while impressive in design is downright cluttered by CGI, to the point where any sense of wonder is lost. The technology of Krypton fares better and is often great eye candy, taking on a sort of art deco form. While shots of Superman in flight are more than convincing and benefit the most from the often excessive CGI, they lack the “wow” factor.

In fact, the lack of an overall “wow” factor is really the core problem I had with the film. There’s no single moment in “Man of Steel” that will make audiences erupt into applause or any particular scene one could obsess over after viewing the film. The dialog is similarly standard with no quotable lines to walk away with. The film also lacks humor, which although isn’t necessary, would have been welcomed. There are a handful of moments that elicited a few smirks out of me, but there are no big laughs to break up the drama.

Hans Zimmer had the unenviable task of writing original music for a new Superman film that doesn’t rely on the iconic John Williams score. Zimmer avoids the trappings of direct comparison by not going with a sweeping theme at all. Instead he gives a more subdued and generic soundtrack to the film. The score is a bit of a disappointment as result as the main cue is repeated endlessly with no real variations. The score for “Man of Steel” services the film adequately, but falls short of taking the extra effort to make it truly memorable.

There are portions of the film that seem truncated, as if more story was there, but perhaps taken out of the final cut for time concerns. One example of this would be the relationship between Superman (Cavill) and Lois Lane (Adams). Their scenes together are mostly brief, yet a level of intimacy is established between them in the final act. It felt as though there were moments between the characters that the audience wasn’t privy to.

The narrative was unfortunately sacrificed in two ways. One, the previously mentioned non-linear format to Clark Kent’s early life on Earth and two, the choice to give more attention to action sequences than plot. Stronger character development and human drama would have been welcomed, but it’s almost as if the filmmakers assumed audiences were familiar enough with these characters that they could simply “get on with it.” Given that this is a fully rebooted Superman film, it’s both a brave and puzzling decision.

Pleasing hardcore comic book fans as well as general audiences is a tricky endeavor. “Man of Steel” is a film that wants to please everyone, but with a main focus on satisfying the masses. Like a nervous suitor on a first date, it often feels as though the film is trying too hard to please its audience when it should simply take a few steps back and relax.

The film needed room to breathe at times and was rarely afforded that luxury. The stakes seem a little too high in relation to the intense action for an original story. Most of the action sequences, but particularly the finale are just relentless.

The final showdown between Superman (Cavill) and General Zod (Shannon) turns the city of Metropolis into a virtual warzone. There are some thrilling action scenes with the two characters battling in flight, showcasing abilities filmmaking technology simply couldn’t produce previously and it’s great to see. However, all the action becomes exhausting after a short period as countless buildings collapse and explode. It becomes repetitive and frankly we’ve seen it done in other films. Personally, I just became numb to it.

For all its strengths and weaknesses, this is a Superman film unlike any that have come before it. In fact, the name “Superman” is only referenced once in the entire film. While it’s not the masterpiece many were no doubt hoping for, “Man of Steel” is a satisfying experience. It also succeeds at giving audiences something they haven’t had in long time; a reason to be optimistic for Superman’s cinematic future. “Man of Steel” didn’t need to be perfect, it just needed to be good enough to start a franchise, which it is.