Man of Steel Review


Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

When the public’s goodwill toward Superman turned sour following the abominable Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Krypton’s finest took a 19 year break from the big screen. Superman Returns was meant to be a triumphant return, and the film played that angle up, but the results were less than super. Fans and critics alike seemed ambivalent, and so we waited for the inevitable return, anxious to see what direction Warner Brothers and DC Comics would send the franchise.

“Back to the beginning” was the relatively predictable answer, though Man of Steel seems to have a lot more in common with his DC brother, 2011’s oft-maligned Green Lantern, than Richard Donner’s original Superman flick. As far as reboots go, this is an effective one that actually does what the term implies. Director Zack Snyder’s world is virtually unrecognizable compared to that of Richard Donner, Richard Lester, and Bryan Singer. The threats within each world are antithetical to one another. Even the characterizations of Superman and Lois Lane feel from another planet.

And while it’s all imperfect, more works than doesn’t. If that feels like a half-hearted recommendation, it shouldn’t. Man of Steel might not blow you away, but it blows away any other pure action movie this year. Hell, it’s probably the best film incarnation of Superman to date.

As with Donner’s 1978 film, Man of Steel begins on the dying planet Krypton. The difference? We’re witness to the birth of Kal-El, son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) and Krypton’s first naturally born child in centuries. Not long after little Kal is born, however, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a military coup. Like Jor-El, Zod is unhappy with Krypton’s council of leaders, but Jor-El doesn’t approve of Zod’s methods. The two duke it out, which leads to the latter killing the former, and Lara sending her now fatherless son off toward Earth in possession of a key to rebuild Krypton—something he’ll need to do because not long after his ship departs, the planet is destroyed.

Zod, as he was in Superman II, is sentenced to an eternity in the Phantom Zone (which looks a lot different than the mirror jail of the older films) for his acts of treason. Kal, meanwhile, is raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both excellent). His powers are a source of insecurity throughout his childhood—he can neither properly subdue them nor restrain himself when he sees someone in need. As an adult, he becomes a drifter, never staying in one place for long and happy to take any work that will leave him alone with his thoughts. Before long, he finds himself at the Fortress of Solitude, where he meets his birth father, as well as a curious reporter named Lois Lane (Amy Adams). During these encounters, however, he sets off a homing beacon that brings the now free General Zod to Earth looking for Kal, and if the man not yet known as Superman doesn’t present himself within 24 hours, Earth will be destroyed.

The film is more of a science-fiction/alien invasion adventure than a superhero origin story, and as someone who has long since tired of that uninspiring arc, Man of Steel is a breath of fresh air. The film too often falls back on maximizing chaos (so much so that near the end of the film, extras look on nonplussed as entire skyscrapers crash down upon them), but the road Man of Steel travels to get to armageddon is admirably unique and full of satisfying character moments.

Henry Cavill acquits himself well and joins Snyder in redefining the Superman character for our generation. He isn’t confident. He doesn’t know his place. He isn’t even entirely sure, albeit for only a few brief moments, if Zod’s plan sounds all that bad. His weaknesses feel authentic—something no Superman movie has ever conveyed convincingly. The actor is cold and detached, but the characterization works wonderfully, and Cavill feels like the perfect guy to hit those notes.

His partner is Amy Adams—a superficially surprising choice to play Lois Lane (red hair…really?). Of course, she’s also one of film’s most versatile talents, and in that respect, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she gives the film’s strongest performance. Like Cavill, she’s understated; there’s no mistaking these two for Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. And their chemistry is equally low-key, but it’s apparent from the first scene they share together, and it smolders beneath the surface in every ensuing scene. When she’s alone, Adams’ Lois is both determined and vulnerable—both her own woman, capable of taking matters into her own hands, and just another lady with eyes for a hero. Another nice side of Man of Steel‘s Lois: we actually see her legendary skills as a journalist in action!

If there’s a weak link in the cast, it’s actually Michael Shannon, whose take on Zod feels out of place in a film otherwise devoid of big, loud characters. Zod, it must be said, is the best thing to happen to the Superman franchise as a whole. That he appears in the series’ two best films is no coincidence; he brings stakes to the table you can’t get from Lex Luthor.

The elephant in the room is Zack Snyder, a director who (still) hasn’t figured out how to balance effects (style) and story (substance). His failure to do so in Man of Steel is as much the fault of writer David S. Goyer, who wrote at least one too many fight scenes for the film (not to mention some of the clunkiest dialogue of the year). Snyder’s visual sensibility is immediately identifiable—lots of muted color, some handheld camerawork—and because there are so many action sequences, they’ll blend together in the hours following the closing credits. Nevertheless, on the big screen (see the film on the biggest screen possible, please), Man of Steel is something to behold. The spectacle alone makes it an easy film to recommend, flaws and all.

The film ends on a great note with everything ready to go for installment number two (the seven years between Superman Returns and this film will never happen again, I’m sure). I look forward to what Snyder and company have in store, and while I think there’s room for improvement, there are enough talented people involved to recognize that and make Man of Steel‘s sequel the Superman film we’ve all dreamed of.

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