'Man of Steel' review: finally, the Superman we deserve
Superman is probably the superhero least in need of an existential crisis, but leave it to Christopher Nolan to give him one anyway. As the producer and co-writer of the story for Man of Steel, the auteur who put the dark in The Dark Knight strips away the character’s unassailable integrity and moral certitude and gives us a Kal-El who’s far more man than super. He’s paired with dyed-in-the-wool fantasist Zack Snyder, who’s spent the better part of his career deconstructing superhero mythology (and mythology itself), and the two make for strange but oddly complementary bedfellows. Together, they reinvent the great-grandaddy of funnybook strongmen as a struggling orphan whose destined-for-greater-things future is framed — and forged — by the influence of not one, but two sets of parents.
The film opens on Krypton with the birth of Kal-El, the planet’s first natural-born child in centuries. Kal’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a scientist, has warned the planet’s elders about an imminent environmental catastrophe, but a civil war engineered by Michael Shannon’s General Zod has distracted them from dealing with it until it’s too late. With mere hours remaining before the planet explodes Jor-El ships Kal off to Earth, both to save him and to protect the last vestiges of Kryptonian civilization, which he’s packed away in the newborn’s spaceship.
Decades later, Kal has become Clark Kent (Henry Cavill of The Tudors and Immortals), a migrant worker who keeps to himself as he attempts to figure out his place in a world he knows is not his own. His Earth parents Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) have encouraged him to hide his gifts until he figures out what to do with them, but his innate sense of justice — and a desire to help others — repeatedly exposes him, and eventually forces him to move on to another job and another remote location. But after rescuing reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) during her investigation of an alien spacecraft, he finds it increasingly difficult to remain anonymous — especially after she tracks him down at his childhood home in Smallville.
Despite having stumbled across the story of the century, Lois shows Clark compassion when he explains why he’s stayed out of the limelight, and she decides not to disclose his identity to the rest of the world. But when General Zod contacts Earth demanding that its leaders turn Kal-El over to him, Clark is forced to choose between two worlds — the one from which he came, and the one he now calls home.
In a culture that seems as eager to tear down heroes as it is to build them up, it feels like there’s no longer a comfortable place for the pure idealism of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, nor even the nostalgic romanticism of Bryan Singer’s flawed but underrated Superman Returns. Nolan utilizes the same technique he used in Batman Begins, grounding everything the character does in a semblance of believable “reality,” while Snyder uses that reality as a foundation for recreating the Superman that audiences know and love — by the end of the film, anyway. Since moviegoers have never seen how Kal-El came to terms with his destiny as Earth’s protector this reverse-engineering approach works even better than it did in the Batman films. The tactic creates a hero’s journey that possesses enormous amounts of human relatability even as it crystallizes the persona of the resolute, incorruptible Superman audiences know and love.
That said, Man of Steel occasionally feels like a dirge precisely because Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer allow Superman so few opportunities to enjoy his principles. (The “Superman has fun saving people” montage that has appeared in every previous film is absent here, and most of his acts of heroism are met with admonishment from his earthly parents for “exposing himself,” so to speak.) Formerly best defined — if not immortalized — by Christopher Reeve’s dryly funny but invariably earnest interpretation of the character, Superman’s natural, wholesome buoyancy is mired here in self-consciousness and insecurity. He’s as fearful of not using his abilities when they’re needed as he is of having them discovered by humankind, and his relentless introspection sometimes becomes as tedious a burden to viewers as his powers are to him.
Despite the subject matter’s natural suitability to Snyder’s sweeping, larger-than-life aesthetic, Man of Steel is his most measured and realistic work to date, both in terms of its stylistic vocabulary and its dramatic pitch. But even as he resists every impulse to inject the material with the same sorts of visual flourishes that served as directorial hallmarks in 300, Watchmen, and even Sucker Punch, the film’s visceral edges are as aggressive and affecting as the action in almost any recent blockbuster. Though the director’s slow-motion deconstructionism and his fetishization of ideal physical forms are gone Snyder’s staging remains impeccable, enabling Superman’s coming-of-age to unfold on the largest possible canvas while also retaining substantial emotional weight.
Moreover, he solves the problem the Wachowskis struggled with in the Matrix trilogy: how do you keep a fight exciting when it’s between two people who cannot be hurt? The answer isn’t quite as simple as “point-of-view punching,” which does actually become an important (and awesome) part of the climactic showdown between Superman and Zod. Even if the characters themselves are incredibly resilient, Snyder maintains a palpable sense of cause and effect by depicting their fight’s impact on the landscape around them — both in terms of the escalating property damage that reverberates outward from each battle and the larger cultural implications of a superhuman who exists in an otherwise human world.
Where Brandon Routh’s performance in Returns felt like a sense-memory tribute to Christopher Reeve’s iconic interpretation, Henry Cavill aims for something more troubled and complex, which fits Man of Steel’s ponderous tone perfectly but fails to supply the character with more than a perfunctory, bland sort of charm. That introverted charisma similarly undermines the budding, inevitable romance between Superman and Lois Lane, but Amy Adams’ intrepid and yet compassionate take gives the reporter newfound cinematic dimensionality even as she hints at a more profound connection between the two — as best friends rather than lovers. Meanwhile, Costner’s performance as Jonathan Kent is so steeped in heartfelt American self-determinism that it should be accompanied at all times by the strains of Aaron Copland, even as Crowe circumnavigates comparisons to Marlon Brando’s Jor-El by underplaying the character with hopeful pragmatism and a quiet nobility.
As General Zod Michael Shannon possesses none of the theatricality that Terence Stamp brought to the role, but Stamp didn’t have as well-written a part as Shannon does, either. From start to finish Zod is a gratifyingly rational and sympathetic adversary — tactics notwithstanding, his motivations are pure, sincere, and well-intentioned. But even if Shannon doesn’t quite descend into the sort of eccentricity that made many of his past performances so irresistible, his magnetic consternation as Krypton’s would-be savior lends the character a melancholy authority that dovetails nicely into Superman’s ascendant self-actualization.
Even though its cathartic confrontation between Earth’s first defender and Krypton’s last excludes it from earlier timelines, Man of Steel feels like a lost but worthy chapter in Superman’s origin story that could easily fit into Donner’s original without skipping a single bound. After multiple adventures where the same details were repeated about his birth and his adulthood, this — like Batman Begins — compellingly uncovers the intervening years of exploration and self-discovery that led Superman to become the mythic icon we’ve always known.
All of which suggests that this is probably the last origin story for Kal-El that we ever need to see, even as it paves the way for more movies about Superman. And even if its weighty self-importance sometimes seems overwhelming in the context of a franchise that has historically felt more wholesome and light-hearted, the sophisticated foundation it creates allows future installments to function as more than victory laps without requiring them to adhere to a purely melodramatic tone. In other words, thanks to Man of Steel, Superman has truly earned the right to have fun saving people again, precisely because his two sets of fathers — both on-screen and behind the camera — decided to take him seriously.
Man of Steel opens Friday, June 14th.
"Henry Cavill aims for something more troubled and complex, which fits Man of Steel’s ponderous tone perfectly but fails to supply the character with more than a perfunctory, bland sort of charm. That introverted charisma similarly undermines the budding, inevitable romance between Superman and Lois Lane"
In that one section words like ponderous, bland, undermines all lean toward a bad moviegoing experience.
Why is OP so desperate to make this happen?
On one hand I love that it distances itself from the Donner vision.
On the other, I am sick and tired of origin stories.
Who the fuck doesn't know Superman?
The "Man of Steel" troll is really earning his money.
We should have hired him.
I love Michael Shannon. I might see this for him alone.
[quote] Why is OP so desperate to make this happen?
Gretchen, stop trying to make Man of Steel happen!
These superhero movies are a reflection of a pagan culture desperately in search of a religion.
What is The Verge.com? Yes, fanboy idiots who like things like TRANSFORMERS are liking this (go over to Ain't It Cool to see them ejaculating over it) but the top critics on RT (you know, the ones who CAN'T recite comic books chapter and verse) are clocking in at about 50%. Or they were the last time I looked.
And as someone pointed out on another thread, if the studio lickspittles over at EW are giving it a "C", then it must be pretty bad.
I wonder if this is going to be like the James Bond reboots where fans endlessly debate about who's the best 007 and in what direction (light and fun vs dark and brooding) the flicks should go. It's one way to publicize and movie and sell tix.
Good God! Haven't we had enough stupid superhero movies over the past 10 years? They taken over Hollywood which only seems to make movies for 13 yo boys.
R10, RottenTomatoes currently has the movie at a 68% "Fresh" rating
Thanks, R13. But look at what they call "Top Critics" for the non-geek perspective.
R5, these movies are for people who weren't even born yet when Christopher Reeve fell off that horse. They don't care that 50 year olds already know everything about Superman.
Michael Shannon is Zod? I would love it if he did Zod as Wesley from 30 Rock.
R17, Michael Sheen, not Shannon, played Wesley.
I'm so sick of these stupid comic book movies. They're not even guilty-pleasures anymore--they're all so PRETENTIOUS.
I go to serious films for edification--I go to this crap to keep cool on a hot summer day. Turning all of them into high tragedy only proves, yet again, that we are firmly and irrevocably a no-brow culture.
Rex Reed said "Despite an obscene budget that could have made a giant stride in the cure for cancer..."
I hate when film reviewers make this kind of statement. Yes, lots of money spent on making a movie could have been spent on cancer research. Or any other worthy cause. In the grand scheme of things, yeah, film is frivolous and non-essential I suppose. But as long as a 200mil investment could potentially net you a 1.5bil return (like the Avengers) studios are going to make big expensive summer films.
Rex Reed is a worthless, toothless old cunt, R20. She says things just for a response. Don't let it shake you up.
Rex Reed had a cameo in the 1978 Superman film, where he flirted with Lois Lane
It doesn't matter what the fuck the critics have to say, most of whom have issue with the film being too action oriented and humorless. If the word of mouth among the comic book fans is overwhelmingly positive (and so far it is...) then that will be the determining factor as to whether the film will break the box office.
[quote]Rex Reed had a cameo in the 1978 Superman film, where he flirted with Lois Lane
Suddenly, Margot Kidder's mental condition has a backstory.
So THAT'S why he hates this one.
R21 Rex Reed is telling the truth. Why get angry about it?
So I just got back from seeing this.
And I'm not the Henry Cavill troll or anything, but damn this guy is fucking HOT in this movie. Worth seeing just to drool over him alone.
Also, one of the better "action" movies I've seen. It's pretty intense, to the point of being over-the-top.
I disagree about Henry being bland... he had some real moments of emotion and did a very good job. Fine acting chops all around, especially for this kind of movie.
The effects were amazing.
The quibbles and questions I have pale next to the experience, imho. Yeah, this isn't your father's Superman. There are at least a million deaths and trillions in property damage that are just sort of glossed over and ignored. But it's still, for the kind of movie it is, damn good. No Oscar bait, for sure, but still... I really enjoyed it.
A derivative, repetitive Thorlike street fight scene Zod and Superman is the weakest part of the movie. Otherwise, a very, very good movie. Cavill soars as superman, in demeanor, tone, and looks. He is captivatingly hot, with his looks underscoring that he is not from this planet and is truly an alien. When he took his shirt off, a huge murmur went up in the theater from male and female alike. His body is just something to behold, even in this creatine age. The cast overall is just superb. Michael Shannon shines and animates his role as the villain. Fishbourne is awesome, of course. Amy Adams is captivatingly cute and inquisitive. Russell Crowe brings some gravitas to the money as Clark's father.
I don't really agree that's the weakest part of the movie, but I do agree that over all it's a very good, entertaining movie.
Uhm . . . what's a "creatine age," R28?
I honestly don't get the hate for this movie.
Anyone who equates criticism with "hate" isn't worth debating on a message board.
This is what happens when film criticism is deprived of true talents. Now we're stuck with Nolan being an auteur, instead of an above average Michael Bay.
[quote]Anyone who equates criticism with "hate" isn't worth debating on a message board.
Nice strawman. Apparently you aren't reading the posts that have little or no actual criticism, just hate.
Just got back from the movie. Basically, Cavill was better than I expected, Hot as fuck. Adams was good, but I felt they downplayed her attractiveness. She was almost bland in appearance in this movie. Shannon and Crowe were also very good.
I liked the first half. They idea of Clark struggling with fitting in this world, drifting along and doing random acts of heroism was more interesting to me than the central conflict set up in the movie.
I would have preferred that part of the story to last longer, and then have the conflict with Zod be a bit more subtle at first and then a few minutes of crash, bang, etc. The action was very heavy handed, even for an action flick.
Still all in all, for me, it would be about 3.5 stars out of 5. The unrelenting over the top action killed a good solid 4 stars.
[bold]A surprisingly human superhuman story[/bold]
"Can you imagine how people would react if beings like that actually existed?"
Daily Planet editor Perry White's question to reporter Lois Lane about half way through Man of Steel neatly encapsulates the key question this movie tries to answer. In examining this question, the movie becomes as much about the mortals living with gods among them as it is about those gods and their awe-inspiring powers. By taking the focus off of the "super" and putting it on the "men," Man of Steel effectively sets itself apart from most run-of-the-mill superhero flicks to become a thoughtful, touching, and exceedingly human story.
It takes a while for the film to find its groove in these strong suits, though. First, audiences have to suffer through 20 minutes or so of plodding backstory focused on Superman's parents and the last days of his birth planet, Krypton. While there's a tiny bit of necessary exposition here, as a whole the opening seems like an unnecessary effort to show that super-dad Jor-El (played by actor Russell Crowe) was actually a bad-ass fighter and dragon-rider (yes, he has a tiny dragon for some reason) in addition to being a prescient scientist that predicted Krypton's explosion.
In any case, the opening sets up the mutinous General Zod (played by a delightfully scenery-chewing Michael Shannon) as the clear "bad guy." When Zod kills Jor-El in a rage (after Jor-El sends the codex with the key to all Kryptonian DNA off in Kal-El's famous escape pod), you can almost see the title card instructing the audience to hiss. It's hard to feel very mad about this murder, though, given that the entirety of Krypton, Jor-El included, blows up from seismic stress almost immediately afterwards. Of course, Zod and his allies were safe from this in his Phantom Zone prison (which is in space, despite the fact that the Kryptonians have long since ceased any space exploration that might save them from their doomed planet), thus making him able to seek revenge from beyond the death of his home planet.
Just grit your teeth through this overly long introduction, because things get much better as soon as the scene makes a quick, unexplained jump to Henry Cavill working on a fishing boat. Over the next half hour or so of the movie, director Zack Snyder provides an excellent summary of the life of one super-powered Clark Kent with minimal plodding exposition. Through quick jumps between scenes of an adult Clark trying to blend in to the scenery of the Pacific Northwest and scenes of him discovering his powers while growing up (shown as a terrifyingly fraught experience), the character's backstory slowly unfolds in a natural and compelling way.
We find that this version of Clark Kent has taken great pains to hide his developing powers from the world at the advice of his down-to-Earth father (played to a tee by Kevin Costner). If this means not fighting back against schoolyard bullies, taking a beer can to the back of the head, or even letting a few people die, so be it. It's all worth it, supposedly, to protect revelations of superpowers he's sure the world isn't ready for. And besides, Clark himself wants to make sure he's ready for a time when his powers could save not just a few people, but the world (hint, hint).
Through it all, you can see Clark struggling to contain his raw power while still trying to be a good person that can blend in with the humans surrounding him. It's done in a wholly relatable way. By introducing the "man" well before the "super," both sides of the character are made stronger.
Things come to a head, though, when Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane comes snooping around a military expedition that's stumbled on some unexpected technology buried deep in the northern ice. There, she crosses paths with Clark as they both stumble into a mysterious Kryptonian vessel that landed on earth thousands of years prior. When Clark reveals himself to save her, the secret is out... even though it has to get leaked to a blog rather than published on the August pages of the Planet (the journalist in me loved the new media v. old media battle being ably waged on-screen here).
Amy Adams plays Lois as a fiery reporter who steals practically every scene she's in through pure moxie and spunk. Her efforts to doggedly track down her mysterious rescuer after the fact take her back through many of the same scenes of Clark's life we've already witnessed. Once she finally tracks him down, Clark opens up to Lois in an attempt to convince her not to out him to the world. Her struggles with that decision, and her on-screen chemistry with Clark, do a great job of turning her into the human connection he desperately needs as he learns the difficult truth of where he came from.
This comes just in time, because General Zod comes-a-calling soon after. In an eerie message delivered across every screen in the world, Zod demands the surrender of the hidden Last Son of Krypton or he'll destroy the planet. The world, of course, proceeds to immediately go nuts and the army descends on Lois to try and find out exactly what she knows about the world's most famous secret ransom.
After some soul searching, Clark decides to give himself up to the government in order to protect the planet (and, to some extent, Lois). This leads to a good deal of on-screen philosophizing about the military's need for control, a superhuman's responsibility to the mortals around him, and the necessary trust both sides have to put in each other to survive. The movie could have dealt with these themes a little bit more subtly than it does, but it still gets points for addressing the world's very understandable reaction to alien super-beings in the first place.
Don't worry, we're getting back to the action soon enough. After a few overly expository scenes with Zod (and a well-crafted, holographic-Jor-El-assisted escape from his spaceship), Superman soon finds himself fighting with Kryptonian henchmen Faora and Non on the streets of Smallville, Kansas. It's an epic fight that's beautifully choreographed and integrated with CGI effects to really play up the power and brutality of these super-powered opponents. These aren't just guys in suits pretending to be superpowered—these are Gods coming down from Olympus to battle on the streets of men.
Things threaten to devolve into Dragon Ball Z territory a bit here, as the insanely powered Kryptonians send their opponents careening through multiple buildings and deep into the concrete with practically every punch. The filmmakers manage to keep things grounded, though, with a returning focus on the terrified citizenry that are collateral damage in the battle and adding a confounding role from a scared and confused military.
From this point in the movie, things start to descend a bit more into hackneyed comic book movie territory. Superman and the military are forced to work together to stop a "world engine" that Zod hopes will transform Earth into a new Krypton (unaddressed: Why Zod can't just convert some other planet into a new Krypton). There's a lot of over-produced CGI destruction and a cliched, noble sacrifice on the part of a secondary human character. There's a brutal final battle between Zod and Superman amidst the ruins of Metropolis. Audiences even get to enjoy an extremely overwrought scream of "Noooooooooooo!" (similar cries are depressingly common throughout the movie, actually).
Yet even in this portion, the film takes time to focus on the more human side of things to great effect. There's a tender moment between Superman and his adoptive mom before he has to go off and fight. There are extended scenes taking a closer look at the citizens trying desperately to survive as the superpowered battle destroys any sense of normalcy in the world around them. And there's a surprisingly touching scene after the climactic battle ends, with a moment that casts this version of Superman in a very different light than almost every other one put to the page or screen (without giving away too much, let me just say that my jaw was nearly on the floor for a good minute or so).
Man of Steel is far from perfect. A lot of the excesses that made Snyder's Watchmen and 300 such ridiculously over-the-top spectacles are still on display here. But by taking a good, hard look at how humanity would react to a world that suddenly had a Superman (and supervillains) in it, the movie gains an emotional core that's missing from many of the less thoughtful superhero flicks. After the utter misfire of Superman Returns, this could finally be the film that rebuilds Superman as a continuing film franchise that will resonate with audiences.
The TV was on while I was getting ready this morning and there was the inevitable comment about the "Man of Steel is box office gold."
So, I guess it's doing all right, regardless of the flaws.
[quote]I go to serious films for edification--I go to this crap to keep cool on a hot summer day. Turning all of them into high tragedy only proves, yet again, that we are firmly and irrevocably a no-brow culture.
The fact that they're putting deeper meaning into these stories would say exactly the opposite, friend. What you want is no-brow.
The film has broken box office records now.
It will probably end up with about $275 million
Henry spent 6 months in training but he won't get his upper fangs filed or his lower teeth fixed.
It may end up with over $280 million domestically. Very good run.