Man of Steel (2013) Review:
Recently, it was announced that Walt Disney acquired the rights to produce and distribute ‘Star Wars’ films from Lucasfilm and had planned to begin production of said films for a 2015 release date. I remember thinking at the time that I could not think of another property that would put such pressure on a filmmaker than ‘Star Wars’. A property that in the last decade had delineated its fanbase through the production of mediocre iterations in the franchise and left them to cling their hope to their slowly fading nostalgia. It truly did represent to me a bold and frightening filmmaking endeavor and for the life of me, I could not find its equivalent.
And then I remembered a movie called ‘Man of Steel’.
Man of Steel is faced with a similar, albeit less intense, problem. To date, many people will tell you that of the 5 major release Superman films that preceded ‘Man of Steel’ only two were worth the price of admission. And yet audiences still hold the character to a high standard. People expect quality from a Superman film, regardless of the depreciating quality of his films (see Superman III with Richard Pryor(?) or his inability to connect with modern audiences (see Superman Returns with Superman’s bastard child (?). When it comes to Superman movie audiences suffer from battered housewife syndrome. He used to be so good to us and deep down we know he didn’t mean to hurt us.
This is mostly due to the fact that the character is a cinematic and pop culture icon but it’s also due to what Superman represents. The absolute optimism towards human nature is embedded within Superman’s character. He is meant to act as a symbol for good and an ideal of hope. Most films seem to forget this and instead suffer from a misplaced obligation to adhere to the principles of films past rather than the character himself. In order for a Superman film to be “good” it needs to not lose the character, it’s trying to represent and what he represents.
For the most part? ‘Man of Steel’ does this in spades. However, there are notable detachments and problems within the film.
The movie begins with something not seen in Superman films prior. It depicts Kal-el’s home planet of Krypton and truly establishes Superman as a being from another world, one with similar social issues. The film seems to suggest that Krypton is what is to become of Earth through scientific advancement and human evolution. Without going into too much detail, I’ll say that it becomes evident that life on Krypton reaches its limitations.
In an attempt to salvage the best aspects of Krypton, the baby Kal-el is sent to Earth where he is expected to thrive and be admired instilling within the people of Earth the means to avoid the mistakes made by the people of Krypton. It is from this that the aspect of Superman as an ideal to strive towards is first established a theme that is successfully brought out in the film at different stages and is mostly driven by Superman’s biological father Jor-el. Russel Crowe’s role as a scientist frustrated by the limitations of his people is an apt one, with the actor providing a solemn yet ferocious performance, but sadly does not break out into song.
Superman’s development’s on Earth are chronicled by a series of flashbacks in which actor Henry Cavill is saddled with representing a man who has his entire life battling the identity crisis inherent with being born on a now non-existent planet and having the ability to heat objects just by staring. The flashbacks depict a moment in Clark’s life that have defined his current predicament as a man who wanders around without a home or a dog in the yard, much akin to the flashbacks of ‘Batman Begins’
His disconnect from humanity is compounded by his compulsion to do good, a compulsion that causes Clark to use his extraordinary abilities. Abilities that he has been taught by his adopted father Clark Kent to hide due to the seemingly paranoid view that should the world be aware of his true heritage he would not be adored but instead, he would be met with disdain, fear and other negative reactions as well.
It is within these propositions of character that the film succeeds in establishing this Superman. As a son of two worlds, he experiences the struggles that arise from such a situation and the film depicts this aptly.
As Superman goes through his internal development his abilities also develop. Specifically with regards to his aerial abilities. The film remembers that Superman has to bound before he can fly. The best modern-day depiction of the thrill of a first flight and the fulfillment of the ultimate fantasy has rested with 2008’s ‘Iron Man’. That title now belongs with ‘Man of Steel’ which depicts flight as something that’s awe-inspiring.
However, the film halfway through stops focusing on the development of the character and instead brings light to the plot which at this point in the film had only been briefly touched upon with a few lines of dialogue in the film’s introduction. The focus shifts to the plot with the arrival of General Zod, the main villain of the picture who is portrayed by modern-day movie magician Michael Shannon. Michael Shannon is an actor who is famous for his appetite for gravitas. Every morning he wakes up to a glass of over the top and a box of scenery and starts chewing.
Imagine my excitement when I was privy to the information that he would be playing the psychotic General Zod. A ruthless militaristic powerhouse with no concern for the lives of innocents and a self-imposed importance. However, the character is written in a much more sympathetic manner. Although the character is still ruthless his motivations are portrayed well as Shannon is much more solemn than his roles in films past. It’s not a bad performance; it’s just not what I expected.
Upon the arrival of General Zod, the film places in a few scenes in which the plot is now developed. The characters establish their stances and the conflict arises. It all feels very basic and run of the mill but it provides a serviceable second act.
However, it is in the third act in which the film falters.
Upon realizing the characters have a conflict they then set out to resolve this conflict with fists, laser eyes, and eventual flight fights! The fights themselves are exciting, however even though they are designed using CG the fights are difficult to see. The aptest similarity I can draw them to would be to the fight scenes in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy. It’s very close up and results in confusion as to who is hitting whom.
But more so than confusing the fight scenes feel uninspired and ridiculous. This, however, is no worse than in superhero films of the past such as Hancock, Iron Man 2, Batman Begins or even the Avengers. The characters go to their final meeting ground, usually, a city or a metropolis *wink* and proceed to thrash each other with no regard for the innocents the hero has so established himself as wanting to protect. You get a few throwaway lines with Superman telling people to get to safety much akin to the scene in Avengers in which Captain America instructs the police officers to direct people to safety. You’re meant to assume that every building has been evacuated and that no one is hurt when they’re toppling. Panic in the streets is shown to depict the mortality of the situation contrasting this and the viewer is left frustrated and annoyed.
Most people, like me, usually take this as par for the course with the summer blockbuster and admittedly if you can put aside the fact that innocents may very well be being hurt with the hero seemingly apathetic to that fact then you’ll be smiling the entire time. However, my suspension of disbelief depends on the tone of the movie up to that point. With that in mind, the film’s portrayal of a Superman with the utmost regard for human life causes the final fight scenes to feel disconnected from the first half of the film which seemed to understand this character so well. The final scenes of the fighting, however, feel earned and a return to the film that began. It boggles the mind why the gratuitous and empty action scenes were in a movie that feels more thoughtful than expected.
The end of the film is jarring as it comes so swiftly and shifts the tone drastically both visually and thematically, moving from the dark aftermath of a ruined cityscape immediately to a bright field where the characters make light quips. It’s meant to be days and perhaps months after the battle but instead, it feels like it was mere seconds after.
Overall the film succeeds in being a different Superman film. It has its own identity and is memorable. It also succeeds in its portrayal of the character. The supporting characters of Ma Kent and Perry White always feel natural and enjoyable with Clark’s interactions with his mother feeling loving and Laurence Fishburne rocking a diamond earring. Both he and Diane Lane provide the best performance they can with their limited material, however, their scenes are short and far and in-between. One expects that their roles will expand in future films.
I’ll close off by saying that the film succeeds in the one part in which I would’ve been mortified had they failed (yay for hyperboles!). That is with the portrayal and construction of Lois Lane. Amy Adams is perfect as the ruthless reporter without much care for authority and with a fiery wit to make a man fall in love. She’s very much a part of this film and that makes me happy. Superman himself is portrayed well by Henry Cavill who has to change his character throughout the film, a character who in this film is written to be more interesting and entertaining than previous iterations.