man.of.steel.posterStarring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, & Ayelet Zurer

Directed by: Zach Snyder

Written by: David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan

Superman was my very first exposure to the world of comic book superheroes. As a kid, I cannot recall how many times I must have dragged my parents to my local video store to rent Richard Donner’s Superman and Superman II. I knew every scene, every line of dialogue from those movies backwards and forwards. To me, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and Terence Stamp were not the Godfather, Popeye Doyle, and Billy Budd, respectively, but rather Jor-El, Lex Luthor, and General Zod. New York City was better known to me as Metropolis and in my world, there really was a Daily Planet. As I grew older and developed a more sophisticated and mature taste in comic books that were dominated by darker, more morally ambiguous heroes, I continued to hold a deep respect and fascination with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s American icon.

Since Donner’s standard-defining pair of Superman films, Hollywood has struggled to recapture the playfulness, awe, and grandeur of those movies. Supermans III and IV were marred by cheesy storylines, poor special effects, and an overall lack of inspiration. In 2006, Bryan Singer attempted to bring back Superman in a huge way with Superman Returns, an homage to Donner’s Superman. This film was to serve as Warner Bros.’ attempt to capitalize on the resurgent movie superhero genre and bring its stable of DC superheroes to the big screen. Unfortunately, Superman Returns was also a disappointment. However, with Marvel Film’s massive success in translating the Marvel superheroes to the big screen, Warner Bros. was determined to capture a piece of that box office dollar and tried again to give audiences a good Superman movie. To ensure that success, Warner Bros. convinced Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) to bring his successful vision for the Batman series to the Superman universe. With Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Suckerpunch) directing, Nolan producing and writing (along with David Goyer), the result is Man of Steel.

In this 3rd cinematic reboot of the Superman origin story, we witness the birth of Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) and his send-off from his home planet of Krypton. Despite the warnings of Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), overdevelopment of Krypton’s natural resources has made the planet unstable and it is now ready to explode. To save his race, Jor-El takes the DNA of his race, called a codex, and places it with his infant son before sending him to Earth. The head of Krypton’s military, General Zod (Michael Shannon), opposes Jor-El’s plan and wants to keep the codex in Krypton so that he can rebirth Krypton’s race to be a superior one. But Zod is unable to stop Kal-El and the codex from being sent off to Earth. On Earth, Kal-El is raised by his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), and goes by the name of Clark Kent. Clark eventually discovers his true origin and dons the Superman costume. However, just as he does so, Zod appears on the scene and orders Earth to give up its alien resident or face the wrath of Zod. With the help of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Superman decides to fight back, with or without the human race’s help.

Starting with the good, Man of Steel rivals the Richard Donner Superman films in regards to casting. Not only does Henry Cavill facially resemblance the Man of Steel, but he also has the hero’s physique, which is something that Brandon Routh did not have in Superman Returns. The worst casting choice in Superman Returns is one of the best choices made in Man of Steel by the casting of Amy Adams to play Lois Lane. I was also pleased by the casting of Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), Michael Shannon (General Zod), and Diane Lane (Martha Kent), but the film’s absolute best casting choices are that of Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner as Superman’s fathers. Donner seemed to recognize the importance of having iconic actors playing the father of the most iconic superhero and it is something I am guessing Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder recognized as well.

Cavill takes on the Superman role with very big expectations to fulfill and he does so magnificently. Unlike Brandon Routh, Cavill is able to lend his character a powerful presence that exudes authority and confidence. With their Batman films, David Goyer and Christopher Nolan gave Bruce Wayne/Batman a deeper and more complex inner conflict that humanized the character. They do the same here with Clark Kent/Superman. We see the hero struggle between his loyalties to his adopted human race and his loyalties to his alien heritage. This conflict resolves itself in a great scene at the film’s climax where Superman must finally choose. With this conflict, Goyer and Nolan place more focus on the alien aspect of Superman’s origin, which is something the past Superman films have not done.

The Lois Lane character undergoes the biggest change to the Superman mythos. Instead of meeting Clark Kent as colleagues at the Daily Planet, Lois finds Superman while doing an investigative report for the Daily Planet. From the outset, Lois knows Superman’s identity and any potential sub-plots involving Clark Kent hiding his true identity from Lois Lane are gone. A more welcome change is having Lois be a smarter individual who uses her smarts and wits to help Superman rather than always be a damsel in distress waiting for Superman’s rescue. This change in the character has been long overdue and its nice to finally see it here.

After watching his haunting performance in Take Shelter, I was very much looking forward to seeing Michael Shannon’s take on General Zod. The actor has a ferocious intensity that has served him well in films such as Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter, Boardwalk Empire, and most recently, The Iceman. I had no problem with the quality of Shannon’s performance. He did exactly what the filmmakers envisioned for his character to be. Instead, I took issue with how the character was interpreted and that really comes down to a matter of preference. I still prefer Terence Stamp’s arrogant and homicidal take over Shannon’s militaristic, angry, and no-nonsense interpretation of General Zod.

Surprisingly, many of the best scenes in Man of Steel are the ones with Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner. Both lend gravitas and a “special event” feel to the movie in very much the same way that Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford did in Superman. Unfortunately, we do not get enough of Costner, who got short shrifted except for the film’s only emotional scene in which Clark Kent witnesses his father’s sacrifice to save people’s lives during a tornado.

So what went wrong with Man of Steel? How did a collaboration of some very talented individuals produce a film that drags so much in many places that I found my attention wandering elsewhere? One big issue is the attempt to place Superman in a realistic world. Writer David Goyer has said that, “We’re approaching ‘Superman’ as if it weren’t a comic book movie, as if it were real… I adore the Donner films. Absolutely adore them. It just struck me that there was an idealist quality to them that may or may not work with today’s audience. It just struck me that if Superman really existed in the world, first of all, this story would be a story about first contact.”

I do not have a problem with this approach, BUT it is one thing to make a realistic movie about an ordinary man who dresses up in a Batman suit and a whole other thing to make one about an alien with indestructible powers. The audience must suspend too much of its disbelief even in a realistic interpretation of the character. And in that case, then why even bother taking a realistic approach when the premise alone is so unrealistic?

We are all very familiar with Superman’s origin story even if you don’t read comic books and with the origin having been retold as recently as 2006 with Superman Returns, I’m sure the filmmakers struggled to give audiences a fresh take on Superman’s backstory. However, the back-and-forth approach between the past and the present is distracting and it prevents us from establishing a connection with Clark Kent or to create a build up and anticipation to his discovery of the Superman suit and his purpose on Earth. Furthermore, so many people witness Clark Kent’s incredible power on display when he was younger (i.e. the bully who gets saved from a school bus and the employees who get saved from a burning oil rig) and they obviously are witness to concrete evidence of alien life. However, they all seem to forget about this amazing sight and not a single one of them apparently reports it to the media!

The origin story is chock full of clichés. For example, in the school bus rescue scene, Clark rescues the bully who a few minutes earlier was harassing him on the bus. In the tornado scene, Pa Kent has to go out and save the family dog from an oncoming tornado and he dies, but the dog manages to escape. In yet another scene, a distressed Clark runs out of a classroom and into a closet. The teacher follows him and tries to talk him out of coming out of the closet. For some weird reason, the entire classroom is standing around her while she and Clark’s mom are talking to him behind the closet door.

By the way, for someone who is so against the taking of any life, Superman seems to have no problem smashing his way through giant skyscrapers and laying wanton destruction to the city of Metropolis. It made absolutely no sense to me that he struggled so much as to whether he would kill Zod in order to save a family and yet he probably already killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people battling Zod and his minions in Metropolis and other places.

Now I know a TON of money was spent on the visual effects for Man of Steel and there is some nice eye candy in the movie, but is it just me or does most of this film look like one huge video game cut scene? The original Superman film used the tag line “You will believe a man can fly” and although the film was made long before the advent of computer visual effects, the special effects served the story and they were used sparingly. As such, the effects had much more of a “wow” quality to them – they were earned moments for the audience so that when they appeared, you were far more impressed. Today, computer graphics are able to make up entire worlds and digital characters that look almost lifelike. Unfortunately, filmmakers have taken this tool and have blindly allowed their films to drown in CG effects. Worst of all, many filmmakers do not take the time or spend the money to allow those effects to look believable. Man of Steel takes all of this to the next level. It seems to go out of its way to make every CG shot look fake. The easiest way to take me out of a film is to see fake fire or water and watching the actors interacting with what obviously is a tennis ball on a stick in front of a green screen. The effects in this film look unrealistic, soulless, and they fail to give you a sense of scope and impact as Superman tears through cities and buildings. When Metropolis was getting trashed in Superman II, you got a strong sense that lives were in danger. You get very little of that in Man of Steel.

When it was announced that Christopher Nolan would supervise Man of Steel, I was very excited to see Nolan’s Dark Knight sensibilities combined with director Zack Snyder’s visual style. After watching this film, however, I now wonder if maybe this film would have benefited from just having Zack Snyder make the film. In the wake of Snyder’s horrible Suckerpunch, it is easy to forget that he also managed the impossible and gave us a great Watchmen movie. That makes me wonder what Man of Steel would have looked like without Nolan’s fingerprints and style on every frame of this film. Man of Steel is clearly a Christopher Nolan movie and that is its biggest downfall. Unlike Batman, the Superman universe is a more traditional comic book story so it is much more difficult to place the character in the real world. Consequently, trying to shoehorn a realistic vision into Superman has produced a Frankenstein mishmash that is part serious and part superhero film that ends up not working.

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