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Movie Review: Man of Steel

Man of Steel poster
Man of Steel

With Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy wrapped up, the Green Lantern movie an unmentionable embarrassment, and Marvel Studios raking in the cash from its various superhero properties, the DC brand needs a hit. It makes sense to bring Superman--easily the biggest and most iconic comic book superhero ever created--back to the silver screen, but ever since Christopher Reeve's Superman films came to an end in the eighties, Superman has had difficulty reaching moviegoing audiences. The most recent attempt to revive the franchise, Superman Returns, wasn't a failure--it was a critical and commercial success, despite its current reputation--but it was more of a love letter to Richard Donner's films than it was a way to jumpstart the franchise. Man of Steel, rather than building on what has come before, has opted to go the reboot route, which has been wildly successful for other floundering properties like James Bond, Star Trek, and of course Batman. The question, then, is whether this retold origin story is good enough and promising enough to build upon. The future of the DC Entertainment brand, as it relates to film, depends on it.

The short answer is yes. Man of Steel is not a flawless film, but it is an exciting popcorn flick and a movie that stands quite proudly alongside Batman Begins and The Avengers as a modern comic film tentpole. It tells a familiar story in an unfamiliar way, approaching Superman not as an untouchable superhero but as a sympathetic outsider uncertain who to trust and how to act in the modern world. This is also, first and foremost, a science-fiction film, with scenes more reminiscent of Independence Day and The Day the Earth Stood Still than Superman. Director Zack Snyder doesn't pull his punches, launching audiences immediately into the alien world of Krypton with wild alien technology, complex alien mythology, and alien characters with motivations we don't fully understand until much later in the film.

Russell Crowe carries this opening salvo with gravitas, portraying Jor-El as a noble hero of a society that deserves its fate. Though it's hard to separate this version of Jor-El from Crowe's General Maximus--especially given the obvious Ancient Roman imagery thrown around Krypton--it works to give audiences something to hold onto during a wild ride full of earnest political speeches, noise, explosions, violence, rebellions, and counter-rebellions. The first act also works because the rules of this alien world are consistent and well-written, even as the details are all-too-quickly glossed over. Indeed, one of the script's greatest strengths is its confidence and attention to details it does not feel the need to fully explain. We may not be given the hows of Kryptonian technology, but we are given more than enough reason to believe that this technology obeys its own consistent rules and logic that the movie trusts us to intuit.

Man of Steel
Russell Crowe gets a lot more screen time than Marlon Brando did

Once on Earth, the film takes a non-linear approach to the story of Clark Kent, introducing us to him as a man searching for his place in the world and reflecting on the lessons he's learned. Previews for the film had me concerned that this would be a long and tiresome backstory, but Clark's childhood is breezed through in a series of quick and poignant flashbacks. Here, we see Clark's human father, Jonathan Kent, who is played by Kevin Costner as a wise and honorable Kansas farmer. Costner's total screen time is far too short, but his character looms large over the entire script, as his relationship to Clark is easily the most crucial and touching relationship in the film.

The film keeps to its science-fiction tone, though, as it introduces us to Lois Lane exploring the apparent discovery of an alien ship that crashed in the ice long ago. Without spoiling what happens, it isn't long before Clark Kent learns about his past, assumes his identity as Superman, and finds himself facing off against the megalomaniacal General Zod, played with much bluster and apparent psychopathology by Michael Shannon. Zod plants a formidable alien spaceship over Metropolis and threatens to destroy all of humanity, leading to a truly epic climax.

Still, this thrilling ride and unique spin on Superman is not without its problems. It has heart, but it lacks a fair amount of joy. There are a handful of lines thrown in that are clearly an attempt to lighten the mood, but they feel out-of-place and awkward, and there is so much death and destruction shown on screen that, by the end, it is hard not to be completely numb to it. The story also asks audiences to believe that Superman forms a romantic relationship with Lois Lane, though there is absolutely no time for such a relationship to develop within the film's brisk pace from action scene to action scene.

Man of Steel
Michael Shannon is pretty awesome as Zod

Having said that, I will concede that Henry Cavill is a brilliant casting decision. He plays both Clark Kent and Superman exactly right, being neither too subtle nor too over-the-top. There is plenty of room within the script for Clark to be brooding and exhausting, but Cavill never falls into that trap, and there are plenty of lines delivered by Superman that would sound cheesy coming from less talented actors. Even though Henry Cavill is not an American, he does not shy away from Superman's more patriotic aspects ("I'm from Kansas; that's about as American as it gets"), and the script does a good job highlighting the American virtues of rugged individualism and exceptionalism he represents without hitting us over the head with them.

Also, like last month's Star Trek Into Darkness, the film gives us images that draw inescapable parallels to 9/11, though the relationship is more subtextual here. Don't get me wrong; one does not go to a Superman movie expecting subtlety, and Man of Steel is definitely not subtle. However, it does keep the political considerations--which can't be helped when your hero is clad in red, white, and blue--on the down low, and they are much less obvious here than they are in any previous Superman film. Still, the idealism is there, and it is true to what Superman has come to represent over the years. There is one scene late in the film involving a surveillance drone that is accidentally prescient, but even though this story takes place in modern times, it doesn't try to force-feed us questions about whether we need Superman in this day and age.

Man of Steel
To be fair, I'm always getting 9/11 confused with ID4

The cast is rounded out by Amy Adams as Lois Lane--who is a much better fit here than Kate Bosworth is in Superman Returns--Lawrence Fishburne as an underdeveloped Perry White, Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni as the surprisingly nuanced faces of the American military, and Diane Lane as Martha Kent. The acting is excellent all around, carrying the film through its more problematic moments. Director Snyder also deserves a ton of credit for pulling off something not many people believed he could. Less impressive are Hans Zimmer's blaring score--which is adequate but not nearly as memorable as John Williams' score for the original film--and the uneven visual effects, which are occasionally breathtaking and occasionally disappointing.

On the whole, this is a great summer movie and a must-see for any comic book fan. It is a homerun for DC Entertainment that will kick off a new era for them, probably leading up to the much-hoped-for Justice League film in a few years to finally compete with Marvel's The Avengers. It is the kind of movie that will be unstoppable at the box office, even as critics treat it with much derision and dismissal. It does have a few small teases for the future--including more than one blink-and-you-might-miss-it reference to Lex Luthor's LexCorp--and fans need not worry whether those teases will pay off, because we will definitely see this Man of Steel don his cape again.


It might be a little too earnest at times, but Man of Steel is a fantastically fresh take on the Superman mythos and it's one hell of a good ride.

-e. magill 6/18/2013

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