Article By: Dan Clark
Now that Christopher Nolan’s epic Dark Knight Trilogy has concluded DC comics is faced with how to revitalize their cinematic universe. Previous attempts to expand beyond the character of Batman were unmitigated disasters. Films like Green Lantern and Jonah Hex were both box office failures and despised by critics and fans. So it makes sense DC is breaking out one of their heavy hitters to fill the rather large shoes left by Nolan. This time around Superman is not returning–he is rebooting. Man of Steel offers a completely new cinematic take on the character of Superman. The red tights, campy humor, and uplifting John Williams score have been replaced by a somber world full of cynical ideals and sullen adventure. Much of the film is clearly a reaction to past Superman failures, but by fixing past problems it creates an entirely new set of issues all its own. Man of Steel works as an experience worth undertaking. Strong performances, stunning visuals, and massive action set pieces make this the Superman movies many fans have been waiting for. However, Man of Steel fails narratively in nearly every way. A bloated script riddled with complications hinders virtually every character from being more than a thin shell of a person. Although Man of Steel establishes a respectable launching point for up and coming Superman and DC comic book films, it also offers future installments a lot to improve on.
Right from the start Man of Steel makes it clear it is doing things a little differently. Superman’s origin is rather basic, which opens the door for a great deal of easy alterations. Krypton is still facing impending doom, but this Krypton bares little resemblance to past films. It has a stronger similarity to the portrayal of Mars in John Carter with the way it combines organic life and high-tech spacecraft. Gone are the shiny suits and crystal caves. Now they have full-fledged body armor that would make any gladiator jealous. Jor-El (Russell Crow) is seemingly the one person who realizes the planet’s grim fate. Before Krypton is destroyed his able to send his son to Earth so he can make his fate his own.
Zack Snyder may be in the director’s chair for Man of Steel, but Christopher Nolan’s fingerprints are all over this film. Nolan, who did receive a producer and story credit, showed with The Dark Knight that you can place a superhero into a realistic setting and make it work. Man of Steel does not transform your concept of reality. You will not walk away thinking a man can really fly. What it does share is the subdued tone where the emotional weight of our main protagonist is always on the forefront. Snyder’s directorial prowess can be seen in the set pieces. Compared to the last Superman installment this is bursting at the seams with action sequences. The action looks amazing and provides a ton of fun and excitement. For the first time Superman’s true capabilities are shown on the big screen. Snyder still needs to learn when to stop. Almost all the final act is made up of mindless destruction after mindless destruction. There are only so many times you can watch building after building get destroyed before you get bored. What was a decent setup was left mangled in a heap of crushed rubble and collateral damage.
This telling of Superman’s origin, from Kal-el to Clark Kent to Superman, is not done linearly. Most of Clark Kent’s life in Smallville is told through flashback sequences as current life events trigger memories of his past. Seeing a school bus pass by conjures up a time he saved his classmates’ lives after their bus was driven off the road. This storytelling technique does allow Superman to put on his cape quicker, conversely the lack of buildup made that moment feel like happenstance. There was no sense of delayed gratification as we were just in the midst of learning the importance of this decision. It was akin to peaking to the last page of a book before you finished reading the prologue. We learn of its importance long after it takes place.
To the film’s credit it does make Clark’s choice to be Superman a difficult one. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) wants Clark to hide his gift for the safety of his child and the rest of the world. He believes the world is not ready to know they are not alone. His justification may be sketchy, but these moments between Jonathan Kent and young Clark are some of the best parts of the film. They were one of the few times were there was any type of an emotional connection. Plus they worked well when juxtaposed with the moments between Clark and Jor-el. Unlike Clark’s Earth father Jor-el has a hopeful attitude. He believes Kal-el could be the savior Earth needs. Costner and Crow made watching this philosophical version of ping pong quite amusing. Both brought their A game as they didn’t downplay their performances simply because they were in a comic book movie.
Superman is quickly tested when one of his father’s old Krypton foes shows up looking for him. General Zod (Michael Shannon), who was placed into the Phantom Zone after attempting a military coup, wishes to remake Earth into a new Krypton. After the destruction of Krypton he, along with his forces, were freed from their captivity. Once freed they traveled the galaxy gather supplies while looking for Kal-el. Now the only person who could stop Zod from enacting his plan is the last son of Krypton. Zod is one of Superman’s most iconic villains due in large part to Terrance Stamps portrayal of the character in Superman II. Shannon’s performance, while enjoyable, does not come close to Stamps level. The character was just too bogged down with plot for Shannon to make it his own.
Another person who was not given enough room to work was Henry Cavill as Superman. Cavill clearly has the virile physique and rugged look to pull off the role. His stoic presence is evident as he can simply walk in his costume on top of snow covered mountains to evoke regal feelings typically reserved for royalty. The issue is you have little sense of who he is as a person. For one his dialogue was reserved to what felt like only a few lines. There was so much time spent on what he should do, and so little on who he really was. One of the few characters that felt whole was Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Adams’s take on Lois quickly becomes one of the best. She has a commanding brashness as she goes headfirst into danger. This Lois Lane is thankfully more than just a damsel in distress. She plays an important part in the development of our hero. Their romantic angle is barely touch upon, which is a good thing as Cavill and Adams are void of chemistry.
A big reason the characters lack substance is due to David Goyer’s script. He created a narrative that was thematically cluttered. It touched on aspects like the classic Superman-Jesus allegory, the importance of choice and destiny, the impact of fathers, and not to mention how the existence of Superman proves we are not alone in the universe. Some of these ideas were further flushed out then others. Some, like the Christ allegory, are forced upon you to the point of ad nauseam. Moments like Superman floating out of a spacecraft in the shape of a crucifix or Clark Kent asking a pastor for guidance with a well-placed image of a praying Jesus behind him were unintentionally hilarious. With so much going on the storyline was made up of more exposition than actual plot.
Man of Steel’s greatest success can be found on the technical side. The special effects are some of the best of any summer blockbuster this year. They come up with some creative ways to show off Superman’s powers. Perhaps even greater than the special effects was Amir Mokri’s cinematography. Mokri is clearly evoking a Terrence Malick look with the tranquil atmosphere he creates in the Smallville flashbacks. This look was far more effective at establishing emotional stakes than the script. Hans Zimmer’s score is also top notch. It is not the triumphant melody of John Williams’s classic theme, but works well in this setting. There is certainly a grandeur quality to it as it asserts a prideful confidence to the action on display. It just never comes off as a rallying cry used to summon our hero.
Man of Steel does slightly loosen the strangle hold Marvel has had on the comic book cinematic universe. It proves DC and Warner Bros. are capable of making an overall successful comic book film that does center on Batman. Man of Steel may not come close to approaching the landmark achievement some hoped for. Still, it shows you can make Superman into a relatable character for 21st century audiences. Hopefully next time they remember the ‘Man’ part of Man of Steel.