MAN OF STEEL Review

To first put my perspective of Superman in check would be to inform you of what I've seen before. There are of course the first two Christopher Reeve movies (I skipped out on III and IV simply because I've heard nothing but terrible things) from which I moved onto Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns. I enjoyed the romanticism and meditation of that film despite it now being panned by pretty much any fan boy you talk to. I've never seen an episode of "Smallville" and sans for a couple of animated features my knowledge of the DC mainstay is somewhat limited. Thus it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to a new vision, a re-booted film interpretation in line with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy that has defined the space that films based on DC comics characters will occupy in this Marvel world. Personally, and as much as I enjoy the Marvel movies, I was more intrigued and engaged by the bleak and more serious moods that hung over the Nolan films as they were appropriate to the central characters tone. Though I was slightly concerned with this same tone not applying to the guy commonly referred to as the ultimate boy scout it seems that persona was not always true and director Zack Snyder along with Nolan as a producer and David Goyer (who also penned the screenplay for Batman Begins) have adapted the Superman story to not only exist in a similar universe with Nolan's Batman films, but within his own, more realistic world that doesn't simply pit the classic superhero against a bad guy in order to champion truth, justice and the American way. What they have done here and what makes me appreciate the film all the more is that while keeping in step with the kind of movies Nolan has made DC could attempt a Justice League movie in the future with this as a good place to start, but it also doesn't limit itself to that same completely realistic world of what we know because Superman is an alien and with that they ask the question of what would happen in a real world setting if Superman were to show up. It is that basic set-up that guides the film throughout and, despite a few flaws, had me gushing with excitement for what may come next.

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) guides a young Clark who is conflicted about his purpose. 
While the original Christopher Reeve movie took the time in setting up Krypton and the how and why of Kal-El being sent to earth they immediately took up the mantle that as an adult Clark Kent he was destined to work at the Daily Planet and fall for Lois Lane because that is what the comics said. I'm not going to be comparing Man of Steel to the original 1978 Superman the entire time to feel as if I've given a more accurate rating, but that was one of the issues I took with the Richard Donner film. What I immensely enjoyed about Snyder's movie was the eagerness to want to justify everything that happened to Kal-El (Henry Cavill) and in his life that provides an explanation as to how these now standard elements of the Superman story came to be in the first place which in turn make this as true an origin story as one could hope for. Beginning on Krypton this is not simply a paint by the numbers story that goes from section to section as if it feels obligated, but instead creates an entire world, an expansive place we come to know not because of the time spent there, but because of the attention to costume design, to set decoration, to the technology used and even the way of life that leads to a completely justifiable explanation our villain gives near the end of the film that was minor in the way I didn't expect, didn't necessarily need, but made sense and I appreciated the people behind this for digging that deep into it. The opening set piece that includes Russel Crowe as Jor-El and Antje Traue as Faora-El sets up reasoning behind such things as the large "S" on Superman's chest let alone his entire suit. It gives us a nice dose of action having Crowe do more than Marlon Brando would have ever committed to and introducing the antagonist in an expertly crafted manner that sets up for the inevitable final showdown between he and Superman. There is more at stake here than simply needing to extend his military ranking, General Zod (Michael Shannon) sees it as his destiny and has been programmed to ensure that Krypton survives and while that too is Kal-El's home he has become such an equal member of earth there is justification for why he fights so hard for our planet, a sentiment echoed many times by Crowe's Jor-El.

In what was likely my favorite part of the film (and I hope multiple viewings confirm this) it is once we reach earth and the fact Goyer and Snyder didn't feel it necessary to tell Clark Kent's story in a chronological order that was both surprising and refreshing. Instead we jump straight to the adult Kent in which Cavill is never given much to say, but is more than able to convey the conflict his character is feeling and how that influences every choice he makes. It would be easy to joke around about how many times Clark comes into contact with life or death situations throughout his life, but we are simply looking at snapshots that flow through his brain as reminders that helped to mold the man he has become today. What is more impressive about the first half of the film though is the pacing and the poetic ways in which Snyder and editor David Brenner weave the flashbacks into the main narrative that allow the film to feel as if it contains multiple layers while never being a bloated movie that seems to have more going on than necessary. Man of Steel has a clear vision it wants to accomplish and everything that is going on in the film is set-up to contribute to that overall goal. Many of the complaints about the film come from the fact it dissolves into a standard action movie in its third act where everything that has happened and will happen in the future rests on the shoulders of a hand to hand fight between the good guy and the bad guy. This is understandable as the final forty-five minutes or so of the film are nothing but a complete adrenaline rush of action. Still, while some of the set pieces are extravagant to the point of ridiculous and for every building you see come crashing down you can see the portion of the budget that went into special effects go with it I was still unable to take my mind off the fact that this was two super-powered aliens fighting and one of them was determined to do whatever it took to get what he wanted and that under those circumstances it was likely that things would indeed be taken to such extents; that the antagonist has no regard for human life leads to the fact that millions were likely lost. It is a hard fact to accept and one of the pitfalls of the film is that it doesn't show the results of such carnage so the argument comes from the fact the movie doesn't earn the colossal amount of destruction that occurs and I agree with that, but what I don't agree with is that what occurs is necessarily excessive but is instead very much necessary.

Henry Cavill in the titular role and iconic suit.
I don't think it is giving anything away to say that this is what the third act comes down to (the trailers have made that very clear) but while the blue/gray tinted color palette and the rugged cinematography add a certain edge to the film it is the introspective first half of the film that had me hooked and along for the ride while willing to accept the bombastic action that comes along with all films of this genre. What brings the film up to this higher level of these genre movies, besides the aforementioned aesthetic elements, is the caliber of the cast that has been put together here. While it is always smart to place an unknown in the lead to fill an iconic role Cavill more than fills what is demanded of him here. He is silent and brooding as I said before, but even when it comes to the big action moments or his first time with flying he is able to inject more of a personality into these things rather than simply accepting he can do them and going along with it. He smiles and laughs upon first flight, he winces and flinches when he gets hit with fists or other objects showing he still has feeling even if it doesn't necessarily hurt him. They are all small details, but they complete a better more fleshed out Superman than we've seen on the big screen before. Russel Crowe is fantastic as Jor-El even providing some comic elements to the film while on the other side of things both Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent give touchingly subtle performances that are refreshingly the opposite of what we might expect while uplifting at the same time. To see Costner's father figure have to explain to his son that it might be dangerous to let the world know what he is truly capable of and that he essentially doesn't trust the human race enough to divulge that information is to make a sacrifice that will push Clark to not only question every move he makes, but also that of the people who surround him every day and those he will ultimately end up fighting to protect. It creates an inner-conflict that Clark struggles with his entire life and is in many ways, for a Superman novice such as myself, a kind of glimpse behind the curtain element we've never seen before.

Surprisingly, I found the Lois Lane aspect of the story here to be the most earned storyline in that it doesn't seem destined for her and Superman to fall for one another or that it is even convenient simply because they have the same job, but instead the screenplay allows for Amy Adams version of the famous heroine to become less a love interest and more a cog in the machine that is the story that helps it to move forward. There are several instances throughout the film where they could have easily had her and Superman kiss and leave her character on the backburner for the rest of the film, but they integrate Lois into the core of the story and when a kiss finally does happen you feel as if both parties wanted this to happen not because it is "supposed" to happen. Adams doesn't simply play Lois as a writer but more an investigative reporter that is tipped to a story and becomes hot on the trail of the nomad-like Clark who escapes anytime he begins to get too close to those around him or is pushed to the point he exposes himself. Though her famous employer and the managing editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) don't get the screen time you might expect they are still a part of the arc the story takes us on and are nicely set-up to be more prominent figure in future Man of Steel films.

This brings me to another aspect of the film that I appreciated and found to be equally as daring as it was satisfying. The fact there is no mention of Kryptonite, no Jimmy Olsen, and no Lex Luthor. There is plenty to feast your eyes and mind on here while the makers clearly have the restraint to know to hold out a few surprises and mainstays of the Superman universe for future installments. They didn't simply throw in the most popular elements from the source material to guarantee the satisfaction of fans, but they went the logical route, presenting the only real reason Clark would ever expose himself on a global scale, the only reason he would ever take full advantage of his powers and put them on display. In creating that type of threat, the kind of evil that might insight this reaction it was important to find someone who could be both menacing and represent the intelligence needed to be a General that commanded an army light years ahead of us in intelligence and technology. To fill those shoes the wonderfully maniacal Michael Shannon was brought in and though one of my biggest disappointments with the film is that there was not more done with this role from this actor he is simply so good at playing crazy that he is still able to deliver the goods even if it isn't the game-changer Heath Ledger's Joker performance was.

Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man of Steel.
In saying that, if you are going to make any comparisons the most relevant would certainly be to that of The Dark Knight movies and though this certainly doesn't measure up to the second or third installments in that trilogy it must also be remembered this is the first film in what is hopefully a fantastic new Superman series. I enjoyed Batman Begins as much as the next guy, but it didn't have the burden of audiences seeing something as different and revolutionary as it was when it premiered in 2005. Audiences were accustomed to goofy Batman movies and had only recently been served more credible comic book flicks in the form of the X-Men movies, but Batman Begins took it to an entirely different level and even it devolved into that same kind of typical action movie in its third act, but in no way was it on the epic scale Man of Steel is. While the majority of the critical reception ranges from indifferent to disappointed I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the experience of the film and everything that allowed it to leave a lasting impression. From the performances to the Hans Zimmer score to the look of the film to the impressive visual effects that were as good as can be expected and delivered on every promise of spectacle that a Superman movie could ever be expected to achieve. It delivers an origin story that truly fleshes out the world and the people that surround our titular hero while keeping a shade of mystery to the main attraction that will hopefully continue to be peeled away in the next few installments. We get those few glimpses of Clark as a boy and a pathway into his psyche and what it must have been like for him to adapt to a new world and while audiences might be going in expecting Superman to get the dark knight treatment they may be surprised to see that while the DNA from those films is certainly present this is new ground and Snyder and his crew have composed a movie that wants to make everyone happy while being as innovative as they possibly can. You can feel the artistic license in the way shots are composed and the way that first half of the film is put together and you can feel the director wanting to please those who complained about the lack of action in Superman Returns with the final battle scene, but there will always be detractors. I can only pay the highest of compliments for the effort that was taken here as there is a true heartbeat to the film, a soul that is undeniable and that I can't wait to see come to full fruition in the inevitable sequels.