May 2023

Man of Steel (2013)

DIRECTOR: Zack Snyder

CAST: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne


Man of Steel is to Superman as Batman Begins was to Batman; resurrect a popular comics character left floundering in the wake of poorly-received previous cinematic outings (the last attempt at a grand return, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, flopped) and bring him back to the big screen better than ever. While Man of Steel is not quite as triumphant a success as Batman Begins, in my opinion, it’s a worthy reboot and could herald a new Superman film franchise, provided audiences respond well. It has a bit in common with Batman Begins, but there’s also similarities with Thor, specifically the alien world aspect that makes much here feel more like a sci-fi/fantasy adventure than a conventional comic book movie. Overall, Man of Steel is far from flawless, but it mostly succeeds at what it sets out to do, and could serve as a launching pad for a rebirth of the man in the cape.



The first fifteen minutes or so are in full sci-fi fantasy territory, on the dying world of Krypton, where, as is familiar to any Superman fan, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) places his infant son Kal-El into a tiny spacecraft and sends him across the stars to Earth. Meanwhile, Krypton’s military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, but gets quashed and tossed with his followers into The Phantom Zone. Kal-El grows up in Smallville, Kansas as the adopted son of the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who, of course, call him Clark. Along the way, Clark performs feats of incredible superhuman strength, first saving his classmates from drowning when their school bus plunges into the water, and later saving some men on a burning oil rig. Grown into an elusive loner, he is drawn to the story of a crashed alien spaceship buried under arctic ice, where he meets a hologram of Jor-El, gets caught up to speed on relevant info, and finds his iconic costume. He also runs into intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who is immediately intrigued and tracks him down after he saves her life. Meanwhile, General Zod and his henchmen have escaped The Phantom Zone and are heading for Earth, which Zod intends to turn into a new Kryptonian homeworld…after wiping out its native inhabitants. Kal must make the choice to remain anonymous or stand up as Earth’s defender.



Man of Steel‘s narrative structure is similar to Batman Begins—perhaps unsurprising considering it has the same screenwriter, David S. Goyer, and the Batman trilogy’s director Christopher Nolan is onhand here as a producer—starting with Clark as an adult and then periodically tossing in a series of flashbacks sketching out his past. The first half or so deals mainly with Clark’s background—his birth, his childhood with the Kents, his feats of strength, he and Lois crossing paths, and Clark finding his father’s hologram and learning the full potential of his powers.  The opening goes more in detail into the Krypton scenes than we’ve seen before, but that’s not a bad thing.  The dying planet is visually impressive and the previously mostly unexplored territory makes things feel fresher and less generic.  Things take a turn for the dark when Zod shows up around the midway point, where the movie turns into a colossal action extravaganza, serving up both epic spectacle and Michael Bay levels of orgiastic movie mass destruction. The visual effects, of which there are many, are first-rate, and the fight scenes, which are frequent and lengthy, have a whizz-bang pace. The usage of Zod as the villain effectively ups the stakes for this first outing, since unlike, say, Lex Luthor (who I’ve always felt is more an annoying nuisance than a worthy adversary, despite generally being regarded as Superman’s biggest nemesis), Zod comes from the same place and has the same powers as Clark, and can take him on mano-a-mano (and of course he does, in a climactic and wildly over-the-top one-on-one smackdown that destroys half the city that hasn’t already been leveled by this point). Even so, while I admit to a primal enjoyment of a movie throwing the kitchen sink at us with colossal destruction, enough screentime of this threatens to get tiresome. One senses Zack Snyder revels in scenes of epic destruction and isn’t as interested in the emotional beats. Man of Steel has various scenes that try to inject a little heart, but most of them don’t have the impact they aim for, mostly because they don’t get enough screentime and there’s not enough of them. It’s also debatable whether the movie has the right tone befitting the character of Superman. There’s something a little iffy about a movie centering around one of the most unfailingly noble, pure-hearted superheroes reveling so much in Transformers-level carnage. Some have questioned whether the behind-the-scenes influence of the Batman trilogy co-writer David S. Goyer and director Christopher Nolan was a plus or a minus. Their approach worked wonders for Batman but might inject too much darkness for Superman, who throughout his lengthy run in the comics has invariably been a much less morally ambiguous character. Also, while David S. Goyer injected the Batman trilogy, particularly Begins (over which he had the most direct input), with its share of clunky dialogue, Man of Steel has a higher quotient of clumsily on-the-nose lines, probably because the Batman trilogy had the Nolan brothers fleshing out the screenplays based off of Goyer’s outline, while here he is the sole screenwriting credit, with no one to soften his rough edges a little.  Sharp-eyed viewers will appreciate some easter eggs (most prominently the LexCorps logo, which could hint at our next villain).  Goyer also dispenses with at least one hackneyed plot point from most previous films by having Lois discover early on that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same (though the ending suggests the glasses that magically render him unrecognizable might still have their effect on everyone else).



man-of-steel-6For the most part, the cast is fine, but this isn’t an actor’s movie, and the characters are thinly-developed. British beefcake Henry Cavill (he’s done a lot of growing, in more ways than one, since he played Jim Caviezel’s son in 2002’s The Count of Monte Cristo) isn’t required to do much more than be suitably buff, square-jawed, and heroic, and don an American accent. He looks the part, but it’s a little hard to make a determination about his acting ability. Amy Adams brings a touch of feistiness to Lois Lane, but there’s not much chemistry between she and Cavill; a late liplock feels more like the movie ticking off a checklist of obligatory moments, not an earned character moment. Michael Shannon, who can be a frothy scenery-chewer, is surprisingly restrained as General Zod (perhaps in an attempt to avoid comparisons to his highly-regarded predecessor Terence Stamp, he never says “kneel before Zod”). The movie does a couple interesting things with Zod, chiefly by not portraying him as a mustache-twirling villain, but as a fanatical, hardcore military man obsessed with saving his people and resorting to extreme measures on a wrongheaded mission. File him under “misguided” more than “evil”. The supporting cast is underused. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are fine as the Kents, but don’t get enough screentime. Laurence Fishburne has a few choice one-liners as Lois’ boss Perry White, but has only a handful of scenes. Russell Crowe has basically a glorified cameo and is dead within the first fifteen minutes or so, but shows up again later as a hologram to unload some exposition, and later still as a convenient deus ex machina. While his screentime is small, Crowe is much better than his predecessor Marlon Brando (ironically one of Crowe’s idols), whose Jor-El in the Richard Donner-Christopher Reeve films was as blatantly a “picking up a paycheck” performance (a word that must be used loosely) as can be found. Crowe invests his opening Krypton scene with ten times the energy of Brando, and uses his scant screentime to establish Jor-El as a heroic and noble figure. The supporting cast is rounded out by Christopher Meloni and Harry J. Lennix as Army officers, Richard Schiff as a scientist, Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as Kal-El’s Kryptonian mother Lara, and German actress Antje Traue (sure to turn some heads) as Zod’s henchwoman Faora.



At the bottom line, Man of Steel is far from a perfect motion picture, but it’s highly-enjoyable summer blockbuster entertainment, serving up epic spectacle that should entertain most moviegoers, albeit at the cost of sacrificing some heart along the way. Faults aside, I never found the movie unenjoyable, and it could serve as a worthy starting point for a new Superman franchise. The spectacle serves as an attention-getting introduction; hopefully subsequent installments will find more balance between heart and explosions.



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