Superhero movies have changed a lot since Richard Donner’s Superman film debuted back in 1978. Most of them have gone from lighthearted and colorful to grim and dark. Some of the heroes that have graced the silver screen deserved the so called ‘dark’ treatment, while others called for more of a ‘not so serious’ approach. Today, the genre has been redefined by the success of The Dark Knight trilogy and the Avengers Phase I films. But why were those movies such a hit with audiences? Well, the answer is that the filmmakers were smart enough to deal with each character exactly as they should be dealt with – stay true to the heart of what the character is all about and you end up with a quality product. This is especially true about The Dark Knight films. Director Christopher Nolan knew what TDK was all about. His story is not a colorful one…it’s masked in darkness and the tone of the trilogy definitely fit the darkness surrounding Bruce Wayne and Batman. The storylines were intriguing and the casting was spot on. The same can be said for The Avengers. Each solo film managed to nail, for the most part, the definition of each character (especially Tony Stark/Iron Man). Director Joss Whedon did an incredible job meshing all of the characters together and what resulted was one of the most entertaining films of all time. Spider-Man was also successfully rebooted last year (although, in my opinion, still a bit too soon…but, oh well) and the X-Men franchise also got a nice reception when First Class was released. The sequel to both films are actually in production right now, signaling success on both fronts. It’s nice to see the superhero genre taking off right now. The quality of the movies are high and it seems the bar is raised each time one is released (although Iron Man 2 kind of lowered it back a bit). So, what about the world’s greatest superhero – Superman? Why has it taken so long to get him back on the big screen in a successful way? Well, the reason is because he is such a different creature than his counterparts. His backstory is deep, but up until now, pretty limited. We got a nice glimpse of it in the original Superman film with Christopher Reeve, but has never been fully explored and dealt with in a way that leaves no room for misinterpretation. The other issue is that to the detriment of future reincarnations of the character, Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Clark Kent/Superman was so well done, that it was really hard to imagine anyone else in the role. When he became paralyzed back in the mid-1990′s, any attempt to bring back the character with him in the title role vanished. Fast forward ten years and you get a valiant attempt by director Bryan Singer to bring back Superman to a new generation. While most of us enjoyed the film, it was utterly forgettable. Light on action, but with amazing visuals, the movie suffered from there being just too much gap between the incredible Superman II and the events that follow. Superman Returns picked up a few years after the events of that sequel and while die hard fans enjoyed the plot details, it failed to entice younger viewers and therefore, a new generation. No sequel. No more Brandon Routh (who did well with the title role). It appeared Superman would be gone for quite awhile. Thankfully, the absence was not overly long and thanks to the success of other films in the genre, Superman is back and better than ever.
Director Zack Snyder ends up being the perfect selection to direct Man of Steel. His visual style and thirst for action is exactly what this franchise needed to get back off the ground again. Let’s just get this out of the way right now…MOS is an incredible film to watch. It is a feast for the senses. The effects are top notch (Academy Award worthy) and combined with Hans Zimmer’s incredible score (also award worthy), what you get is a film that takes itself very seriously and sort of pulls you in to the drama of it all. There are certain sequences here that will blow your mind! That is the one thing going into Man of Steel that was never really in question though…everyone pretty much knew the action was going to be great and look wonderful. The questions centered around the script itself. How much of Kal-El’s home planet would we see? How much would we see of his father, Jor-El? What differences would we see as compared to what we had seen, or heard of, in previous films? And so on, and so on…
***MINOR SPOILERS BELOW***
The film starts out on Krypton and doesn’t waste much time getting to the destruction that most fans knew was coming. The difference this time around is that Jor-El (Superman’s daddy) gets mixed up in the action a lot more than expected and we see much more of the actual planet itself. Kind of a bit Avatar-ish in a way, but I didn’t mind that. Kal-El is born and immediately sent to Earth for refuge, but not before a mad attempt by General Zod to destroy him before he leaves the atmosphere. Zod makes his presence felt quickly and you can see early on that he is going to be a formidable foe. I want give anything else away here, but I will tell you that this opening sequence adds a lot to the mythology of where Kal-El came from and how he becomes a super man on Earth. It’s an exciting beginning to what will hopefully be a continuing Superman saga.
So, what do think happens next? We get Kal landing on Earth and the Kents finding him….wait, no that does not happen. We’ve seen this before…on the Smallville TV show and in the original film, so you kind of expect to see it again, perhaps with minor changes. However, the filmmakers wisely decide to handle it differently. We never really see Clark as a really small baby on Earth. What we get are flashback moments with him and his Earthly parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. These moments are mixed in with an older Clark, who is traveling around the globe doing odd jobs here and there. I really enjoyed the handling of Clark’s younger years. We’ve been there…done that and it wasn’t really necessary to see a constant chunk of screen time devoted to it. Another benefit of handling it the way Snyder and writer David Goyer did, was that it adds more emotional weight to the flashbacks. Clark is a troubled soul, who is consistently trying to hide who he is and what he can do. He gets tested at every age level…we do see that. This is where the role of his Earthly father becomes an essential character to the man Clark ends up becoming. It is a role that needed a heavyweight actor to pull off and the casting of Kevin Costner made it even that more special. Costner’s portrayal of Jonathan Kent is my favorite of the entire movie. And this is a movie filled with great performances.
General Zod eventually breaks free from the Phantom Zone (the place he was banished to before the demise of Krypton) and makes his way to Earth in search of Kal-El. Zod declares war on the people of Earth unless Kal-El surrenders and turns himself in. It’s a critical moment in the film because Clark has to decide whether or not turning himself in will actually save everyone, or will Zod destroy them anyway. Of course, Clark/Kal-El decides to take a leap of faith and surrender. He soon discovers that Zod has a more retched plan in mind that involves rebuilding Krypton…on Earth. Kal knows that Zod does not plan to have the two races co-exist, so that means only one thing. The humans must perish. It is at this point where Kal-El redefines himself as SUPERMAN. Zod and his cohorts basically destroy Smallville and eventually make their way to Metropolis, where mad destruction ensues. The action is intense and very rapid. Zod’s right hand partner in crime, Faora (who uses her powers often) , gets to easily take care of the military while her General wages a war with Superman. The grand scale of the destruction is exactly what a film like this needs. A lot of ground (literally) is covered and one can only imagine what they will do to top it in the sequel. There is a moment towards the end of the movie that changes everything about who Clark Kent/Superman really is. It’s a transitional event that opens the door and allows him to do something he has never done before. Not in 75 years of being part of the superhero fabric. He is forced into it, however, and you wonder if given the same circumstances…will he do it again? I think so.
Jor-El pops up here and there in his son’s visions, as part of his sub-conscious. While this sounds kind of odd, every time Jor-El appears it seems necessary and not really silly at all. It’s explained in the film as to how and why he shows up repeatedly and it does make sense. Russell Crowe fills the shoes of the late Marlon Brando quite well, and the great thing about the role itself is that we’ve never seen this much of it on-screen. Crowe’s commanding performance is just what it should be…a solid mix of bravado and warmness. The father/son dynamic in Man of Steel is the highlight of the film. Clark/Kal gets both ends of the spectrum here. A grounded, down to earth father in Jonathan Kent and an otherwordly, serious one in Jor-El. It’s the combination of both that makes Clark who he really is. The film does an excellent job of getting that across.
As far as the other roles, Amy Adams does a decent job as Lois Lane, although I could picture a handful of actresses who may have done better with the material. She’s not bad…not great…just not memorable. I will say this however, it may be due to the fact that does kind of put pushed to the background in the script. The dynamic between her and Clark/Superman is just beginning and the film really doesn’t spend much time dealing with the two of them as an item. Lois is simply a really good reporter here…that’s it. Of course, she manages to put herself in a situation that requires Superman to come to her rescue, but like I said, it’s not all that important in this particular storyline. That will most definitely change in the sequel…you can bet on it. Besides Kevin Costner’s, whose role is brief and rightfully so, my other favorite performance has to belong to Michael Shannon as Zod. Shannon puts all of the fierceness and evil he can into bring Superman’s nemesis to life. I compare him to another villain that graced screens this summer – Star Trek Into Darkness’ Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Kahn. Both are popular characters who have been reinvented masterfully by both actors. If I had to rate, I would give Cumberbatch a slight edge, but Shannon is not too far behind. Michael Shannon is one of the great character actors we have today and his General Zod proves that.
And what about Henry Cavill? Well, everyone will have an opinion on his version of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman, and I’m sure there will be those who are still stuck on Christopher Reeve mode…or perhaps, even Brandon Routh mode. I thought Cavill did a great job balancing the physical side and emotional side of the character(s). No, he is not as charming or whimsical as Reeve, but that’s not what ‘this’ version of Superman calls for. Zack Snyder’s Superman is a serious film…with a serious tone and feel to it. In that respect, Cavill gives a performance that perfectly suits this particular vision. He also looks the part and kudos the casting department for finding younger versions of Clark Kent that really do look like the older Cavill. By biggest concern with Henry is this…can he bring more of a lighthearted, fun side to the role in the sequel? Now that the backstory has been flushed out and Clark has finally accepted his place in society, will Henry Cavill be the right actor to bring out a ‘bit’ of the campiness that made the original films and Christopher Reeve’s performance so much fun to watch?? Time will tell, but I have faith in Cavill.
I’m sure Snyder doesn’t want too much of that campy effect in his Superman films, and that’s fine…but a little goes a long way with audiences. In fact, my only real complaint with Man of Steel is that is nearly humorless. We get a tiny laugh here and there, but nothing of substance. I know that this is not a comedy and I understand that a more ‘serious’ take on this iconic character was sorely needed, but hopefully the sequel will find a better balance with the action/drama/and good old fashioned humor. It doesn’t need to be campy…most audiences don’t want that these days and that’s fine. As the relationship between Lois and Clark evolves, the sequel should lend itself more to having opportunities for a little bit of the ‘awkwardness’ of Clark Kent to shine through. As long as Snyder and Co. can manage to do what they’ve done here with the action and necessary dramatic sequences and throw in a few more laughs, the sequel could be a better overall film. The groundwork has now been laid for DC as they look to the future. Man of Steel is a worthy launching point for them to eventually get the Justice League to the big screen.
I had extremely high expectations for this reinvention of the Superman character and I am happy to say that it met my expectations and then some. Is it the perfect superhero film? No. Is it a step in the right direction for DC Comics? A resounding YES. Is it the best superhero film to date? Well, not really. I would say that The Avengers is a bit more entertaining, but of course it’s a far less serious venture. MOS is comparable to Batman Begins…but better. It’s an origin story that we’ve seen before…but never in this way. This is the best Superman movie to date, even though there is room for improvement.
Amazing visuals by Zack Snyder…incredible score by Hans Zimmer…solid performances by all, especially Crowe, Cavill, Shannon, and Costner…a simple, easy to follow story by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan…and a great foundation for the future of DC Comic related films. It all adds up to a triumph and this is the Superman movie we’ve been waiting for and a great way for you and your family to celebrate 75 years of the iconic superhero. This is also a great Father’s Day flick!!
FYI…watch closely for Easter Eggs involving Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor. Oh, and a brief appearance by Lana Lang.
MAN OF STEEL Rating: