‘Man of Steel’ **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, and Laurence Fishburne
Written by: David S. Goyer, based on a story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Directed by: Zack Snyder
**CAUTION: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD**
Considering the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, combined with the lofty status of ‘Superman’ in the comic world, then multiplied by the high bar set by the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, “Man of Steel” arrives at theaters with enormous expectations. This particular franchise reboot should, all things considered, be the new high water mark for all comic films. Right? After watching the magnificent trailers time and time again, I couldn’t help but think “It looks like they may have nailed it this time”. The end result, however, is a decidedly mixed bag of ‘high’ highs and ‘low’ lows; that being said, I should consider it a failure based on all the variables I mentioned before. After all, what else would it possibily take for someone to make an excellent modern film involving the superhero of superheroes? I can’t say this is a bad movie, but I also can’t claim that it’s a great one, which ultimately makes this a disappointment.
It seems superfluous to go over the entire origin story of Superman with an audience that’s quite familiar with it, but I will say that there are a few changes to what we’re used to that deserve mentioning. This film version doesn’t give us a straight timeline from the birth of Kal-El to when he takes off as ‘Superman’. The story weaves in and out via flashbacks, which I appreciated as someone very familiar with the origin. Like I said, though, the origin isn’t exactly the same. We now have a Krypton not threatened by a sun, but by internal ‘core’ strife. Jor-El (Crowe) still pleads with a Krypton high council, that somehow, despite being in a civilization advanced enough to proliferate itself across the universe, doesn’t want to listen to one of its’ top minds. There’s also an interesting twist on the reasons for baby Kal-El’s very existence that I found interesting. I sensed the reasons for Krypton’s demise certainly mirror issues that we have as a civilization now.
Director Zack Snyder’s (of the satisfying “Watchmen” and underwhelming “300”) production gives us a Krypton that is truly ‘alien’ in scope. So much so, in fact, that I wonder where the inspiration comes from- while watching the movie, I was struck by how Giger-esque Krypton and it’s derelict ships looked. The alien technology, like the assisting ‘computers’ on the planet are quite the creation as well. This alien world is in stark contrast to the Smallville, Kansas setting we see young Clark Kent grow up in, where Jonathan Kent (Costner) looks predictably weary and offers life advice that only a guy who has been in many baseball movies can do.
The casting is key for all superhero movies, since we all want to see the comic icons we’ve followed for years embodied by an actor that can bring forth the ‘essence’ of the character, whether or not they may actually ‘look’ like the drawn form. ‘Man of Steel’ is almost more important, because, well, we’re talking about SUPERMAN, the most iconic comic character of all time, his two dads, his two moms, the most well-known love interest in comics, Lois Lane, and a villain that did a fine job the last time out. I’m happy to say that most everyone does quite well in their roles, especially Cavill & Adams. Cavill is clearly the strongest physical version of Kal-El we’ve seen, and he’s also the best we’ve seen- he plays Superman in a way I’ve always wanted to see him- convincing physically, kind yet firm in his manner, and also just cautious enough with us humans that we still see him as an alien. Playing the role of ‘savior’ is not an easy task; Cavill navigates the gap between all-powerful being and emotional, soft, caring individual with ease. I’m excited to see what he can do going forwar, and at the very least, to me there is no doubt that we have our Superman, and he’s good at it. The only thing missing for me is the feeling I got from previous incarnations of Superman, where he seems quite happy and proud to defend the planet. There aren’t many moments of joy in this film, to be sure.
Amy Adams as Lois Lane didn’t work for me at first when she was cast, but she’s actually perfect. She plays the role with equal parts vulerability and no-nonsense. Crowe as Jor-El is a commanding presence on-screen, not simply a talking head waxing poetic like Marlon Brando in the same role. Michael Shannon plays Zod in a way I didn’t expect- I knew the character as a delusional alien with a God complex. Shannon’s Zod is (mostly) a more focused character- he talks methodically (with an almost Southern drill seargent voice as opposed to the pompous Terence Stamp in the original), and like many good villains, really believes what he is doing is for the greater good. I was pleased when he was cast, and remembered his brilliant turn in “Bug” as a severely disturbed man, but with a purpose. Perfect for Zod. **SPOILER ALERT** My only beef with his character is how he loses control at the end, doing an about-face and destroying just to destroy. I didn’t see this Zod as someone who wouldn’t do something without a purpos. Even without his crew, I figured he’d still regroup and try it his way again. Instead, he went bonkers. The other negative would be Ayelet Zurer as Lara Lor-Van, Kal-El’s birth mother. The way she delivered her lines reminded me of Pernilla August as Anakin’s mom in Star Wars, Episode I, and no one should deliver a performance like that. Ever.
With all this film has going for it, how can it fall short? Well, I don’t see how Christopher Nolan, the king of grounding things in reality, can be involved in a film where indestructable aliens arrive, mass destruction of property and loss of life (assumed) occurs, and none of the characters stop to ask WHY or HOW. Even Snyder has managed to make the fantastic seem like it could really happen (“Watchmen”) and sadly we don’t have characters that stop and ask that in 243 minutes. Maybe that’s going to be a part of the sequel or inevitable ‘Justice League’ movie. Maybe next time they’ll actually explore how and why Superman will help humans ‘do wonders’, or how Clark can pose as a worker on what should be a top secret ice excavation. Maybe next time we will see a reaction from the world that I thought might be in a Snyder/Nolan movie instead of basically ignoring the subject. That’s just the thing; after years and years of trying to deliver a movie that was worthy of the top hero, there was plenty of opportunity to get it right once and for all. Anything less than that should be considered a failure. There’s enough strength in the performances that I can’t quite call it a failure, but as bad as I want to love this movie, it’s obvious that it never quite delivers.