Man of Steel, Review

The anxiously awaited reboot of the Superman franchise from heavyweights Christopher Nolan, David Goyer, and Zack Snyder is long on action and spectacle, but short on humanity and heart. Nevertheless, you've never seen a Superman film like this before!

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With an all-star cast, an impressive budget, and a creative pedigree that includes Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, and Zack Snyder, Man of Steel leaps from one spectacular action sequence to another in single bounds and positively dares the viewer to question its blockbuster credentials. This latest attempt to jumpstart the Superman franchise is intended to make audiences forget the reverent and sincere but (literally) punchless Superman Returns and the curiously flat Green Lantern, while simultaneously paving the way for more films featuring DC Comics superheroes, up to and including a Justice League film. So, no pressure or anything.It’s clear virtually from the start that Man of Steel is a different kind of Superman movie. Re-telling Superman’s well-known origin poses unique problems since it requires viewers to follow the character from birth to maturity before he can don the signature red and blue suit. Perhaps fearing that audiences (still stung by the lack of action in the previous film) would lose interest if this were stretched out over the first hour of the movie, Man of Steel turns Krypton into a world in the midst of violent unrest, with Michael Shannon’s General Zod leading a coup against Krypton’s ruling council. As a result, Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe, who appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself) becomes a superhero in his own right, wielding laser guns, delivering skillful punches and kicks, and racing against time to launch the infant Superman into space before Krypton meets its tragic end. There’s quite a bit on display in just the first ten or fifteen minutes of Man of Steel, and that’s just the appetizer.Man of Steel is non-linear, jumping from the opening on Krypton to an adult Clark performing clandestine super-feats, back to his childhood in Smallville, and then back again, all in an effort to insure that we never go more than a few minutes without some pyrotechnics. In the course of all this, we see how Clark Kent discovers and embraces his Kryptonian heritage, where that iconic suit comes from, and how he met Lois Lane. Fans expecting (or worried about) a traditional Superman narrative in which the farm boy moves to the big city only to heed the call to action after he’s settled in with a job should look elsewhere. Man of Steel is generally faithful to the spirit of the Superman mythos, but certainly isn’t beholden to them.
And yes, there are subtle nods to the wider DC Universe hidden throughout the film. Sharp-eyed students of Superman history should be able to pick out a couple of gems on Krypton, which in itself is a stunningly realized science fiction achievement. Man of Steel isn’t as self-referential as some of the Marvel Studios flicks, but it still managed to gets its world-building point across. And when such minor supporting characters from the comics like Emil Hamilton and Steve Lombard finally get the big-screen treatment, it’s a fine time for Superman fans.And then there’s the action. Man of Steel is certainly flawed, but one thing it isn’t is boring. From the opening on Krypton complete with spaceships, war machines, laser guns, and robots, through battles in Smallville and Metropolis with even bigger robots, armored Kryptonians, and impossibly large death rays, the film never lets up. And this, in a strange way, becomes a failing in itself. The climactic battle in Metropolis makes the pounding New York took in Avengers look like a summer thunderstorm, but by the time we got there, I was already exhausted.Man of Steel opens with alien vistas and civil war…but then feels compelled to continue to ratchet up the carnage at every possible opportunity. Despite Henry Cavill imbuing Superman with a noble bearing and all of the sincerity that the role requires, the movie surrounding him occasionally feels needlessly heartless and cruel. There’s plenty of lip-service played to lofty ideals about the individual’s potential to be a force for good, and the importance of Superman’s crest as a “symbol of hope,” but I can’t help but feel that somewhere in there, some of what makes the character of Superman great, including the humor and compassion, was misplaced. In fact, Superman makes a couple of choices that should confuse and/or infuriate hardcore fans.It’s as if, in an effort to not only distance itself as much as possible from the introspective Superman Returns but to outdo the competition at Marvel, sections of David Goyer’s screenplay that should have been devoted to exposition and character development were excised in favor of more fights and explosions. Between the breakneck pace of the film and the sometimes questionable CGI, it’s easy to find yourself trying to remember where in the world the characters are and what, in fact, they’re all so angry about in the first place. Subtlety has never been Zack Snyder’s strong point, and while the film is free of many of his usual directorial touches, there’s still enough shakey-cam and fast-cuts (not to mention the film’s strangely  desaturated look) on display to make you reach for the ibuprofen.
What holds the film together in those moments is the cast, especially Henry Cavill as Superman/Clark Kent. Cavill’s Clark is haunted but never brooding, while his Superman radiates a confidence and charisma that can only come with the knowledge that nothing can harm you. Cavill’s Superman handily equals the screen presence of Christian Bale’s Batman or anyone that Marvel has put on the big screen in recent years. It’s easy to envision this version of Superman commanding a cinematic Justice League, and if Henry Cavill is the leading man that Warner Bros. is hanging the future of a potential DC movie universe on, then it looks like they’ve made the right choice.Lacking a team of costumed adventurers to back him up, Superman is instead surrounded by his Earthly parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (played to perfection by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), an absolutely fearless (and refreshingly smart) Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and a collection of military officers including the always welcome Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy. Russell Crowe as Jor-El gets to be both an action hero and a dispenser of sage Kryptonian wisdom throughout the film, while Michael Shannon’s General Zod is an understandably motivated (but never sympathetic) villain. In fact, Zod is almost outshone by Antje Traue’s icy Faora, a Kryptonian hand-to-hand combat expert with a fondness for knives. While we don’t get to see much of Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White (or any of the Daily Planet staff, for that matter), he plays the role with a quiet authority that is a nice counterpoint to Adams’ tough, rebellious Lois Lane.Despite my misgivings, Man of Steel is a thoroughly entertaining film. There has never been a movie that puts Superman’s incredible abilities on such full display, and he dishes out more punishment than an entire team of Avengers. No superhero in Hollywood can match these power levels, and when partnered with Hans Zimmer’s percussive, heroic score, the resulting adrenaline rush is quite potent. The prospect of more films with this kind of scope starring Superman and other members of the DCU stable should be enough to keep fans happy for the next few years.If anything, Man of Steel‘s biggest problem is that it offers so much spectacle that it’s difficult to conceive of how even a Justice League film could raise the sci-fi action blockbuster stakes any further. Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan have successfully made a Superman movie that should genuinely excite ticket buyers. Now they have to figure out a way to make sequels that will do that and make us care. That may really be a job for Superman. Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars