Man of Steel Review
By Bret Dorman
Full Disclosure right up front.
Not a huge Superman fan. Nothing against the guy, I don’t have it out for him, but of the two movies I’ve seen (Superman and Superman Returns) I found them both to be boring and the action very lackluster. The only Superman comic book presence I’ve read is his part in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Never really watched the cartoons (handful of episodes perhaps) and no video game influences. But I’m familiar with the characters, the backstory, the weakness, and the powers. All the convenient powers.
On the flipside, I am a big Zach Snyder fan. All of it. Dawn of the Dead. 300. Watchmen. and yes, even Sucker Punch. (Although I never did see the owl one.) Snyder likes to take on bold projects and he likes to deliver each one just a bit differently as to make sure his style doesn’t get TOO repetitive. Sure his movies all have crazy action, but even the action in the movies differs and in the case of Sucker Punch, even differs from action scene to action scene.
Luckily, when it comes to Man of Steel, Warner Bros/DC needed someone who could stand their ground and deliver on what Superman needed, some badass action without sacrificing humanity.The Story: Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) wanders around Earth trying to find his place when suddenly he discovers some secrets, meets spunky reporter Louis Lane (Amy Adams), and gets a visit from an old but unknown enemy, General Zod (Michael Shannon). Spectacle is replaced with searching which is replaced with sermonizing which is replaced with spectacle. Also, did you know Krypton had dragons?
Imagine a world populated with crazy beasts, advanced technology, and an energy source that also served as its life-blood. This world is filled with people. Not real people, alien people. But they look that exact same as real people. And these real-looking not real people have formed councils and armies and even domestic partnerships. They argue with each other over who is right and who is wrong.
Now… imagine that world… BLOWING UP!!! This is the introduction we get in Man of Steel. While the movie has a clear vision of what needs to be done in regards to a Superman reboot, the prologue kicks off with what is basically the grand finale of an imaginary film that came before it. So much information is thrown at you in such a short time. Councils! Hats! Generals! Yelling! Dragon type creatures! Spaceships exploding in the background! Lasers! Plasma Guns! Weird floating cell phone communicators that resemble those grey metal spiky rod things you would put your hand in and it would make a weird metal spiky rod imprint of your hand. Organic Matrix Babies! Skulls! Space pods! And a cool Superman thumb drive! None of this is too farfetched or hard to grasp for a savvy comic reader or (in my case) summer blockbuster cinema goer. But there’s one thing that seems off: Hans Zimmers score.I know. I know. I will praise his score later. To the high heavens. I downloaded it immediately when I got home from the movie. I am listening to it right now. It’s fantastic. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the most downloaded movie soundtrack of the year. It’s Oscar buzz worthy. But, this prologue… it is a different beast than the rest of the movie. Krypton’s end begins Kal-El’s journey. I get it all thematically. But I wanted the beginning of this “darker” and “more serious” look at Superman to at least acknowledge some of its wackier roots. I would like to imagine the Krypton prologue with a Wolfmother-esque soundtrack. Something that screams, “Look at how crazy all this is!” Then, as Kal-el’s pod flies through space we slowly transition to our real journey. The journey of… Superman.
Unlike most origin stories, Man of Steel isn’t concerned with holding your hand through all the little stepping stones on our hero’s journey. This movie is about thrusts. Just like baby Kal-El was thrust into space, writer David S. Goyer thrusts us into Krypton’s demise, Mystery Kent’s future, back into Clark Kent’s childhood via flashbacks, and then into an all or nothing ultimatum. The first half of Man of Steel has its ups and downs. On the one hand, it carefully puts into place a bunch of scenes we will call back to later. On the other, its still boring origin stuff. I imagine on re-watches, the beginning half will feel more necessary than enjoyable.That’s where two key elements come into place that help ease the origin part down. One, as I mentioned, is Zimmer’s score. Superman movies have infamously been known to be lackluster in the action department. How could the technology of the 70’s possibly even try to compete with the raw power of the technology of today? It’s impossible. I don’t fault the original Superman for not having scenes on par with Man of Steel, in fact, that entire movie is different in tone to address the issue of having sillier methods to convey Superman’s unique skill set. And indeed, after the opening mayhem on Krypton, this movie settles into spectacle scenes over action scenes. Watch as Clark Kent saves people from disastrous things happening around them! This isn’t inherently interesting. We get it. Superman can do a lot of heavy lifting. I mean, we’re all glad he’s saving people, but after a while there’s only so many ways you can put those people in danger before the “been there done that” settles in. You see, in action movies, action scenes need to have diversity and one-uppery to help make them not “just” action scenes.
Hans Zimmer’s score not only enhances these early “saving scenes,” but he also helps build a momentum that will pay off heavily in the end. Everything is given equal weight. From Young Clark freaking out over X-Ray vision to Teenage-ish Clark learning life lessons from his father to Young Adult/Mystery Clark (he assumes many aliases on his backpacking travels) getting in bar fights to Mystery Clark’s otherworldly discovery; All of these moments actively lead into Clark having to choose to become Superman. The early moments are looked back on with a sense of character nostalgia while the soundtrack pushes Clark forward, leading to a halfway point that starts to bring us closer to those REAL action scenes we have always wanted. We all know the terrifying power that Superman (and his more physically empowered enemies/other Kryptonian’s) are capable of unleashing. The smart thing Man of Steel does is address this destruction before hand while combining Clark’s origin with the goody-two shoes saving people side of his personality.And then, as the movie reaches it’s climax, it brutally punishes its main character and citizens of Earth for ever marveling (or is it DC-ing?) at the awe of our alien visitor. This is where the second aspect comes into play. Snyder’s penchant for telling a story with visual cues. The small moments at the beginning, something like X-Ray vision or pebbles vibrating around the Kryptonian or a pipe secretly being squeezed out of anger are echoed in the second half. Snyder knows the importance of cool composition and iconic images. As Man of Steel becomes more about Clark Kent’s realization of what Superman can and should be, the movie glorifies him more in the power and imagery of his actions, as well as the action scenes themselves.
I know a lot of people will complain or argue that end big finale is too destructive or goes against Superman’s ideals. But in this case, you have to give the movie a little wiggle room. Yes, there is a lot of collateral damage going on as Superman fights his equally strong opponents. And there are definitely unseen but implied casualties. However, it is unfair to put these on Superman. He did not chose to attack Earth. He is choosing to defend it. And since we have the scenes earlier where Clark saves people in a more intimate manner, we are allowed the luxury to, for the time being, sit back and watch some massively brutal beatdowns. If action has always been the Superman movies’ weak points, this movie doesn’t just aim for ‘passable action’ by doing just enough to raise the Franchise bar. Man of Steel has the balls to deliver an action finale that could have been worthy of a later installment. Like Marvel pushed its characters into new territory by challenging themselves, WB/DC looked at that model and starting fresh with Superman, did the same. The re-telling of the origin is well realized, the stakes are set high, and the action is going to be tough to beat. Man of Steel doesn’t just make you excited to see where Superman can go from here, it makes you excited with what they were able to accomplish in this movie, having so much history and mythology to sift from.And while I’m throwing around high praise, can we all agree Zach Snyder is worthy of Action Director Hall of Fame? Man of Steel feels almost like a sitting in a virtual reality console. Remember how in The Matrix if something happened in The Matrix your body thought it was real? (Yes, this is the second time I’ve referenced The Matrix, although if you’ve seen the movie you know why.) That’s what Man of Steel feels like. It plugs you in and makes you feel EVERY SINGLE PUNCH Superman lands and EVERY SINGLE CRASH as Superman is driven into pavement or through buildings. The camera is wild and all over the place, but Snyder allows you to go on the fast paced fights alongside Superman and zoom in/out with just enough clarity to really get a good impact on the money shots. I’ve read some people criticizing the movie for having too much slow motion, but honestly I thought the movie was filled with lightning fast set pieces that manipulated time only when necessary (whether it be fast to show the baddies speed or slow to show Superman’s determination).
Cinematically speaking, Superman is known for its cheesy, silly, and romantic past. Like with Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, Man of Steel adds some serious weight to the story, and indeed on a more grand scale. Things like aliens being basically the same as people are brushed under the rug. I’ve heard lots of complaints the movie isn’t “humorous” although I think there’s plenty of tension relieving moments (not laugh out loud riotous but still appropriate for the overall tone). Everyone in the cast is on the same page when it comes to just how much acting ability they should throw around. Michael Shannon starts ridiculously loud but ends up reigning in his anger and channeling it through his fists. Amy Adams is always adorable and plays an active role, showing some guts instead of just being constantly helpless. Crowe, Costner, Fishburne (MATRIX!!!), Lane, and even Christopher Meloni (The guy from Law & Order SUV or The guy who talked to a food can in Wet Hot American Summer depending on your tastes) all do a great job. And as for Henry Cavill? Well, there’s a confidence in the soul searching journey that everything is going to be okay. He seems comfortable. He’s got the action scene postures down as well as the soothing voice. He gives an understated performance, one that counters Zod’s unrestrained emotions and assures us he’s got everything under control.
In Conclusion, I dread the day when every movie tries to be as sweeping or as epic or as… (shudders) “dark” as Man of Steel. These buzzwords are usually just keywords that a movie will be boring, predictable, and … (shudders) bland. Superman isn’t good because of any one thing, it is good because everything is coming together to make the Superman movie everyone wanted to see. Man, Myth, and Mayhem are balanced just enough with specific clarity in the past, present, and hopefully future of Clark Kent/Kal-El that everyone can enjoy this ride but also appreciate what it is really building up to… Superman Vs Lex Luthor, and whatever tricks Snyder & Co have up their sleeves to make it more intense than anything General Zod threw Superman’s way.
Final Grade: A-