The character of Batman moved beyond being just a character that we know from the pages of a comic book in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. He daringly escaped from his origins and became a hauntingly tragic myth. To borrow a phrase from the movie, he became a legend. We cared about this film legend because of its stupendous production value, unforgettable acting, smart scripting, and the overall level of detail and care that went into bringing such a complete vision to the screen. Man of Steel unites those creators with that of Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen) in hopes of achieving much of the same results but this time with the granddaddy of all comic book characters, Superman.
Man of Steel doesn't reach the dramatic heights of The Dark Knight, few films can, but it very precisely attempts to do something quite different. When I watch a superhero film it is often with an unintentional air of pretension acting like a screen that separates me from the events in the film. There is something inherently pulpy and retro about a man/woman in tights fighting against crime. The Dark Knight managed to slip past my pretensions about comic book films and made me believe I was watching a sophisticated and engaging drama.
Man of Steel swerves hard in the opposite direction and embraces its comic book origins. In doing so it creates a fresh take on the cinematic Superman story, one that is far more alien and science fiction oriented. Writer David Goyer's (The Dark Knight series, Blade series) script for Man of Steel wisely frames Superman in a new way, moving quickly past his development as a super-powered individual, a story we've seen a million times. Instead it confronts his relationships with his home planet and species and with who he has become as a result of his time on Earth.
After a hypnotic and bold opening that chronicles the destruction of Krypton, a planet overrun with civil war and horrible natural resources mismanagement, we meet the bearded, refugee Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). He's wandering the Earth in disguise, proving his moral values and super-skills from behind the brim of his low-drawn cap. He's obviously searching for something and trying to do it silently.
Clark seeks answers to who he is and where he comes from. However, the minute that his past is revealed it literally comes back to haunt him in the form of a menacing spaceship. A warlord from his Clark's homeworld named General Zod, maniacally portrayed by Michael Shannon, returns to hold Earth hostage for the exchange of Clark. A line is drawn in the sand, only one race can live, the Kryptonians or the humans, and Clark has a choice to make.
This decision is presented clearly and hauntingly, as Zod utilizes tactics that would make Heath Ledger's Joker proud. These moments are able to lift Man of Steel above its inherent trappings. However, this drama wouldn't be as electric without the directorial eye of Zach Snyder. Never has a film's inflated budget been reflected onscreen in such a bold fashion. Every image in Man of Steel is calibrated for maximum dramatic effect and then pushed even further.
In one minute the film oozes Americana, with the visuals hovering between a Terrence Malick film and Levi's jeans commercials, and in the next it's blasting through space at breakneck speed or referencing horrifying 9/11 imagery. I've never been so awestruck by a director's handling of large-scale action; particularly during a battle sequence in Clark's hometown of Smallville that even manages to honor Sergio Leone's westerns. Characters bound around the screen causing untold amounts of destruction that is supported by truly spectacular visual effects.
Incredible pictures and elegant choreography of action mean nothing if we don't care about the characters and the situations they find themselves in, a lesson Zach Snyder learned from his own flawed Sucker Punch. In this regard, Man of Steel presents mixed results. I cared for the dramatic tension between Clark and Zod and how their actions would affect the existence of the human race.
However, David Goyer's dialogue for the supporting characters often feels cartoony and mismatched with the settings they find themselves in. It is hard to care about one or two humans when thousands are dying in the background, a fact that is never satisfyingly addressed. Many of these characters are easily forgettable and probably could have been consolidated, did we really need 3 or 4 bland militaristic characters? Goyer even attempts to throw in some humor between Clark and love-interest Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that, while appreciated, falls a bit flat. However, these are only minor missteps in a film that is smartly plotted and viciously paced.
All of the actors in Man of Steel do a fantastic job of bringing their characters to life, and everyone is given a moment to highlight their moral stance on the situation. Henry Cavill's Clark Kent isn't the bumbling and lovable oaf that Christopher Reeves' was but more of a withdrawn, mysterious hunk of man meat. Those hoping to see him hiding out behind his spectacles in the Daily Planet will be disappointed, but there is just no room in this already overstuffed film.
The film does smartly fill in some of Clark's childhood with a series of pitch-perfect flashbacks, featuring the always lovable Kevin Costner as Pa Kent. These go a long way to endearing us to Clark as his adult form is intentionally withdrawn and secretive. I would have liked to get to know Clark a bit better: What does he believe in? What has shaped him as an adult? What does he feel passionately about? What's there does a decent job at telling us about the formation of this character but much of it is passed over for more action in his cape. This is clearly a movie about the formation of Superman, not the alter-ego Clark Kent.
For me, the standouts of the film are Russell Crowe's Jor-El and Michael Shannon's Zod and just how the characters are utilized. Their dramatic introductions really set up the moral battlefield that Clark has to operate in and both are made to be sympathetic and understandable, even if Zod is a genocidal maniac. Crowe gives Jor-El's sacrifice the gravity it deserves and his reappearances are always used to monumental effect. Michael Shannon never takes his portrayal of Zod over-the-top. While he's never conflicted about destroying an entire race, it is clear that the misguided actions he is taking are ones done out of genuine concern for his people.
Zach Snyder's Man of Steel not only manages to successfully reboot the Superman series, but it manages to make The Avengers and Avatar look like a child's play toy in comparison. Now that we've seen what big, modern Superman action looks like, hopefully the second film will spend more time fleshing out its characters, particularly Clark, and less with suits punching each other. Just like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight before it, Man of Steel is a great introduction that understands the appeal of its titular character and is headed towards becoming legendary.
|3 /4 Reels|