Man of Steel (2013)
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David Goyer
Cinematography by: Amir Mokri
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane
The first film I reviewed for this site was The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), coincidentally another reboot of a popular comic book franchise. My issues with that film had a lot to do with the fact that a lot of the character work was overshadowed by the need to tell a much larger story–one that quite frankly never materialized in the finished film itself. I found that to be the case yet again, disappointingly enough, with Superman’s reemergence on the big screen. All cards on the table, because you can’t seem to have a discussion online about this film without them: I have an immense fondness for Donner’s Superman universe, which includes The Movie (1978), The Richard Donner Cut of II (1980), and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006). By no means however does that mean it is the definitive version of the Man of Steel on film. As with any potential reboot, I like to judge it based on its own merits.
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel fails to sustain all the ideas it presents (especially for being an origin story), for no matter how wonderful the intent and execution may be, the film is ultimately not consistent.
Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) is sent to Earth by his Kryptonian parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) as the planet, already on the brink of destruction, erupts in a chaos of rebellion led by General Zod (Michael Shannon). On Earth, Clark is raised by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Keaton) Kent on their farm in Smallville, where he learns of his alien origin, and discovers his superhuman abilities, eventually wandering from place to place to search for answers. Along the way, he encounters Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and despite his best attempts to remain a hidden good Samaritan, Superman is eventually found out by Zod (and thereby the people of Earth), and made to fight for not just his, but for the survival of humanity.
I realize that seems like a lot to take in, and the filmmakers must have realized this early on in the scripting process, because they end up shortening anything and everything that makes a person connect to what should ultimately be the theme of this film: discovery. As with Spider-Man, this film should be less the story of Superman, and more about the emergence of Clark Kent finally realizing his potential to become the Man of Steel. He spends the entire first hour of the film performing acts of heroism, all the while flashing back to his life in Smallville struggling with his abilities (yet performing acts of heroism nonetheles), all in an attempt to figure out what his purpose is. We know that’s who Superman ultimately becomes, but short of those criminally brief glimpses into his past, how they’ve affected his present, and what they mean to his journey in the future, we’re never made to truly connect with Clark before he dons the iconic cape and suit. I know it’s called Man of Steel, but that position is rendered pointless if it’s not backed by the strong foundation of Clark Kent.
A huge and well deserved shout out to the underrated actors who portray young Clark: Cooper Timberline (at age 9) and Dylan Sprayberry (at age 13). They have the monumental task of giving us our only glimpse into the mind of what it’s like to be a child living with what must feel like an enormous burden–having and discovering the abilities of x-ray vision, heat vision, flight, and superhuman strength–when all you want to do is help the very people who will shun you for it. It must be an utterly terrifying realization, and Clark has trouble coming to terms with how he should behave, as evidenced in a poignant scene when he’s told by Jonathan to keep his powers a secret. “What was I supposed to do? Let them die?” he asks, only to get a deeply profound and highly troubled “Maybe.” The film greatly needs more moments like these, and not regulated to quick flashbacks either. It becomes painfully clear where Henry Cavill later shines in the role, and that’s when he’s playing Clark Kent. His entire dynamic changes, be it when he’s talking with Diane Keaton prior to the arrival of Zod, or when he’s sharing a crucial glance with Kevin Costner. In fact, it’s safe to say that the heart of this film lies solely with Keaton and Costner’s interactions with Clark, and is thereby sorely missing because someone thought it wise not to spend too much time on the Kent farm.
Superman’s Kryptonian parents don’t fare too well either. There’s not much to say for Lara for obvious reasons, but even less can be said about Russell Crowe’s Jor-El. He doesn’t have much to do other than spout uplifting exposition while being a hologram. On that level, I suppose neither did Marlon Brando, but I felt a genuine sense of weight there; that this was a man who gave up his son for the good of the people of Earth (and that’s not the only, nor is it the most blatant Christ parallel this film makes). In fact, the entire, more than twenty minute sequence on Krypton could have been shortened. It’s glamorous to look at, but ultimately unnecessary, at least in getting across the point that the planet is in ruins and Zod is partially responsible. That brings me to Zod himself. At literally the one hour mark, the film stops and shifts gears to a place I clearly wasn’t ready for it to go with his arrival. I think it’s fair to say it was ironically uneventful. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Shannon does his best with the material he’s given (though for a more chilling portrayal, I’d recommend The Iceman), but it doesn’t work for me, probably because we don’t see him again until that point. After his declaration of “I will find him!” before being banished to the Phantom Zone in the opening, we never see him again until he arrives on Earth courtesy of a rather well pieced (and globally savvy) ultimatum message. I was finally watching Henry Cavill master the role, and it’s all wiped away in favor of what comes next, which is practically a checklist for any film attempting to be a worthy summer blockbuster these days. From that point forward, no one is given anything to do, other then to surrender themselves to their CGI counterparts and surroundings, and let all hell literally break loose around them to the sound of John Williams’ effective score.
It’s rather telling I think, that I found Zod’s right hand woman, Faora (Antje Traue) far more menacing in her role, and a much better villain for Superman to go up against. She seemed to be the more relentless one, right from her first frame, and she gets her pick of some great lines and moments. Rounding off the prominent women in the cast is Amy Adams, who again, is given a lot more to do than previous Lois’, and does a decent job of giving some semblance of depth to the relationship between Lois and Superman. However, because it’s Lois and Superman, and not Lois and Clark (yet), any sense of chemistry is left to her being saved and reassuring Superman that things will be okay. For the sake of this story, there’s no immediate connection for Clark to The Daily Planet, short of getting to know Lois, who unlike previous incarnations of the character, is well ahead of the game, already following Superman’s trail, which I suppose was a welcome change, though it clearly takes away a prominent arc in their relationship. The Daily Planet crew themselves don’t register for a second; all characters wasted until a sequel no doubt, which is a shame, because much of the film’s final act–the part where we sympathize with the human characters–rests on a group of characters we’ve spent maybe two minor scenes with.
Much has been made about the film’s ending, but I honestly don’t think that’s the fault of the film, nor do I think it’s necessarily out of character for this Superman. It’s a perfectly good third act. The problem? There’s no proper first or second act; they’ve both been compromised, perhaps to rapidly get to what amounts to an hour’s worth of collateral damage of both the scene and the senses. This is Superman’s first big bout, so damage is to be expected, especially with a foe as heavily armed and evenly matched as Zod, and yet, there’s no weight to it. It’s magnificent eye candy at its absolute best, but it’s empty spectacle at its worst, and I found myself growing tired of it. Superman’s actions aren’t what bothered me, it’s the thought (or lack thereof) behind them that did. When all is said and done, Superman literally stands amid complete devastation while kissing Lois. It’s an image out of Snyder’s own Watchmen (2008), but in this case, it’s not a nightmare scenario; it’s this film’s reality, one that I don’t think it fully earns. It’s also worth noting that I found the film’s final two scenes immensely jarring, not because they perhaps could’ve fit into the narrative earlier, but because they actually do not belong in this film; like at all. In what can only be described as a bizarre flashforward, we first witness a Superman who probably belongs in the sequel, confidently charming, with a huge grin, cracking wise with the Army about his role in the world, which is immediately followed by Clark Kent’s introduction at The Daily Planet; again a scene that would probably work better in the sequel, and does nothing but establish “Clark Kent,” something this film treated as an afterthought to begin with.
I hate to keep coming back to The Amazing Spider-Man, but unlike that film, which to be honest has grown on me with every subsequent viewing because of its character work, I find that Man of Steel has a much more uphill battle ahead of it. Where as it would seem Marc Webb is interested in building a intertwining narrative among his series, however at the initial minor expense of the characters, he understands that it’s ultimately about those characters, and uses them to effectively tell the story. I can’t imagine what Snyder, or even screenwriter David Goyer hoped to accomplish here, given that they offer even less character work at the outset; that too, in a series that has yet to introduce the likes of Lex Luthor, a working relationship in the offices of The Daily Planet, and possibly set up a Justice League film in the process. Snyder is a capable filmmaker, and this film only further adds, if not greatly lifts his ability to new heights. As someone who greatly enjoys 300, and openly defends Watchmen (even if it slightly misses the point)–both films which contain an immense and impressive visual pallete that can sometimes hinder the actual narrative–Man of Steel manages to remain similar to his particular body of work. I haven’t yet bothered to mention Christopher Nolan’s name in this review, partly because I believe that short of a story and production credit, he was primarily hands off, not to mention it’s unfair to put the expectations of Nolan on Snyder, but I really wasn’t expecting a Superman film in the vein of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. This is an entirely different monster, and requires in my opinion, an entirely different approach. While it is possible to say that my views could change on how I view this first installment as a sum of the whole, if this is the standard of filmmaking I can expect out of its sequels–all style and no substance, all flashbang with limited flashbacks, all carnage with none of the characters–then I’m awfully concerned for the future of Superman.
You have abandoned the principles that held us together. […] I will honor the man you once were; not this monster you have become.