REVIEW: Man of Steel [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 143 minutes | Release Date: June 14th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Zack Snyder
Writer(s): David S. Goyer / David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan (story)

“It wouldn’t be much of a surrender if I resisted”

After Bryan Singer’s misguided attempt to stay true to original cinematic canon by having Superman Returns follow Richard Donner’s two Christopher Reeve starrers ultimately failed, a hard reboot was necessary. With DC Comics getting increasingly outplayed by every new expansion of the Marvel universe, it’s no surprise they would hand creative franchise control over to the man who reinvigorated their brand on the big screen in 2008. Producer Christopher Nolan not only found a way to rinse the ugly taste Joel Schumacher left Batman with, but also proved superhero films could possess the same pathos as any other critically acclaimed drama. The Dark Knight is a crowning achievement no one has equaled, so why not give Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer the chance see if lightning could strike again?

Like with Batman, the only way to breathe new life into Clark Kent’s origins would be to reimagine, repackage—inside the darker horrors of a contemporary United States—and treat it as more than a cartoon. Unlike Bruce Wayne, however, Kal-El is not some millionaire playboy with the means and psychological profile to turn vigilante. He is an indestructible alien with impossible powers that was raised on a Kansas farm with good values and better parents. Yes his father is killed—a final, selfless lesson this time around—and the pain of being an outcast creates a hard to control pent-up rage, but there is no thirst for vengeance. Kent was instilled with human ideals of honesty, compassion, and honor, three attributes providing him the means to be our beacon of light.

So the question for Man of Steel becomes how to best show Clark’s (Henry Cavill) decision to put Krypton aside and accept Earth as his true home. It’s a simple conceit Goyer does a great job fulfilling by satisfying our expectations and providing a somewhat fresh spin. He and director Zack Snyder construct an exhilarating opening prologue of Krypton on the brink of destruction juxtaposed by the love of two parents (Russell Crowe’s Jor-El and Ayelet Zurer’s Lara Lor-Van) striving to save their race and newborn son by sending he and an all-important codex away from the clutches of the misguided General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod lands himself in a Phantom Zone prison, Krypton is destroyed, and Jor-El’s dreams of freedom from the cold, amorality his world had adopted shuttles to Earth.

Where most films would then pick up chronologically and montage a series of profound moments in the life of an alien boy who believes he’s human, Goyer instead takes us to Kent’s already in progress pilgrimage towards answers. An adult drifter searching for what is ultimately a Kryptonian scouting vessel to serve as a Fortress of Solitude, Clark can’t help being a kindhearted and caring protector like his adopted father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) hoped. Troubled and haunted by his childhood, we’re shown those seminal character building experiences through boyhood memories of discovering powers, lineage, and humanity in Smallville. Shot in a fluid, handheld shaky-cam style, we are injected into the action to witness the creation of a hero taught to suppress his abilities until mature enough to understand the good they can provide.

From here Kent learns Krypton’s history in a silvery-sheened sculptural moving timeline, accepts making a choice between biological and adoptive races to take the necessary leap of faith ensuring Earth’s survival, and allows himself Goyer’s most divergent alteration to canon—a Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who knows the truth. Zod arrives threatening humanity, the military gets involved with Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) and General Swanwick (Harry Lennix), and a newly minted Superman finally understands what must be done. It’s a wonderfully constructed progression bolstered by Cavill’s capacity to switch on a dime from fierce curiosity and anger to calm composure and an affable desire to help. The evolution is quite blatantly rushed—his acceptance of Jor-El’s message has never occurred smoother—but I do believe everything we need is presented.

Unfortunately, this is where story all but disappears so 45-minutes of decimating video game carnage can hit Metropolis and Smallville to “entertain” us. The thing about having a human relying solely on intelligence and a death wish at the center of a realistically drawn world like Batman is that there’s no potential to overplay your extra-terrestrial card. We need the sequence of Superman futilely fighting Faora-Ul (Antje Traue) and her behemoth partner to prove to the US Army that he’s on their side, but the orchestration is nothing more than a carbon copy of the battle from Thor serving the same purpose. It’s an exercise in computer-generated destruction with gorgeous effects devoid of substance. Even Superman and Zod’s physically demanding climactic war goes long before ending perfectly on an additional note of internal turmoil for Kal-El’s future.

Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White gets way too much screen time courtesy of a manipulative bit of manufactured heroics with no bearing on the plot while Diane Lane’s Martha Kent is wasted from providing the sort of emotional stability “Smallville” utilized so well. In that vein even Costner’s Jonathan becomes little more than a prop as Crowe’s Jor-El wins father-of-the-year instead. Shannon’s Zod is effective if not over-the-top in a surprisingly three-dimensional role and all the bit players in army fatigues do a commendable job sacrificing their lives and/or giving Superman looks of acceptance and thanks. It’s a lot of characters to introduce in one film and sadly compromises had to be made. I will admit liking the increased Kryptonian backstory over Smallville, though, since all that’s completely new to me.

But no matter its shortcomings and extensive desire to make Metropolis unlivable—the Chitauri destruction in The Avengers is a mere speed bump in comparison—Man of Steel gets its most important detail right. Cavill is fantastic as the titular icon, bringing a mix of innocent charisma and angry frustration to the role like Reeve before him. He perfectly embodies the Regular Joe hero as Adams does the headstrong investigative journalist by his side. They are the characters that will remain central to Superman’s continuing saga and I’m completely on-board with the actors’ direction and removal of their usual lovey-dovey nonsense. Assuming a tanker truck with the LexCorp logo towards the end is foreshadowing the sequel’s villain, I’m excited for the future. Luthor’s mastermind replacing the alien chaos is exactly what’s needed.

[1] (L-r) AMY ADAMS as Lois Lane and HENRY CAVILL as Superman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “MAN OF STEEL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. TM & © DC Comics. Photo by Clay Enos
[2] ANTJE TRAUE (center) as Faora-Ul and MICHAEL SHANNON (far right) as General Zod in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “MAN OF STEEL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. TM & © DC Comics. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] (L-r) RUSSELL CROWE as Jor-El and AYELET ZURER as Lara Lor-Van with Kal-El in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “MAN OF STEEL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. TM & © DC Comics. Photo by Clay Enos

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