Monday, June 17, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Man Of Steel

Even while critics gave it a barely passing grade, director Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel went the distance this past weekend to set box-office records for a June opener.  So, who's right, the ticket-buying audience or the film buffs? Is Man Of Steel similar in tone or quality to the 1978 Superman, or 2006's Superman Returns?  Read on for my take, and find out whether you fall into the category of person likely to enjoy this film.  This review will avoid spoilers where practical, and assumes some knowledge of the Superman mythos to this point.  It will also use the 1978 Superman as a vehicle for comparison at several opportunities.

Director Zack Snyder is probably best known for the visually lavish, if not historically accurate, 300, as well as the controversial comic-to-film effort Watchmen.    So he has a certain pedigree when it comes to making films based on comics characters.  It should be noted that in both cases, Snyder had a visual palette from which to the case of Watchmen, he filmed a cut of the movie that was almost a shot-for-shot remake of the books (heavily edited for the cinematic release, however).  This time around, Snyder had David S. Goyer's script to work from, a script whose story architecture was reportedly penned by none other than Christopher Nolan, father of the recent Batman trilogy.

Man Of Steel takes the same path as many recent re-boots of popular franchises, and unlike 2004's Superman Returns is a departure from the mythos first envisioned by Richard Donner in 1978.  It's yet another origin story for the character that re-tells the events surrounding his birth, but adds back-story and plot elements to the last days of Krypton that have far-reaching effects throughout the film. The first act concerns the destruction of Krypton and the infant Kal El's flight to Earth.  The second mostly concerns the young Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) wrestling with his power and abilities, and the third concerns his revelation to the world, and his conflict with General Zod (Michael Shannon) and the denizens of Krypton that hope to re-make Earth in its image.    

Visually, the film is what you would expect, given its lineage:  Flat, cool color tones, stark and imposing landscapes, and more often than not, strange alien architecture.  The film spends a surprising amount of time both on Superman's home world of Krypton, as well as inside various Kryptonian vehicles come to Earth.  Gone are the towering spires of lighted crystal from Donner's '78 effort:  This Krypton is an imposing brown cut with alien architecture right out of a Geiger painting.  The second act, changing settings between the American mid-west and Alaska territories, fares no better with the somber tones set forth in the first, and finally the washed-out greys that dominate the third act's city-scapes and alien spacecraft are occasionally punctuated by Superman's and blue costume.

The chief problems with the screenplay start to crop up in the first act:  It seems a compulsion for this movie to wish to one-up past efforts in the superhero genre in the action and visuals.  For example, one of the opening scenes concerns Jor El (Russel Crowe) witnessing an assassination by the rogue General Zod then fleeing home to secure his son's launch in the rocket destined for earth.  Instead of making his way across a war-torn capital city on foot, or even in a mechanical personal conveyance of some kind, he mounts a dragon, then flies home from work looping and wheeling through an epic aerial battle right out of a Star Wars prequel.  These types of excesses dominate the first and third acts of the film, to a degree that would make Michael Bay blush.  The needless pageantry is exposed for what it is when Jor arrives home (well, the dragon-landing pad outside his home), dismounts his mortally-wounded steed, and discovers that the General has all but beaten him there, Tortoise and The Hare style. Once the plot pieces are in place to begin the second act, the battle conveniently and abruptly halts, tipping the writers' hand to the utility of the device.

The second act calms a little but nevertheless favors a different type of excess.  The narrative jumps back and forth from Clark's childhood to young adulthood, and the story suffers a little here for a lack of rhythm and clear buildup of the character arc.  All the material is there for a significant look at the character, including the most poignant dialogue between his foster father Jonathan (Kevin Costner), but there are few, if any, scenes of Clark or the Kent family just being people.  In the same way that the pageantry of the first act is spoiled by excess, so is the gravitas of the second act diluted by repetitive story beats and dialogue of a singular theme.  Every word out of Jonathan's mouth is a bit of grandfatherly sage advice, to the point where you half expect a ray of sunshine to punctuate his every utterance. I don't think he has one line of dialogue in the whole film that sounds like something Dad would say, no "can you cut the grass" or "pass me the potatoes", just a constant stream of prophetic wisdom.  Every scene centered on Clark involves his actively using or not using his powers, and although the choices are explained, you're robbed of a chance to see the moral center of the character and his love for humanity develop in the rich way portrayed in Superman. Jonathan gives Clark reasons to jealously guard his secret, and those reasons compel him to the point where he must, eventually, be forced to step out of the shadows.  I don't have a problem with this change in the character's arc, except to say that it robs the Superman character of a certain moral center to suggest that all his life he was counselled to avoid revealing himself even at the cost of human lives.  Snyder tries to play up the iconography of the character in a scene in a church, but it's so heavy-handed and club-you-over-the-head subtle that it evokes laughter.  The 1978 Superman had a far superior second act when it came to the development of the character, and it was done with half the screen time spent on Clark's upbringing.

For some audience members, the third act is the part they paid to see, and for others, it's where the thing disintegrates completely.  It is for this that I am most hesitant to recommend either one way or another on this film:  The third act of Man Of Steel is an hour-long pitched battle, pure and simple.  And what a battle it is:  Skyscrapers fall, the earth is torn, the army attacks, city blocks are picked up and slammed down, alien space ships fire bolts of energy, trains are de-railed, satellites are hurled out of orbit, etc.  For an hour.  The third act doesn't build, it simply arrives, and it's not over until its over, so to speak.  Any one of Snyder's action scenes, when taken on its own, can be regarded as wonderful for its powerful imagery and beautifully moving pieces. But for all their thunder and calamity, you never get the sense that either combatant is against the ropes for more than a second or so between landing blows.  There's no lull, and therefore no rhythm to speak of, just spectacular yet inconsequential violence.  Superman on occasion stops to aid a human soldier, but he evinces almost no concern whatever for the workaday human populace.  In real-world terms, the off-screen death toll from his fight with Zod would have been staggering, yet no concern is evident until the very end, when Superman is forced(?) to make a decision that runs counter to what many fans expect of the character.

So, is it a good movie?  Partially.  See, Snyder gets the imagery and iconography right, and there is a compelling arc and poignant story notes scattered throughout the second act....I just don't think Snyder gets the music of it. Some story notes are shouted too loudly, others drowned by the thunderous drums of action set-pieces destroyed, and some are too brief or too out of sync to be of consequence.  Yes, it's a clearly recognizable three-act play, but it could have benefited from some choice editing of the third act, the inclusion of some humanizing script for the second act, and a minor re-write of the first to tone the narrative down a little.  Yes, some of the character choices in the script are interesting when evaluated out of context, but I don't know if the writers realize what was lost when they made Jonathan a jealous guardian rather than a guiding hand.  It's strange how, with as many glimpses of greatness as this film gives us, and all the talk about changing the world, it simply doesn't end up feeling like anything special...and the reasons for this are so plainly evident and easily fixable.  

Lemme to rate this...I know, I'll use a sliding scale!  Find the byte below that best describes you, and you'll find your rating for Man Of Steel right after.

The Blockbuster:  You know who Superman is, but you don't read comics and you're not a fan of the '78 film (that wishy-washy rom-com with Margot Kidder that is, like, ancient) due to its slow pacing and obvious 70's special effects. You think that modern CGI is a chance to show some really cool battle scenes. You loved the Transformers movies, and think Iron Man 3 was the obvious best in the series.  Your rating:  9 out of 10.

The Andy Warhol:  You know the Superman character, and what he stands for, but you're more into the visuals than anything else.  You want to see Superman holding up a building, standing in front of a stained glass window, flying through space, on fire, in an H.R. Geiger painting, etc. You thought Sucker Punch was one of that year's best films. Your rating:  8 out of 10

The Fanboy:  You're dying to see this film.  You've waited 35 years for Superman to be done right again, and the previews are looking good.  You're very familiar with the Donner films, and happen to enjoy several comics and animated takes on the character throughout the years.  You think Waid's Birthright was really cool.  Your rating:  6 out of 10

The Keeper Of The Flame:   You are familiar with Superman's comic history, and can debate for hours on why silver age Superman is superior to any other published work in the last 30 years.  You think the Donner films were "interesting", but can't stomach the liberties they took with the character and the obvious non-canon approach to the character's back story.  Your Rating:  3 out of 10


  1. Good review. I thought it was too long, especially the fights at the end. I liked it more than you did. Call me Andy Fanboy.

  2. Agreed on the review. Never thought I'd be a fanboy, but following your rubric, that's me. Loved Birthright and wished that this movie followed even more of that positioning.