There’s nothing wrong with Man of Steel. It’s a big summer blockbuster with cool action scenes and solid special effects that brings an iconic character to life. It does everything that is expected of it and solidly sets up a movie franchise for a commodity that hasn’t excited fans on-screen since the 1980s.
But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole thing was a bit too perfunctory. It felt a bit like a paint-by-numbers superhero film that followed a very specific pattern and was too afraid to do anything too flashy or quirky for fear that it would unravel the whole enterprise. The film is an origin story for one of the most famous characters in American pop culture. Superman’s origin feels like well-trodden territory at this point and director Zack Snyder and company’s take on it isn’t unique enough to make it feel exciting or new. Ultimately, the whole thing felt like it expended a lot of energy to establish a gritty world for Superman (Henry Cavill) to inhabit, setting up all the pieces for Man of Steel II, which will undoubtedly be a much more compelling film.
Warner Bros. recruited Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, the creative team behind the Dark Knight trilogy, to write the script and to help guide director Zack Snyder in making a Superman film that would rival their Batman films. It’s clear that they decided to follow the same exact formula that worked so well for them the last time. Just like in Batman Begins, at the start of the film our hero is traveling across the globe, sporting an unkempt beard and soaking in valuable life experiences that will help him when he returns to America and finally puts on his cape and cowl. Also, like Batman Begins, the film gives us a series of flashbacks to our protagonist’s younger days to show us the important moments that shaped him into the man he was today. There is also an obvious theme spelled out clearly for the audience (in this film, it’s having the courage to be the man you were meant to be without fear of how the outside world will react). And, most importantly from the Batman Begins playbook, while there is a less famous villain for him to face in this opening film, there must be foreshadowing of the franchise’s more iconic villain, who will show up in the second film to wreak havoc once our hero has learned the ropes.
I understand the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, but somehow the formula just isn’t as compelling this time around. For one thing, Batman Begins found a less-explored wrinkle of Bruce Wayne’s backstory – his time spent abroad training with Ra’s al Ghul – to focus the origin story on. Man of Steel is stuck giving the audience all of the pieces of Superman’s backstory that have already been explored in previous films and in Smallville – the destruction of his home planet of Krypton, his alienated upbringing in Smallville with his adopted parents and his attempts to fly under the radar despite his incredible powers. Making matters worse, the flashbacks aren’t very artfully weaved into the story. Typically, Clark Kent wanders around glancing off into the distance as he’s on his spirit quest around the globe and then we launch into a flashback from his childhood. The portions of Clark’s story that aren’t shown in flashbacks are given to the audience in windy character monologues that feel like endless information dumps instead of compelling conversations. It gives the early parts of the film a stilted pacing and, as a result, the story doesn’t really start getting exciting until all of the backstory is out of the way and Snyder can simply focus on Clark’s conflict with General Zod (Michael Shannon), the Kryptonian prisoner who shows up to Earth to make Kal-El (a.k.a. Clark) suffer for the sins of his deceased father Jor-El (Russell Crowe).
There are touches of the backstory that I did enjoy. I thought both of Kent’s fathers – Jor-El and his Earth dad Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) – were phenomenal in their roles and I liked their relatable hopes for who their son would become and their concerns for protecting him, which helped ground the film. I also really liked the idea of Clark wandering the globe anonymously helping people before he settles on being Superman, which is something that hasn’t really been explored before. It also gives the film a fresh take on Clark’s relationship with roving reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who in this version begins trying to track down this globetrotting mystery man based on legends, rumors and incomplete first-person accounts. This story also forgoes the traditional hard-to-swallow convention of having one of the most brilliant and relentless reporters on the planet being unable to piece together the fact that the guy two desks down from her at The Daily Planet is the mask-less superhero she’s in love with, even though his only attempt at a disguise is a pair of glasses. In this version, Lois figures out his secret identity instantaneously and is able to help him hide it, which is a lot easier to accept and is a better use of Lois.
Man of Steel is a beautifully-shot film with a grainy, desaturated look to it that I quite enjoyed. However, I think the cinematography is greatly hurt in the 3D version since the tinting of the 3D glasses makes the already-dark landscapes even darker and at times makes it difficult to see what’s happening. The 3D really adds nothing to the experience anyway, so I would highly recommend sticking with the traditional 2D version of the film.
Surprisingly, the film overall seems rather subdued for director Zack Snyder. It’s much more quiet and contemplative than his normal fare and he abandons some of his flashier camera tricks, like his trademark slow-motion action highlights. I enjoyed this more mellow version of Snyder and it made it all the more rewarding when the film kicked into high gear and gave us a brutal final confrontation between Superman and Zod. Seriously, I can’t rave about the climax of the film enough. It’s a fantastic fight that is almost worth the price of admission alone.
The final battle also gives viewers a high note to leave the theater on. And it is sure to leave fans excited for the next installment in the franchise. Perhaps it will help many of you to overlook the film’s clunky exposition-heavy earlier scenes. Chances are you will enjoy this film if you are a fan of the genre and ultimately you’re likely to feel good about the state of the Superman franchise when the credits roll. I just wish it had started out a bit stronger, though I’m incredibly satisfied with where it ended.
Now bring on Lex Luthor.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. Follow Joel on Twitter @FreeMisterClark or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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