Man of Steel (2013)
Man of Steel was my most anticipated film of the year. Not for an instant did I doubt it from any piece of marketing that came out. Each trailer and TV spot just got increasingly better raising my excitement for this more and more. Everything kept giving me hope for an amazing film experience. I know there’s a full spectrum of opinions out there right now, but take it from someone who grew up on Christopher Reeve as Superman, whose main inspiration in life has been Christopher Reeve, from some who loved Smallville, and feels Superman is the most epic and emotionally powerful superhero of all time – I really liked this movie A LOT! There’s plenty to get into here, and you can count on zero spoilers.
On the planet Krypton, renowned scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) discovers the hope for his seemingly doomed society in his newborn son Kal-El, but it is nearly thwarted by an attempted insurrection by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is later sentenced to the Phantom Zone before the planet’s demise. Years later, on Earth, a young boy learns that he has extraordinary powers and is not of this Earth. As a young man, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) journeys to discover where he came from and what he was sent here to do. But the hero in him must emerge if he is to save the world from annihilation by the now freed Zod and become the symbol of hope for all mankind.
Okay, I really, really enjoyed this movie, but I just want to get my one big critique out of the way right up front. It’s nothing damaging, just a structural issue. The film does follow a linear storytelling structure except for all of the scenes of Clark growing up, and everything with Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, who does a fine, heartfelt job here. These scenes are all very good, but I really think the film needed for us to go on that journey with Clark instead of flashbacking to isolated moments in his upbringing. I didn’t feel as much build up as I wanted to with Clark discovering his origins and donning the costume. We don’t get to see the linear development of Clark struggling through the pain, the adversity, the fear, and the doubt in his youth to see how he really overcomes and grows stronger through that. If there’s any one major flaw with this film, it’s simply that. It worked wonderfully in Batman Begins because we still saw Bruce Wayne develop and find his way in the world as an adult before dedicating himself to becoming Batman. Here, it feels a little short on that emotional journey and impact, and the film would feel a little stronger if that played out linearly instead of through flashbacks. Clark dons the Superman costume within the first, probably, thirty-five minutes of the movie.
Of course, I suppose the main question for everyone is with Henry Cavill. By no doubt, the film lives or dies by his performance. For me, he does a great job. He gives us a grounded portrayal that feels real and genuine. The somewhat familiar Clark Kent secret identity is not fleshed out until the end, and so, it is a story of Clark deciding what kind of man he wants to be. Cavill does embody an honest sense of hope, and has a strong physical presence. He trained extremely hard to achieve this physique, and it makes all the difference when you see him walking down the street in that suit. He just exudes power. When he is not being Superman, he feels very grounded and honest. He stays true to Clark’s Kansas farm boy roots being a man of morality and admirable strength of character. Clark is developing throughout the film, and continues to push his limits of what he can do, not just in terms of powers but in terms of determination. Superman is a hero who never gives up regardless of the odds, and here, the odds are tremendously against him. Yet, through hell and back, Cavill’s Superman shows us an icon of power that can inspire others to greater heights than ever imagined. While he doesn’t usurp Christopher Reeve’s inspiring magic, this feels like a Superman for a modern era that still has potential for further development in the already greenlit sequel. I feel Henry Cavill is a great successor to the mantle of the Last Son of Krypton, and he gives us plenty of humanity that shines through on the screen.
And this film is going to challenge many people on their long held preconceptions of the traditional Superman mythos. I’m sure there will be some that are resistant to this approach, but it ultimately laid my apprehensions to rest. The relationship with Lois Lane is built up very differently as she is closely associated with Clark / Superman throughout the film, and they develop a great, emotionally intimate connection. Amy Adams does a wonderful job as Lois Lane, and what she and Cavill have together is purely stunning. There’s an honest depth of emotion and understanding between them that shines through beautifully. Lois is not a damsel in distress either. Yes, she gets into perilous situations, but she is an active part of this story and plot. She’s very integral to stopping Zod’s genocide of humanity. Because she becomes so closely tied to Superman, she remains relevant to everything that’s happening. Of course, most pertinent of all, we see her as a dogged yet relatable journalist. Adams swirls a lot of different qualities into Lois from her determination as a reporter to her compassion and strength. She was a pleasure to witness here, and I think she also brings this character into a grounded, modern age that still remains true to the core, classic aspects of Lois Lane.
Having no easy shoes to fill himself, Michael Shannon takes General Zod and runs with him in his own way. There’s absolutely no catering to fan service here. He’s built up as his own character through Shannon’s awesome portrayal. He’s a bonafide bad ass villain bred as a warrior to protect Krypton at any cost, and he’s given solid depth. You understand what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it. Everything Zod does is for the sake of the people of Krypton, but he is a megalomaniacal, genocidal madman willing to eradicate our planet to fulfill his inherent purpose. This is no weak or generic adversary. Shannon has great presence that really commands your undivided attention, and he delivers a chilling General Zod that can be frightening by his sheer mercilessness. This is a Zod who’s going to kill everyone in his path without a moment’s hesitation, and that’s just awesome.
There’s a great supporting cast here, but in short, here are the heavy hitters. Laurence Fishburne is a damn solid Perry White. I know there are people bothered by the classic character’s change in race, but Fishburne is a tremendously awesome actor who delivers the goods with strength, nuance, and passion. Diane Lane is a lovely Martha Kent bringing a subtle, tender touch at the right moments in Clark’s story. Antje Traue portrays Zod’s second-in-command Faora-Ul fantastically. She’s extremely imposing and lethal. Anyone who thought this was just Ursa revamped, don’t do that. She’s not given as much development as Zod, but she’s a hardcore ass kicking machine. Beyond that, there’s just a lot of really quality performances throughout this film that does what a supporting cast is meant to do – build a solid foundation for the leads to springboard off of and launch the film into the stratosphere.
And indeed, lest I forget, we get Russell Crowe portraying the great Jor-El. I found his performance quite admirable with a unique sophistication, compassion, and depth. The real Jor-El is seen only on Krypton at the start, and it’s great seeing Crowe doing some action oriented work alongside some inspiring emotional beats. Later on, we see Jor-El as merely a projection through Kryptonian technology, and there is indeed still that strength and emotion present when meeting with Kal-El or confronting Zod. Yet, since he also works as sort of a computer program, there’s a more clinical portrayal of him in those instances where analytical guidance is needed. While I don’t wish to draw comparisons for my own sake, I know people are interested in the comparison to Marlon Brando. I do feel Brando wins in this situation. I think Crowe is an amazing actor demonstrating his best performance in what I consider Michael Mann’s best film, The Insider. However, Brando will always stand as one of the finest, most powerful actors of all time when he was in his prime. Crowe’s Jor-El is more fallible and vulnerable, by design, where Brando’s was inspirational and infallible through and through. For this Jor-El, Crowe hits it right on the mark, and I wouldn’t ask for him to change a thing.
Man of Steel also features plenty of action, and the more we get, the bigger and badder it gets. It just builds and builds to flat out epic proportions! We get moments where Superman has to push himself so hard to destroy Zod’s terra-forming machine that it becomes pure epic Superman awesomeness. Earlier on, there are some brutal knock down, drag out fights between the Kryptonian soldiers and Superman. While it almost seems futile for beings of seemingly equal strength and invulnerability to just keep pummeling one another, it generally works very satisfactorily. What’s more impressive is when Faora is using her super strength and speed to just blitz through a dozen soldiers at a time. This is all the kind of stuff Superman II couldn’t do because of the limitations of effects at the time, but this delivers in full throttle mode.
And I’m sorry, but The Avengers be damned with this climax. Superman versus Zod is the epic throwdown of the decade! They beat the living hell out of one another, smashing up Metropolis from top to bottom with full on ferocity. While some of the CGI can get to appearing somewhat obvious at some times, you knew this was going to be a CGI-heavy affair from the start to achieve extremely fantastical feats. So, aside from those small moments, this is some stunning and awesome digital effects work! It integrates so beautifully and realistically with the grounded, slightly gritty feel of the film in my eyes. The design of Krypton is very alien and somewhat bleak, but still stunning and enveloping.
And Zack Snyder has well proved he is a brilliant visual director. I’m a big fan of the Watchmen movie he made, and it’s amazing how much his visual style shifted for the material here. Indeed, I think the Christopher Nolan touch as a producer influenced that, but this is indeed Snyder’s film. Director of photography Amir Mokri has clearly not done anything that would suggest a film of this visual depth and emotion, but he does a remarkable job realizing Snyder’s vision. And again, that translates fully into the visual effects on every level. Every moment reflects a film of epic scope in terms of size and emotion.
By no doubt, the score by master composer Hans Zimmer is perfect for this movie. Yet again, separating this film from that iconic John Williams theme wasn’t easy for even Zimmer, but he honed his talent and found the sound for Man of Steel. His main theme has weight and emotion creating a driving rhythm from twelve of the world’s best drummers. When the scene is rousing and building towards something big and drama, the score is just powerful. Still, he has a touching piano version of that theme which really plucks the heartstrings in the more tender, lower key moments. It’s a stunning piece of work he crafted here, and this is a score that I will treasure to own right alongside that original John Williams score from the 1978 film. Both work on the right epic and inspirational levels for the types of the films they accompanied, and I love them both!
Man of Steel does feature a certain amount of depth that I felt was very good. Clark finding his purpose and learning who he wants to be has very apt and meaningful. Although, I do feel there was one missed moment for a little more character development and reflection. After learning his origins and having a discussion with Lois about Jonathan Kent, Clark returns home, and shortly thereafter, Zod’s message is transmitted around the world forcing that plot forward. I feel a scene or two of reflection and development right before that plot is introduced would have been perfect. It would’ve allowed Clark’s journey of discovery to settle in more, and understand where his mindset is at this point in time before being propelled into the public eye. We do get a number of very good introspective scenes following this in regards to Zod’s ultimatum for Kal-El to reveal himself, but a short lull would’ve felt right to me. But that’s just me.
Of course, once Zod arrives in Earth’s orbit, the film just propels forward at a very consistent pace. It’s not break neck, but it certainly doesn’t slow down much for character building. We do get moments of emotion, passion, and insight into Clark, Lois, and Zod at certain points. Still, I feel that there is room for further development in a Man of Steel sequel. I think there’s still much to explore about this Superman, and an even further distance for him to mature and grow. The foundation is strongly and solidly laid out here, and director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer can launch everything into a even vaster and deeper place next time.
This is the best film of the year for me by a long shot! Man of Steel might show some room for improvement, but it delivers on so many epic and powerful levels that I give this a wholehearted recommendation. If you are a Superman fan willing to embrace a fresh approach that still carries on the spirit of everything that encapsulates the greatest superhero of all time, this is your film to see. I have no problem with the redesigned suit now that I see it in full bombastic action, and this film has plenty of inspiring imagery. While we came to believe a long time ago that a man could fly, today, we can believe that Superman can once again live and thrive on the big screen once again. My hope is restored in full.