It's a bird. It's a plane. It's ... not your granddad's or even dad's Superman.
It's Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel (2013). And not that there is anything wrong with that. Film and television has changed so much altering the approach taken to these longstanding icons through time. It's always changing. That's no surprise. How we embrace it or accept those changes is another matter. Thus the latest approach to Superman is yet another step in the character's evolutionary process.
I've never been an avid reader of Superman. I've picked up a few comics featuring the great one along the way. I recall having a few DC Comics Presents. Issue #26 featured Green Lantern and also spotlighted the very first appearance of The New Teen Titans, a series which I loved under the watchful and guiding eye of Marv Wolfman and George Perez (1980-1984). Those were truly some of the most impressively drawn and told stories in comic books. I digress.
Time-tested heroes like Superman and Batman though are always ripe for reexaminations. Following a fantastic Batman trilogy it's wonderful to see Man Of Steel carrying a writing and production credit that includes Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (the team behind The Dark Knight).
Nevertheless, visually this is very much the film of a developing visual auteur in Zack Snyder. I'm not the least bit surprised by the mixed reviews to Snyder's work. He's far superior to Paul W. S. Anderson who enjoys the visual playground, but like that director Snyder too is often misunderstood. He may not be scolded to the degree of Anderson, but critics seem to dismiss the man's keen eye behind the camera and the framing of a moment. Unlike Anderson, Snyder's work is often graceful and poetic in the mold of a Ridley Scott. Snyder approaches the Kansas fields and the farm sequences like Scott would the fields of barley in his Academy Award Winner Gladiator (2000). I don't pretend Snyder has reached the heights of Ridley Scott, but he's off to an impressive start.
Snyder is acutely aware of the visual canvas within which he works. In fact, sometimes, his interpretation of story, perhaps to the detriment of Snyder, flies in the face of expectations for something entirely visual altogether. His films sometimes defer as movies should to a moving story book like approach - a graphic novel (300, Watchmen) come to life.
I first saw Snyder's 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch on Blu-Ray. Man Of Steel is the first picture from Snyder I took time out to see on the big screen. Like Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), Man Of Steel too has its flaws but is equally smart, big, and bold summer blockbuster fun. It's a densely packed and action packed story for all ages like Abrams own film and not unlike most of today's cinema there are plenty of hyper-kinetic, high energy CGI moments to dull those teenage senses. It's to be expected, but amidst all of the visuals and special effects, at least Abrams' and Snyder's creative teams have a story to tell. It's the least we can expect beyond the carnage.
In fact, like Star Trek: Into Darkness with its own retelling of the original Star Trek 2: The Wrath Of Khan (1982), Man Of Steel is a wonderful re-imagining and technically magnificent retelling of elements from Richard Donner's original Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980) films. Man Of Steel comes in at a whopping 2 hours and 20 minutes because it's essentially a fusion of those two aforementioned stories minus Lex Luthor.
Personally I love the elements of those original films Snyder drew from for Man Of Steel. The aspects of Clark Kent's coming of age tale combined with the destruction of Krypton and the escape of the vicious General Zod equates to a positively epic Man Of Steel. The updating of the Richard Donner and Richard Lester films respectively make for another terrific look at this character with subtle differences.
So yes, there's not a whole lot of comic book baggage for me personally coming into Man Of Steel. I reserve that baggage for a franchise like the X-Men. I was much more of a Marvel Comics fan growing up. Most of my weekly allowance went to X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Micronauts and The Avengers books. It wasn't often I spent money on the DC Comics line. For better or worse my influence was the Bronze Age of Marvel. Thus, seeing X-Men screwed with in each successive film diverging significantly from any sensible comic timeline does played with the loyal-to-the-comics aspect of my heart. Sorry, I digress again, but it's worth noting that artist/ writer John Byrne delivered a strong take on Superman in a six part series called The Man Of Steel for DC Comics.
Man Of Steel and Zack Snyder simply have no worries they could possibly suffer my comic book wrath - so these things are indeed subjective. These feelings we draw from are entirely a result of influence and expectation. People's feelings on these mythical and legendary figures like Superman certainly cannot be discounted. I certainly don't begrudge those who come at it with any kind of negativity as far as how respectful the film is with regard to the existing comic books.
Within the context of a long line of comic book films, Man Of Steel simply succeeds on its own merits as a powerhouse of a picture in its own right. Meticulous, entertaining, well-cast. It's summer fun pure and simple.
Getting back to Snyder, the man is a visual Superman of a sort. With his cleft chin, he's the Henry Cavill of the special effects world at the moment. He walks an awfully tight rope when it comes to convincing others he is a man firmly in charge of his movies. If you visit this site with any frequency, you'll be surprised to know I enjoy his films so much given his excessive use of visual effects and CGI, but despite Snyder's heavy use he does so with style and flair.
Man Of Steel has plenty of style and the character moves and a character like Superman really should, but he is fast in this one. In fact, most of Snyder's films do just that - they move. Watchmen (2009), 300 (2007) and Dawn Of The Dead (2007) manage to reach tomato status over at Rotten Tomatoes, but don't do so with any real command. That's unfortunate because Snyder's films are the works of a man firmly in charge of a vision. The sorely underrated Sucker Punch (2011), which is nothing short of a masterpiece mashes up all sorts of genres (fantasy, anime, drama, war, science fiction) and does so with aplomb. It received a walloping 23% tomato splat yet it adapted elements of anime more originally than del Toro's Pacific Rim (2013). People completely missed the boat on that one.
Man Of Steel misses the mark falling just under the 60% mark at 56% no doubt a combination of Snyder's handling of the character and his approach to cinema yet again. Snyder is a lightning rod when it comes to his pictures. It's not a surprise it does fall short. His challenging approach to ideas in all of his films have stirred some degree of controversy with each and every one. Snyder just never gets the love. He rarely gets the respect and he pays for it each and every time. But his films stand on their own and Man Of Steel will too. I may officially be in love with Antje Traue.
Man Of Steel takes many of the visual flourishes he employed for Sucker Punch and Watchmen using computer effects and slow motion, but this time grounds his film in an old-fashioned story of a man and his Earth family. Snyder does remarkably well stepping away from pure fantasy. Nevertheless, his Man Of Steel is framed in grand cinematic displays and sometimes pure science fiction where he excels. Aesthetics often pay homage to Scott's H.R. Giger so pronounced in Alien (1979) in a very specific spaceship sequence as well as General Zod's space helmet which easily references the space jockey in Prometheus (2012). As a result, Man Of Steel is something of an exciting, but sometimes tender treat about a man taught to blend in and be normal. As much as he captures those big bounding soundtrack moments or the comic book action of its final hour, he also manages to slow things down, keep things quiet, reflect on a moment. Old softies like me appreciate those sweet character moments. And in a day and age where it is increasingly difficult to speak freely Snyder's version of this Superman is ever so timely.
I've read some critics were unhappy with the picture complaining Snyder is ineffective in capturing the emotional moments in his characters. This is never overdone to be sure, but there were more than a handful for this writer. Man Of Steel is hardly excessively sentimental but it has its moments.
Two important moments really placed a lump squarely in my throat. Both are directly linked to Clark's loyalty to family and his love for his Earth mother and father, the Kents.
(Spoilers) First, When his father, Jonathan Kent played by Kevin Costner, passes, his father places his arm in the air holding his son at a distance a twister nears. He waves him off to prevent Clark from exposing his identity and thus sacrifices his own life for his son. It is all visual power. Out of love and protection for him his sacrifice is profound. It is moving cinema.
Second, Clark tells his mother he has come to determine who he is and where he comes from. His mother is happy for him, but actress Diane Lane, as Kent, plays the moment brilliantly both at once happy for her son and concerned she will lose him forever. How could there be a dry eye in the house? But most certainly there was. I guess I'm just not that hardened. My son thought it was very nice, but his dear old Dad was quietly wiping a tear in the privacy of his darkened space within the cinema. (spoilers over)
So as much as this is a reinterpretation of the classic films of Donner and Lester, and as much as this Superman is, in a sense, a reinterpretation of the time tested and age old character, Superman is still very much an old, good, kindly soul from Krypton. Man Of Steel, despite being entirely a creation of contemporary cinema and modern expectations, is still an old-fashioned story of a boy beloved and raised by the Kents and given the kind of strong moral fiber his real father Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, would have expected of Kal-El, Clark's birth name. As much as the destruction of Krypton was destiny (and a world seemingly infused with the kinds of struggles potentially destined for Earth), it seemed like pre-destination that Kal-El would reach Earth to be loved and raised by these parents that were like perfect surrogates in the absence of his own loving mother and father. Imagine if he had fallen into the wrong family's hands?
Clark comes from loving parents, a loyal family, an All-American upbringing, and even contends with the tinkering of identity - a man attempting to mask who he is to try and fit. It's a developing trend in our own world. Christopher Reeve once did it with a more traditionally comic approach. Man Of Steel reworks the tale for a new generation. Snyder could have taken this character much too far, but instead infuses the look of the film brilliantly coupled with Goyer and Nolan's golden touch into something timely yet timeless. Henry Cavill, too, fits the bill quietly embodying a man of strength and kindness not given to fits of rage but entirely likable like Reeve who once fit that suit so magnificently.
As I mentioned, there are some terrific existential moments within Man Of Steel about identity and where we come from. There are questions of loyalty and where it is that loyalty should fall for a man born of two worlds like Superman. General Zod, played by an overly defiant Michael Shannon, takes a hawkish approach to his defense of Krypton and his people. Superman like his father sees the failings of taking such measures too far. Superman himself is the first natural birth in centuries as Jor-El defies Kryptonian law for freedom. In fact, we should take heed of Krypton's tight controls over the birthing process and direct government oversight. It's the kind of government intervention that continues to rise over the last so many years with no end in sight. Even Superman notes "Krytpon had its chance." Rome had its chance too. You can't help but wonder if that's not an indictment on our own existence as a people. The great American experiment continues. We have our chance now, but an incapable and completely incompetent government continues to grow and fail to protect its people and a nation of laws. Are we doomed for the abyss too? We can give away the farm all day long. We can share everything we have with all of humanity, but it doesn't mean everyone will be good shepherds with the planet. Man Of Steel stakes itself in people needing to take a leap of faith. It posits that trust comes later. If anything, that's a pretty bold stance outside of conservatism. The question still remains for me on whether or not humanity can be trusted. In that respect, Superman wonders the same. The question remains open. But Superman, as a character, forsakes the inflexible Zod and indeed represents hope by believing and putting faith in humanity by respecting its chance or its shot at existence. We can only hope a refinement of sprawling government institutions on our own planet occurs before crippling us all.
Obviously some have found the more traditional moments tied to the Superman character something of a distraction. But isn't that who Superman is? He's guarded, old-fashioned, loyal, loving, kind, introspective but indeed a family man. Have we moved so far from the strength of such values that such an ideal be scorned. I shouldn't think so. Clearly there is room for all, and the open conversation should be an acceptance of all. Superman is a pleasure because it still celebrates those things traditional ideals. It also makes a bold stand about government surveillance, an issue that continues to take on greater resonance with each passing year and yes, under the current administration too. Man Of Steel approaches such ideas and issues rather effectively without preaching and remains true to the essence of Superman. Snyder makes for a thoughtful handling of summer entertainment. The underrated Pandorum's Antje Traue is a delight to watch in action for Man Of Steel.
Performances are universally excellent. Michael Shannon is solid but doesn't quite rise to the level of emotional and evil complexity of Javier Bardem's Roaul Silva in Skyfall (2012). I would have enjoyed a little more from his performance. Sexy German actress Antje Traue (2009's Pandorum) equals the character portrayal of Ursa delivered by Sarah Douglas in the original Superman II. She's stunning to look at even under all of those optical effects, leather and metal. She has beautiful eyes. She is the Alice Eve (Star Trek: Into Darkness) of Man Of Steel - simply hot to the touch. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are so good you want more. You want more. You want more. It's an endlessly entertaining film made all the more so by an outstanding cast led by Amy Adams and Henry Cavill. It ultimately succeeds despite some questions and the reinvention of aspects of its many characters. Poor muscle man Non of Superman II has been replaced by a devastatingly powerful robot. I loved it though.
And speaking of moments of homage, you may have noticed in a scene from Snyder that he clearly morphs Henry Cavill's face into that of Christopher Reeve in tribute in one of the climactic scenes to the iconic portray of the character embodied by Reeve. That too was a moment that really grabbed me. It was one of those wow moments with real respect to the history of the character. It was ever so subtle but definitely there. Kudos to Snyder for a classy touch.
One final thought, I realized watching the new Man Of Steel that it still touched a nerve of nostalgia and evoked feeling for the yester years. It brought me back watching a young Clark Kent bound through his back yard in a cape as a child long before he was a man of hope and a man of caped crusader steel. I hadn't remembered this particular memory until seeing it. Like most kids, my brother and I often donned the cape and battled not through buildings but rather plunging one another into the cushions of the living room sofa.
Our capes were lifted straight from our small bathroom closet and pure cotton was affixed to our t-shirts by my mother who rolled them and balled them up on our backs to a point that it somehow generated a level of heavy discomfort on the neck. Those thick bathroom towels were tough as capes but by God we wore them as the Earth's only defense. You couldn't have asked for more imaginative, memorable and inexpensive fun. All you needed was a bath towel and the universe was yours for the taking.
So yes, Man Of Steel really moved me to wonderful memories of those by gone days while giving new fans something far less weighty at the back end. The mind-numbing action is well executed but not necessary for my money. About the only thing that might have evoked a more positive response was if composer Hans Zimmer had tapped into the musical themes first established by John Williams. But how one couldn't experience emotion within the visual experience offered by Snyder's rendition of Superman is beyond me. Man Of Steel really can't be compared to the Nolan trilogy for Batman, but it stands tall on its own two feet as the start of something special. The two characters may reside within the DC Universe but they have two entirely different stories to tell. Batman Begins (2005) really failed to find an audience and that film ranks as one of the best in comic book film history. Man Of Steel may not rise to that level with its mix of character and action but it has all the markings of one of the stronger films and comes close.
On a cinema note, I recommend purchasing the two-for-one candy deals at the local drug store and carrying them into the theatre in your pockets. This allows for re-channeling of funds to a larger popcorn. Mind you, what I discovered with my popcorn on this occasion was that movie popcorn, while awesome, really tends to go downhill following the first 20-25 kernels that are completely obliterated with butter and salt. Those kernels are damn near movie nirvana and treat heaven.
But the dynamics of popcorn butter and salt distribution aside, Man Of Steel is an excellent achievement in the short but impressive career of Snyder and a noteworthy chapter in the legacy of Superman in cinema. And just like opinion on the director's work it is equally divided on the latest interpretation of the iconic alien turned American hero. Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first introduced their hero in comics in 1938. Their dynamic character lives on in Man Of Steel, just as the very original title of the film itself sets it apart. It bears its own unique stamp within the long and storied legacy of this character while staying true to the framework of his origins. The dynamic and exciting technologies of today are employed to bring explosive life to the latest iteration of the hero. As much as Marvel has its Captain America, DC Comics has its American champion embodied in Superman. And like the fabric of the film's content Man Of Steel is a product of our society today. Despite those flaws I'll take this Kryptonian turned American Superman any day. And boy he was perfect with that popcorn.
Man Of Steel: B+.
Writer: David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan.
Director: Zack Snyder.