I want to start this review with a small but important confession. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Superman, both in comics, and on film. I can’t quite put my finger on it but the character never caught my attention, or held it like other superheroes, but the thought of Man Of Steel had me excited. A reboot of a tired film franchise in a similar style to Christopher Nolan’s Batman jump start with the excellent Batman Begins could only be a good thing.
Trailers started to emerge and I got even more excited. Then over the course of this past week, reviews from some of my favourite sites started popping up, hailing Man Of Steel a triumph, with one reviewer going so far as to call it the greatest superhero film ever made. Needless to say, I wanted this to be great, I wanted Man Of Steel to soar, I wanted to love Superman. I didn’t.
Man Of Steel is a film with an identity crisis, flitting between serious origin story and comic book violence in such a jarring way it’s impossible to get involved or invested in the film in any tangible way. The faults are numerous, but like the god awful Green Lantern (2011), there’s a great film buried here.
Let’s start with the opening third, a portion of the film that contains the bulk of the 140 minute long movie’s problems, and it’s best bits. The first 20 minutes, set on a Krypton on the edge of destruction are beautiful to behold, with Russel Crowe filling the screen effortlessly and loving his role as Jor-El. Verbally fighting with Krypton’s council over the impending doom of their planet, they are interrupted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), the planet’s military leader, who is trying to stage a coup in an attempt to save the legacy of Krypton. We get some great moments from Shannon and Crowe, we can tell their was once a friendship here and Zod’s sinister motivations are juxtaposed brilliantly to El’s scientific and ideological views. What unfolds is what we know from most Superman lore, Jor-El sends his son, Kal-El (the first naturally born on Krypton in centuries), along with the codex for the genetics to the Kryptonian race, off to Earth in an attempt to not only save his life, but to prolong the life of his species. Zod is soon taken care off by Krypton’s authorities and the film’s electrifying opening is done.
What we get next is not a linear narrative, we get a mess for the next half hour. Snyder and his editors jump around time frames like they’re making some kind of show reel. You can almost hear the arguments going on in the studio exec boardroom. One side wants to show Kal growing up, learning his powers slowly, the other side wants to skip this and jump straight to the action. Unfortunately this shows through and Man Of Steel’s biggest problem is with no decision being made on tone or how the story should be told, so as an audience we end up with both films, crammed together into one movies.
At times I felt like I was watching a trailer for two different superman films, but none more so than in the opening third. We see a man working a fishing boat, who goes on to rescue a crew of oil rig workers, intercut with scenes of a young Clark Kent in a classroom discovering the horror of being different, being able to see through people’s skin, and hear every single little detail of everything around him. It takes his mother Martha (Diane Lane) to help him focus his attention. This latter scene is beautiful to watch, it’s exactly what we want to see, we want to see this vulnerable kid, who we know grows up to be the titular Man Of Steel, struggling with his identity, we want to see him learning to focus his abilities and control them. This is a particularly important flash back scene as it sets up more pivotal moments in the film later, particularly when Zod comes to earth and is imbued with the same powers as Kal-El, only he has not learnt to harness them properly.
A lot of the next half hour or so is taken up with this similar pattern. Older Clark (Henry Cavill) is obviously moving around town’s a lot, not belonging anywhere, he see’s something that takes him back to growing up and we get another flashback. These flashbacks are great, and often involve Jonathan Kent (played with serious face by Kevin Costner) spouting advice to Clark in a lazy, meandering way that never quite clicks. It’s all supposed to be heartfelt and emotional, but when Jonathan bites it at the hands of a tornado, trying to save a dog (we’re not in Kansas anymore, that’s for sure…oh, we are? Damn.) I lost it.
Nothing anyone does in this film makes sense. Everyone is just their to do what they need to, there’s no intelligence here. Russell Crowe continues to crop up as an artificial intelligence whose sole purpose in this movie is to provide exposition whenever things get a bit too weird. This is lazy script writing at its absolute worse. We as an audience should know what the fuck is going on by watching and listening to the characters go through their actions in a logical fashion, but when the script is this much of a mess, only Exposition Man can save the day.
We’re introduced to Louis Lane (Amy Adams), as she is for some reason invited to a top-secret military base in Alaska (or the Arctic? Or Canada? I don’t know, Exposition Man wasn’t there to explain..yet.) where ‘something’ has been discovered and they’re trying to figure out what. Why is Louis Lane there? What is a journalist doing there? No real explanation is given and it sucked me right out of the film. There’s some god awful dialogue straight out of the ‘tough-girl’ guide book and she is essentially told to…nope, she’s just put in a room with a bed and told not to wander off. So naturally, she wanders out, in the freezing temperatures at night to take pictures of far away objects. She see’s a man in just a t-shirt walking across the snow and ice, and naturally, decides to follow him. Some may argue journalistic curiosity, I argue the plot demanded we get to where the mystery man is going. Somehow, Louis ends up on the side of a sheer cliff face with no obvious route shown as to how she got there without serious mountaineering equipment.
What unfolds is Kal-El saving Louis Lane from a robot, and Kal taking the ship so he can be told (well, the audience can be told…for the second time) of his origins. What we get next is actually pretty good, the unveiling Kal-El’s suit, and the meaning behind the iconic ‘S’ symbol we all know is well done, and the scenes where he is learning to harness his strength and the Sun’s energy in order to fly are enough to make the hair’s on the back of your neck stand up. The scenes in the snow and ice (heavily shown in the trailers) are beautiful to watch and the character finally comes to life on-screen. Unfortunately these scenes are short-lived and we are then thrown into about well over an hour of generic, boring action.
Zod comes to earth and offers Earth an ultimatum, hand over Kal-El, or face annihilation. Kal decides to turn himself in, as long as Louis Lane is there. This is one of the biggest moments in What-The-Fuckery in the entire movie. Why does he want her there? No real reason is given besides the fact she tracked Kal down and found out his earth identity as Clark Kent. It’s like the writer’s are feeling the need to force the Louis Lane character in, and because she’s been a pivotal love interest for Clark Kent/Superman in every other form of media, thus forcing a relationship between the two. We’ll all just breeze past the fact she is also given full access to a military base and aircraft for the duration of the film.
Once Zod and his henchmen come to earth, the film falls flatter than the already paper-thin plot. I found myself very close to just walking out. I have not been this bored in a film in a long, long time. There are some spectacular effects to be sure, and the CGI rarely gets in the way of the action. We know Zack Snyder can direct action, so this shouldn’t be a surprise, but the fight scenes feel hollow. We’re watching Kal fight people we don”t really know anything about, nor did I care too much about Superman at this point. I didn’t feel like I had spent enough time with him to really care, and the fact that we know he’s invulnerable makes us care that bit less. Watching Superman fight Zod, whilst an epic spectacle in flash-bag-wizardry is oddly empty, it’s like watching two big rocks throw bigger rocks at each other. Every two seconds someone is thrown through a building, or a car, or a bus, or a truck, or a bigger building, or a train, or past a water tower that says Smallville (fan service, yo). It get’s so repetitive and monotonous I found my thoughts constantly wondering. I couldn’t focus on what was going on because what I was seeing was essentially the same set piece repeated ad nauseam.
Just when you think it can’t go on much longer, they now start throwing each other through Skyscrapers in Metropolis (fan service, yo). This is after Superman has stopped the giant terraforming robot, well one of them. There’s two for some reason, and once you kill one, the other one inexplicably shuts down too. The idea you see is that if the military bomb Zod’s machine with the ship that Kal-El arrived at Earth in, the collision of the two Kryptonian engines will form a singularity that will suck Zod back into it. No explanation is given as to why this black hole wouldn’t suck up more than just the bad guys. I can almost forgive these parts, because lets face it, they’re just a backdrop for Kal-El and Zod to punch each other in the face, and through a LexCorp truck (fan service, yo).
The big battle finally ends in what’s supposed to be a dramatic way, with Zod trying to kill a family of humans and Kal struggling to stop him. He then kills Zod by snapping his neck. Wait. What? We’re supposed to buy into a guy who’s been chucked through buildings, smashed into the ground and damn near exploded can have his neck broken? Even if it is Superman doing the neck-snapping, this makes no sense. Unless we’re supposed to believe that Kal is stronger than Zod, but the film has spent at least half an hour showing us that Zod has the same powers as Kal-El. Let’s just breeze past that shall we.
What follows is the world’s most awkward kiss, couple with some of the worst dialogue. Again, the writer’s are trying to force a relationship that doesn’t exist. Characters serving plot should never happen, but in this, it’s the rule rather than the exception.
This has been an overwhelmingly negative review, but there was some positives to take away. The acting all round is pretty good, with the actors doing their best with the limited script. Henry Cavill, as the Man of Steel himself is admirable and certainly much better than Brandon Routh. He doesn’t have much to play with in terms of giving Kal-El a personality, but he does his best, and he’s certainly going to make a lot of us men feel rather insecure. Cavill’s Clark Kent is a restrained ball of emotion that never gets released, his Kal-El/Superman is confident with a sense of forced entitlement. Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire) is easily the bets bit of the film. His character is given the best lines of dialogue and he delivers every line with all the desperation you expect from a man who was imprisoned for wanted to save his planet, a man who is desperate to do whatever he can to save his species from extinction. Zod is a desperate man, a man who was literally bred to ensure his species survival, and it shows in Shannon’s performance, you can see the pain when he knows Kal-El will not side with him. The scenes of him adjusting to his new-found powers on earth are excellent. Amy Adams is just okay as Louis Lane, she’s not bad by any stretch, and like Cavill, she does the best she can with the script. She tries to make the character charming and likeable but it’s a difficult task with the limitations imposed on her.
The supporting cast also do an admirable job, particularly Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, editor at the Daily Planet and Louis Lane’s boss. He doesn’t have much to do but does help ground the film when it’s getting a bit too flashy. Russell Crowe as Jor-El, is great in the opening twenty minutes or so, but for the rest of the film he’s forced to pop up and spout exposition. Crowe does his best and his personality does fill the screen but ultimately the role is wasted. Kevin Costner crops up as Kal’s earth father, Jonathan Kent and he does alright, but delivers every line with a po-faced dissociation.
There’s a great film buried in Man Of Steel somewhere, but unfortunately major script issues, some dodgy dialogue and an over reliance on spectacle make the film fall flat. After seeing the film had a meagre 57% on Rotten Tomatoes, I went into the film with a ‘critics be damned’ attitude, waiting to love what was in front of me, unfortunately, I finished the film bored, and kind of angry at the time wasted. Snyder manages to do the impossible and make the film both half an hour too long, yet needing another half an hour of scenes to fill the gaps. Man Of Steel ultimately failed due to its inability to decide between being a slow, dark origin movie, or a fast paced, action-adventure. For all the (admittedly brilliant) bombastic special effects and pomp, there’s no substance to back any of it up. I hesitate to go here but it’s important. With The Avenger’s, we cared about all the characters. The dialogue was brilliant and no one served the plot, the plot served the characters. Everything was logical and natural. The same can be said about Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Both are triumphs in superhero movie making, and it looked for a while like Man Of Steel was going to be joining them in the upper echelons of film royalty. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.