Review: Despite Flaws, 'Man of Steel' is Still the Best Superman Yet
by Jeremy Kirk
June 14, 2013
Even for those who grew up loving Richard Donner's direction and Christopher Reeves' portrayal of Superman, it's hard denying Man of Steel as the best film version the last son of Krypton has had. Epic in scope and alien - get used to that word - in nature, Man of Steel catapults onto the screen with raw intent. Thanks to the fresh take Christopher Nolan and David Goyer have for the screenplay and the bombastic attitude director Zack Snyder has always been a pro at, the film easily makes us forget Superman was ever a hokier than thou comic book character who just couldn't get a decent big screen adaptation.
Right from the start, Man of Steel trumps expectations. The first 15-20 minutes of Snyder's film shows us a Krypton we've never seen before, a world torn by civil war, and though the planet's fate is certainly sealed well before the Warner Brothers logo even appears, it shows us a series of space battles that amp the suspense to the highest magnitude. This is Snyder's Star Wars in the opening moments. The grand scale visuals aren't necessarily what make Man of Steel the best Superman movie, but definitely the biggest.
Though the team behind the film is set in place to reboot the franchise, there's definitely an understanding of the basic premise behind Superman's origin. A baby born on a dying planet. A father's (Russell Crowe) choice to send him to a remote planet where he will be perceived as a God. The ensuing childhood and parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) in small-town Kansas that instill in the "all powerful" boy a notion of absolute morality. These are staples in the story of Superman, but Snyder/Nolan/Goyer, knowing full well they are necessities, make bold attempts at bringing originality into the story at every turn.
We jump 30 years after Krypton's destruction. We are introduced to Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as an adult, drifting around the Earth with an understanding of his abilities but nothing of a sense of place. Taking the same approach that made "Smallville" such a hit, Man of Steel shows us a Clark Kent at odds between what he can do and not knowing how the world would react to exactly what he is, an alien.
This is the best decision Man of Steel makes. Somewhere in the first iterations of Superman on film the notion that he is an alien being got swept under a rug of righteousness and hokey Americana. Those films gave human beings too much credit, if you were to ask the people behind this film. And with that understanding of Clark Kent's alien nature and mankind's reaction to such a thing comes the science fiction genre Superman has always deserved to fit into.
With this audacious, new structure comes Man of Steel's biggest flaw. Snyder's pacing is uneven for long stretches of the film, ramping into action as soon as a scene begins as if we've come into the middle of something massive that we don't understand and leaping back and forth, in and out of flashbacks that build the conditioned origin we've seen before.
In between those flashbacks and Clark Kent's incongruity we're introduced to Lois Lane (Amy Adams, already a comic book character name). Once again, she's the adventurous nuisance...er...reporter of Metropolis' Daily Planet, but instead of her knowledge of Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman only coming when the man walks through the newspaper's doors, Nolan and Goyer allow her to be precisely what she is, a damn good reporter (or nuisance depending on which end of the snooping you're on).
On the other side, fresh as her character is here, that awkward pacing never allows the love story between the two to blossom. There's very little chemistry between the two, and it's hard to lay that at the feet of the actors. The two characters seem to fall in love because that's how the Lois & Clark story goes. There simply isn't enough room for breath here to allow the relationship to build. Before we know it, the real threat of Man of Steel rears his ugly head, and when I say "ugly", I'm really just talking about Michael Shannon.
His General Zod is the protector of Krypton, its people, and its way of life, flawed as that may be. Once his ships enter our atmosphere - somewhere near the 90-minute mark of this 143-minute-long film - and gives Clark Kent the ultimate ultimatum to reveal himself, Man of Steel's frustration in pacing is completely swept away by roaring, epic, and yes, awesome escapism. It's what Zack Snyder does best, and do it well he does very well this time around.
The action on display in the last hour of Man of Steel is among the biggest and best Summer blockbusters could possibly offer. Giant ships land on our planet. Massive explosions rip through Clark Kent's world, first his hometown of Smallville and then his future home of Metropolis. We even get the fight-and-flight treatment the Superman films have never been able to perfect, that idea of two characters who can defy gravity beating the hell out of each other in mid-air. Once the blue suit and red cape come on, the excitement takes off, and any issues one might have with Man of Steel are quickly forgotten.
It helps that every actor in the film seems to be giving 110%, especially Cavill if you count the hours he very clearly put in at the gym - My God, that man is as handsome as he is ripped. Despite the lack of chemistry between he and Adams, their every individual scene works effortlessly. So, too, does Shannon, who has gone from creepy to downright terrifying as Zod. If the threat level isn't made clear by the the size of his plot in the film - aided by that magnificent budget and Snyder's use of it - it absolutely is by his energy on display.
But the clear acting winners here are Crowe and Costner, two former Robin Hoods who represent the internal struggle of our superhero protagonist. Those first 20 minutes are all Crowe, and the man gets to star in his very own, sci-fi, action epic for a little while, dragon riding and machine gun firing included. Costner, on the other hand, is the subdued Jonathan Kent, whose love for his son - and well-deserved cynicism of the world outside Kansas - outweighs the greater good that son's powers can achieve. Both actors nail their respective roles. It's Costner, though, whose every line delivery determines the pace of the film he's in. Even when his presence feels awkward, the power he exudes overshadows any faults the film throws at him.
And Man of Steel is flawed to a point. 20 minutes of awesome, 60 minutes of stilted origin, and 60 minutes of incredibly epic action still has parts that feel more wooden-flimsy than metal-solid. Nonetheless, imperfections and all, Man of Steel remains the best Superman film we're allowed to have. As with any of these reboots, it leaves us yearning for a sequel where the origin story isn't as front-and-center. Regardless, this fresh, ironically grounded Clark Kent tale Nolan and Goyer have decided to tell is a welcome return for comic book's most iconic figure. With any luck, Snyder will be back to make Man of Steel 2 just as awesome.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10