Since Man of Steel has been released for a while I figure I can discuss spoilers in this review on a comic book site where most people will probably have seen the movie before me. However, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, then don’t go further than this paragraph to avoid spoilers. Anyway, I finally got around to seeing Man of Steel yesterday as a post exam treat. And what did this Superman fan think of it? The title indicates it but I’ll let my review speak for myself.
Firstly, I suppose I should go over what I did like about this film. Overall, Man of Steel possesses a very strong cast who deliver spectacularly on their roles. Russell Crowe turned his role of Jor-El from a glorified cameo that Marlon Brando made it in the first Superman films into an awesome badass father for Superman. Given his past roles in action films, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Crowe’s Jor-El is a bit more active. Yet Crowe imbues Jor-El with a natural authority that particularly comes across in the early scenes of the film when talking to the Council and confronting Zod. He also serves as a strong guiding force for Superman when they finally meet and you can see the impact Jor-El will have on Clark becoming Superman being as strong an influence as Jonathan Kent. Speaking of Jonathan Kent, the other Robin Hood of a Dad for Superman, Kevin Costner, is an excellent source of moral wisdom for Clark in the flashback sequences. He displays Jonathan Kent’s moral intuition on solving moral problems very well which shows how his influence on Clark guided him into becoming the man he was capable of being. And I thought that how he died was quite a poignant event in Clark’s life. Diane Lane also plays a fantastic Martha Kent, filled with the love and care of any great mother whilst also making it clear that it was not just Jonathan Kent who played a prominent role in shaping Clark Kent.
Furthermore, the main villains of this piece are very much the sinister pair. Michael Shannon makes a brilliant megalomaniac out of Zod whose intentions are understandable. He was born to protect the people of Krypton and even throughout all his violent, despicable crimes committed in the film, he is trying to ensure his people’s survival the whole time. And when that’s taken away from him, Shannon plays up Zod’s loss in spectacular fashion in that last fight. But the real surprise star is Antje Traue’s Faora. It’s not a long performance by any means but Faora gets an awesome mean streak along with some ominous lines delivered excellently by Traue. Plus Fishbourne plays the no nonsense yet also has a heart Perry White well enough.
You’ll notice I haven’t talked about Henry Cavill as Superman yet. Well, to his credit, he is much better suited to the role of Superman than Christian Bale ever was to the role of Batman. Cavill does the best he can out of a limited script. For instance, When he talks to the authorities, or anyone for that matter, it has the perfect blend of respect, directness and control. That’s a good product of the modern version of Superman. Still, Cavill's Supes is a lonelier, darker character than previous installments, but that is a product of the script, not the actor. I will discuss that more later.
Next, I’ll move onto the story itself. Was it good? Well it was decent enough to follow. It played out in much the same way a Superman origin story would be played out but there were some interesting additions. I liked the inclusion of the Bryne/Post Crisis notion of a Krypton that had expanded into the universe before becoming xenophobic and committing to birth control. Kal-El’s birth was what broke the mould and made him unique in being able to forge his own destiny. That was played up well in the film via Crowe’s quote “What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society intended?” Also the flashbacks were the highlight of the film for me as they really looked at what Clark had to go through when he was younger and the differences he possessed were a real fear to young Clark. Credit has to go to the young actor who played him for pulling that off very well. And I enjoyed the Birthright influence of Clark travelling the world as a mysterious figure taking remote jobs and saving lives without many knowing who he really was. Meeting Jor-El was pretty well handled as well. The first two thirds or so of the film do progress well in terms of story flow. It’s the final third where things get difficult.
As Snyder is directing the film, I had no doubt there would be over the top epic visual effects and I was not disappointed. Snyder really upped the game in what we can do visually in a film. Krypton was filled with gorgeous wildlife, epic aerial battles and a harrowingly looking planetary explosion. Superman’s first flight was a real treat and I liked how Snyder made him practice first before giving us the epic scene of Superman properly lifting off that had me grinning the entire time. Superman’s flight has never looked so good. And what an action packed feast it was! From Jor-El and Zod’s confrontation on Krypton to Superman’s fight with Faora and Non to Superman vs Zod, Snyder pulled off the look and feel of these fights very well. The punches looked authentic and it was practically how I imagined a bunch of godlike aliens would fight. Tearing up streets, buildings and anything in their way made for spectacular visual effects. Although they bring their own problems to the table, Nolan and Goyer do act as good steadying influence on Snyder so he doesn’t make his past mistakes.
However, as you may have noticed by the title, these positives are going to be weighed down by some crippling flaws. Let me begin with the least of these. There are 3 actresses whose roles I didn’t like. Aylet Zurer played a forgettable Lara in all honesty. Her role was inconsequential and not done well. Also Jenny Olsen was literally the most pointless character I have ever seen in a film. Nothing new was brought to the table with a female actress replacing the male Jimmy Olsen. A male actor could have played the same role and could have done just as good a job as the female actress. Finally, although I love Amy Adams in The Fighter, she played a Lois that was wet behind the ears. She seemed quite moralistic which played into the film’s theme of how Superman is shaped by those around him. But she didn’t have the spunk or defining edge that other actresses such as Margot Kidder or Teri Hatcher brought to the role in the past.
Secondly, I really don’t like the tone of Nolan’s films. Especially not what he does with my two favourite comic book characters. His way of filmmaking is highly overrated if you ask me. By trying to make Superman into a truly believable character that could exist in our world, he mutes the actual believable nature of Superman. That is, Nolan’s tone clashes with the very notion of Superman as a bright ideal of the best humanity can possibly be. Nolan tries to bring this about in the film but it is executed in a way that makes the film cold and hollow. This coldness also comes from the added sci fi tone of the film injected into it. It severely lacks the heart and substance of what makes Superman the character he is. There isn’t any lightness or friendliness to this Superman. Nor is there a gentility or friendliness to the character that the first two Superman films captured in an abundance. Nolan seems to ignore the sincerity of the values that Superman stands for. Instead, he opts for a bleak, morally ambiguous introspective look at Superman. And Superman is not about moral ambiguity but moral certainty. He has been raised by the Kents who instilled within him one of the strongest ethical compasses seen in a fictional character. He does not worry what the right thing to do is because he unquestionably knows how to act on it. He can face opposition and doubts, that’s not what I’m objecting to. What I am objecting to is that Superman can’t seem to grasp what the right thing to do is when the essence of his character is about doing the right thing.
Furthermore, the story doesn’t lend itself to the film. Despite the first two thirds being the better part, it still jumps around from flashback to present back to a flashaback etc. It really bemused me that Goyer was unable to keep a steady flow or focus on the story, instead opting for a confusing jump around. I would have liked to seen a more concise structure to the story that kept the viewers engaged and focused on events rather than moving backwards and forwards to different parts of the story. What’s more, the story’s structure is very poorly paced. We have exposition, origin and character introductions in the first part of the film. Then, in the last part, we have the action packed invasion of the Phantom Zone escapees. It’s poorly paced and doesn’t move as succinctly as it should do. I would have preferred it if the action sequences weren’t left until the last minute so that the last part of the film didn’t feel as shallow as it did. And the themes were not subtly placed at all. Take the ridiculous religious imagery for example. Clark goes to see a reverend (who according to the Easter Egg details on a website was Father Leone from For Tomorrow. Nice.) and is positioned right behind a stained window of Jesus. It just seems detrimental to Superman to even think of linking him to any religious doctrine. Yes I know Superman was created by two Jewish teenagers and that the parallels between the biblical story of Moses is evident but Superman has outgrown that now. He represents the best of humanity, the ideal human nature that we should all strive towards. He should not be bogged down in stupid Jesus comparisons. And I am really not a fan of how seemingly everyone knows who Superman is. Lois, Father Leone, hell he even says he’s from Kansas to General Swanwick! Talk about giving away personal information. He may as well discard the Clark Kent disguise since everyone knows who he is. As Lois now knows who Clark is, it removes the relationship present in the earlier comics that made the pairing of Lois and Clark so charming in their trying to one up each other along with the suspicion surrounding Clark. Now that can’t come into play which is a real shame.
Finally, this film’s greatest sin is not understanding the core of Superman’s character. As I said earlier, Nolan’s tone along with the sci fi feel of the film makes Superman’s character cold, hollow and kind of hopeless. To use the words of my mother after seeing the film, Superman comes across as nothing more than a glorified super soldier. There is no sense of him being the protector of humanity when his battles with the Kryptonians destroy more buildings and probably (if we’re being realistic as Nolan likes to be) killed far more people than he saved. Seriously, Metropolis is a blooming wreck after Superman and Zod fought in it. What exactly is Superman the protector of now, a construction site? Also I didn’t get the sincerity of Superman’s values in this film nor a friendliness or being able to approach this character. I wanted to be inspired, I wanted to root for my all time favourite superhero on this big screen appearance of his. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. There was hardly anything of my all time favourite fictional character on there. Especially not after THAT SCENE. Let me tell you what I was thinking beforehand. As Superman had Zod in a choke hold and Zod’s heat vision was edging ever closer towards the family, I was thinking “This’ll be where he shows us that there’s always another way to solve our problems, a better way that we can aspire to. He wouldn’t break...” And then I heard Zod’s neck snap. I almost shouted “No!” in the theatre and a few of the people sitting next to me gave me funny looks which prompted in a short snap from my mother not to be so dramatic. But that was when my heart broke. This is going to cause some major disagreement when you read this but Superman does not kill. Not even as a last resort. I’m sorry but that is not the character is at all about. At the core of his character, Superman’s greatest strength and most appealing characteristic is his ethical compass. It is one built on his upbringing by the Kents as salt of the earth people who raised their child to be as special and as principled as they could. This was so when he grew up, he could shoulder the weight of the world on his shoulders. That ethical compass never came across in Man of Steel and if you don’t get Superman’s ethical compass right, you don’t get the right Superman film. At all. And for those who say that was the only way he could stop Zod, what about throwing him away, punching him, kicking him, flying high up into the sky? Those are 3 things off the top of my head and I’m hardly a good writer. Goyer had a duty to write Superman better than this and if it wasn’t him who ordered Superman’s killing of Zod, then whoever did has earned my ire at destroying the essence of what makes Superman who he is. And for those of you who cite the times Superman has killed in the comics, I’ll debunk those in the comments.
Overall, I was tempted to give this a a lower score and do away with the DC Cinematic Universe. When I came out of the cinema, I was disappointed, despondent and incredibly frustrated. Tell me something, is that how you’re supposed to feel coming out of a Superman film? Frankly, I’d be surprised if the answer was yes. But that be fair to the strengths of the film. It’s just that I came in with high expectations. The trailers lulled me into thinking this would be an epic film. And I was sorely let down as a Superman fan. This character means the world to me and I don’t entirely like this interpretation of him. It’s a decent film though but it’s far from a good film, let alone a great or phenomenal film. Whilst there is potential for improvement, the flaws in this film are crippling and it would be a tough job to fix them so that I would be more pleased with the sequel.
Final Score: 6/10 (originally a 7/10)