Title: Man of Steel
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David S. Goyer, Based on Superman by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring: Henry Cavill, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff Release Date: June 14, 2013
MPAA: Rated PG-13
Welcome back to the next installment of Movie Mondays’ look at SUPERMAN! This year is the 75th anniversary of the character, after all, and this month marks his return to the silver screen, with Man of Steel. Does the man of steel have the mettle (see? mettle, metal, steel? Okay no more puns!) to make it as a movie? Let’s get right to it, shall we?
Man of Steel tells the story of Superman from his birth on Krypton to his childhood on Earth being raised by his adoptive parents, to his first major adventure as a superhero. Now, instead of telling this seemingly long origin story in a drawn-out linear fashion, this film gets right to the core of the story, with the origin kicking things off and resuming throughout the film by way of flashbacks whenever it relates to the story.
This film starts off by throwing you right into the action. Now, starting a film ‘in medias res’ is a risky storytelling technique, and should not be attempted by all storytellers, but with director Zack Snyder’s film it works. It pulls the viewer in and gets them invested in these characters even though they know nothing about them, because the viewer is now part of the scene. It’s not an easy task, but the pay-off is great, and it pays off nicely in this film. We start with Superman’s birth-parents Jor-El and Lara (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) on Krypton, dealing with a number of crises all at once from a military coup led by General Zod (Michael Shannon) to their planet’s imminent destruction, all the while trying to save their newborn son.
Just like the comic book, Superman: Birthright, the story jumps straight from baby Kal-El’s rocket ship landing in Kansas to adult Kal-El (aka Clark Kent) living his life. With parallel storytelling the viewer is treated to his current life, meeting Lois Lane, searching for his identity, discovering his destiny, alongside his childhood, growing up in Smallville, dealing with school and bullies, discovering his powers, and learning from his new parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).
These first two acts introduce our entire cast. All of whom give outstanding performances, no matter how small any given role might be. Female leads Martha, Lois, and Lara give strong performances. Lara presenting quiet dignity and grace, Lois full of resolve and gumption, and Martha being equally protective and brave. But the standout female cast member is Antje Traue as Faora, both beauty and a beast, calculating and malevolent in every scene she’s in. Kevin Costner delivers a heartfelt, warm portrayal of an overly protective father in conflict with his own sense of morality.
The best performances in the film come from Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Michael Shannon as the villainous Zod. Shannon brings so much depth to his role. No longer is Zod a two-dimensional villain who’s just evil for evil’s sake. Now he has a new found emotional depth and a sympathetic side, making him a fully developed character. Russell Crowe absolutely steals the show, however. Gone is the stoic motionless Jor-El, here is the charming, active, new and improved Jor-El, both loving father and every bit the action hero that his son becomes.
To say that Costner, Crowe, and Shannon give stand-out performances is no knock against Henry Cavill’s turn as Superman. He takes the role to soaring heights (had to have at least one pun). He portrays Clark as caring yet conflicted, at odds with himself. He portrays Superman as strong, confident, and commanding, yet charming and comforting. Like every actor to play the role before him, he offers a new take on the character and makes it his own.
The story is quite fantastic, full of moral dilemmas, drama, and character depth. Not only is the story fantastic, but the storytelling is rather superb as well, with excellent pacing and never a dull moment. The one place the story suffers is during the third act. At this point, Zod attacks the Earth with what he calls the World Engine, a “weapon” designed to destroy the Earth and rebuild it into a new Krypton for him to rule. Superman’s attempts to destroy the World Engine and his final confrontation with Zod go on a little too long and lean too far toward disaster-movie territory. Thankfully, the emotional payoff at the end presents an emotional climax well worth the wait, which will leave audiences as exhausted, astonished, and distraught as our hero.
Hans Zimmer’s score is rather impressive as well, with spectacular and bombastic pieces to accompany the action sequences, but soft and beautiful motifs accompanying the quiet, more poignant moments. The two most notable pieces are the leitmotif for Superman and the slow piano theme that plays for his parents. Whether underscoring General Zod’s rage or Martha Kent looking at a family album, the music is always powerful and moving.
This film is not without its flaws, however. Cinematographer Amir Mokri, and whoever else was responsible for the camerawork on this film, should never be allowed to work in this industry again. Nearly constant shaky cam from start to finish, even when people are standing completely still having a conversation, is inexcusable, and is a growing trend in film-making that needs to stop. Beautiful sweeping shots and panoramic vistas are replaced by jittery, nausea-inducing frenetic camera jerks. Every once in a while the camera becomes still, and when it does, the imagery is glorious, which only makes it more noticeable and unforgivable when the camera goes crazy again.
And lens flares, damn it all to hell, lens flares should be listed as a starring cast member. Lens flares and handheld cameras do NOT add to the sense of Cinéma vérité of the film, they’re just annoying.
Every person who worked on costuming and set design should band together and beat anyone who had a part in this film’s cinematography. Detailed sets and beautiful landscapes can be glimpsed every so often as the camera briefly settles down. The same goes for the costuming. When the costumes are on display, the level of detail and beauty is jaw-dropping. Kryptonian clothing features ceremonial robes full of deep blues and golds, black crushed velvet, chain mail-like under-armor, and battle armors that recall medieval armor made of organic alien material molded from metal and bone. Costumes are full of little details, that just bring the world to life.
One final gripe is minor. So minor in fact, that many people won’t notice or care. But it’s an issue one should remark upon nonetheless. During one brief scene, Clark/Superman is shown drinking a beer. Superman does not drink. Period. This is so integral a part of his character that DC Comics issued a recall of the comic Superman: Secret Origin correcting an image of Clark with a bottle to make it more obvious that it was a ROOT BEER and not BEER in his hand.
Overall, this new outing does a lot for a franchise in serious need of being revitalized, bringing these characters to the big screen for a new generation of fans, while providing outstanding action and great characterization. With plenty of elements pulled directly from John Byrne’s Superman: The Man of Steel, such as the robot Kelex; and storytelling devices and plot-points pulled directly out of Superman: Earth One, there are nods to the source material to make fans happy. Unfortunately, lousy camerawork, nonexistent cinematography, and an overabundance of lens flares keep it from being perfect. This film earns a much deserved 8 out of 10.