"They say it's all downhill after the first kiss."
Superman has a long, storied history on screens both big & small, and with the exception of Richard Donner's original 1978 Superman: The Movie, virtually every live action incarnation of the big, blue boy scout has been met with indifference. Sure, Superman II, Smallville, Superman Returns, and the like all have their defenders and apologists, but there is no universally beloved film version of Krypton's last son. This makes the prospect of a reboot in this day and age all the more precarious, even when it's masterminded by Christopher Nolan, the architect of most recent cinematic love affair with Batman.
Putting Nolan at the helm would have been a mistake, so Warner Brothers turned to their other in-house "visionary" Zack Snyder, the guy behind the film versions of 300 & Watchmen. Armed with a script by Batman Begins scribe David S. Goyer, could Snyder be the man to finally give the people the Superman film they've been pining for since the year before I was born?
There is no easy answer to that question. For me, the answer is not really, but I have a feeling that this film will reignite the dormant passions of the average filmgoer for The Man of Tomorrow. It's noisy, action-packed, chaotic, and so full of religious overtones, it won't help but play like gangbusters in the bible belt & flyover states alike. But for Superman fans who long for a great story to hang all those various effects on, this is not the film for us.
Man of Steel is the very definition of a reboot. It's not beholden to any of the Superman films that came before it (the biggest issue most people had with Bryan Singer's 2006 attempt to bring Kal-El back to the big screen). The film opens with the birth of Kal-El on the dying planet of Krypton. His father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is the leading scientist on the planet, and is finding his pleas to the elders of the planet that it's demise is at hand, to be falling on deaf ears. The chief military officer of the planet, Zod (Michael Shannon), seeks to use an ancient Kryptonian artifact to rebirth his people on another inhabitable planet, but faces resistance from Jor-El, who has secretly used the artifact to get his infant son off of the dying planet.
We then flash-forward to an adult Kal-El, now going by the name of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), moving across the country in search of a home to call his own. Through flashback, we are introduced to his struggles in his early life, and we witness the unconditional love given to him by his adoptive parents Jonathan & Martha Kent (Kevin Costner & Diane Lane). Somewhere in the Arctic, Clark discovers a ship that once belonged to Krypton, which becomes his de facto Fortress of Solitude, but it is also discovered by the US Military, and a nosy reporter by the name of Lois Lane (Amy Adams). After an encounter in which Clark saves Lois' life, she becomes curious about unearthing the history behind this man who is clearly not human.
Aboard the ship, Clark discovers his birthright, thanks to a simulation program that allows him to communicate with his long dead father, Jor-El. He dons his iconic blue suit, and begins to harness his powers. Simultaneously, Zod and his crew have broken out of The Phantom Zone where they had been imprisoned for treason, and have traced Kal-El to Earth. They give him an ultimatum, surrender or perish with the inhabitants of Earth. When Kal-El surrenders, he discovers Zod's true plans, and must come to terms with whether or not to stop him from destroying Earth.
I'm exhausted after just summarizing the plot, which is somewhat indicative of one of my biggest issues with Man of Steel, it's just not a very good story. It's an interesting collision of lots of ideas from the Superman mythos, but it's just not interesting enough to hang a 140 minute movie on. Superman's arc is interesting enough, but the best moments in it all take place before he becomes Superman. The flashbacks to his childhood are where the film really flourishes, and we only get glimpses of it here and there.
The most pressing issue that the film has is that it's got, for lack of a better term, severe attention deficit issues. The film doesn't go more than ten minutes without an action beat, and the opening sequence set on Krypton was like something straight out of George Lucas' woefully misguided cgi-dependent Star Wars prequels. Russell Crowe rides on a space dragon and there are floating communication devices, and laser guns and the film just seems to want to throw all manner of nonsense at the audience right off the bat. While it never gets worse than this, the last forty minutes of the movie are a non-stop tornado of destruction. So many buildings are demolished and there are so many explosions, you could be forgiven for thinking you're just watching the latest Transformers movie. It's borderline impossible to follow the action, and worse yet, the 3D is not used in any sort of interesting way. I truly do not know why this film was released in 3D, Snyder does absolutely nothing innovative with the technology.
You could likewise be forgiven for thinking that I didn't like the film based on those last two paragraphs, but the film is not a total wash. There are some genuinely good moments in the film, but they're hurried off the screen to make room for another interminable action sequence. And don't even get me started on the overt attempts to turn Superman into some sort of messianic, Christ-like figure. There is actually a scene where he says to Jor-El, "I can save them," and then jumps out of a spaceship and holds in the air, posing like Christ on the cross before zooming away to save Earth. I was willing to forgive his discussion with a priest in which Kal-El is framed in the shot with a stained glass Jesus over his right shoulder, but stop being so obvious.
What can one truly say about the performances in a film like this? At least in a film like Batman Begins, there were enough quiet, character moments in which the actors could thrive. Here, they're given literal moments to establish their characters before punching one another through concrete. Henry Cavill is fine, if bland, as Kal-El. He's no Brandon Routh, but he's not even close to Christopher Reeve status. Amy Adams is similarly fine as Lois Lane, certainly given more to do than previous incarnations of the character, but still not a whole hell of a lot in the grand scheme of things. Michael Shannon is one of the best actors working today, and he does the best he can with the shoddy material that he's given, but he does manage to create a character that has some depth and dimension to him.
And now, brace yourselves for the phrase I never thought I'd commit to words: Kevin Costner gives far and away the best performance in the entire film. His four or five scenes as Jonathan Kent are fantastic, and both he and Diane Lane manage to ground the film in genuine emotion during their scenes. It's almost a pity this weren't a straight, linear origin story, because I would have truly liked to have spent more time in their company.
Man of Steel is not a total failure. It manages to be entertaining and emotional, in spite of its numerous attempts to undercut those two things. Zack Snyder was a poor choice to direct this film, because he doesn't know how to do anything well but action, and even his action sequences were exhausting and derivative. There is a great Superman film that has yet to be made, and I have hope that this film lays the groundwork for a great film yet to come, but this is certainly not it. If nothing else, the film will make you long for the days when filmmakers didn't listen to the general public's demands for bigger, faster, louder, more, and just got down to brass tacks and focused on telling a good story.
GO Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]