Mark Reviews Movies

Man of Steel

MAN OF STEEL

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Zack Snyder

Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Kevin Costner

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language)

Running Time: 2:23

Release Date: 6/14/13


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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 13, 2013

Man of Steel expands or adjusts almost everything about the mythology of Superman, save for one important detail, and that's Superman himself. First, let's all agree on the fact that Superman is rather dull. Yes, it's great that he fights for truth, justice, the American way, and all that, and yes, it's fine that he, despite not being human, serves as an example for the best that human beings could be—if only we developed the means to fly, exert incredible strength, shoot heat beams from their eyes, see with X-ray vision, and so on with all the rest.

The superpowers are neat, but they're only half of what makes Superman tick. The other half is his alter ego, the unassuming Clark Kent.

Neither persona can exist on its own; it's the juxtaposition of the two that makes the character work. In Man of Steel, the only difference between Superman and Clark is the costume. David S. Goyer's screenplay is set in a period before Clark learns to be the timid Clark, intrepid reporter for a big city newspaper who wears glasses and changes his hair to ensure no one realizes he's really a superhero. Instead, this Clark is just a stoic worrywart, torn between his life growing up on a Kansas farm and his origin as an alien from another planet that has since been destroyed.

Clark's attitude here is really no different than the one he assumes when he puts on the body suit with an "S" on the chest (On his original world, he says, the insignia means "hope") and cape. He's deadly serious and leaps into action whenever he spots people in trouble, like when he holds up a collapsing oil rig to give the workers a chance to escape. He just hasn't learned to fly.

The movie suggests that the burden (and, in the story's ultimate standoff with the central villain, the tragedy) of Superman is that he cannot stop himself from helping others. Given that he's basically invincible (Any threat to his invincibility—here, the recreation of the atmosphere of his home planet—is dismissed in order to resolve the conflict as quickly as it's introduced to create a false sense of tension), this isn't too much of a burden. It's why Superman, without the counterbalance of the Clark Kent persona, isn't that interesting.

Clark/Superman, known to the inhabitants of his home planet as Kal-El, is played by Henry Cavill, an imposing physical presence who doesn't exude much personality but doesn't need to for this version of the character. Cavill denotes the change between Clark and Superman by adopting the cadence and tone of an actor from the serials of old—a nice touch.

He doesn't appear until the conclusion of an extended prologue that follows the adventures of his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a very important man on Krypton who warns his fellow important people that their planet is about to die a spectacular death (He later turns up as a literal deus ex machina). He flies around on a winged beast to retrieve the records of their species, handily collected into a skull. Before the planet meets its doom, General Zod (Michael Shannon, wild-eyed and chewing on every, sometimes-ridiculous line) has decided to start a coup, which is a far less opportune idea than the data-infused skull. Zod and his allies are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, and after baby Kal-El is shipped off to Earth, Krypton explodes.

We already know all of this, and the inclusion of chases, fights, and special effects only serves to make it more superfluous. We also know of young Clark's discovery of his powers, relayed here in flashback scenes of a frightened and confused Clark (at least he has some personality in these scenes) with his adoptive parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Clark meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams, possessing the required spark), and Zod returns, looking to turn Earth into a new Krypton. At some point in between, Clark learns his origins and decides to try to fly.

In regards to the flying, a funny thing occurs when Clark, now Superman, does so. He smiles. It's infectious, too, and director Zack Snyder gives us a lot of freewheeling camerawork that puts Superman in front of what looks like old-fashioned rear projection—flying over mountains and across the plains of the Serengeti. We have a sense of the unadulterated joy of the moment, and it's necessary, given that the rest of the movie works quite hard to drain all joy from the character and his abilities.

Those sequences, in which Superman fights Zod and his fellow Kryptonian soldiers, work in their own way, too. Snyder keeps the action moving fast—so fast, in fact, that the panning, zooming, and craning camera can barely keep up with the combatants. Punches send them flying hundreds of feet and crashing through buildings, which leaves Metropolis looking a lot like it does in Zod's plan to turn Earth into a wasteland.

Eventually, these scenes become overburdened by the nonsense at their core (The plan to stop Zod's scheme involves a Phantom Engine, which does something or other, and other alien technology, which does this, that, and the other). Man of Steel gives us some things we might never have expected from Superman but doesn't give the character what he needs to thrive.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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