What I'm Watching: Man of Steel
The summer of superheroes continues! Or whatever.
Naturally, I've seen all the Superman movies, and was one of the few people that liked Superman Returns. It wasn't great, but I feel it got treated unfairly. It was a bit too beholden to the movies that came before, sticking with the continuity, at least of the first two movies. It was simply too reverent of that material, and never stood on its own, and was still too mired in an older style that just did not suit it.
And with this new movie, they handed the reins over to Zach Snyder, who can be very hit or miss. 300 was big, dumb fun. Watchmen was a blast, held very close to the source material, but missed the mark in some ways, and Sucker Punch was a bloody mess.
So, I came into Man of Steel with cautious optimism, like I suspect many fans did. Snyder can be an amazing, visionary filmmaker, he's a comics fan of some note, but Superman has a lot of baggage, good and bad, and they were making questionable changes that did not fill people with trust and joy.
Possibly with that mindset, without expecting much from the movie, I came away with an opinion that may well be seen as blasphemy amongst movie and comic fans alike.
This was the best Superman movie that has ever been made.
Now, don't get me wrong. We all love those original movies. But really. Let's be serious. They may well be classics, they showed us what could be done with the genre, but let's face it. They are dated. They are very much products of their time. They may have treated the source material with some level of seriousness, they also carried over some of the camp that was rampant in the medium in the late 70s and early 80s. Superman and Superman II may well be great movies, but they are also kinda goofy at times.
Man of Steel brings a new level of maturity and seriousness to the franchise, and that is both good, and bad. When you're dealing with a guy who wears his underwear on the outside, you gotta expect things to not be perfectly serious, nor should they be. Of course, they lost the boxers, so that kinda gives you a hint of the tone they're going for here.
The movie is darker than you might expect, but not as dark or serious as say, the Dark Knight films. This is about as dark as you could get away with making Superman, and have it still feel like a Superman movie. It loses a lot of the joy and fun of the property because of that, but it has some moments, and it fits with what they're trying to do here, and drag the big blue boy scout into the 21st Century. It mostly works, but not having that lighter tone does hurt it, in the long run. Superman is still Superman, but he's a little too dour. That thankfully feels changed by the end of the movie, and they might be a bit more open to something closer to what we'd expect in future sequels.
Man of Steel is packed with information, starting over from scratch, and that is probably for the best. Superman Returns spent too much time honouring the past, and the movie never stood on its own. It's like they went down the checklist of things every Superman movie had up to that point and ticked each box. MoS tossed aside all expectations, and forged ahead, and really did become its own thing. This was the best choice they could have made. It allows them to exist as their own franchise, and not be beholden to everything Richard Donner did. There is almost no references to past movies, save for familiar characters, and that is just fine.
It was such a relief that this movie did NOT have a Phantom Zone that was a floating, flat square. Not once did anyone come close to saying, "Kneel before Zod!" There was no John Williams score. Not even a piece of Kryptonite reared its glowing emerald head in this movie. This made the movie refreshing, and stand as its own movie.
I do wish the movie had been a little tighter. It spent far too much time on Krypton, with a nearly ten minute long opening scene there. But this is forgivable, as Russell Crowe is amazing as Superman's father, Jor-El. Michael Shannon also gives a great performance as Zod, although he does have a few scenes of wince-worthy scenery chewing. But fortunately, they are very few. The style set forth by the opening also helps the movie be its own creature. This is a unique Krypton, with its own design aesthetic, and I loved the design. There was nothing overly familiar, and it truly felt like an alien world with technology that made sense, while still being so far beyond our abilities.
Being a new first movie in a franchise, we of course get the dreaded origin story, which I've ranted on at length everywhere online. But this movie only hits the high points, and fortunately spreads them out over the course of the movie. After the overlong Kryptonian opening, it would have been terrible to spend the next half hour watching young Clark grow and discover his powers. We don't need that. We may need the scenes for context, and make us understand this take on Clark and his worldview, but the movie does the smart thing and places these scenes throughout the movie as flashbacks, showing them only when the movie needs them for context and reflection on current events, properly building the narrative and characters with the smartly dropped background information at opportune times. It is a careful balancing act to try and pull off, and the movie succeeds at it, although they do sometimes slow the movie down a bit too much, as well as covering a lot of the same ground.
Which is the movie's biggest problem; it likes to drop its big ideas on you over and over again. There's a common idea of the 'rule of threes' in writing, and this movie felt more like 'the rule of sixes' with how often they liked to tell us things. This didn't bother me so much, but it can get a bit to the point of wanting to shout, "Get on with it!!" for others.
Henry Cavill is perfectly cast as Superman. He stands right up there with Christopher Reeve. He has that presence of character, that gravitas, and yet that gentleness a Superman needs. He somehow embodies being a virtual God, and yet also the everyman all at once. And he has that look. Brandon Routh was perfectly cast as Clark, but he never quite embodies Superman as believably, for me. Cavill does a good job of showing Clark slowly discovering his powers, both with joy and terror and a mix of frustration at times. At least, when it's not kid Clark discovering his powers.
The depiction of powers was also handled well. I do indeed believe a man can fly, more than I have in other Superman movies. The x-ray vision was well done, even if it was never truly used. It looked great. Superspeed was handled well, and superhearing is the easiest effect of all, isn't it? And all of these being used in the action scenes was great to watch. The use of powers, and finally having a movie where Superman could cut loose was so much fun. Because someone remembered he has villains outside of Lex Luthor that he can actually punch and not decapitate.
Amy Adams as Lois Lane...she may well be the best Lois ever. Certainly for the movies. Adams brings all of her acting chops to the role, and they actually gave her a great version of Lois to play. She is not passive, she is not meek, she is a real reporter, and they let her be that way. She spends the early part of the movie actually investigating these urban legends of a mystery saviour that lead her around the world. They could have easily had Superman arrive at any point and make her stop, never finding out who he is beyond being a strange visitor from another world. But no, they let her go all the way, they let her use her skills to their ultimate conclusion, and allow her, all on her own and with her own ability, go right up to the Kent farm and discover completely who Superman really is.
Yes, this Lois is no fool that claims to be a reporter, yet is fooled by a simple pair of glasses. She knows who Superman is, before he even IS Superman. And she figured it out herself, with no one having to tell her. She also helps move the plot and action along, and is rarely there as just a damsel in distress. Very well done.
A lot of talk is going to be made about Superman's dispatching of Zod. There will be many cries of, "Superman doesn't kill!" and really, that's never been true. I can even point to an instance in comics where he killed another General Zod. But, killing should be Superman's last resort. He should try everything else first. And then try it again. That taking of a life should be the absolute last, and most necessary thing he ever has to do, and it should be the worst decision he can make. The movie ALMOST earns that, mostly thanks to the destruction Zod wreaks upon the planet, and knowing there truly is no other way to deal with him. If Zod had appeared a few years down the road after Superman appeared, they may have had means to deal with him, or Kryptonite to keep him under control, but it was clear that NO ONE was prepared to do anything about him, save for that final action. The only thing that was lacking was how quickly they did get to that necessary point, and how it affected Clark, save for his very immediate reaction, which was just about right, but not nearly enough.
It was also nice that they actually gave Zod some proper motivation. He wasn't just a villain for villainy's sake. He was a patriot of Krypton, which actually works well with Superman's typical stance of "truth, justice, and the American way". It's a good counterpoint, and part of why he works so well. They don't quite make him sympathetic, but they do make him understandable. He truly believe he was doing the best thing at all times for his lost people, and he just didn't care about the unevolved monkeys Kal had made a home with.
The movie has its share of flaws, though. It does have a few too many messages it tries to convey, and never quite perfecting one. The clearest being, where does Clark fit in? Fortunately, he finds his answer, and that is likely the most satisfying theme in the movie. And again, it does cover the same ground repeatedly. There's also, as you will have with ANY movie, its share of plotholes. But if you're along for the ride, there's nothing too majorly crazy or stupid to ruin things.
The biggest plot failure is a moment of, "Well, why didn't Superman just do that to begin with??" to stop a threat to the planet. But they were going for the epic overcoming of a great force, and a moment of triumph, and while it IS that moment, they never quite earned it as well as other moments.
So, the movie brings a newfound level of maturity to Superman, while missing the ultimate point of Superman. But not by a wide margin, and you can almost let it slide as this being the building blocks that will one day give us the Superman we are more familiar with. The usual comicbookiness of plot logic rears its ugly head, but nothing quite as silly as a giant cellophane S that ensnares the villains.
Man of Steel succeeds in refreshing the Superman franchise, making for a thrilling action movie that is maybe too much of an action movie for its own good. The drama is good, if overblown at times, but still it all makes for a very enjoyable movie. If you're a fan of Superman, or comicbook movies, this is definitely a must see movie, and as long as you don't expect Christopher Reeve and something from the 80s, you should have a great time.