On the planet Krypton, the elders have disrupted the planet’s core and caused it to begin to erupt. Everyone on the planet is doomed, except for a small, barely explained plot contrivance that allows one newborn baby to be launched in a pod and sent to another planet that will be hospitable to him, but where the atmosphere and density are different enough to provide him with extraordinary powers. Krypton explodes, but the baby arrives safely on Earth, where he lives his life as a loner, the last of his kind, until General Zod, an exiled Kryptonian soldier, and his crew discovers the baby – now a man named Clark – on Earth. Look, it’s fucking Superman, alright? You know what happens. Alien baby, adopted by Ma and Pa Kent, Dad dies, kid can fly, run really damn fast, x-ray laser vision, falls in love, glowing green rock, Daily Planet, threat against the planet, saves the world. Yadda yadda yadda.
I’m not a fan of Superman. Well, that was a short review. As a character, he does nothing for me – the fact that he can do pretty much everything (there’s a general rule that the only things he might not be able to do are things he hasn’t tried yet) means there’s never any real threat to him or the world he’s protecting, and it’s this omnipotence that has largely kept me away from the series. I really didn’t get on with Superman Returns, but then neither did most people, and I recently watched the original Superman The Movie from 1978 – but I’ll save my thoughts on that for another day, seeing as it’s on one of my lists to watch. So I may be a little pre-opinionated when it comes to this film, but I’ll try not to let that get in the way. It’s a good thing, then, that there’s plenty else wrong with the film for me to comment on instead.
The film similar opens on the planet of Krypton, which has a distinct videogame feel not dissimilar to the Star Wars prequels, given that every inch of the screen not taken up by an actor is entirely digital. There’s also random alien creatures and wildlife thrown in just for the heck of it – presumably to emphasise that we’re on an alien planet, but the floating computer communications devices (randomly and unnecessarily voiced by Carla Gugino) should be enough of a clue. Or the giant pool filled with babies encased in pods. I used to really admire entirely CGI environments and characters – it’s the reason I thoroughly enjoy Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake – but now I long for the days of ‘real’ effects, where animals were created with miniatures or puppets. I’m aware that a great deal of work and love goes into arranging the pixels to look like a fantastic beastie, but you just can’t beat a man operating a tyrannosaur’s jaws just out of shot. It also doesn’t help that the animals that Russell Crowe is interacting with reminded me a lot of something out of the Dark Crystal.
Ah yes, Russell Crowe, here playing Jor-El, the biological father of the man who would be super. The last I saw of Crowe he was busy being the worst thing in Les Miserables, but here in fact he does a splendid job. He has some pretty sizeable shoes to fill in taking on a role made infamous by Marlon Brando, but I really liked what Crowe did with it. His earthly counterpart is Clark’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, here played by Kevin Costner. This is truly inspired casting. Costner has all but dropped off the map in recent years, especially in terms of leading roles, but this, alongside his work in The Company Men, sees him being pigeonholed in the role he was born to play – the salt-of-the-earth American everyman; a simple, humble,straightforward guy with a seemingly bottomless well of inspiration quotes and life lessons to pass on to the less morally certain around him. As you can probably tell, Costner was great, it’s just a shame he wasn’t around long enough to make a huge impact. If this is a stepping stone to a career resurgence though, you can count me in.
In fact, almost the entire film is exceedingly well cast. Diane Lane is good but also underused as Martha Kent, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Michael Kelly and Harry Lennix are all reliably solid as military or government officials, and Amy Adams is decent enough as Lois Lane, although she wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped – something I’d feared ever since her casting decision. I’m normally a fan of hers, particularly in Enchanted, but here it just didn’t work. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there we go, and I didn’t think she had too much chemistry with the lead. What did work, though, was Michael motherfuckin’ Shannon. Anyone lucky enough to have met me will know the man crush I have on this guy, based almost entirely on his work in Boardwalk Empire. In fact, his involvement with this film was the primary reason I had for going to see it, along with Christopher Nolan’s producer credit, and to a lesser extent Zack Snyder’s directing one. Shannon plays General Zod, an iconic role that defined the career of Terrence Stamp. Fortunately for Shannon I don’t have Stamp’s portrayal in my memory to compare his to, but even if I did I’m sure I’d have still loved what he did. Shannon brought his now customary intensity to the role and created a terrifying, powerful villain who I found myself rooting for at various times, although this may have been because I wasn’t that big of a fan of Henry Cavill’s Superman. That’s not to say he did anything particularly wrong, it’s just that he didn’t really shine either. It’s fairly clear he was cast for his ability to have both pectoral muscles and a jawline reminiscent of a cliff face, but I didn’t find him likeable enough.
This is, after all, the gritty, darker Superman movie, as is now customary with superhero films. This may well be the most realistic film based on the adventures of Clark Kent yet, especially when you consider the world’s reactions to an alien life form – he is, after all, the proof of other intelligent life in the universe, in terms of the film – but there are some stories that just aren’t meant to be taking seriously. As far as I’m concerned – and I’ve already been corrected once by someone nerdier than myself – Superman is a character who doesn’t work in a serious film. There are far too inconsistencies within his mythology for it to be taken seriously, and this is something the earlier films – and the Adventures of Lois and Clark – understood. The idea of Superman is ludicrous, and as such you don’t go into the films expecting realism and integrity, you expect frivolity and entertainment. This is where Zack Snyder fits the image, but Christopher Nolan does not. And sad as it makes me, I must say that I’d rather Nolan hadn’t had a hand in this project, as I feel his presence is too great, not least in the non-linear narrative, splintering the story with flashbacks to Clark’s youth. There’s also Nolan’s now customary sparse use of humour. There is some, but it’s far too infrequent, and rarely funny enough.
My biggest gripe though, and this is something personal that I can’t hold against the film, more the saga, but I never felt a sense of danger to the world within the film. This is Superman, after all. He cannot be defeated, nor even wounded, so the many, many scenes that depict him scrapping with others or being placed in danger were ineffective and redundant, so certain was I that he would escape unscathed. This is partly due to the character, but also because of the severe lack of testicles in Hollywood. No-one would have the balls to kill off Superman in the first film of his reboot, and the cast is so dense that of course there’ll be more films – how else would they have secured Laurence Fishburne as Perry White? And speaking of Superman fighting people, there was just too much of it. Far too much. I needed to see at most two scenes in which two or more indestructible people attempted to beat seven shades of Kryptonite out of each other, but I was treated to far more than that. It’s never a good sign when you’re watching a film and just willing it to end, but this was very much the case here, and that’s predominantly due to the final fight that was entirely superfluous, especially as I’d already breathed a sigh of relief that the film had finally ended.
Man of Steel was obviously attempted to be noticeably different from the rest of the Superman franchise, in that it refreshes the origin story a little – there is no Fortress of Solitude, no reference to Kryptonite (although the guy is still weaker when in contact with Kryptonian atmosphere), no bespectacled alter ego. There’s not even a Jimmy Olsen! This was fine, as far as I was concerned, as I was thinking they weren’t even going to refer to him as Superman for the duration of the film, in the same way Anne Hathaway was never directly called Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises (one of the few things to do with her character that I approved of in that film). Alas, this all fell apart at the end, when the references and nods came flooding in, from the LexCorp logos dotted around Metropolis to the final pre-credits shot that told me that, no matter how seriously they seem to be taking this film, it’s still just as ridiculous as the story has ever been. You can’t have it both ways, so congratulations, you’ve got it neither.
This review is far more negative than I’d initially intended, but then the film was far less enjoyable than I’d hoped. This should have been the very definition of a giant summer blockbuster – exciting, entertaining, fun – but alas it was boring, lacklustre and dreary, much like the muted greys and browns of the colour palette. This is a comic book movie! Throw is some damn colours once in a while!
Choose life 5/10
Interesting review, but if you don’t mind, just a quick editor’s note: “Clark,” not “Clarke.” Perhaps you were thinking of Arthur C. Clarke, given how much emphasis “Man of Steel” placed on sci-fi tropes.
Thank you for the note. I was actually thinking of a friend of mine, whose first name is Clarke with an ‘e’, so I’ll forgive myself for that one (I’m still going to edit the post though).
Solid review Jay. It seems like this movie is making people more disappointed than anything, and that’s only because origin stories usually don’t work out to the best of the heroes ability. After awhile though, once the sequels get going, something tells me this story will be perfect. Until then, we have this.
Thanks Dan. I can’t say I was that disappointed – I didn’t really expect much from it to be honest – but I would have defiitely liked it to have been better. I’m certain that the second part will probably be better, especially now we know what to expect. Perfect may be a little strong though…
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