The movie had ended and the lights came up and despite how bad it was, I convinced myself that I liked it because it was a Superman movie. It wasn't until time and subsequent viewings that I realized I was simply starved for more Superman on screen and I was willing to take whatever was offered.
I'm speaking, of course, about 2006's Superman Returns, Bryan Singer's mediocre-at-best addition to the Superman mythos. I tell you this story because I was very much on my guard against this for Zack Snyder's Man of Steel. My expectations were so very high and I was starved again for seeing more Superman on screen (especially after Smallville ended). I went to the midnight showing and came out liking it a great deal. But before I could give it a thorough review, I went to see it again the next day.
Now I've gone from liking it to loving it.
Man of Steel is the retelling of the Superman origin. Because we've seen this before in previous films, some of the story beats feel familiar. But Zack Snyder, unlike Bryan Singer, makes a complete break from the Richard Donner aesthetic. Everything looks new and different. This version of Superman's father, Jor-El (played by the wonderfully understated Russell Crowe) is a dynamic man of action and conscience, unlike the stiff, stoic Brando version. He is at odds with his Kryptonian culture and its leaders, particularly General Zod (Michael Shannon). But in the midst of the chaos, Jor-El steals something called "the codex" and places it with his son Kal in his rocket to Earth.
The first half of the movie is very similar to the structure of Batman Begins, which is no surprise since it was written by the same man, David S. Goyer. In both films, the hero is seen wandering, trying to find himself and his place in this world. Clark (Henry Cavill) travels from one odd job to the next encountering what humanity has to offer (often not very nice). All the while he reflects on his time growing up in Smallville, being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). His journey eventually takes him to a government research station in the north where they are investigating an extra-terrestrial object. This also happens to be at the same time that investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) comes snooping in to get the real scoop. Needless to say, this sets off a series of events that bring Clark to the attention of the world as a hero and creates a confrontation with Zod and his fellow insurgents who survived Krypton's explosion.
Let me begin with the movie's negatives, of which there are 3.
First is the use of shakey-cam. I HATE shaky-cam. I find it a near-constant distraction. Watching this, I wondered if someone had stolen all of the tripods from the set and Snyder said, "Eh, forget it, let's film anyway." Actually, I know this approach was completely intentional on Snyder's part, whose style in movies like 300 and Watchmen is usually slick and smooth. Here, because the story is so fantastic, he believes that the use of handheld will give the movie a more realistic look. And to be sure, it does not look as artificial and polished as most movies today. The lighting is harsher and the colors tend to be muted, which make it feel much more like the real world than, say, Iron Man 3. I can see here the influence of The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, who acted as producer for Man of Steel. That cinematography and "realism" of that second Batman film can been felt in this movie. The shaking was nowhere near as bad as a Blair Witch Project or a Saving Private Ryan. But the constant shaking became very annoying.
Second, the narrative in the first half is very disjointed. Using the Batman Begins approach, Goyer writes a story that jumps around in time a lot. Not only that, but many of the scenes feel artificially truncated, as if there was more written and shot, but surgically removed for times sake (and seeing as how the movie is around 2 and a 1/2 hours as it is, I understand the concern). This becomes less of a problem on a second viewing. I think that Goyer wanted to avoid retreading on familiar ground as much as possible and instead wanted to focus on the emotional reality of Clark's journey.
Third, the supporting characters do not get enough screen time. Lois, Zod, and Jonathan Kent are all very strongly fleshed out. But most of the other supporting players like Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne) are only touched upon and given small character moments, but they are never fully developed. Again, the sense I get is that their scenes were there originally but were left on the cutting room floor.
Those are the 3 strongest areas of detraction I can find in this film. The rest of it soars.
Man of Steel is a true spectacle. This is where Snyder is the strongest. I spent much of the movie drinking in the visuals. When Zod and Superman first exchange blows, I got my money's worth from the film. I remember watching The Matrix Revolutions fight between Neo and Smith thinking that this would be cool if it was between Superman and Zod. Well, that fight has nothing on the climatic battle in Man of Steel. If you just want to see spectacular scenes of super people punching each other, this movie rocks. In the IMAX, you could feel each punch resonate through your chest.
I loved the performances in this film. Cavill has to carry a lot of this film with his looks. When Superman first appears, the American government believe he is a threat. What I noticed was that he had to use his body to convey strength and power, but his face always displayed a kind of gentleness to illicit trust. This kinesthetic schizophrenia is not easy to pull off. That is not to say he constantly has an "aw-shucks" face. He brings about amazing levels of intensity in the action sequences.
And, to my mind, Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane I have seen on screen. This Lois is not, naive or gullible. She is brave, smart, and conscientious. Because of this, Man of Steel throws out the old ways her relationship to Superman has been defined and forges a new path.
But the two best performances come from Michael Shannon and Kevin Costner. Shannon's Zod could be dismissed as over-the-top bordering on cartoonish, except for his complete commitment to the character with a fiery intensity that never abates. When he shouts "I WILL FIND HIM," it feels like the seething anger under his mind finally explodes. Someone pointed out the me that he has a stare of constant malice similar to Malcolm McDowell's in A Clockwork Orange. And unlike Terrence Stamps' Zod, Shannon's is oriented solely for the good of Kryptonian society.
Costner, though, is the emotional heart of the movie. In the few scenes he is in he breaks the heart. Not since Viggo Mortenson's performance in The Road have I seen such a worn down, burdened father on screen. He knows, like all fathers, that his words and actions will shape his child's soul. But he also knows that because Clark is a god among men, those choices will have resonances to the entire world. He looks both confident and lost. He conveys the sureness of a father, but underneath his eyes and in the quiver of his voice, you hear his fear at making the wrong choice. After Clark displays his power to save some people, Jonathan scolds him. When asked by Clark if he should have just let them die, Jonathan responds "Maybe." This could have been perceived as a a cold calculation. But Costner shows, very subtly, how much that horrible answer weighs on him and what it implies.
Thematically, the movie is very rich. Much has been made of the Christian imagery throughout the film, and it is there in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. As a devout Catholic, I LOVE the fact that before making a life-changing decision, Clark goes to Church and seeks the advice of priest. And the priest is not supernaturally wise or specially, but he gives the best advice he can in a very human way that resonates through the rest of the film. And I also got a little thrill to see that in a scene where some school bullies try to goad Clark into a fight, that he is reading the complete works of Plato! When was the last time you so Plato in a summer blockbuster? The movie also deals with issues of nature vs. nurture, free-will vs. determinism, fear vs. trust, etc.
Hans Zimmer's score is also fantastic. Nothing can touch the iconic John Williams work, but Zimmer makes the wise decision to follow none of the Williams' musical motifs and forges a path of his own. It is the best score I've heard all year, alternately sad and tender and then big and bellicose.
Days later, I still have the feel of Man of Steel lingering in the corner's of my imagination. Part of me can't wait to see it again and, even more so, anticipates the new adventures of Superman.
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars