“Man of Steel” wants to look different from its famous senior which opened the door for all the subsequent superhero films, and I understand its intention. When several production logos were ominously introduced one by one at the start of the film, I was reminded of that moody and monochromatic tone of the main title scene of “Batman”(1989), and I immediately sensed its serious ambition to soar in a way different from that of “Superman”(1978) and its decent sequel “Superman II”(1980).
Too bad it does not soar as much as it intended or we wished. It is interesting to watch how “Man of Steel” tries to look and feel different while telling the origin story pretty familiar to many of us, but, to my disappointment, it does not have enough spirit to excite my heart. There are several nice visual moments to be enjoyed, and I cared about the story to some degrees, but almost everything in the movie is ultimately hurled into a big, overblown apocalyptic CGI climax which might have been transferred from Michael Bay’s abysmal Transformers sequels. Around that point, I lost most of my interest even though we can hope for better things to come when our mighty hero finally settles in Metropolis as a guy with two jobs in the end.
The movie begins in Planet Krypton which looks far, far different from its cold, abstract counterpart in the 1978 film. This alien world is bountifully decorated with exaggerated costumes and big production designs probably inspired by old pulpy SF fictions like “John Carter of Mars”, and I could not help but think of several video games when I saw those elaborate armors of its inhabitants. I am sure many of my high schoolmates who wasted their time on Starcraft will certainly be amused by the appearance of the high-tech military uniforms of Krypton.
Krypton’s lofty civilization is on the brink of its end due to its excessive advance through the reckless energy extraction from the planet core, and one of its scientist, Jor-El(Russell Crowe, who is less ponderous than Marlon Brando in the 1978 film and is as serious as he was in “Robin Hood”(2010)), knows it is already too late for them to avoid this catastrophe. He has a plan to preserve and reconstruct his race through his infant son Kal-El, who is naturally born by his wife Lara Lor-Van(Ayelet Zurer) in the opening scene, and he wants the official permission to proceed with his plan from the high officials of Krypton, but he quickly sees that he has to execute his plan by any means necessary when General Zod(Michael Shannon on a very, very, very volcanic mode) attempts a coup d’état with his surly band of soldiers. The movie usually switches to a hyperkinetic mode whenever there exists any slight amount of action on the screen, and I must say the inevitable destruction of Krypton feels like a weightless footnote compared to all the sound and fury coming before it.
A space pod loaded with Jor-El’s son and some device for reviving his race is safely shot to the space before this apocalypse, and the movie quickly moves its story to an adult Kal-El/Clark Kent(Henry Cavill) as soon as the pod crashes into the Earth. Although he has been hiding his super power from others as advised by his wise and generous Earth stepfather Jonathan Kent(Kevin Costner, who incidentally also played Robin Hood in “Robin Hood: Prince of the Thieves”(1991)), he is always to ready to use his power to save people, and he does not hesitate for a second when he encounters a desperate situation at a burning oil flatform.
As the movie frequently goes back to his past in Smallville through several flashbacks, the screenplay by David S. Goyer, who wrote the story for the recent Batman trilogy with the co-story writer/producer Christopher Nolan, handles the story as seriously and realistically as possible in spite of its inherent preposterousness. The movie has a gray tone seeping into everything in the story, and, like Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s Batman films, Clark Kent in this film has the issues to brood and agonize over – especially after he realizes he is a lot different from others. One scene involves his horror caused by the discovery of his ability to see through his teacher and classmates through his X-ray vision(isn’t it harmful to their health, by the way?), and I came to muse on how unexciting Superman’s daily life really is; seriously, it would be miserable to any human being to live with such overwhelming sensory overload every day.
Clark tries to remain unnoticed as much as he can, but it seems the time to reveal his power and identity in public is coming as his stepfather predicted. A big alien spaceship is found in the North Pole area, and, after he instinctively activates it, he learns about his origin and other things through the hologram image of his Kryptonian father, and now he is ready to wear that famous uniform and cape and then fly to the sky.
At the same time, he is coincidentally noticed by Lois Lane(Amy Adams), a young hotshot reporter of Daily Planet who happens to be around the site. Although nobody believes what she witnessed in the spaceship, our young feisty reporter is determined to find this mysterious guy, so she eagerly follows his trails for what may be the scoop of her lifetime.
But a far bigger scoop is approaching to her and everyone on the Earth. General Zod and his surly band of soldiers were released from their banishment when Krypton was destroyed, and they finally come to the Earth for finding Kal-El and, not so surprisingly, conquering the Earth. This is the point where the movie becomes far less interesting as many things are busily hurled, kicked, smashed, pulverized, and exploded on the screen with lots of sound effects and Hans Zimmer’s overpowering score. Its climax part is the massive destruction initiated at the center of Metropolis, and you will instantly think about 9/11 as watching the buildings collapsed and the people frantically running for safety on the street. The movie does not directly show it, but it is rather horrible to think about how many people die during this epic catastrophe.
The director Zack Snyder, who previously made “Watchmen”(2009) and “300”(2007), makes his movie look visually slick and polished. I liked the scene with a metallic mural painting style in which Jor-El tells about the long history of his perished civilization to his son, and the mental conversation scene between Kal-El and Zod has a striking shot when Kal-El faces the horrific aspect of Zod’s ruthless terraforming plan.
But, sadly, there is little fun or surprise in the process, and it gets more tedious and more sterile during its third act. What we get from its exhausting array of bloated actions during its last 50 minutes is your average CGI spectacle which goes only louder and bigger until it reaches to the finish line, and the story and characters are almost swept along with this mess. Superman and other Kryptonians are more or less than the CGI creatures which can do anything they want while not harmed much during their dizzy and frantic action scenes, and, to be frank with you, I do not know why the soldiers in the movie keep attacking Kryptonians even though it is pretty apparent that their bullets and rockets and other weapons are quite useless(but we can say they are as useful as, say, rubber bullets).
The best thing about the performances in the movie is that the actors acquit themselves well even when they are wasted and overshadowed by special effects. Henry Cavill wears the role nicely with a little more gravity; he looks good with his costume, and that is pretty enough for playing Superman, who is actually more of a symbol than a character. As his possible love interest, Amy Adams is charming as before; there is not much romantic interaction between her and Cavill mainly because too many things are happening around them, but I am curious about how their relationship will be developed in the possible sequel because, in this time, Lois Lane is a sharp girl who will not be fooled by Clark’s nerdy glasses(will it be a “don’t tell, don’t ask” romance, I wonder?).
While Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are appropriately cast as Superman’s humble Earth parents, Michael Shannon goes way over the top with admirable intensity as General Zod; he chews every scene of his so fanatically that you will believe a man can chew the Earth. Laurence Fishburne sternly holds his place on the ground as Perry White, the no-nonsense editor-in-chief of Daily Planet. His Perry White is less funny and colorful, but I guess we cannot possibly imagine a colorful and brash newspaperman working in the era of digital media.
“Man of Steel” is passable as a reboot film, but I am not sure about how much fun and excitement it will be able to draw from its darker and grittier approach a way different from the bright, optimistic, and innocent attitude of the 1978 film. As my friend Michael Mirasol once pointed out in his insightful essay “The Rise and Fall of Superhero”, Superman is its genre’s yang while Batman is its yin, and it is little awkward to see a simple superhero like Superman in a darker light which is more suitable to Batman and other more conflicted superheroes. It surely looks different, and I don’t mind about that, but are we really going to have a fun as promised in its ending? The movie surely swoops on us with all the power and resources it can amass – but it does not soar above its excess.