At the Movies: Man of Steel

There’s no denying that Zack Snyder (director), Christopher Nolan (producer),  David S. Goyer (writer) and Warner Bros. (studio) have done everything in their power to make the latest Superman movie an epic, action-packed, star-studded, special-effects extravaganza.

And in many respects they succeed. It’s certainly more exciting and visually impressive than any previous Superman film. So why do I hesitate to give it my full support? Because in a couple of key areas, it’s just not my Superman.

The movie opens on poor, doomed Krypton. But this isn’t your father’s — or Richard Donner’s — Krypton. The icy, glassy Krypton of the ’70s has been replaced by something earthier. In fact, the first half-hour of the movie looks and feels more like something out of “Heavy Metal” magazine than anything published by DC Comics.

The story, as if you don’t know: Scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) warns the unbelieving leaders of Krypton that their planet is about to explode. General Zod (Michael Shannon) picks that moment to stage a coup (why he wants to take over a planet that’s about to explode isn’t clearly explained). Jor-El and wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) place their newborn son Kal-El into a small spaceship and shoot it towards the nearest inhabitable planet — Earth.

man-of-steel-posterZod’s coup is thwarted and he and his cohorts are shipped off to the Phantom Zone, just in time to avoid being killed along with every other Kryptonian when the planet blows up.

Meanwhile, Kal’s spaceship lands in Kansas and the baby is taken in by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). At this point the film shifts from linear storytelling as we witness adult Kal/Clark (Henry Cavill) wandering the earth, secretly doing good with occasional flashbacks to his upbringing.

Clark’s escapades eventually draw the attention of reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who manages to track him down just as Zod arrives to claim the planet as the new Krypton.

“Man of Steel” is a very long (almost 2.5 hours) and very serious take on the classic superhero story. There’s none of the silliness of the Christopher Reeve movies. While it’s a refreshing new way of looking at Superman, there are areas where it’s too dark.

First up: Pa Kent is all wrong. Nothing against Kevin Costner, he’s fine. It’s the character’s motivation that’s off. And Jonathan’s final fate is just so wrong, especially in how it portrays young Clark.

The other major red flag involves the final fate of Zod. I don’t expect that of Superman. I don’t even expect that of Batman, and he’s supposed to be grim and gritty.

As to other problems — the emphasis on spectacle is not balanced by an equal interest in character development. Most of the cast isn’t given much to do and it’s hard care about characters when you don’t know who they are. And the destruction of Metropolis is so severe you have to wonder why Superman and Zod aren’t tripping over dead bodies while they’re duking it out.

On the positive side, Cavill makes a decent Man of Steel and the rest of the cast are fine. The storytelling is choppy but easy to follow. We’re spared Lex Luthor, at least until the sequel.

Of course the biggest improvement is in the special effects and fight scenes. Snyder really delivers a super knock-down, drag-out fight for the ages. Not only will you believe a man can fly, but he can fly at supersonic speeds and punch people through buildings. This movie more than makes up for the lack of action of “Superman Returns.”

In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the inevitable sequel will top this for mass destruction and mayhem. But maybe they’ll make up for it by spending more time letting us get to know the characters.

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