US Release Date: 06-14-2013
Directed by: Zack Snyder
- Henry Cavill, as
- Clark Kent
- Amy Adams, as
- Lois Lane
- Michael Shannon, as
- General Zod
- Russell Crowe, as
- Kevin Costner, as
- Jonathan Kent
- Diane Lane, as
- Martha Kent
- Laurence Fishburne, as
- Perry White
- Antje Traue, as
- Harry Lennix, as
- General Swanwick
- Richard Schiff, as
- Dr. Emil Hamilton
- Christopher Meloni, as
- Colonel Nathan Hardy
- Ayelet Zurer, as
- Lara Lor-Van
- Dylan Sprayberry, as
- Young Clark Kent
- Cooper Timberline, as
- Young Clark Kent
- Richard Cetrone as
Henry Cavill and Amy Adams in Man of Steel.
Although Superman has been around since the 1930s in nearly every form of media known to humankind, including comic books, comic strips, cartoons, serials, a radio dramatic series, television shows and even a Broadway musical, Henry Cavill is just the 3rd man to don the cape and tights for a feature film. Some may argue that 1951's Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves, counts, but at just 58 minutes and shot in a mere 12 days, it hardly seems fair to consider it a full length feature, and was actually more of a theatrically released pilot that lead to a television series.
It wasn't until 1978's Superman: The Movie, starring then unknown Christopher Reeve, that the Kryptonian finally got the full-on movie treatment. Reeve would reprise the lead role in sequels released in 1980, 1983 and 1987. Despite many attempts and a host of different writers, directors and actors supposedly attached, another Superman movie wouldn't appear until 2006's under-appreciated Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh. Considered a disappointment, it would be the one time Routh took up the mantle and instead Warner Bros. would go back to the drawing board and this time do a complete reboot of the iconic character. The result is 2013's Man of Steel and while it may lack the heart of earlier films, it definitely doesn't skimp on spectacle.
Given the success of Christopher Nolan's Batman reboot, Warner Bros. looked to him to freshen up DC Comic's other major superhero. While Nolan didn't direct this film, he did produce and co-write it with his Dark Knight co-writer, David S. Goyer. Directing duties fell to Zack Snyder, most famous for directing 300 and Watchmen, another dark superhero film. Given their attachment, it's hardly surprising that this is a darker, grittier Superman than we normally see.
Gone are the primary colors, the underwear over the tights and there's nary a mention of Truth, Justice and the American way. This time around Clark Kent is a haunted figure. He knows that he's an alien and that he has great power, but he spends the first 33 years of his life hiding that power. His human father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), urged him to keep his powers hidden lest mankind discover his secret and turn on him out of fear. Clark is tormented and treats his powers as a burden for most of his early life, seeming to derive no joy at all from them. He's a fairly grim character.
The film actually opens on the planet Krypton with Clark's birth, although he's named Kal-El on his homeworld. He's born at a bad time for Krypton as the core of the planet has become unstable and a revolution is being waged by General Zod (Michael Shannon). This opening scene is much more action packed than in any previous version as Jor-El (Russell Crowe), Clark's birth father, is both a scientist and an action star. After several fights and chases, Jor-El and his wife Lara manage to launch their son into space and toward Earth before their planet consumes itself.
We then jump ahead 33 years to a bearded Clark Kent as a drifter, moving from job to job, trying to keep his powers a secret. His past, as a young Clark in Smallville, is shown in flashback throughout the story. This is actually a nice touch. By mixing in his past in this way, we get to the main plot quicker, while still getting the highlights of his childhood.
It is the return of General Zod that instigates the main plotline. He's looking for Clark because he knows that Jor-El put something in his ship that Zod wants for himself. This brings Clark out of hiding and makes for the first appearance of Superman in full costume. And it all leads up to a climactic battle that nearly decimates (quite literally) the city of Metropolis.
Everything about this movie looks good. It is spectacle of the highest order. Although it runs long, the action rarely slows down, and so it moves quickly. It's all about the eye candy and there's plenty of it.
What the movie lacks is a sense of fun and any kind of characterization. It's the exact opposite of Iron Man. Where Robert Downey Jr. is all personality, wit and charm as Tony Stark, Henry Cavill is serious and grim as Superman. It's such a serious movie that even the rare, mild, moments of levity almost seem out of place. This is also a movie where the stage description must have outnumbered the lines of dialogue by about 10 to 1. Cavill's limited dialogue can't have filled more than a few pages of the entire script. And given how much of this movie is CGI, you seriously have to wonder how much time he actually spent working on this film.
The cast is filled with recognizable faces, which is good, because given the lack of charactization it helps to have a known personality in the part. Laurence Fishburne plays Perry White, for instance, and we know, because of Fishburne's presence that he will be a wise authority figure with that great deep voice. Kevin Coster makes a great all-American father figure. Amy Adams starts strong as she investigates Clark's past, but for most of the second half of the film she's reduced to staring up into the sky as Superman flies into battle.
There's no question that this is a quality, big budget Summer blockbuster. It delivers the special effects laden goods and keeps you on the edge of your seat for a good part of it. However, it relies so heavily on those effects that it often loses sight of the characters. It's a highly enjoyable film without a doubt, but a little less noise and a little more humanity would have made it a better one.
Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel.
I was even less enamored of this movie than Scott was. I'm tired of seeing the same plots and characters being recycled over and over ad nauseam. I get that superheroes are today's Greek and Roman Gods and that there will continue to be multiple versions made over the decades, but we just had a new Superman movie seven years ago. Superman Returns was an attempt to continue the Christopher Reeve franchise's storyline with Brandon Routh donning the iconic cape and tights. It was deemed a failure. I guess it is just a reality of modern Hollywood that we will see reboots of superhero movies every six or seven years. Man of Steel borrows the plots of not one but the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies.
It borrows the origin back-story on Krypton that was first envisioned in 1978 including the introduction of the villainous General Zod. He eventually escapes from prison and comes looking for Kal-El for paybacks just like in Superman II. Even the casting seems inspired by the 1978 version. Russell Crowe is a natural for the Marlon Brando role of Jor-El and who else today could capture Glenn Ford's homespun folksiness better than Kevin Costner? Laurence Fishburne began his career as a child actor just like the original big screen Perry White did, Jackie Cooper.
But enough with the comparisons. Here's what I liked and disliked about Man of Steel.
I liked Henry Cavill. He not only looks the part (unlike Batman who hides behind a cowl and mask, Superman has to have classically chiseled features) with his brooding eyes and ridiculously diesel upper body, but he brings a bit of melancholy angst to the part that was missing before. Even without, as Scott pointed out, having much in the way of dialogue. Amy Adams makes a nice Lois Lane as well. Hell I cannot fault the cast at all.
The problem is in its over reliance on CGI and lack of any sort of nuanced character development. As these summer superhero blockbusters compete they keep one-upping each other in terms of being bigger, louder and more destructive. Judging by the amount of damage done in the climactic battle the civilian body count in Metropolis would number in the hundreds of thousands. Yet in direct opposition to the amount of mayhem shown the actual violence is kept at a sanitized cartoon level. We never see human deaths or blood and gore of any kind.
With the exception of the toned-down and tastefully modernized Superman costume (see photo) there is nothing remotely subtle about Man of Steel. If you like your movies big, loud and destructive but don't care much for plot or human interaction, then look no farther.
Henry Cavill as Superman.
No other comic book superhero has such an intriguing, yet relatable, story as that of Superman. His beginning starts on a far off planet with technology well beyond our comprehension, yet he grew up in a modest home trying and usually failing to fit in with his peers. He is blessed with amazing abilities, yet is also horribly cursed by them. Is he a God or merely a loner desperately in search of human companionship?
The 1978 film touched on Superman as a Christ figure, but it was not until Superman Returns (2006) that it was pushed to the forefront, with Marlon Brando making such Biblical sounding speeches as, “They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.” Man of Steel tones that angle down a bit but it is still there with Jor-El telling Kal-el, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
Thankfully, Kal-El was found and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, two very loving, level headed people, who raised Kal-El as a very moral person. Imagine Kal-El being found and raised by Lex Luther. They taught him to control some of his powers, as well as his temper. As we see in the flashback scenes, that Scott mentioned, as a child Clark would have easily given up his abilities to have been normal.
Just as the Bible skims over Jesus’s early adulthood, so does the story of Clark Kent. We have always seen him as a teenager growing up in Smallville but then we skip to his career years later as a reporter in Metropolis. I believe a college degree of some sort is likely required for such a job, yet all this film shows is Clark learning from life experiences as he searches for his place in the universe.
The theme of Man of Steel is free will versus predetermination. Once Clark learns of his history and is given his suit, which is not a costume mind you, he has a decision to make. Does he become the God like man he has the ability to be and risk being ostracized by an entire planet or does he stay quietly hidden. Clark even seeks advice from a priest who suggests that, “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith.” Up to this point, his entire sense of security has been based around his anonymity. Something he will have to give up to save the world.
General Zod threatens to destroy an entire world but he is likewise a sympathetic character. We learned that on Krypton, babies are born in an unconventional way in which their role in society is already determined for them. Zod was born a soldier charged with defending Krypton. His attack on the Kryptonian counsel as well as his pursuit of Kal-El to retrieve the codex is merely Zod doing what he was born to do. He knows nothing else. He does not have a free will.
The battles between Superman and Zod are big and destructive and, as Patrick wrote, very costly to the populations of both Smallville and, even more so, to Metropolis. They are also personal. One of my favorite moments is when Zod confronts Martha Kent, who tells the alien General to, “Go to Hell!” Just before Superman slams into Zod and begins pounding away on him, “YOU THINK YOU CAN THREATEN MY MOTHER!”
Although at that point Clark has already decided to wear the suit and save Earth, it is the moment that Zod threatens Martha that Superman fully understands what he must do and it is not a choice he takes lightly. Note his emotional outburst in the train station where Lois comforts him. It was not how Clark wanted things to end. Unlike Zod, he was not raised with violence and as is noted by one of Zod’s companions, is not completely comfortable with it.
One of the biggest complaints I heard from Superman fans about Superman Returns, is that it did not have enough action. Now the most often sited criticism of Man of Steel is that it contains too much action. Superman has become such a huge fictional character that we each get something different from his story. We can relate to him feeling like an outsider. We can imagine the ability to fly or the use of any of his other amazing powers. Or we can just sit back and enjoy his larger than life battles.
Superman is distinctly American with his grass roots Christian upbringing. He has been described as a boy scout, a man with impossibly high morals. Superman is an inspiration. He has God like powers but like Christ, he has mortal weaknesses. Although he is the man of steel, Clark is blessed/cursed with a very human heart. He desperately wants to belong and be loved, yet out of fear of rejection he is hesitant to make contact with others.
The love story between Superman and Lois Lane is legendary, but never has it been better explained than here. They meet while she is on assignment and she becomes part of the conflict between Zod and Kal-el. Other than Jonathan and Martha, Lois becomes the only other human with whom Superman truly connects with. Because of their shared experiences of this film, no other person on earth will be able to connect with him as well as Lois.
Of all the three actors who have played Superman on film, Henry Cavill is easily in the best shape. Clearly he spent hours in the gym perfecting his Kryptonian physique. Like Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh, Cavill is not the greatest actor. Many credit Reeve’s acting but he was best when playing Clark Kent as a nerd. Routh and Cavill seemed cast more for their looks than talent. In defense of all three actors, how do you play such an iconic character without sounding unbelievable?
As long as he is moving, Cavill plays the role convincingly. As soon as he is given a line, his lack of acting skills become all too apparent. His reading of the line, “I have so many questions. Where do I come from?” is horribly weak. After 33 years of searching for answers and is finally confronted with the image of his real father, Cavill sounds as interested as someone trying to decide which flavor of ice cream cone to order. When he meets with Lois in Smallville, who now knows he is alien, he seems unimpressed. When Cavill says, “My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they'd reject me... out of fear. He was convinced that the world wasn't ready. What do you think?” Apprehension should have been dripping from his lips, but again we get nothing from him.
The best casting and acting in the film is that of Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. It was a Field of Dreams (1989) flashback when he stood next to a cornfield. Costner has very little screen time but certainly makes the most of them. I have never before appreciated just what a fine actor he is. Often we see him staring at Clark with love, concern and understanding. He expresses more with a glance than Cavill does with any amount of dialogue.
In a flashback scene, Jonathan says to an insecure young Clark, “You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Whoever that man is, he's going to change the world.” Those are inspiring words but they also hold Clark responsible for his decisions. Clark can be a man or a God. He can be good or evil. Unlike his Kryptonian parents, He was not restricted by his upbringing, he was set free by it. What is truly wondrous, and God like, about Clark Kent is that he does not choose to take and do what he likes but to serve mankind for good. He wants to belong but knows the world is better served by him keeping his superpowers at a distance, lest he be treated as a God. He truly is a super man.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (2013)