‘Man Of Steel’ Strives For Greatness, Settles On Good (Movie Review)

man of steel whysoblu thumbWe’ll always have Superman: The Movie.  While Superman has arguably been the most recognizable superhero since his creation in 1938 and has remained a national icon, the 1978 film from Richard Donner seems to be the only time cinema had truly done its best to do him justice, let alone be the film that created the template (still in use) for a majority of superhero movies.  Superman II is a great example as well, though that film is practically the second half of the first, given that it was part of one big story and shot back-to-back with the first film.  For whatever reason, other attempts at a Superman film can’t seem to do anything else that is interesting with the character, regardless of spectacle, the cast involved, or whoever may be directing or producing.  Man of Steel is the best Superman film since the first two Christopher Reeve films, but it still ends up waving off some of the more interesting ideas in favor of letting us see super fights on an enormous scale and settling for bursts of emotional content, amidst an unfocused story.  As a person who already does not find Superman to be any more fascinating than the story written around him, the potential for this newest iteration to explore the character is downplayed, despite the film still playing out as a visually stimulating experience in the realm of big summer blockbusters.

Jonathan Kent:  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.

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Man of Steel is another re-telling of Superman’s origins, with a few twists to the classic mythos.  A lot is relatively familiar, with the bonus of looking pretty impressive.  Take the film’s opening act, which finds us on Krypton.  Jor-El (Russell Crowe) has just witnessed the birth of his son, whom he names Kal-El, which is followed by him addressing a council in regards to his concern for Krypton’s imminent doom.  This meeting is interrupted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who agrees with Jor-El, but is going about the solution in the wrong way; launching a coup and attempting to save only the lives of the brightest and strongest.  This all leads to what those familiar with Superman’s origins know will happen.  Zod will be stopped and sent to the Phantom Zone, Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) will send Kal-El to earth, and Krypton will be destroyed.

The portrayal of all of this was quite fascinating in my eyes, making me wonder what an entire movie based around Krypton and ending as a setup for a Superman movie would be like.  There was so much world-building done in a short amount of time that I was somewhat in awe of the craziness of the spectacle on display, while also now having an answer to one of my biggest questions regarding Man of Steel.  What would a film directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) and godfathered over by writer/producer Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy) look like?  The answer is a fantastic visual spectacle that masks its feelings with confidently stated dialogue by actors taking things gravely serious.

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Take the film’s second act.  Rather than proceed as many origin films would and simply have Kal-El land in Smallville, grow up with an awkward identity crisis, given his weird powers, only to head north and discover his true origins, the film goes for a non-linear approach, which feels more like “Clark’s Greatest Hits featuring Pa Kent”.  To be fair, I am not sure if playing these scenes in order would make me react much differently, but regardless, the film wants to sell me on the idea of Kal-El, now recognizing himself as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), being adrift and clueless about what he should be doing with his life.  In doing so, we watch a lot of flashbacks to Clark’s childhood; as Martha Kent (Diane Lane) nurtures Clark, while Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) does his best to tell his son how to keep that side of himself under wraps until he can figure out how to best utilize it.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but the film also does not do a lot to make this seem interesting.  Instead, Man of Steel comes off like a film continually battling the weight of a dramatic biopic that lacks more of a sense of fun, without supplanting it with anything more interesting than what everyone already knows about Superman’s origin story.

Finding the right way to handle Superman, the character, is a lot of why I have much more of a need to tackle the issues of the film, rather than commend the astounding production (for those seeking a shortcut: see the movie, its action-packed, but certainly no game-changer).  Much of the anticipation for Man of Steel seemed to center around excitement for a film delving into the idea of considering what it is to be a hero for the people, getting to the core of how a sense of Americana has built up what it means to be Superman.  It turns out that Man of Steel is not that film.  These ideas are wrapped up in various pieces of dialogue by Jor-El and Pa Kent, while Henry Cavill (doing the best with what he has to work with) gives somber looks, before using all his might to fight his way out of situations.  I wanted to be more invested in Superman, and Cavill does a great job of selling it when given a chance, but his issues continue to boil down to earth people good, threats bad.

Clark Kent:  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?

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Once General Zod returns, and the film moves into its action-heavy final third, any sense of character is virtually out the window, as we watch setpiece after setpiece of some of the craziest action you will have ever witnessed in a superhero movie.  It is just unfortunate that there is not more weight behind it, which is funny, given all of the structural collapse seen in the film.  While it is relatively standard for a lot of the biggest action to be seen in the last third of any action or superhero film, it works a whole lot better if getting to that point reflected how we began or was simply more fun.  Man of Steel does not have a whole lot of that.  There are a lot of characters telling others about things that are important, and Kevin Costner speaks softly, to make sure you know that he’s imparting some (questionable) wisdom onto his son, but the film is too unfocused in how to balance that emotion, despite being so anxious to deliver plot point after plot point.  Even when the first Iron Man stumbled in some of its setups, the cast was so damn likable and the energy was so apparent that I could have a much easier time looking past its issues.

To touch on the action aspect more, Man of Steel has a ton of bang for your buck.  If the notion at Warner Bros. was to do the exact opposite of Superman Returns and make a film that is less about mopey characters and small bits of action and be more about delivering a film that is all plot, devoid of greater emotional arcs, and full of insanely cool Superman action, then that is what was provided.  If there is something I was not too concerned about, it was how well Zack Snyder could handle the action, and he has genuinely delivered some pretty great-looking action sequences.  I have plenty of concern for the amount of destruction displayed on screen, as the movie eventually seemed like less of an action spectacle and more like a disaster drama (We will rebuild, and Smallville will rise again!), but so much credit indeed goes to what the special effects teams were able to accomplish.

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Everyone should be pleased by this grand cast, regardless of how well they are utilized.  Amy Adams makes for a solid Lois Lane, even if we don’t see enough of the character’s spunkiness.  I don’t think the Daily Planet’s Chief Editor Perry White has ever had a bad portrayal and Lawrence Fishburne holds up that standard, though has little to do.  Placing character actors Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, and Henry Lennix in roles as scientists and military men is a nice touch as well.  The great Michael Shannon certainly has a lot to chew on as General Zod, while Russell Crowe seems happy to be underplaying it as Jor-El.  If I had to play favorites, Diane Lane manages to shine brightest as Martha Kent, who the film is wise never to leave behind, regardless of how much is happening in a story big enough for three movies.

Christopher Nolan and comic book movie regular David S. Goyer developed the story and screenplay for this film, but I am curious as to when they felt like they had a grip on the structure and what this should be all about.  We have a lot of characters and a lot of stories to tell, but not enough focus, despite the attempt to handle this in a manner similar to Batman Begins.  I have gone over the structure, but the film still misses out on capturing something genuinely awe-inspiring about Superman, despite Zack Snyder’s abilities to show us the types of feats this man is capable of.  Regardless of age and some goofiness, Donner’s Superman was grounded in character and made us believe a man could fly.  Man of Steel certainly has the Nolan touch of finding a way to ground a story about a man from another planet, with extraordinary abilities, into reality, but at what cost?  He has previously given us films with plenty of emotional depth, and I would argue the same for some of Snyder’s films as well.  Why is Superman more of a challenge?

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Hans Zimmer is the person I find myself thinking about, as I approach the end of this review.  John Williams score is a major part of why I admire Donner’s Superman so much.  Zimmer faced a significant challenge in developing his take on a character that has had a pretty iconic theme for over thirty years.  To his credit, he succeeds in taking on the challenge and moving it in a different direction for the better.  I could say that about Man of Steel as a whole.  While the film fell into being what I suspected it to be during the initial trailers that were met with my skepticism, rather than being the fascinating and inspiring film that I was hoping for, based on the later trailers, it is by no means a bad movie, just an unfocused one.  It has wisely moved into a different direction than Donner’s film, which was both optimistic and ironic, but for all its amazement on display, the wonder is undercut by messy emotional resonance.  The drumming in Zimmer’s score makes me want to see a Superman film that soars, but instead, Man of Steel kneels before a limited screenplay.

Jor-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.

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Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com


Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

6 Responses to “‘Man Of Steel’ Strives For Greatness, Settles On Good (Movie Review)”

  1. Brian White

    I want to brand this line: “The drumming in Zimmer’s score makes me want to see a Superman film that soars, but instead, Man of Steel kneels before a limited screenplay.”

    We can just delete my Superman review below. Yours’ is exactly my sentiments just packaged a little more cohesively and structured.

    Good job!

    This is probably one of my most favorite reviews of yours. I never thought I’d see the day that a Nolan produced Man of Steel would get a Ghost Rider 2 score 🙂 Just kidding.

    THe only thing I disagree with above is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Bwah! She just didn’t do it for me. She’s not Lois Lane. She’s that girl from Night at the Museum 2.

    You think Goyer and Nolan forgot to outline? I thought the same as you with the lack of emotional arc. I just wonder how much better it could have been with Nolan behind the pen?

  2. Aaron Neuwirth

    It’s funny how familiar I feel with Goyer’s work these days. There are certain lines that always stick out to me as ones he war responsible for, throughout his various superhero screenplays and always feel false, even Dark Knight, “Things are worse than ever!”

    With this film, it just seems like they wanted to do Batman Begins again and outlined it as such, but forgot to add a true soul. The emotions are all on the surface, but it lacks the general spark that makes the Batman films more fun, despite how ‘serious’ they are.

  3. Sean Ferguson

    Good review Aaron although I don’t agree with you 100%. Like usual for these superhero movies, WSB is once again split in our reaction. Usually, you and I are on the same page against Brian and Gerard, but this time I’m with Gerard. While I still love Superman II more than the rest, and Christopher Reeve is still my Superman, I did really enjoy this movie. The cast is fantastic as is the action and I found plenty of humor in the movie, so I’m not sure why you thought it wasn’t there. I did think that the film had some issues (especially some awkward edits) but overall I really liked it. I think Henry Cavill and Hans Zimmer had the hardest jobs to live up to and both did them really well. When I heard that John Williams iconic score wouldn’t be included in this film I wasn’t happy because that IS Superman, but Zimmer did a fantastic job while moving in a new direction like you said. I think I’m more in alignment with you than Brian but I think if you both watch the movie again, you’d both like it a lot more.

  4. Brian White

    So am I the only one who had any issues with Amy Adams as Lois Lane? I agree the rest of the cast is spot on, but there’s something that bothers me about her that’s past the color of her hair. I just don;t know how I feel about the dynamics of their relationship. It felt forced and awkward. Almost Padme and Anakin like. It definitely was a game changer though. I don;t know. Like Sean says, I might like it a heck of a lot more during a second viewer…much later on.

  5. Brian White

    So has the novelty worn off for this title Aaron, or did you see it again? I know you did a podcast, but was just wondeirng if maybe you seen a second time and liked it more?

  6. Aaron Neuwirth

    I have no real disire (or time) to check it out again anytime soon. I’d rather catch Fast and Furious or This Is The End again first.