Man of Steel Review: You Will Believe A Man Can Punch Fellow Aliens Through Multiple City Blocks
35 years ago a group of filmmakers led by director Richard Donner and a relatively unknown actor named Christopher Reeve did what most of the world previously thought was impossible – make a straight-faced live action adaptation of the world’s oldest and best known comic book superhero: Superman. The promotional materials for that film proudly proclaimed “You will believe a man can fly!” and whether you believed it or not, it was hard to deny that the film itself was magical.
I wasn’t quite around yet in 1978 but as a kid of the 80s obsessed with all things superheroic, the images of Christopher Reeve as Superman were indelible and unavoidable. In fact, to say that I became a Superman fanatic might be selling it short. I absolutely fell in love with the mythology of the character and have devoured every new iteration of his story that has come along since. From various animated series to Lois & Clark to Smallville to Bryan Singer’s attempt to re-launch the film franchise with Superman Returns in 2006, I have found something to love about every single one of them.
Despite this love I never felt like I had seen a live action Superman story that hit the true potential of what a full-fledged Superman story could look like. A large part of this is obviously attributed to the gap between what can be imagined and what can actually be realized believably through special effects. It’s easy to draw the most intense and outlandish fight scenes on a comic book page but significantly harder to put that realistically on cinema screens much to my (and I’m sure many others’) lament.
That lamentation is over now though thanks to director Zack Snyder whose interpretation of Superman in Man of Steel is infinitely beyond anything we’ve seen the character do on screen before while also cementing itself as quite possibly the most spectacular comic book movie ever made.
High praise? You betcha. Will some people disagree with me wholeheartedly? Absolutely.
When word first got out that Snyder would be the director on this reboot, there was understandable concern that the film would be all style and no substance. This was graciously remedied when Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer – two of the men largely responsible for the greatness of The Dark Knight trilogy – came on board as producer and writer respectively.
As it turns out, this particular meeting of the minds was just what a Superman film needed to have. The serious and reality-based impulses of Nolan and Goyer paired with the visual flair and action-mindedness of Snyder yields results that are simply electric.
Man of Steel chronicles Superman’s classic origin story (with a few twists) of a baby from the dying planet Krypton sent to Earth by his parents, Jor-El and Lara (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer), where he is raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) in Smallville, Kansas. It is in Smallville where he learns to control his growing powers, discover his heritage, and eventually become the hero known as Superman.
I was initially disappointed to hear that this film would be going over the origin story again, assuming that everyone knows it by now and doesn’t need to be told again BUT Goyer’s screenplay surprises with a structure that reveals much of the backstory as the film moves along giving it a breathless pace and a sometime poetic telling of the hero’s life rather than the linear treatment that we’ve seen numerous times before.
The script throws an additional curveball though by introducing love interest Lois Lane (Amy Adams) by having her investigate his alien presence on this Earth and succeeding instead of forcing her to work with dorky Clark Kent at the Daily Planet. Her boss, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne as the calmest Perry White ever) forces her to shut down the story though, thinking it more worthy of the tabloids.
But Mr. White realizes he is wrong when an alien ship appears over Earth making demands and threatening the general welfare of the planet. The leader of said alien ship is famed Superman villain General Zod played here with wanton terror by the wonderfully odd Michael Shannon.
Zod is a Kryptonian warrior who was saved from his planet’s destruction by being banished along with his soldiers for an attempted coup. He has since broken out of his prison and tracked the only other Kryptonian survivor to Earth in hopes of locating the technology that Jor-El sent to Earth with baby Superman. This technology has the potential to artificially harvest new Kryptonians and allow their civilization to start over on Earth.
To describe the conflict further involves digging into a whole lot of pseudoscience that is best left to the movie itself but in short, Superman has to make a moral choice about allowing Zod to make Earth into a New Krypton and when that decision doesn’t go Zod’s way, it leads to the most epic smackdown in movie history.
I’m not intentionally trying to throw a lot of hyperbole at you but…holy crap. The action in this movie is INSANE. If you thought the final battle of The Avengers was the epitome of a comic book come to life, you really haven’t seen anything yet. The sheer scope of what Snyder has captured on film here is mindboggling and is attributed largely in part to what I consider the best special effects I’ve ever seen.
But beyond just the special effects, the entire visual palette of this movie is breathtaking. There is gorgeous cinematography from Amir Mokri that makes you think you’re watching a Terrence Malick film and the production and costume designs defy any thoughts you may have about having already seen everything there is to possibly see in a sci-fi film.
But all of this visual splendor would be for naught without a heart and soul behind it and I’m happy to report that those are also here in spades. Goyer’s script and Snyder’s direction have moments of true beauty and tenderness between the mayhem. One in particular that brought tears to my eyes.
All of this is brought together beautifully by the film’s remarkable cast. Everyone from Adams to Shannon to Crowe acquits themselves admirably to these classic characters but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some special attention to the man who now wears the mantel of Earth’s greatest hero: Henry Cavill.
Cavill, who may or may not be the most handsome man to ever walk the Earth, wears the suit of Superman with grace and charm in a way that will steal the hearts of moviegoers no matter what their gender may be. Comparing him to Christopher Reeve is moot point considering that their films are so different in tone and style, but Cavill is certainly the perfect man for the job today and I hope to see him don the red cape and boots for many films beyond this.
Somewhat controversially, Man of Steel doesn’t include a single note of John Williams’ classic Superman Theme but composer Hans Zimmer has stepped in to provide a new score that perfectly defines this new Superman without weighing it down with musical memories of past iterations. It was a risky choice that pays off in a big way.
Some viewers may find the film’s monstrous scale and unrelenting action overwhelming and tiresome but fellow geeks like myself are about to find themselves on Cloud 9. One might hope that any sequels take the Lois and Superman relationship in more complex directions or slow down a bit to let us get to know the characters even more, but for Man of Steel the balance feels spot-on. The film moves with a brevity that absolutely sucks you in for an exhilarating ride to things you never thought you could see in live action. And it all leads up to an absolutely pitch perfect ending that left me grinning like an idiot and the audience around me applauding with fervor. This is what geek movie heaven is like and I can’t wait to go back for more.
Sidenotes: I saw the film in 3D and don’t think it added much so feel free to stick with 2D on this. Also, don’t let the Marvel films fool you. There isn’t a scene at the end of the credits teasing a sequel or a film featuring fellow Justice League characters. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot little hints of things to come throughout the film itself but don’t feel the need to sit through the epically long end credits.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.