Theatrical Review: Man of Steel

I’m 50 years old and have been a comic book fan pretty much all of my life. It all started for me at the age of 4 and my “gateway drug” into this whole world was Superman. I got my earliest exposure to Superman by seeing an episode of the George Reeves TV show and then that was shortly followed by my Mom buying me my first comic book, a giant-sized issue of Superman. I’ve mentioned it before, but I actually learned to read from a Superman comic before even entering kindergarten and distinctly remember asking my Mom what the word “invulnerable” meant.

Sure, most kids during my period grew out of comics, but they just stuck with me. I can’t tell you why for sure, I wasn’t a kid who necessarily felt like an outcast and felt the need to have this world to escape to, I just loved the form. I loved the idea of this character who had this bright primary-colored costume and he could fly, and had great strength and this plethora of wonderful super-powers. For me, Superman led to Batman and in turn led to the rest of the members of DC’s Justice League. As I got a little older, I got an allowance of 50 cents a week and that allowed me to start to buy my own comics (usually two a week unless I saw one of DC’s 100-Page Super-Spectaculars and then the whole allowance was blown on that book). Whenever I bought my own comics, Superman was almost always a part of it whether through his own comic, Action Comics, Superboy or team-ups with Batman in World’s Finest Comics or the rest of the DC characters in the pages of Justice League of America. I was massively hooked.

This continued into my mid-teens even further. When I was 16, I got my first job working at the local Wal-Mart in Lousiana, Missouri and all of a sudden just had more money than ever before to buy comics, much to the chagrin of my Dad. Superman continued to be a big favorite for me even after discovering the world of Marvel Comics as well. When Warners debuted Superman: The Movie in 1978, I’d only just gotten my driver’s license and still wasn’t really allowed yet to drive much further than around town. The nearest theatre to Louisiana that was showing Superman was in Quincy, Illinois, about 30 miles away and I made the offer to my Dad that I’d pay for my whole family (Mom, Dad and my brother) to see the movie if he’d drive us there, and he did. I came out of that theatre thinking that I’d seen the greatest movie that was ever made and was just flabbergasted that it wasn’t recognized as the best movie of the year by the Oscars.

Thanks for bearing with me this long, but I really thought it was necessary to go into my love for Superman before I get into the review of Man of Steel. Superman is extremely special to me and so I certainly wanted to illustrate that. I’ve read comic stories of the character ranging from his debut in 1938 all to the present day. I’ve seen this character (and comics themselves) go through massive changes in all of this time, so I’m no stranger to that and further even embraced them. It’s only in the past couple of years, since DC debuted their re-booted New 52 line, that I’ve thought things have started to drift from what I’ve loved about the character and so the idea of a new movie that was going to make Superman palatable to the Twiiter age was certainly something to give me pause.

When the first trailer to Man of Steel came out, I have to admit I had a gut reaction to it that was pretty negative- everything just looked to dark and somber and culminated with a line from Superman’s adopted earth father, Jonathan Kent, that maybe he should have let people die rather than expose himself. This just didn’t set that well with me, but I was still willing to give this a chance, especially considering that I have a huge amount of respect for the director of the movie, Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan. Once an extended trailer came along, I got quite a bit more enthusiastic for the film. There were changes made here that seemed to me to be more in the right direction- less somber and more sense of wonder. I got more enthusiastic about it, but still cautious.

Now, Man of Steel is finally here, I’ve seen the whole thing for myself and I have to say, I just had a ball with the movie. I’ve still got a few problems with the film one major and a couple that are minor, but I had a great time here.

Man of Steel re-tells the character’s origin and pits him against his first major threat, an invasion of the planet by a small cadre of soldiers who have survived the explosion of the planet Krypton, led by General Zod. That’s all I’m gonna give you when it comes to the premise and basically that’s all that you need to know going in. The rest you should just see for yourself, though there’s a few points I’ll get into with it that really stand out.

But first, let me just get right up front with my problems with the movie. My major problem is that I just flat-out hate the look of the new costume. I’m certainly open to changes with the character as long as fundamentally, it’s still the same character and part of that for me is in the character’s look. Certainly Superman’s look has evolved since his debut in 1938, but fundamentally it has remained the same; bright primary colors that have a proper aesthetic balance. In recent years, it’s become a trend amongst newer fans to say that the red trunks that the character has worn just look wrong and that would be practical. I tend to think that the word “practical” when it comes to the look of the character should just go right out the window, he’s a comic book character that exists in a comic book world and this is an aspect that doesn’t need to be reflected in the real world. It’s been argued that all you really need for the character is just the basic profile- a well chiseled figure with a red cape and the red “S” emblem and that says it all. I disagree with this and think that the brightness of the colors and the division of the colors says the right thing, this character is the originator and his basic look stands for that. I look at the new look for the film, and think that this new costume looks more like high-tech long-johns that should have an equally high-tech super trapdoor. The costume is too textured and becomes to shiny in some scenes. Yeah, sure maybe I’m just being traditionalist in my thinking here, but I just don’t think it needs to be altered, neither here or in the comics. That’s my major problem with the movie and yet, I still had a blast with the film.

My minor issues come with a couple of specific scenes and so there’s a few spoilers ahead, just skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled. I’d mentioned above about a scene in the first trailer where Jonathan Kent suggests that maybe his young son Clark should’ve let people die rather than risk exposure. That scene is certainly still within the movie and within it’s proper context, it actually works to an extent. The words would make more sense if young Clark Kent had had this experience in 2013, but as the scene plays, it takes place about 20 years in the past and it becomes questionable if Jonathan Kent would’ve had this outlook on life then. it makes sense for now, but that far back in the past could and maybe should be a different point of view. The other scene is near the end of the film. Superman has saved the day and comes back home to make sure his mother is OK. Martha Kent makes a statement to Clark that Jonathan “knew” as to what sort of man Clark would grow to be and then another flashback is shown that shows the young Clark Kent playing with his dog and wearing a red towel as cape. You see this sort of imagery and it’s the sort of thing that Superman would inspire, but it couldn’t even begin to be part of his life yet without knowing his true origins. This scene shows up in the trailers for the film as well and I certainly liked that part of those trailers, but then it was shown out of context. As it plays within the film, it just doesn’t make sense. A better use for this sort of imagery would’ve been to have made this kid who was playing with the red towel attached a kid who was inspired by Superman after the events of the film had taken place. Using the scene in that context would’ve cemented the acceptance that this alien among us was gaining.

Those are my problems with the film, and with the exception of the costume, the other scenes are somewhat moot considering that there is just so much heart here on the part of director Zack Snyder and writers David Goyer and Christopher Nolan to do what they can to preserve the legend and still make it palatable to a new audience (and just to give Snyder further credit, he’s been on the record for wanting to have Superman’s traditional look in the film, but was overruled). There’s just so much here that is so right, that even with my problems, I can’t help but love the movie.

Let’s start with the basic origins. Right off the bat, we’re on the planet Krypton and in regards to it’s look and feel, it’s 180 degrees opposite of what was done back in Richard Donner’s movie in 1978, and yet for Superman fans, this new version of Krypton draws on aspects right out of the comics, ranging from the days of late 50s and 60s from editor Mort Weisenger right up to the mid 80s reboot from writer and artist John Byrne. It’s an exciting vision of Krypton that’s just given further credence by an exceptional performance by Russell Crowe as Jor-El. From there, the movie makes the jump to the adult Clark Kent wandering the world trying to find himself and in the midst of this, the bigger story starts to grow, but intermixed with this are flashback scenes relating to her early life and his upbringing by the Kents. One of my big problems with last year’s Amazing Spider-Man was the fact that it was just so laborious in re-telling the character’s origin and that the pace just made the whole thing dull as can be. Not the case here at all, everything is mixed together properly and it all serves in the big picture.

The visual effects are absolutely spectacular and the fight scenes are incredible. It’s amazing in itself to see a Superman movie where the main character actually does use his fists to devastating effect. In some instances, the visual effects looked like they drew some inspiration straight from the old Max Fleisher Superman cartoons of the 40s. When Superman first takes flight, I was particularly satisfied to see the character actually smiling and taking great joy in this new achievement.

The characters are all extremely well-drawn. Certainly much credit goes to Goyer and Nolan for their script, but it’s the cast that truly gives this life and it starts right at the top with the casting of Henry Cavill as Superman/Clark Kent. There’s just so much heart in Cavill’s body language alone that you can tell this actor is throwing himself into the part. Amy Adams would not have been my first choice to play Lois Lane, but she’s made me a believer and after the fact, I’ve found out that she’s actually a fan and has tried to get herself into some sort of Superman projects for awhile now. She and Cavill have a natural chemistry together that’s further exemplified by a nice little twist that’s thrown into the relationship. Im sold… Adams and Cavill are the Lois and Clark for a new generation and I cannot wait to see how this evolves in future movies.

I’d mentioned Russell Crowe above, and earlier in the year I saw Crowe in the movie Broken City and thought it was one of the best performances that he’d turned in in awhile. Well, he’s starting a string now and his turn as Jor-El is absolutely terrific and he literally commands the screen when he’s on-screen. I also have to give good marks to actress Ayelet Zurer who plays his wife Lara, she certainly looks right in the part and further conveys the weight properly an extreme situation that she’s put into. Though I have my problems with some of the scenes that Jonathan Kent has, that’s no reflection on Kevin Costner’s extremely earnest performance. Both he and actress Diane Lane as Martha Kent are just terrific and totally exemplifies the salt-of-the-earth upbringing that Clark Kent has.

On the villain front, we have Michael Shannon in the lead here as General Zod, and again, I cannot say enough good words about what this intense actor brings to the part. Shannon’s Zod truly does represent a character who thinks he has Krypton’s best interests at heart with little regard to what others think. His main lieutenant, Faora-Ul is played by Antje Traue and she certainly has terrific presence, especially in the fight scenes of the film.

Rounding out our main cast is nice little supporting work from actors Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff and Christopher Meloni as the United States authority figures that Superman works with. These guys are just always solid and certainly lend credibility to the parts. As a Superman fan, it was particularly gratifying to see Schiff play Emil Hamilton, a character straight out of the 80s re-boot. Laurence Fishburne plays Daily Planet editor Perry White and I guess “earnest” is the key word for all of the performances in the movie and Fishburne certainly is that (and as an aside, Fishburne plays Jack Crawford on NBC’s Hannibal series, a show that deserves to be watched in greater numbers).

There’s just loads of Easter Eggs peppered throughout this movie that really do add to the total enjoyment for the Superman fan, or at least to this one, but it’s really just icing on an already delicious cake. Zack Snyder was certainly the right man for the job in bringing to life a new Superman for a new generation and I can only hope that Warners is wise enough to put him in charge for any further sequels as well. Man of Steel was thoroughly entertaining to this long-time Superman fan and I certainly hope this gives Warners enough impetus to put more DC Comics characters on the fast track for the big screen, but only as long as the same consideration is involved. With Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and now with Man of Steel it’s certainly been shown that you can be faithful to the characters and bring some pretty heady weight to the film as well. Now if they’d just go back to the character’s traditional look I’d be really happy, but still Man of Steel is highly, highly recommended and I cannot wait to see it again.