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Man of Steel (2013)

Rating: **1/2 out of 4

"You're the answer, son. You're the answer to, 'Are we alone in the universe?'" - Jonathan Kent

"You will give the people of Earth 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, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders." - Jor-El

Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, and Russell Crowe.

Writers: David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan

Director: Zack Snyder

Superman is the most prolific of all superheroes. He has spawned several serials in the early days of cinema, at least three live action TV shows, and been the center of seven feature films, and even spawned a spin off movie with Supergirl (if you are charitable enough to consider that part of the Kryptonian’s cinematic mythos). Sadly, Superman’s profitability has waned in the years since Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner brilliantly brought him to life in 1978. In fact, the story of the Superman movies that almost happened are much more interesting than all the previous films combined. Just check out Kevin Smith's infamous detailing of his Superman Lives script.

That said, with the superb success of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, it was time for the Man of Steel to make his gritty dark comeback and kick off a DC cinematic universe to rival Marvel's powerhouse dominance of the genre. The question arises; does Superman need to be dark and gritty? The answer… not really, but at the very least it offers up a new take on the character. If nothing else, the film can be boiled down to a single word that is the bane of all of its efforts: Underdeveloped. 

The plot follows Kal-El, the last begotten son of Krypton; a dying planet at the far reaches of space. Krypton’s great leader sends his son to Earth on a space craft to be a hero and savior to the people. Yadda yadda. If you’re familiar with the backstory of Moses and mesh it up with the story of Jesus, you know the plot of the film.

I liked that the film flirted with the Jesus allegory, but I wish it had taken it further. It’s in the film enough to notice it, but it doesn’t really go anywhere with it after it points itself out symbolically in a scene where Supes and his father, Jor-El, discuss the nature of his existence and what he was sent to Earth to do. If you are going to use the allegory, run with it. Don’t flirt with it, then drop it midway.

The first half of the film really gelled. I liked the stuff on Krypton (though it pales in comparison to the same scenes in Donner’s iconic original film), and much of the scenes of Clark Kent’s self-discovery. Once Zod sets foot on Earth and the film exchanges depth for action, the film loses its credibility. This is a problem that I’ve had with a lot of films that director Zack Snyder has done. I liked the hard science fiction approach to the character, but once Zod and his minions show up it devolves into a mindless action film.

Another problem I had was that there didn’t seem to be much production design outside of Superman’s suit. Krypton itself looked like the planet from Avatar, repainted a dull brown. Metropolis and Smallville, though key environments in the film, don’t even get an establishing shot and cater no atmosphere. I mean, the final battle at the climax of the film takes place at the center of Metropolis and you have no idea what the environment is actually like. Sure, it has tall buildings, but that is all the audience is given. Juxtapose the climax of this film to The Dark Knight Rises’ fictional Gotham or The Avengers’ New York backdrop, both of which were well established and provided the audience a clear vision of where everything was meant to be taking place. It just makes Man of Steel feel sloppy.

The special effects, while being awe inspiring, lent little to the final battle. I will compare this film’s climax, yet again, to the ending of The Avengers. That film never had the audience wondering what was happening. It was well choreographed, well photographed, and never had a single moment of confusion. This film had the hero and villain traveling at the speed of light, with a diffused color pallet and handheld cinematography. It was near impossible to make out what was happening most of the time. At a certain point, I found myself rooting for the red blur.

Lastly, the characters lacked definition. Superman is virtuous. Lois Lane is a reporter and thus is investigate-y. Zod is bad. Jor-El is good. That is about as complex as the picture gets. I feel that they got all of those aspects of the characters down well, but failed to define them as real people beyond that. Nothing suggests that they are real living beings. They are all men and women of cardboard. The film’s humorless, emotionless approach killed the character development. It is a shame, because the film really does have some nice things to offer.

Zack Snyder’s decision to cast Henry Cavill as Superman was a strong one. He really tries his damnedest to sell the character, even though there is little character to sell. Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner share roles as Superman’s fathers, and both surpass any other incarnation of the characters. (An argument can be made that John Schneider’s interpretation of Jonathan Kent on Smallville, of all things, could give Costner a run for his money). I also really liked the energy Michael Shannon brought to Zod. He fully made me believe he was a renegade general. Unfortunately, Zod’s characterization didn’t lend to being all that memorable, because Shannon really was one of the high points of the film.

As I mentioned before, the special effects are great. I especially dug the Kryptonian computer pod that floated about, rearranging its matter to project what was needed. Why couldn’t Krypton reflect more of this? The score moved the film along nicely. It wasn’t as memorable as John William’s original score, but it serviced the film’s purpose. I liked the structure of the film. It echoed Batman Begins in that it started out present and we are shown aspects of Clark’s life that lead him to become the hero he evolves into. It wasn’t quite as successful here, but it worked.

In all honesty, the movie isn’t bad. It has moments of being really quite good. Everything just feels underdeveloped or underwhelming.

Most of what sells the film are the performances, and most of the film’s faults lay with the filmmakers who chose to mesh Superman and Superman 2 into one film, but didn’t allow itself to breathe on its own while also trying to force the principles of Batman Begins on a character that can't really work within that tone.

Fans of Superman will be disappointed that the film offers little more than action. Non-fans of the character or people who have never given the hero a chance will probably be surprised, and enjoy the movie. It certainly was the best Superman film since 1978 to the point of its release, but an admittedly disappointing start to DC's cinematic universe.

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