By Lon Harris
In their “Phase 1” movies, Marvel carefully kept the action on a reasonable scale. “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “Captain America” all feel like event movies, but you can also feel them holding back, not showing you EVERYTHING these characters can do and every HUGE scenario and fight they could be involved in. They were made by filmmakers and a studio who knew that “Avengers” and sequels were coming.
“Man of Steel” – to its credit – doesn’t do any of that. I’d dare to say the closing 45 minutes of the movie are as epic, grandiose, over-the-top and impressive as anything in “The Avengers.”
I’ve read numerous comparisons between the close of this film and Michael Bay movies, but this assertion is ludicrous, saying more about critics who don’t really pay attention to visual effects sequences than the films themselves. Michael Bay action scenes are consistently incoherent and aesthetically unappealing, even ugly. “Man of Steel” is, by comparison, very pretty, and makes even the destruction of entire planets and globe-spanning fistfights clear, intense and easy to follow. Only the ambition and size of the sequences bares comparison with Bay.
I’m not sure if that bodes well for a “Justice League” movie or even more Metropolis-set follow-ups. Sort of feels like “where do we go from here?” will become a concern. How do you do more with Superman than having him flatten a city while facing off against an equally super-powered villain?
Action beats aside, there’s a lot to like about the movie. It really emphasizes the science-fiction aspect of the Superman legend, setting it immediately apart from the previous films and allowing for impressive, creative sets and designs throughout.
The complex Kryptonian back story, which always weighed down the Donner/Lester versions, is handled skillfully and efficiently, getting us to an Earth where there’s a Superman very quickly. (Handling a lot of the Ma and Pa Kent stuff in flashback works particularly well here, establishing both a young and mature Kal-El simultaneously to cut down as much as possible on familiar exposition.)
Henry Cavill lacks the charisma of Christopher Reeve (and isn’t given any screen time to establish Clark Kent as an adult), but definitely looks the part and makes for a much more compelling, convincing Superman than Brandon Routh. In fact, all the performances here are solid. I dare say, without Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent and Michael Shannon as General Zod, the movie would not work half as well.
There are definitely some big storytelling gaps. We jump very quickly from setting up this version of Superman and the DC Universe into the main conflict of the film (the arrival/invasion of Zod), and it’s obvious that the rest of the film would have bigger stakes and be more exciting if we felt more connected to Clark Kent and Lois Lane as people. (Costner’s Pa Kent is the most relate-able, 3-dimensional character in the film, which is probably not a good thing.)
I’ve seen a lot of comparisons, as well, between the movie as a “video game cutscene.” Again, I’m not sure these reviewers are reacting to the action itself or the visual effects (which are largely stellar), but to the lack of well-drawn characters. Save Costner’s Pa Kent, the heroic characters in “Man of Steel” are ciphers.
Many of these people have names we recognize (like “Perry White”), but not much else going for them. Lois Lane acts more like a savvy investigative journalist than in the Margot Kidder interpretation, but still doesn’t get to do much apart from getting saved a lot and falling in love with an alien she hardly knows. Reliable actors like Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni and Harry Lennix fill out the supporting cast, but never rise above the level of crudely-sketched types. Even evil Kryptoanian Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), the character that inspired the terrific villain Ursa in the Donner/Lester movies, shows up here assisting Zod, but she’s a total blank – nothing more than Zod’s second-in-command.
Over and over again, Snyder falls back on the fact that Superman is so iconic, and that all we need to see is a red cape and that S insignia to know who and what we’re dealing with, as a crutch. If you somehow didn’t already know a lot about Superman and what he stands for, you’d have a very hard time caring about the outcome of these events.
When it comes down to it, “Man of Steel” is a very good Superman movie. Just not a very good movie.