News, Views, and Reviews
Everybody should know who Superman is. He is pretty much THE superhero that all other superheroes have been modeled after. So why has it been so hard to portray him in movies? My theory is that he means different things to different people. He’s become an icon and a symbol, yet it’s hard to find agreement on what he really symbolizes. Truth, justice, and the American Way? What does THAT even mean anymore? Adding another problem to that ambiguity is his abundance of power; even comic book fans have a hard time following a superhero that can do everything. What kinds of problems can a man like that even have? How are we supposed to relate to him?
Note: Mild spoilers – based only on what is revealed in commercials and previews – may follow. If you’ve avoided even watching a single commercial, you’ve been warned.
Story: To his credit, screenplay writer David S. Goyer answers those questions and problems with the “Man of Steel”. It may not be the definitive version of Superman, or it may not even be a version that some will identify with, but it is a very good version. Very good. For those that, like myself, groaned a little when they announced that Man of Steel was going to be a “reboot” and a “retelling of the origin story of Superman”, don’t worry. This isn’t just another stupid Hollywood decision. No, this is a great retelling of that classic story, that involves a lot of depth and character development. Really, it’s a strong story arc that focuses on themes of free will and control, beginning on Krypton and ending with Superman choosing his own fate on Earth. It’s interesting to point out, that even in the credits, he is referred to as Clark Kent/Kal-El, and never as Superman. There are one or two scenes that tease the audience that he might end up with that title, but in a way, it’s more important to the story that he’s NOT called Superman. Not yet.
Characterization: This movie gives more attention to Krypton itself, and Kal’s real father, Jor-El, is given a bigger role. Jor-El has more than just the pending doom of Krypton to worry about, as the leader of Krypton’s defenses, General Zod, attempts a government coup just as Jor-El is trying to convince them of the inevitable destruction of their world. General Zod wants to remove the foolish leaders that have doomed the planet in the first place, and save the planet in his own way, but Jor-El has a different vision of saving Krypton and giving people the ability to choose for themselves. The clash of ideals between Jor-El and Zod echo throughout the movie, and I’m sure many will make comparisons to various religions and philosophies. It’s a great presentation of ideals, but it does get a little redundant in parts. Many years later, an adult Kal-El has his own dilemma to worry about, as well as deciding what role he was sent to Earth to fulfill. There is an added layer of symbolism regarding the “S” on Superman’s chest, which is relevant to his character, but seems out of place combined with the other themes of the movie.
At any rate, the main characters give strong performances: Shannon gives us a somewhat more sympathetic rendition of General Zod, Crowe is quietly powerful as Jor-El, and Kevin Costner portrays Jonathan Kent as an earnest farmer who knows he’s out of his depth in trying to raise a super human, but that compassion and vulnerability provide a lot of strength for Clark when he needs it. Similarly, Amy Adams plays a brave and determined Lois Lane that sees Kal-El/Clark for the person he wants to be, and gives him courage to find it himself. She also connects with Clark on a more personal level than is usually portrayed, and I was happy to see their romance earned throughout the movie instead of just tacked on for tradition’s sake. But, this is a story about the Man of Steel, and it’s Henry Cavill that “steals” the show. Detractors of Superman and fans alike will have to appreciate his deeply layered yet relatable and accessible rendition of the Man of Steel.
Visualization: As skeptical as I was about another superhero “reboot” movie in general, and Christopher Nolan’s involvement in specific, I was excited about the prospect of Zack Snyder directing. His visual style in movies like “300”, “Watchmen”, and “Sucker Punch” is immensely enjoyable, even when the movies themselves lack story or plot depth. However, I was surprised to find the Man of Steel to be deep and profound, perhaps at the cost of toning down Snyder’s visual flairs. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a feast for the eyes. The sci-fi-fantasy elements concerning Krypton and its technologies, architecture, and inhabitants made me want to see even more of the doomed planet. The climactic showdown on Earth nearly put Marvel’s “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” movies to shame. But, Snyder’s signature super-slow-motion sequences were noticeably absent. The speed and power of Kal-El and his rival Kryptonians are impressive and rendered well, I just wish we could have seen it slowed down once in awhile.
I should also point out that, as big of a fan as I am about 3D in movies – especially in super hero epics like this – I have to admit that the 3D wasn’t all that special in Man of Steel. If anything, I was wishing for the controversial 48 frames per second format used in “The Hobbit” as it would have greatly clarified the action scenes. There is a chance that the particular theater I was in could have been too dark; my experience with watching other 3D movies has shown me that the lighting and contrast can make a big difference in how well objects “pop” from the screen. Or, perhaps Man of Steel itself is too dark, which is something I’ve been worried about since promotional shots of the movie began circulating. But this is a borderline “preference versus objective appraisal” situation here. Personally, I would have liked to see the Superman costume a few tones lighter. I would have also preferred a more lighter tone throughout the movie, as it just seems too dark and serious most of the time. But, these are Snyder’s directorial choices and not flaws in the production. (Unless it IS the fault of the theater/film quality that makes it hard to see what’s happening, then I AM making an objective appraisal. I plan on seeing the movie again, in a regular theater, so perhaps that will resolve this issue.)
Update: Having watched Man of Steel three times now, and the third time in 2D, I stand by my theory. This movie is too dark for the 3D effects to work very well, so it’s best seen in 2D. In my experience watching other 3D movies, IMAX theaters do tend to be brighter, so that might help. In my opinion, though, the 3D is not that impressive.
Sound: Speaking of directorial choices, objective qualities, and preferences, let’s talk about the sound. You’ve probably heard hints of the soundtrack and the main themes in trailers and commercials. Does that theme sound inspiring and hopeful to you? Or does it sound menacing and gloomy? It sounds a little gloomy to me. I’m sorry, but this is one example of how I felt the Man of Steel was a little TOO dark. Hans Zimmer is a great composer and his musical scores have been in a lot of movies, musical scores that I often really like. Perhaps it fits with the movie, as Kal-El struggles with his place in the world through most of it, that maybe expecting something awesome and inspiring right away is too premature. Like Clark and Lois’ romance, it has to be earned. At any rate, maybe some will really like the soundtrack, just as some may like or not like this rendition of Superman. The quality is high, and the sound effects especially are very well done. Despite viewer’s preferences for 2D or 3D theaters, I hope that everyone can experience this in a theater with as good of a sound system as possible. All of the sound is so good, I think it already surpasses the bar set by Iron Man 3. I also want to point out that Clark has an interesting tone of voice that’s almost as hard to hide as being “super” as his physique. I think that’s a great touch.
Conclusion: Perhaps the best way to critique the Man of Steel is to appreciate how well made it is. Not everyone is going to agree on this particular rendition, or that specific characterization, and some may or may not prefer his dark blue suit. But the tight story, deep performances, and impressive visual and sound effects should impress everyone. This is a great time to be a fan of super heroes as we’re finally seeing impressive effort and results in bringing them to life on the big screen. Preferences may vary, but no one can deny the quality. I’m greatly impressed by the Man of Steel, and I HOPE that Snyder, Cavill, and everyone returns for more Superman!
Man of Steel hit theaters June 14th, runs 143 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.