In 2006 Warner Brothers released SUPERMAN RETURNS, directed by Bryan Singer (X-MEN 1 and 2) and starring newcomer (at the time) Brandon Routh as The Big Blue Boyscout. While Routh was eerily similar in look and speech to Christopher Reeve, and Singer effectively captured the same look and feel of Richard Donner’s original SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, the script failed to impress many moviegoers and earned the project a somewhat bad reputation. SUPERMAN RETURNS met with mostly good reviews from critics, and performed well enough at the box office to where it wasn’t a flop, but fans wanted a more modern and action-packed take on Superman. After 7 years of comic book fanatics wondering what would happen next on the big screen with the character, folks are about to get a whole new take from director Zack Snyder (WATCHMEN) and the boys behind THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy (David Goyer and Christopher Nolan)… and let’s just say it’s a whole lot different than what everyone has been used to.
MAN OF STEEL opens on Krypton, an other-worldly AVATAR-esque planet that harvests their residents to be specific workers as they age. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have conceived a baby naturally and in secret, but when the planet’s military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) revolts against the council in hopes of restructuring Krypton, Jor-El must fight his way back home. There he and Lara realize their newborn son will never be safe with Zod running loose, so Jor-El steals the planet’s codex (an object that allows Krypton to harvest their people), implants it into his son, and launches him off the planet in hopes of the newborn having a fighting chance. Zod, furious over the loss of the codex, which is necessary for his new world order, vows to find the child. Eventually Zod and his soldiers are captured and banished from the planet, but Krypton is shortly destroyed afterward. Anyone who knows the story of Superman knows these events well, but here we see it in a new and exciting way. Jor-El’s exploits with Zod involve chase scenes, fist fights and gun battles… starting off things literally with a bang.
Instead of following the linear path of showing baby Kal-El landing on Earth and being found by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), we skip ahead to see Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) moving from job to job trying to find his destiny, and occasionally having to use his extraordinary powers to save the day. This do-gooder urban legend draws the attention of reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who goes looking for the mystery man, and wants to know why he doesn’t share his power with the world. As this plays out, we see flashbacks to Clark at a young age, learning of his abilities and how to cope with them – it’s in these moments where we see the effect Ma and Pa Kent had on his youthful life. Back in the present, the government and military, headed by Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) and Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff), discover a strange craft lodged in the ice, something that also peaks Clark’s interest. In an effort to learn the secrets of his past, Clark activates the Kryptonian ship using a key of sorts Jor-El left with him. But this action alerts Zod to his location, and now the obsessed General has headed to Earth in pursuit of The Last Son of Krypton. Just as Clark begins to discover his own origins, he now finds himself forced to step up and defend the planet with his miraculous powers in hopes of defending a population that is hopelessly outmatched.
One of the biggest complaints about SUPERMAN RETURNS was the lack of action, specifically that Superman never even punched anything. MAN OF STEEL seems determined to make that a distant memory, and a bulk of its action feels dangerously close to being a bit too much. While in many ways this is unlike anything we’d ever expect from a Superman movie, it’s also in some ways the Superman movie we’ve always wanted to see. But this is a much darker take on the character, and not just in reference to the obviously muted color tones of the red and blue outfit. People die here… a LOT of people. In fact there’s a few scenes toward the end where it could be assumed hundreds of thousands if not millions perish in the collateral damage. Yet like other superhero films featuring scenes like this, that sort of aspect is rarely elaborated on. It also may be the result of the PG-13 rating, as the more death you acknowledge the more the ratings board has to take into consideration. While I wouldn’t envy someone like Zack Snyder, having to craft a Superman movie fans will find redeeming and satisfying after their last experience, he’s done a pretty admirable job. This take is fresh and quite different, yet maintains a lot of the integrity we’ve come to expect for the characters involved. It’s also a rather refreshing variation on the meeting of Lois and Clark, as their friendship begins nowhere near The Daily Planet, nor does the story between them involve the newsroom. It’s also fun to see how Clark Kent “found” himself all those years between life in Smallville with Ma and Pa Kent to the day where he became the Superman we all know and love. In some regards this story element could be likened to Bruce Wayne’s self journey in BATMAN BEGINS, but that’s not at all a bad thing.
Henry Cavill is very fitting for the role of Clark Kent/Superman, and his British accent never seeps through during his quiet but controlled performance. This version of Kent isn’t nerdy or goofy, but rather frustrated at his own abilities and odd qualities. Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent acts like the voice of reason in the flashbacks, and the actor delivers yet another likable and endearing performance – one of the highlights for the film. Diane Lane gets fewer moments of greatness, but is still an inspired choice for the adoptive mother of Clark. Her best scene is (oddly enough) her first in the movie, where she must calm a very young and nervous Clark at school. Michael Shannon plays General Zod as a authoritative and passionate man, almost not so much a villain as a determined soul who believes what he’s doing to be the right thing for his kind. Watching his character unravel is more like seeing an Army leader be defied by his troops to the point of madness from the disrespect. The evil side if covered by his right-hand woman Faora (Antje Traue), who is deliciously sinister and effective as the devoted soldier for Zod, and is easily one of the film’s standout characters. Russell Crowe transforms Jor-El into a man of action and courage, not just a smart and talky guy, though there’s certainly some of that there. Every scene Crowe is in has a weight and magic to it, and like Cavill following Christopher Reeve, Crowe following Marlon Brando is no easy task… he does just fine. Perhaps the weakest link in the cast in Amy Adams, who never seems to convincingly embody Lois Lane. We just don’t buy her as the character, and even the relationship with Clark/Superman seems a little rushed and flat. Adams is a fine actress and capable of great things, but just doesn’t work here.
There are nice supporting performances by Christopher Meloni and Richard Schiff, though their story involvement is limited. Some supporting roles don’t work as well, like Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, who feels underused or included for no reason. His character could have easily just showed up at the end of the movie instead of being peppered throughout. They changed Jimmy Olsen to “Jenny”, which also seems to serve little purpose. While The Daily Planet is obviously a big part of the Superman lore, here it seems forced into the film without really adding to the scope of it. Had it been saved completely for the last few moments as a sort of lead-in to a sequel (as there is something like that already in there), I think it would have been more effective.
While a director like Snyder is sometimes criticized for his work (with people saying he’s all style and no substance, or his use of slow motion is done excessively), here he shows tremendous restraint when necessary and innovative style where it’s unexpected. I have no doubt being under the watchful eye of a successful and serious comic book filmmaker like Christopher Nolan was a big help. In fact this feels more like a Nolan movie than a Snyder movie, and could comfortably coexist in the same universe as THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy. There’s frequent use of handheld camera, almost in a Terrence Malick fashion, which makes certain scenes more intimate and adds a layer of realism to the surrounding. Some of the handheld work at the beginning, on Krypton, doesn’t work well and feels jarring, but the good far outweighs the bad. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the powerful and effective score by Hans Zimmer, which again is a strong break away from what we’re used to. John Williams score for SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was so impacting, trying to imagine something different is almost impossible, yet somehow this works. Had Snyder tried to incorporate Williams music with this movie, it would not have meshed well. Zimmer gave a definitive sound to Batman, and now he’s put his stamp on Superman, proving once again he’s one of the modern masters when it comes to movie music.
I’m sure this darker and more intense take on Superman is also DC Comics working largely in response to all the insanely successful Marvel Comics movies, particularly THE AVENGERS – a film that sort of redefined what superhero movies could be. Outside of the Nolan Batman trilogy, DC hasn’t had much luck with cinema in the last few decades, and this may be a much-needed step in the right direction for what is still to come. At the very least it earns forgiveness for the GREEN LANTERN movie, which left a lot of fans in shock over how much one of the company’s flagship character didn’t work on the big screen.
All in all MAN OF STEEL is an exciting and fun take on the classic superhero, and should end up being a real crowd pleaser. Some will say it’s too dark for its own good, but the same was said for Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN movies, and we all saw how successful they became. Perhaps the only problem with this film is that while it starts big and finishes bigger, leaving the middle a bit slow at times and perhaps too talky in select scenes. But that’s fairly forgivable considering the overall result. There’s also the issue of how incredibly big the scope of the story and particularly the ending is here. When things are this grand, where could you possibly go for a sequel? It’s only natural to think the studio is already planning more adventures for the new Superman, but a Lex Luthor or Brainiac story as a follow up would feel pretty tame by comparison. One thing that’s safe to say is that this is the most bold and action-packed Superman movie to date, and in many ways that by itself is enough to make it a smart and successful move for DC Comics movies… can a JUSTICE LEAGUE film really be that far behind?
MAN OF STEEL is set to soar into 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D theaters on June 14, 2013.