Man Of Steel

Posted: 5 July 2013
Category: Reviews Comments View Comments


The 2013 reboot of the Superman film franchise offers a contemporary re-interpretation of Superman's origin story as well as engaging, interesting characters portrayed by a star-studded cast. Not everything about this film is satisfying, however, and fans need to brace themselves for some disappointments.

Man Of SteelI went into the press screening of this movie with no expectations. I knew very little about it, bar what I'd gleaned from a handful of stills and posters that I had seen, but that sense of dread was still mounting even with no information as to what to expect. I kept it at bay, however, and just went to watch the movie - twice, in fact, as I was invited to a second preview screening a week later.

In terms of production design (and costume design, makeup design, special effects, and storytelling) the first 15 minutes of the film, set on a dying Krypton, are the most interesting and satisfying in a very sensory way. Ayelet Zurer, as Lara Lor-Van (Kal-El's mother), brings an emotional centre to the scenes that's just not replicated by anyone else for the rest of the movie. Even most of Diane Lane's scenes later in the movie, as Clark Kent's adoptive mother on Earth, Martha Kent, seem hollow in comparison.

Unfortunately, once Krypton is destroyed the Earth-based storyline is comparatively boring. General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his band of decidedly unmerry men and women, representing warriors and the military, are banished to the Phantom Zone for 300 cycles of mandatory rehabilitation after coming into conflict with Jor-El (Russell Crowe), representing scientists and intellectuals, and the council that rules Krypton. The central point of the issue is that Kryton is dying and everyone has a different idea as to what they should do and how the planet should be governed. Jor-El infuriates General Zod by sending Kal-El, the first live birth in centuries (babies are grown in tanks, a la The Matrix, and are pre-assigned a role in society; live births are outlawed), and the Codex, which contains the genetic information of the entire Kryptonian race, into space in an attempt to save the race from extinction.

(Apparently they didn't make copies.)

Man Of SteelKrypton, and everyone on it, then dies spectacularly, leaving the banished Kryptonians without a planet and a future, so they scavenge resources from previously conquered worlds and colonies, none of which have survived, and go in search of the Codex to restore their race and find a new home.

At this point you're probably wondering why the whole of Krypton didn't banish itself to the Phantom Zone. Me too.

On Earth, we're introduced to Clark through a series of vignettes that jump back and forth in time. It's an interesting way to portray the story but I found the scenes to be devoid of emotional resonance - you just don't connect with the characters, although I'm not sure why. Interspersed with this is the present day, in which general Zod and his allies arrive on Earth in search of Kal-El and the Codex. The US Military gets involved, of course, though impotently so, and there's a climactic battle down the main street of Smallville, which seems to be channeling half the plot of Thor and which drags on and on, before another climactic battle in Metropolis, which also drags on and on.

Man Of SteelLet's talk casting. I was actually quite happy with it. I did have an "eh, Kevin Costner" moment when he first appeared on screen (he portrays Jonathan Kent, Kal-El's adoptive father on Earth) because, in my mind, John Schneider owns the role, but he handled the character well and I had a far more positive reaction to all the other (very recognisable, which is usually detrimental) actors, including Laurence Fishburne, as the Daily Planet's editor Perry White, Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni as US Military personnel, and Richard Schiff as a scientist.

Lois Lane is great - Amy Adams does a wonderful job but that's partly because the character is well written. I am happy to send the awful incarnation of the character we were subjected to in Superman Returns straight to the Phantom Zone (from where, hopefully, she will never re-emerge) and declare Man Of Steel's Lois Lane a worthy (though not as funny) successor to Margot Kidder's portrayal.

Henry Cavill as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman is another good casting choice, though I was happy with Brandon Routh in the role previously as he is still the best embodiment of Superman's light-hearted side. Henry Cavill has a suitably broody/conflicted thing going on that fits the character perfectly - this story is all about his angst in discovering who he is, deciding who he wants to be, navigating his existential crisis of being alone, and being torn between his competing allegiances to his race and his new home - and he's the right kind of handsome too. There's also a point, during a crucial climactic scene, in which the lighting briefly makes Henry Cavill look like Christopher Reeve. I don't know if it was by accident or homage but it is a beautiful moment.

Man Of SteelIn terms of the story, what I did like is that we have a strong female character on each side of the "good" and "evil" line (General Zod's second in command, Faora-Ul, portrayed by Antje Traue, and Lois Lane, respectively), both of whom are intelligent, hold their own, and (as far as I noticed) are never presented as objects for the male gaze. Unfortunately that's marred by a female major, looking as though she's just fallen out of a high school somewhere and who spends most of her time in the background of scenes, who has one throwaway slightly lascivious line that's supposed to be funny but which is very out of place in what is a largely humourless film, to its detriment. (Or possibly not as the only other attempt at humour I remember is a moment in which Superman crashes into a building being constructed and behind him we see a safety sign that says "106 accident free days". Har.)

General Zod, too, is a well written villain, which I didn't expect. He has a wonderful, succinct speech near the end of the movie in which his motivations are very clearly explained. It's not a position you're expected to agree with but it makes sense and is worth contemplating. You don't quite get to sympathy, as he's too malicious, but you understand. Michael Shannon does a superb job in the role and, as entertaining as Terence Stamp was in the original films, I think Michael Shannon is the perfect choice for the reinvention of the character for 21st century audiences.

Man Of SteelOn the technical side, as mentioned, most departments get to shine in the first few minutes, although the sound design throughout the film is superb and the audio levels are well balanced, even in the most dramatic action scenes. Sadly the score, by Hans Zimmer, washed over me both times I watched the film (and the second time I even tried to pay more attention to it). There's nothing wrong with it but no themes stood out for me and it all just blended in to the background, unlike his scores for Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, which were magnificent. The production design, while beautiful, suffered from the same problems as that in Thor and many other science-fiction movies - everything on Krypton is aesthetically pleasing but it's all just functional and therefore sterile; there's no personalisation, no art, no ephemera. It's not real. It's not lived in. It's a stylish window display depicting some over-zealous designer's vision of a visually perfect future.

Some of the special effects and CGI work is very good in a number of places but there are problems too. Unsurprisingly, though disappointingly, the CGI used to depict the super movement of the Kryptonians is particularly bad. It suffers from the same problem that has been marring CGI for decades - weight is not taken into account when animating movement, resulting in that weird "light", awkward movement, especially when characters jump, that's completely cringeworthy. (The robots in i, Robot suffer, erm, heavily from this problem too.)

Man Of SteelSome of Clark's superpowers are well represented, though, and the special effects offer, literally, a new perspective that we have never seen before. Clark's X-ray vision, through doors, walls, and people, is one noteworthy example, as is a brief flying scene in which Superman zips among and around buildings in Metropolis and the camera shadows him so it almost feels as if you're flying with him. This effect is heightened by the 3D but this is the only scene in which the 3D really shines. The rest of the time it is flat and unnecessary. One of the reasons is because it was a post-production digital conversion from 2D. If you have the choice, I'd recommend the 2D version as the increased ticket price of 3D isn't worth one five-second scene.

I accept that a certain level of suspension of disbelief is required when watching superhero movies and I've never had a problem before but for some reason I became stuck, critically so, on a lot of minor points, possibly because certain issues that could be addressed or explained weren't, and other things were just sloppy filmmaking. Collectively it ruined much of the movie for me.

(Well, that and the middle-of-the-road story.)

An alien transmission takes over all the computers, TVs, screens, mobile phones, and so forth in the world so we're given the typical brief montage of "people of the world" gathering at their TV screens. We dip into what I presume is China, followed by what I presume is Mongolia (or Nepal), just for that added sense of "foreign but we are all one" kumbaya moment, and then we go back to the US. All over the world, at the same time, it's night time. Every location they show is in darkness.

This is immediately where I started going "...what?"

(As an added bonus in that scene, a journalism intern shouts "It's coming in on the RSS feeds" and then looks at the transmission video that's taken over her mobile phone's screen - which I think was Nokia's big product-placement moment but I was so busy laughing at this absurd line, both times that I watched the movie, that I missed it. (Sorry Nokia.))

Superman tells Lois to stand back because he's about to take off and it causes a bit of a pressure wave, yet earlier in the film he zips off from a spot less than a metre away from a group of US marines and there isn't so much as a dust swirl.

Man Of SteelMassive pressure waves from an alien spaceship that are interfering with the Earth's magnetic field and gravity cause cars to lift off the ground and then crash down, and buildings are slowly flattened as the attack intensifies, yet the people in the vicinity are unaffected. They don't even lift off the ground. It's not gravity and it's not magnetism so what, exactly, is it that can pull a car two metres off the ground but not a human?

As a child, Clark's X-ray vision superpower suddenly manifests one day while he's at school, nearly sending him into a psychological meltdown. Why didn't he always have it? Is it a puberty thing? I sat there wondering this. The purpose of the scene was to show Clark's confusion at the manifestation of his burgeoning powers, his increasing experience of becoming an "other" as he hears the kids whispering about how weird he is, and the strong bond he has with Martha, who is called to coax him out of a closet (literally) but it falls flat on all these levels, not just because the emotional resonance just isn't there, but also because I couldn't understand why he didn't have X-ray vision from the day he landed on Earth. Wouldn't he? And wouldn't he be acclimated to it by now? If that's what you've always seen, why would it be weird? As they inexplicably present it as a sudden emergence I'm going to have to explain it with "puberty".

Clark Kent, incognito on a ship at sea while he's busy finding himself as a young adult, "escapes unharmed" as a crewman dives towards him and pushes him out of the way of a metal cage that's broken loose and is falling onto the deck (why wasn't it secured properly?) yet a few scenes later, in another flashback, an ornery trucker (played by Ian Tracey; it was a delight to see him on the big screen for a change) gets angry and shoves Clark... or, well, he tries to. Clark just stands there like the stoic brick wall that he is as the trucker practically bounces off his chest.

Could someone explain the competing physics of these two moments, please? I can't.

Man Of SteelGeneral Zod scours the galaxy for "33 years" to find Kal-El. He makes a point of emphasising this, although taking into consideration the entire concept - and vastness - of "space" and "the universe" it doesn't actually seem like a very long time. I'll repeat this, however: 33 years - as in, the thing that Earth, a backwater he's never been to before, does when it travels around the sun. I would have been less inclined to complain about this had the movie not set up a concept of space-based timekeeping on Krypton (the aforementioned "300 cycles").

Lois, exasperated, in a moment that I presume is supposed to evoke sympathetic office-drama comradery with the movie-going audience shouts "Does anyone know where the toner is?" as "Toner Low" (or something) flashes in (very) big letters on an office printer's LCD at the Daily Planet. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's worked for this newspaper for years and who has singlehandedly managed to track down Clark Kent after weeks (months?) of rummaging through the vapour trails of his numerous false identities and travels all over the US and she doesn't know where the toner is? (Maybe her excuse is she's just not in the office enough.)

My list is long. I'll stop there. You can play "spot the stupid" with your friends. It's almost worth making a drinking game of it.

Individually you can dismiss these moments but collectively they, and the many others I haven't highlighted, are too numerous and they ruin the film by implanting a level of dissatisfaction in your mind that gets bigger with every transgression. Man Of Steel is still watchable, it's still entertaining, it's still a good movie but it's not a movie that will become a classic. They dropped the ball for no good reason too often, and paired it with an uninspired story that even really enjoyable characters cannot rescue. There's hope, however, should they wish to make a sequel as the groundwork is there, it's firm, and there's nowhere to go but up. I just hope they hire a physicist as a consultant to slap a little bit of logic into the minor plot details.

Man Of Steel

Man Of Steel is written by David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan, is directed by Zack Snyder, and stars Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Ayelet Zurer, and Laurence Fishburne.

The review screening was courtesy of Nu Metro and the second screening was courtesy of Nokia and Vodacom.
Man Of Steel is on circuit in both South Africa and the US.

Tags: #comics, #nokia, #screen, #speculative_fiction

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