Man of Steel – A Review

With the exception of my fascination with Batman, I am more of a Marvel girl rather than a DC girl when it comes to comics. Even being called a Marvel girl is a bit of a stretch, as I don’t read any of the comics or have any huge investment in the world of superheroes; I enjoy the Marvel movies a lot, but my knowledge of the Marvel universe is primarily limited to what they put on the big screen and the anecdotal information that I’ll pick up from conversations with real fans or from what I read online. But even within my limited working knowledge of superheroes, I have characters and franchises that I am drawn to far more than others. I’m far more interested in the X-Men, Thor and Batman, for example, than I am with what Hulk, Iron Man or Captain America are up to. I prefer the Avengers as a collective to any of their individual story lines. And this may make me a communist, but I really have never had an iota of interest in what Superman is doing. As far as I’m concerned, he’s just kind of around.

My totally disinterest in the man of steel is somewhat ironic, as it was on Christopher Reeve’s Superman that I first cut my teeth in the realm of superheroes. The Superman franchise was my first foray into caped crusaders and while I remember liking the movie – and perhaps having a girlhood crush on Reeve – I don’t think my Superman interest lasted much beyond that first movie. I may or may not have watched Reeve don the blue tights in subsequent installments, but if I did they made no real lasting impression. I never watched the TV shows Lois and Clark or Smallville and I just kind of shrugged at the recent attempt to reboot the franchise with Superman Returns (with Brandon Routh in the titular role). Faster than a speeding bullet, my fascination with Superman disappeared.

So I went into Man of Steel with a pretty apathetic view of Superman; on the one hand, that played to the movie’s advantage as I had no preconceived notions or fangirl anticipation. In fact, as the movie started I realized that I really didn’t know much about Superman and his back story beyond the basics – and admittedly most of that knowledge I picked up from Seinfeld episodes. On the other hand, my general lack of interest in this character meant that I was pre-programmed to engage with the movie; I was going to see it because it was a big summer movie and I typically see all the big summer movies, but beyond that the film was going to have to win me over to the superhero that I generally consider the most boring of the bunch.

Overall, I wasn’t all that impressed with the latest incarnation of Superman; the film was far too impressed with long fight sequences with dazzling special effects at the expense of a clear and understandable story or any semblance of character development. You root for Superman in this movie because you have been conditioned by society to do so, but while Henry Cavill cuts a dashing figure and seems like an amiable fellow, there just isn’t a lot going on with Superman as a character. The imprint of director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is evident with the prolonged focus on scenes of destruction; I like a good fight scene as much as the next person, but these lasted too long and were too frequent. Man of Steel is a joyless affair; there is no laughter or comedic release in this film and it is all very dark and depressing. While the dark and broody vibe fits Batman just fine, it feels like an odd choice for the man who fights for truth, justice and the American way. Watching the Man of Steel was vaguely entertaining (though a bit confusing), but it just wasn’t a lot of fun.

There were parts of Man of Steel that I did really enjoy; I thought the best and most interesting scenes in the film dealt with Clark Kent’s childhood in Kansas with his adoptive parents (played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). These scenes provided the film its few moments of heart and character study and Costner and Lane did a fantastic job, as did the various actors that played Clark through different stages of his childhood. I was far more interested in these moments, interspersed throughout the film, than I was in anything else that was going on. To me, seeing Clark deal with being different and forging his identity was a more interesting story than watching the destruction of Metropolis (yet another stand in for my beloved New York City). Dare I say it, these glimpses at Clark’s growth into adulthood make the character actually interesting.

Snyder and company, however, are not particularly interested in these quieter moments that provide some actual insight and depth to the characters; they just want to make a mess and blow things up. Fight scenes are an essential part of any superhero movie, of course; there is always some epic showdown of good vs. evil with something as trifling as the fate of humanity on the line. But what the people behind this film don’t seem to realize is that carnage for the sake of carnage loses its luster after a while. After you have watched villains and heroes thrown through buildings and skidding to a halt after leaving a wide cavern in the ground in their wake, you start to get desensitized to the whole thing. The fight scenes all lasted at least 10 minutes too long and ultimately you didn’t feel like much was accomplished except billions of dollars in property damage. The final resolution of these battles is so anticlimactic that it just feels like a lot of time was wasted; at two hours and 20 minutes, Man of Steel felt long and somewhat bloated. A few editing choices would have made a huge difference.

Man of Steel boasts a talented cast, but the story ultimately fails them. I adore Amy Adams, but I didn’t buy her as Lois Lane for one second. Her supposed chemistry with Superman felt unearned and forced. Russell Crowe is giving more to do as Superman’s birth father Jor-El, but is saddled with a lot of exposition that never really made a lot of sense to me. I never really got what exactly was going on with Krypton and therefore was not very invested in the planet’s fate. Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff and Laurence Fishburne all show up at various points but are given criminally little to do. None of them disappear into their character and while I am always glad to see Meloni pop up, every time he appeared I immediately thought “hey everybody – it’s Detective Stabler!” Henry Cavill was far too dreamy for me to give you a fair critique of his performance; he didn’t seem to be much more than an empty vessel, but I was far too interested in just drinking him in to say that I was fully paying attention to determine whether the shortcomings came from his performance or from how the story was written (I’m guessing it was a mixture of the two). The only real emotion the film conjured up for me was extreme disappointment when Cavill opted for the more clean cut look befitting the Man of Steel; I definitely dug him more with the facial hair. *sighs dreamily* Wait….what were we just talking about?

beard cavill

The one particular bright spot in Man of Steel was Michael Shannon, who I really like as an actor and I thought made the villain General Zod intense and believable. Shannon is cursed (or blessed, depending on how you look at it) with an inherent creepiness factor; I’m sure he is a very nice man, but his appearance brings a bit of a sinister vibe to his performances. It works in this case – General Zod could have become very campy in the hands of another actor with all the yelling and speechifying, but Shannon grounds the performance and makes for a very satisfying bad guy.

Some other thoughts:

  • I like to consider myself a pretty smart person, but I found a lot of the plot of Man of Steel confusing. I never quite understood the whole business with the codex; this film really doubles down on the more intergalactic elements of the Superman story, which has never been one of my strong suits.
  • This movie is not at all subtle about their product placement and sponsorship deals – funny how an entire section of town can be destroyed, yet the signs for 7-11 and Sears not only remain completely intact, but in the background of just about every shot. As I became bored with the too long fighting sequences, I couldn’t stop noticing this in the background.
  • This isn’t a movie for small kids – a fact that many of the people at our screening apparently didn’t know or didn’t care about. One poor little guy started crying almost immediately when the movie started because he was scared. The previews sent mixed messages as to the target audience – we went from clips for Despicable Me 2 right into a trailer for the new 300 movie, which was absolutely not kid friendly. Parents beware.
  • When we left the theater, we witnessed an adorable sight: a father and little daughter walking around the mall in matching Superman/girl costumes. It was really cute, though I hoped that he wasn’t taking her to see the film for the reason above. She couldn’t have been more than 4.
  • During the last fight scene, there are references to another Superman character sprinkled in the background. I assume that character will come into play in the sequels.
  • We didn’t opt of the 3-D or IMAX experience; I think some of those action scenes would have given me a headache in 3-D.
  • If this film makes it cool to wear Kansas City Royals t-shirts, it will have really accomplished something.
  • Possible spoiler – I don’t understand why Earth had to become the new Krypton – if they were going to have to change Earth’s atmosphere anyway to make it hospitable to their life form, why couldn’t they just pick any old planet – preferably one that didn’t already have inhabitants? I know – there would be no movie then – but that just seemed like poor storytelling.
  • They couldn’t have sprung for some diapers when they shipped little Kal-El off to Earth? That poor little baby actor was on full display.
  • No need to stay after the credits – there are no bonus scenes (and if you don’t believe your favorite pop culture blogger, you can ask the kids that clean up the theater for their confirmation)

Man of Steel isn’t a bad movie, but it just isn’t all that enjoyable either. Not all superhero movies have to be as fun as The Avengers, but if you are going to make a serious movie you need to improve upon the character development and plot. The Batman movies had little humor in them, but they took the time to create interesting people and stories to watch. Man of Steel has doubled down on the special effects, but didn’t take the time to build a solid foundation for the movie before they decided to destroy it. Man of Steel feels like more work than it should be and we ultimately left the theater underwhelmed.