'Man of Steel': Film Review

Man of Steel Henry Cavill - H 2013
Warner Bros. Pictures

Man of Steel Henry Cavill - H 2013

There’s big, and then there’s this Superman (but don’t call him that).

Zack Snyder's Superman reboot stars Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe.

To the oft-asked question of whether or not the world is really starving for yet another superhero origin story, Man of Steel simply responds by serving up what could be as much spectacle and action — minute-by-minute, frame-by-frame — as any movie anyone could think of. Zack Snyder’s huge, backstory-heavy extravaganza is a rehab job that perhaps didn’t cry out to be done but proves so overwhelmingly insistent in its size and strength that it’s hard not to give in. Warner Bros.’ new tentpole should remain firmly planted around the world for much of the summer.

With Christopher Nolan’s mammoth Batman trilogy having wrapped up last year, the quick return of the other great DC comic hero was inevitable, even if the last attempt, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), only lasted one lap. Nolan’s involvement here as a producer and co-story writer with David S. Goyer, his collaborator on all three Batman films, will encourage fans to look closely for his fingerprints, and a first impression might suggest his hand in deepening the hero’s roots to such a serious extent and insisting upon using Hans Zimmer to compose the score.

Visually and rhythmically, however, Snyder has gone his own way, summoning up memories of Dune in the sculpted architectural look of Krypton, echoing Jesus by underlining the sacrifice Clark Kent is called upon to make for the good of mankind, and simply by hardly letting five minutes go by without inventing some new excuse for a staggering action scene -- any one of which undoubtedly cost more than the combined budgets of all of this year’s Sundance competition lineup.

Even the inevitably expository first 18 minutes on Krypton are spiked with an amazing amount of visual stimulation. As Jor-El (Russell Crowe) lays it all out about the planet’s road to ruin, its failed intergalactic colonization efforts and his discovery of a planet to which he can send his little son, we’re witness to both large-scale calamity and the intimate treachery of the rebellious General Zod (a ferocious Michael Shannon), whose murderous campaign gets him packed off to the deep space equivalent of Siberia.

Snyder doesn’t miss a beat once the tale spins down to Earth. Scarcely has Kal-El emerged from his projectile after a long flight when he rescues workers from a burning oil rig. The youngster later sees his classmates in disturbing X-ray vision and, not long after the renamed Clark Kent asks his adoptive mother (Diane Lane), “What’s wrong with me, Mom?” a parade of topless shots of the young man reveal far from anything wrong but, rather, that the actor playing him, Henry Cavill, would have been fully qualified for a major role in Snyder’s 300 without any digital musculature added.

When Clark saves the day yet again by lifting a school bus out of the water after it’s gone off a bridge, his adoptive father (Kevin Costner) realizes it’s time for a heart-to-heart. “You’re the answer to whether we’re alone in the universe,” he confides upon showing Clark the old pod that brought him to Earth.

At the same time, ace Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets on to a story about a foreign object that’s been buried in ice for 20,000 years, while Jor-El abruptly rematerializes to teach his sprig more Kryptonian history and present him with his long-awaited suit and cape so he can begin his entertainingly staged flying lessons.

For a film that has thus far spent an hour basically setting the table, writer Goyer and Snyder have found a way to sneak in at least a half-dozen big-time action sequences. Suddenly, there are two more, a Midwestern twister big enough to send not just a house but a whole town to Oz, and the spectacular spaceship arrival of Zod, who breaks Kal-El/Clark’s cover by giving him 24 hours to surrender. Here the Jesus parallel asserts itself, especially when it’s stressed that Kal-El has spent 33 years on Earth anonymously before being asked to sacrifice himself. Not much more is made of this, but the subtext persists.

When a real-time action sequence can’t be generated narratively, Kal-El experiences a nightmare vision of the Kryptonian dystopia Zod would impose upon Earth, which provokes him to attack the general in what is wittily staged as an old-fashioned Main Street showdown in Smallville. By now it’s clear that Snyder’s and Goyer’s intention is to have no downtime at all, just spectacle on top of spectacle. In enormous effects-driven films, this is often a counterproductive approach, in that it can either have a numbing, deadening effect, as in the Transformers series, or terminally suffer from a strained attempt to keep topping itself scene after scene, as in the last Indiana Jones adventure.

Although it does go over the top toward the end, when Zod embraces a genocidal program and attacks Kal-El with giant metallic tentacles that are more ridiculous than scary, Man of Steel mostly plays it smart by mixing its action deck-of-cards style.

Given the almost relentless pursuit of big scenes, Man of Steel manages to find the time to develop a reasonably plausible relationship between Kal-El and Lois Lane, who must balance her compulsion to deliver the scoop of the century with the suspicion, shared by the alien’s adoptive father, that the world is not ready for the likes of this superman (Superman? Does anyone here say "Superman"? Barely.) This is a smart, active, modern Lois, one who does need to be rescued on occasion but is always keen to be in the thick of things. Adams and Cavill develop a spirited rapport that’s enjoyable to watch in admittedly short spurts.

Visually, Snyder and cinematographer Amir Mokri employ handheld shots noticeably more than is the norm in such megaproductions, and the very tight, short-focused shots of the hero’s face while flying have an unexpectedly intimate nature, quite beautiful in their way. The effects, which course through the film without cease, are not as consistently sharp as they normally were in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, veering from the expert to the video-gamey to the borderline cheesy, albeit charmingly so.

Becomingly modest in the character’s low-key early scenes and gradually reveling in his power, Cavill has a pleasing presence that makes him easy to accept, as Kal-El accepts the extraordinary fate that has been prescribed for him. Snarling, scarred and not without a worthy villain’s righteous logic, Shannon excels as the fearsome Zod. Other major names are well cast and used down the line, including Costner, Lane, Crowe, Laurence Fishburne as Lois’s editor and Antje Traue as Zod’s relentless ninja-style warrior partner.

Working in a somewhat lower key than was his norm for Nolan, Zimmer still provides the musical grandeur and sense of portent that lends the film an extra dimension.

Opens: June 14 (Warner Bros.)

Production: Syncopy

Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Michael Kelly, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Dylan Sprayberry, Cooper Timberline

Director: Zack Snyder

Screenwriter: David S. Goyer, story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, based upon characters appearing in comic books published by DC Entertainment, Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

Producers: Charles Roven, Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Deborah Snyder

Executive producers: Thomas Tull, Lloyd Phillips, Jon Peters

Director of photography: Amir Mokri

Production designer: Alex McDowell

Costume designers: James Acheson, Michael Wilkinson

Music: Hans Zimmer

Visual effects supervisor: John “DJ” Desjardin

PG-13 rating, 143 minutes