WARNING: Spoilers be comin! If you’re one of 8 people left who haven’t seen this movie, know that I discuss almost every detail of the plot at one point or another during this review. There, I told you.
Man of Steel is the best Superman movie ever made, and my new NEW favorite movie of 2013. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year, and easily the best movie I’ve seen so far this summer. I can confidently say that the only other movies that even have a chance to compete for Best Movie of the Summer are Elysium and Pacific Rim. Most of my complaints about the film are trivial at best, so the “Didn’t Like” section won’t be as long as it has been with a lot of other movies recently. MoS is far from perfect, but I didn’t have any huge gripes with it. Sorry, no nitpicking section this go-around. Sad face. But do join me for nearly 5,000 words of astute, insightful, edumacational reviewing…
300 will remain my all-time favorite Zack Snyder movie, but Man of Steel is at least tied for #2 with Watchmen. It’s nice to see Snyder have such a strong comeback after his weakest film yet, 2011’s Sucker Punch. He corrects nearly every flaw from that film on this one. That’s due in great part, I suspect, because he didn’t write Man of Steel, whereas Sucker Punch was his first original film, and most of that movie’s problems started and ended with its horrendous script. However, he also corrected some of his in-camera issues. Gone are the stylized super slow-mo shots that were quickly becoming his fatal flaw. In fact, I don’t recall there being a single slow motion shot in the entire 2 hours and 23 minutes of Man of Steel. Instead, Snyder goes back to showing us how much of a brilliant visualist he can be, with beautiful wide master shots, spectacular big budget action beats, and some truly iconic Superman hero shots that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Welcome back, Zack Snyder.
The film was produced by the same team that brought us The Dark Knight trilogy. This marks Christopher Nolan‘s first foray into serious producing, and he also crafted the story with one his primary Dark Knight collaborators, screenwriter David S. Goyer. The result is a more dramatic, grounded Superman story (as grounded as a movie about a super-powered flying alien can be, anyway) that aims to be more serious and intelligent than “fun” (much to the chagrin of many Superman fanboys). I embrace that concept wholeheartedly. The older I get, the wearier I become of clichéd, stupid, “fun” summer movies.
The more dramatic tone is a big reason you see such an impressive ensemble of actors for a comic book movie. Man of Steel‘s cast has 3 Oscar wins and 13 nominations among them. Nobody will get nominated for this movie, but they all turn in fine work and take their roles seriously. Brit-born Henry Cavill makes a perfect Clark Kent/Kal-El, and I look forward to seeing him in this role (and other roles in other movies) for years to come. Some critics have pointed out that he doesn’t have enough charisma or personality, but this character isn’t an extrovert. He’s just trying to fit in, which makes perfect sense given his circumstances. I love his deliberate restraint, which is a conscious acting decision; it’s not because he’s playing a boring character or because he’s a boring actor. Kal-El’s Kryptonian and human parents are also great, with Russell Crowe & Ayelet Zurer providing the Kryptonian gravitas, and Kevin Costner & Diane Lane providing the human nurturing. I love the way the story is structured, where we cut to flashbacks of critical moments in Clark’s early life that formed the man he is when he discovers his powers and becomes Superman. Perfectly executed.
Amy Adams certainly makes a fine Lois Lane, and I enjoyed seeing Christopher Meloni and Richard Schiff in a movie like this. We don’t see those two enough on the big screen. Laurence Fishburne does his due diligence as Perry Mason, as does Harry Lennix as General Swanwick. Among the supporting cast, I was particularly impressed by Dylan Sprayberry, who plays the 13-year old Clark. I’m betting this kid has a bright future ahead of him if he gets the right roles. I loved the scenes with him and Kevin Costner (this was probably my favorite relationship in the film). I loved ALL the Kent family scenes. It’s a positive that the movie stays fairly subdued for about an hour before holy hell breaks loose.
I thought Michael Shannon was excellent as always playing General Zod, bringing the right amount of leadership, self-righteous determination, and some of that patented Michael Shannon Crazy to the role. You believe that Zod believes the things he’s saying, and it’s rare that we get villains with logical motivations in summer movies. And by logical motivations, I don’t mean I think he was right, but that I believe he thinks what he’s doing is right. I like his scenes with Russell Crowe, too, as they argued Kryptonian politics. I love the line where he talks about arguing the merits of genocide with a ghost. I only wish the film could’ve spent more time fleshing out the Krypton characters. My only beef with the Krypton stuff is that it all happens very fast and feels a little rushed. They basically tried to tell a half hour of story in about 15 minutes. I would like to have seen a whole movie set on Krypton.
What’s most interesting about Zod is that this will be the first time a large portion of the moviegoing public will have been exposed to Michael Shannon. Think about it, what’s the biggest thing he’s been in prior to this where he had significant screen time? He was Oscar-nominated for Revolutionary Road, where he starred with Leonardo DiCaprio. That was a high-profile movie, but nobody saw it. Most people probably recognize his face and know him as one of those That Guy actors, but Man of Steel is the kind of movie where people learn your name. For a guy who prefers working on smaller, character-driven films, this was a fantastic career move on top of being an incredibly fun role to play.
Zod was cool and all, but the villain who impacted me most (and touched my heart) was Zod’s right-hand woman Faora-Ul, played by German actress Antje Traue. Dear Lord! Not only is she a complete mothafuckin, Samuel L. Jackson-level badass, but she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve seen on the big screen this year. She was even more convincing than Zod was, and I loved every second she was on screen; easily my favorite character and performance in the movie. In fact, I’d have a difficult time coming up with a better female warrior that I’ve ever seen in a movie. She had complete command of Faora’s body movements and had the perfect facial expression for every moment. I need to see more of her pretty f’n quickly, Hollywood casting people.
HERE is a cool story from the L.A. Times on Traue’s backstory and how she almost gave up acting before landing the Man of Steel gig.
Onto the tech & craft…
I for one am a huge fan of the redesigned Superman costume. I don’t give a shit about him not having the red undies on the outside of the suit or any other such nonsense. Seriously, how annoying are the fanboys who actually think this is a problem? STFU, people. This outfit fits this version of Superman perfectly, and that’s all that matters. The costumes were created by James Acheson and Michael Wilkinson. Acheson has some experience with this kind of thing, having done the costumes on all 3 of Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man movies and on Daredevil. I thought all of the Kryptonian costumes were pretty awesome and extravagantly intricate in detail. I like the idea of the S having significance other than standing for “Superman”, and that all the Kryptonians have different emblems on the chests of their costumes. It’s a cool touch. I love the armor worn by Zod’s crew, especially when they’re wearing their evil helmets. The little breathing force field they have to use in Earth’s atmosphere was a cool sci-fi touch, also. I especially liked that one dude who must have been 7 feet tall (whose name is apparently Nam-Ek), towering waaaay above everybody else.
Regarding the Superman costume, one does wonder when Jor-El had the time to design and create a suit for his son, and then store it in the crashed ship on Earth (which has already been there for 20,000 years?). It seems as though he doesn’t even know he’s having a son until Kal is born at the beginning of the film. Perhaps it’s a family heirloom. But if so, why is this one blue & red when all the rest are brown & gold? And…I’ve gone cross-eyed.
The sound design is excellent. I really enjoyed the sound effects of the Kryptonian technology and weapons, and I love the BOOMS of Superman taking off and the sonic booms while he’s flying. The visual effects, primarily done out of Weta Digital in New Zealand, are phenomenal throughout. There were a LOT of different kinds of effects shots in this film, and to have all of them done so well is a rare feat, even today.
The design of the Kryptonian ships and technology was interesting, with sort of an insect-like look to them. I love how the “World Engine” looked, even if I still don’t understand what the hell it was actually doing. The scene in what I guess is supposed to be the Fortress of Solitude ship where Jor-El explains the backstory to Kal was really imaginative, with the walls of the room becoming a sort of living mural helping to tell the story visually. That was a really creative idea and something I hadn’t seen before. On the whole, I found the sci-fi aspects of the story to be very engaging, which I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t think there’d be as much Krypton stuff as there was, and as I’ve said, after the fact I wish there’d been more of it.
Of course, I can’t go any further without kissing Hans Zimmer‘s ass for his amazing score. I’d say this is some of his best work yet, but the man shits greatness. Instead, I’ll say that this is yet another masterwork from Zimmer Power. How does his Superman theme compare to John Williams‘ classic “Superman March”? Favorably, I’d say. I’m not gonna say it’s better, but I am confident in saying it’s just as good, but in different ways. It fits this version of Superman just as well as Williams’ theme fit the earlier films. I like that we don’t hear it in its entirety until the start of the end credits. This tells us that Kal-El had to earn the theme, and by the end of the movie, he’s finally done so. This is the most purely sci-fi work Zimmer has ever done, and no surprise he handles the genre perfectly well. The thundering opening drum beats over the company logos at the beginning of the film are a perfect foreshadowing of the size of the movie we’re about to watch, and Zimmer loves pointing out how he put together this big “drummers’ orchestra”, seeking out some of the best percussion performers from all over the world. This is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that makes Zimmer the #1 composer on Earth right now.
Sidebar: Man of Steel gives us Zimmer’s first real sci-fi score, and in just a couple weeks we’ll get his first true western score in Gore Verbinski‘s The Lone Ranger. I don’t expect that movie to be very good, but I am looking forward to the score.
Here is Zimmer’s Superman theme from the soundtrack, and the track is called “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?”:
I actually think Zimmer’s theme for General Zod is just as good as his Superman theme. You heard snippets of it in the trailers, but here’s the full track:
Superstar electronic DJ Junkie XL (who is amazing live, in case you were wondering) contributed to this track, and worked with Zimmer on several other pieces from the film as well. It’s worth noting that Junkie is also doing the complete score for the 300 sequel next year, Rise of an Empire. Very much looking forward to hearing that.
All that action
The level of spectacle at the end of this movie (and in some of the preceding action scenes) will be very difficult to top going forward, especially by other comic book movies (Avengers 2 is on notice, I’m sure). I honestly don’t think other movies should even try, because the bigger you get, the more difficult it becomes to make the audience care about the details. The finale here isn’t the most epic thing I’ve ever seen in a movie (that crown probably still belongs to The Battle of Pelennor Fields from LOTR: The Return of the King, which is straight up Biblical), but it’s in the top 10.
In my view, the best action sequence in the film is the battle that takes place between Superman, the U.S. military, and Faora & the tall dude on the streets of Smallville about halfway through the movie. I find it much more interesting when they’re fighting hand-to-hand as opposed to throwing each other through things, and we get to see a lot of that in this scene, especially when Faora is whooping Superman’s inexperienced ass. I thought the Faora/Superman fight was better than the Zod/Superman fight at the end.
The problem inherent with Superman and all this epic action is that, basically, it’s all for not. No fall or Earthly weapon can kill him. He can’t drown. He can’t suffocate from the lack of oxygen in space. He can’t even really be damaged, it seems, merely slowed down, as if being run over by a train or being hit by a missile merely causes him to lose his breath for a few seconds. For example, in that first battle on the Main Street of Smallville, Supes and the bad guys desperately jump out of the way when the jets come in for a strafing run. Well, if the bullets from the jets can’t kill them or even hurt them, why do they bother moving out of the way? Why even acknowledge the jets’ presence? I suppose the bullets and missile explosions and smoke are merely a visual inconvenience. You don’t ever feel like he’s even being injured, no matter how many buildings he’s thrown through. Unfortunately, from a storytelling standpoint, this lowers the stakes and makes the action lack any real consequence. It also begs the question, why bother with all the throwing? If the only way they can physically kill each other is to do so with their bare hands, what’s the point in throwing each other through 75 walls? Even flying through walls at 200mph (or whatever insane speed it is) doesn’t seem to faze any of them. It would be like two humans bashing each other with Styrofoam and pushing one another through walls of cardboard. And don’t get me wrong, what these guys do to each other LOOKS AWESOME, but not once did I think, Well, he’s not getting up from THAT.
It’s no surprise that a lot of people (myself included) prefer Batman to Superman precisely because he’s mortal. When this movie comes out on Blu-ray, I want somebody to do a YouTube highlight reel of just Superman, Zod and his boys being thrown through buildings.
The final 1v1 with Superman and Zod is good, even if the majority of it was created in a computer. It’s cool to see someone fight Superman who’s actually his equal in physical ability. I thought the midair hand-to-hand combat was the coolest part of this scene, and I like Zod’s desperation and insanity once he realizes he’s all alone. I think Zod gets a cool death, as he becomes a man with nothing to lose, trying to intentionally kill innocent people (whereas before the innocent deaths were merely collateral damage from the terraforming machines), which forces Superman to brutally snap his neck to stop him from killing a family with his laser eyes (or Heat Vision, whatever the hell you wanna call it).
Sidebar: Let’s remember that The Matrix Revolutions did the “two supermen fighting midair” thing just as impressively, if not MORE impressively, 10 years ago. (Yes, I’m a Matrix sequel defender. Come at me, bro.)
I’d say that’s a lot of positives. But now…
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
-I could’ve done without the not-so-subtle “Superman as Christ” imagery. There isn’t as much of it as some critics would have you believe, but when it’s there, IT’S THERE. In particular, the scene where Clark visits a church and speaks to the pastor about surrendering to Zod, on Clark’s closeup angle, just over his shoulder, is a GIANT STAIN GLASS WINDOW WITH CHRIST’S HALOED HEAD ON IT. It was so goddamn brazen I wanted to puke. Aside from all that though, the Superman/Jesus comparison is fucking stupid to being with. Superman doesn’t go around trying to solve hunger or poverty or try to convince the world’s leaders to “just get along”. No, he tries to live a normal life outside the public eye, and then fights the bad guys that need fighting. It’s a completely different kind of savior. I’m not very religious anymore, but I don’t recall this being anything like what Jesus did. When the question What Would Jesus Do? is asked, the answer isn’t, He singlehandedly fights off or destroys everyone who was trying to persecute him. Amiright or amiwrong?
P.S., lunatics: Just because Superman occasionally holds his arms outstretched as he’s hovering, doesn’t mean they’re trying to indicate he’s Jesus Christ. Enough already!
-I wish there were some form of acknowledgment of the massive loss of life suffered in that epic finale. We barely spend any time getting to know the city of Metropolis and WHAMMO, half the city is leveled in about 30 minutes of screen time. Situations like this are why audiences don’t care about large scale human death in movies. It looks cool, sure, and it keeps thousands of visual effects artists employed, but it doesn’t resonate at all on an emotional level (like it ought to). On the flip side, show one fucking dog in mortal jeopardy and everybody shits their pants. I wish some filmmaker could find an effective way to make us care more about this kind of onscreen tragedy. How many people would you estimate died in that final battle? I say it’s at least 50,000, considering there was no evacuation whatsoever before it happened. That would have been the biggest loss of life on American soil EVER…BY FAR, and it’s pretty much completely glossed over so that the movie can wrap up faster. Hell, it’s immediately after the destruction that Superman and Lois share their first kiss, and Lois is joking about it being “all downhill after the first kiss”. A little tact, woman! Look at the devastation all around you! Ain’t nobody got time to joke! They may as well have been standing on a pile of dead bodies while they were kissing. A lot of critics have poo-pooed the fact that Superman himself shows little concern for what his existence has wrought, and I guess I sort of agree with that.
Star Trek Into Darkness had a similar problem after a large chunk of San Francisco is suddenly annihilated by a massive starship crashing into it. If I remember correctly, that movie instantly skips ahead a year to Kirk giving some cheap memorial speech, which ends up being more about him than anyone else. I also mentioned in my Fast & Furious 6 review how no real concern is shown for all the innocent people being crushed by that tank during the big freeway chase.
And by the way, this has to be a legit issue if a misanthrope like me is bothered by it.
I expect this kind of nonchalant destruction to continue as the studios and filmmakers behind these bloated $200 million summer movies continue to believe they have to “go bigger” with each successive sequel to please their audience. For some stupid reason they seem to think we want MORE out of these movies as opposed to sequels that are actually BETTER than their predecessors. How about going BIGGER on story? That’s something that hasn’t been tried in a while. Some in Hollywood seem to be under the impression that big action and better sequels are one and the same. We don’t need to come up with better stories; we just need to increase the stunt and effects budgets, slap some 3D on it and bask in the opening weekend box office MONAY! Let me tell you something, Hollywood: bigger is NOT always better. In fact, if recent cinematic history is any indication, bigger is almost NEVER better. The destruction in Chicago did not make the last Transformers movie any better or more impressive, and the destruction in Gotham caused the vast majority of the storytelling issues in The Dark Knight Rises last year, nearly ruining that movie. Going forward, as excited as I am for Pacific Rim, I get the distinct impression the rampant monster destruction will do nothing to make me care about the story being told there, either. I guess what I’m trying to say is that as someone who grew up wanting to make movies like this- great movies, not just “entertaining” or “fun” movies like this- the trend is disheartening. It pisses me off that we as a moviegoing audience seem to be satisfied simply watching things crash and explode. Hopefully, that’s just me being my usual cynical self, but I suspect this is in fact the reality of most of today’s audiences. Rant over.
I recently discovered a very well thought out article on IndieWire on this exact topic, although this author, Matt Singer, proposes that the problem stems from the PG-13 ratings of most summer movies. It’s just as plausible as my theory. Anyway, check it out: This Summer’s Movies Have a PG-13 Problem.
Aside from the utter disregard for the calamitous loss of human life, I do like how Man of Steel wraps up. I like them showing Superman laying the smackdown on the military’s attempt to monitor his whereabouts, and the line “I’m about as American as it gets” is fantastic. (GASP! BUT HOW WILL OVERSEAS AUDIENCES FEEL ABOUT THAT?!) It’s no surprise that they introduced the “Clark Kent working at The Daily Planet” angle, even if it does bring into the equation one of the all-time stupid plot devices. Clearly, no one but Lois Lane would ever recognize Clark as Superman…BECAUSE HE’S WEARING NERDY GLASSES: THE ULTIMATE DISGUISE! Can you tell this has always driven me nuts? Because it has.
Considering the magnitude of the destruction we see in this film, how can they possibly “go bigger” in the next one? They really can’t without literally blowing up the Earth, and that would seriously damage any chance of a Justice League movie. It’ll be interesting to see, then, if they manage to tone down the Epic for the sequel and make it a more intimate story. Really, we shouldn’t see anything more epic than this until Justice League. Will the next villain be Earth-based? I for one pray it’s not Lex Luthor. We’ve already retreaded Zod, and we’ve seen Lex Luthor repeatedly in previous movies and in the Smallville TV show. Superman has some good villains, Mr. Goyer, so let’s see one that hasn’t made an appearance on the big screen yet. Or, ya know, you can be creatively lazy and obvious and use Lex Luthor. It’s up to you guys!
Think about the mess the events of Man of Steel leave behind for the next movie to clean up: a huge chunk of Metropolis is in ruin, thousands are dead, Clark Kent’s hometown is in shambles, and there are pieces of destroyed alien technology lying all over the place in Metropolis and wherever that other one landed in Southern Asia. Considering it took 11 years after September 11 to finish the World Trade Center Memorial and the new Freedom Tower in real life in New York, how long would it take Metropolis to rebuild a third of its skyline?! The next movie has to address at least some of that, because I think it is relevant to whatever happens next in the story. I’m also pretty sure Superman should make a public apology for all the devastation his presence has caused the people of Earth.
The Justice League Connection
Of course, coming out of Man of Steel, everyone wants to know what this means for a potential Justice League DC hero team-up movie. Well, fear not, I’m here to give you what few answers there are on that front. There has been no official announcement of The Justice League, but Warner Bros. and the Man of Steel creative team are all very interested in making it happen, especially after The Avengers grossed $1.5 billion worldwide. (I bet they regret fucking up the Green Lantern movie now, don’t they?) A sequel to Man of Steel was fast tracked because of the fantastic advance buzz this movie had been receiving, which means we can expect to see that in 2015 or 2016 at the latest. Zack Snyder has committed to direct, David S. Goyer will again be the primary writer, but Christopher Nolan will have only limited involvement (he’s currently preparing to shoot his next movie, Interstellar). Goyer & Snyder will also be given the reins to develop Justice League, and I’m just fine with that. Also, while Nolan had a big hand in developing the story for Man of Steel, don’t expect him to have much official involvement in Justice League.
Sidebar: I like that Zack Snyder will be involved with all this stuff, but as a movie fan first and foremost, I have to admit it does kinda suck that we probably won’t get anything else from him but DC-related comic book movies for the next 6-7 years.
The biggest issue here is that Warner Bros. doesn’t seem to have an overall Big Picture plan like Marvel and Disney did for The Avengers. Even now, they still haven’t decided for sure what other properties they want to dust off and integrate into this universe. Obviously they’ll work Batman into it (though there’s no guarantee it’ll be Christian Bale‘s Batman, as he wasn’t signed up for anything past Dark Knight Rises), and it looks like Wonder Woman, The Flash and Aquaman are the other strongest possibilities. I’m not overly excited about any of those characters, but whatever. So again, the only thing that’s set in stone right now is a Man of Steel sequel, and while The Justice League will probably happen eventually, don’t anticipate seeing that before 2016. I’m filing it in my “I’ll believe it when I see it” drawer. As an aside, I’m also confused how Metropolis and Gotham, which if I’m not mistaken are both supposed to be surrogates for New York City, can exist in the same world. Perhaps a DC comics nerd can explain this to me.
Regardless, by the time a Man of Steel sequel rolls around in a few years, the Justice League rollout plan should be firmly in place, and I’m sure we can expect some Justice League setup from the next Superman film. I wouldn’t be surprised if they stole the Marvel model and inserted post-credit bonus scenes in any DC movie going forward. That’s speculation on my part, but it makes sense, don’t it? Yes, it do.
Sidebar: There are a couple of cool Easter eggs in Man of Steel, if you’re into that sort of thing. If you look carefully, the satellite that Zod destroys in his battle with Superman has the Wayne Enterprises logo on it, and there are a couple of spots where you see a LexCorp logo (I did spot one of these on a random fuel tanker that Zod throws at Superman in that same fight).
There ya have it! For now, get your ass out to a theater and enjoy Man of Steel while it’s still in the biggest, loudest auditoriums. If you’re like me, you’ll need to see it twice to take everything in.
Man of Steel – 143 minutes – PG-13
IMDb Rating: 8/10
Biggies Consideration: Best Picture, Director, Ensemble Performance, Cinematography, Film Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Score, Stuntwork, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Editing
Recommendation: A MUST-SEE in theaters. If you can see it in IMAX, all the better, but from what I understand, you’re not missing much if you don’t see it in 3D (I did not). I’m not sure if you can see it in 2D in IMAX. This is a 3D post-conversion, and from what I’ve read, only a decent one. Save your money.
For the LOLZ: