This is a different kind of Superman movie. The Man of Steel has been Nolan-ized, as in Christopher Nolan, the wildly successful writer/director/producer of the recent Batman movie franchise, which made a kazillion dollars at the box office. Nolan produces and co-writes Man of Steel using the same sensibilities that made those movies so great. Here, it’s a mixed bag.
The story has many of the same beats that are fondly remembered in Superman and Superman II. We see a CG-heavy vision of a Krypton on the verge of destruction, we see Jor-El and his wife create an escape plan for their newborn son, Kal-El, and we see the evil General Zod, Hell-bent on power and his need to control the future of Krypton. Once we get to Earth, things deviate. Instead of the familiar Clark Kent and Daily Planet storyline, we are given a tentative hero who is unsure of his own purpose and origins. Though he wants to help others, he hasn’t quite figured out how to do that yet. These scenes are intermingled with earlier parts of Supe’s life and particularly his relationship with his Earth-father, Jonathan Kent.
First, let’s talk about the good. The new Krypton, though a bit jarring at first, is actually done pretty well. The heavy use of CG in a film like this is almost unavoidable, but the technology and sophistication of the Krypton society is envisioned in a way that helps build the characters of Zod and Jor-El. A good chunk of the first act is devoted to the things that happen before Superman (as we know him) even comes into the picture. But, the payoff is worth it as it builds up the villain, gives Crowe a chance to shine as Jor-El, and sets the plot in motion once we get to Earth. One thing to note about the Krypton part of the film is that because the CG is so prevalent, the film feels more like a science-fiction picture at times rather than a comic book fantasy. Some people won’t mind it and some won’t forgive it, but either way, its definitely a different take that we haven’t seen before.
Once we get to Earth, Henry Cavill gets a chance to shine in the title role. He looks the part and adds a new dimension to the character as a grown, pre-Superman, who wants to help people, but doesn’t quite know how to do it. Cavill ably portrays a character who struggles with his own identity and doesn’t quite know how to fit in with everyone else. Instinctively, he knows that he should be helping people around him because of the powers that he has, but he also fears what will happen to him and those close to him should the world find out about what he can do. It isn’t until he discovers another Krypton ship that we begin to see the origins of Superman that we are familiar with from earlier films.
Amy Adams performance as the spunky Lois Lane is also one of the highlights in Man of Steel. The best thing she does is not seem clingy to Superman once she sees him in action. Adams’ Lane values her profession more than anything else. Though she is undoubtedly impressed by Kal-El’s powers, she is more excited to have a chance to tell his story. This Lois Lane gets the job done and though she is saved numerous time by Superman throughout the film, she never seems to expect him to do so and has supreme confidence in her own abilities.
Now the bad. The color pallet in Man of Steel is rather boring to look at. Dominated by muted colors and black/grey costumes, everything lacks that visual pop that was a signature of the earlier films in the series. The costumes are also pretty bad, minus the newest take on the Superman outfit (which is admittedly cool), the outfits worn by the Krypton people are downright stupid looking. The film also runs too long. Clocking in at 2 hours and 23 minutes, the film doesn’t have the dramatic punch to sustain interest for more than 2 hours. The filmmakers would have been wise to shave off 15 or 20 minutes from that runtime to create a sleeker storyline. The film really starts to drag towards the end when we are shown endless CG battles between Superman and Zod. Though cool to look at, sometimes less can really be more, as we get bored (from repetition) of what we’re seeing on screen. Also, noticeably absent from the film is Clark Kent, who we aren’t shown until the very end. Part of portraying Superman comes in performing his alter-ego Clark Kent. By skipping that part of the classic story, some of the humor and joy has been taken out of the character of Superman.
When it comes down to it, Man of Steel is worth a watch, but has a long way to go before it matches the magic created in the original Superman and Superman II both of which had a better balance of humor and amazement. Here, it’s all spectacle with a few nice performances mixed in. Have no doubt about it, this is a different take on the classic Superman story, and in many ways it succeeds in ways that the other films never did. Ultimately though, its flaws are too great to put this at the top of the list. Head into this one with lower expectations, and you’ll enjoy the ride just fine.
*** out of *****