An in depth review and retrospective on “Man of Steel”
By Mike Dyer, Senior Writer
New to DVD this holiday season was the summer blockbuster that had super fans holding their breath, the critics at odds, and general audiences eating up every little detail. “Man of Steel” was the film that both film studio Warner Brothers and Superman fans needed to do well. I can’t speak as a studio executive, but as a fan of Superman, “Man of Steel” is the film that I needed. Every element in this film was expertly crafted and executed, and the three men we have to thank for that are Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer and Zack Snyder.
As a superman fan, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film to me is how it all got started. In a 2013 interview, screenwriter David S. Goyer said that he and director Christopher Nolan were experiencing writers block in 2010 working on “The Dark Knight Rises” and they took a week to think up some new ideas. Later they met and Nolan asked Goyer if he had come up with anything in the past week. Goyer said no, but that he had some interesting ideas about Superman. Intrigued, Nolan listened and by the end of that initial conversation Nolan had pulled out his cell phone, called the studio head at Warner Brothers and pitched them the premise of what would become “Man of Steel.” By the end of the call, the film was in pre-production. To some it sounds unbelievable, but when you think about how successful the team’s previous installment “The Dark Knight” was it is easy to see how one writer and one director can have that much pull with a film studio. In truth there is an irony to this as 2006’s “Superman Returns” made $17 million dollars more at the international box office than Nolan and Goyer’s 2005’s “Batman Begins”, the start of “The Dark Knight Trilogy”.
While there were some good elements in “Superman Returns” I knew, as many Superman fans did, that it did not hit the mark it needed to for both the studio and audiences. The film was, quite literally, missing a punch. So what does Warner Brothers do? They got the man who was at the helm for “300” and “Watchmen” to give the world a new, fists-a-blazing, spin on Superman: director Zack Snyder.
From the first 10 seconds of the first teaser I saw in theaters with “The Dark Knight Rises” I thought this wasn’t going to be like any Superman incarnation that audiences had ever seen. A year later I realized I was right. What Goyer, Snyder and Nolan achieved is a Superman film that is masked in the premise of an alien invasion film. Armed with excellent casting, thrilling action, state of the art special effects and the original score of Hans Zimmer “Man of Steel” soars right off the screen.
The film opens on Krypton with the birth of Kal-El (Clark Kent/Superman) from parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer). The scientist Jor-El goes to the ruling council of the planet to explain how they have harvested too much energy from the planet’s core and within days the planet will self-destruct. Krypton’s military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) believes the same thing, but while Jor-El pleads with the council to seek out some of the outpost planets, Zod and his forces interrupt the meeting, as he starts to stage a military coup. Jor-El voices his disagreement with Zod on how to handle the situation and he escapes only to prepare to launch his infant son to another world so he can be free to forge his own destiny. Jor-El and Lara manage to send Kal-El to earth, but not before Zod kills Jor-El in a fit of rage. Zod and his forces are tried and convicted for their crimes against the planet and sent to an extra-dimensional prison called the Phantom Zone. Lara returns home to watch as the planet starts to self-destruct. Looking to the stars she pleads “make a better world than ours Kal.”
Kal-El’s ship lands in a little Kansas farming town where he is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). They name him Clark and together raise him as their son. Growing up Clark struggles as he learns how to use his extraordinary gifts, but it is Jonathan and Martha that guide him to become the man (Henry Cavill) who would spend his early adulthood a drifter searching the planet for his extra-terrestrial origins and using his gifts to help others in need along the way. His search leads him to the Artic where the U.S. military has discovered a Kryptonian spacecraft deep in the ice. Just as Clark starts to discover his origins a newspaper reporter named Lois Lane (Amy Adams) discovers him along with his alien lineage. Clark is eventually able to understand his origins, but has to deal with the return of General Zod and his forces as they have tracked Kal-El to earth and threaten the planet in the process. Clark must take from all he has learned from his parents who sheltered him, his origins and new ally Lois Lane to stand in front of the human race as a symbol of hope to protect Earth and its people, just as Jor-El and Lara would have wanted.
The film, like most of Snyder’s work is visually captivating. The first 20 minutes takes place on Krypton and the planet’s landscape is a different take on Superman’s home planet than we have previously seen in the media. The world is obviously insect inspired, but more than that it is a fully developed planet with conduct, codes, and technology far different from our own, giving Krypton a true Alien feel. While the whole film looks like it was shot through a sunglass lens, the images portrayed through Snyder’s hand held approach keep you invested. Casting is spot on in all fronts, from the father roles of Crowe and Costner, the mother roles of Lane and Zurer, the pesky reporter Lois Lane (Adams) and her editor/mentor Perry White taken on by Laurence Fishburne. Michael Shannon is sadistic, yet sane in the role of General Zod. He conveys fear while remaining the great tactician and warrior he should be. Equally exquisite is the supporting cast of Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni, and Richard Schiff who all stand tall alongside the A-list. However it is British actor Henry Cavill who brings “Man of Steel” to life with presence and humility while matching the emotional weight of the last son of Krypton. Cavill’s take on the character is honest and embodies elements of the men that portrayed Superman before him.
Memorable alongside the cast is the film’s original score composed by Hans Zimmer. It cannot be easy to take on the task of reinventing one of the cinemas signature themes of the 20th century as Zimmer had to fill the shoes of legendary composer John Williams. However what Zimmer did for Batman in “The Dark Knight Trilogy” he achieved again in “Man of Steel”. The score plays to the film perfectly, while maintaining an originality and humbleness that is pure to the humility and gravity of Superman himself. It is percussion heavy, but remains triumphant and inspiring, sticking with you long after the credits stop rolling.
There is no doubt that “Man of Steel” has divided audiences and Superman fans. People who do not like the film often site the massive destruction that likely costs thousands of lives during Zod and Superman’s final fight. While it can be unsettling, I honestly do not see this is as a minus. I chose to view the third act as very realistic. If two super powered beings were to fight to the death in a major city the destruction would be devastating. While Cavill’s Superman wasn’t able to save every life in the final battle, he made the conscious decision to choose between his native people and the people that he has known his whole life. Yes, Superman killed Zod, but he chose humanity and saved the earth in the process. Some say “Man of Steel” may be a darker take on Superman, but I say the film gives us the same Superman we have always known and puts him in more realistic, consequence-filled world. Considering the $662 million worldwide box office, I would say that general audiences agree.
Keeping everything in mind, I would not say “Man of Steel” is a perfect superhero outing. The film is plagued with product placement and some of the characters who had plenty of screen time could have used a bit more development. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect for me is the painfully obvious comparisons to Jesus Christ and Superman. While there are some comparisons that have existed since the characters introduction in 1938, the overuse of Cavill posing in a cross, having him sit in a church right in front of a stain glass Jesus and making him exactly 33 when he first dawns the cape are enough to make me just put my hands up and ask if all that is really necessary? A case of poor editing comes into play with the transition from the final battle to the final scene as it feels a bit choppy and rushed. These details however failed from keeping me smiling, laughing and glued to my seat when I saw the film in theaters back in June. Plus the premise of the 2015 follow-up will no-doubt feature Superman facing the consequences of his actions in “Man of Steel,” hopefully pleasing a good number of the overly nostalgic critics and fans that were not impressed with this outing.
As long as I can remember I have been a fan of Superman. Growing up I watched “Lois and Clark,” “Smallville,” and “Superman: The Animated Series.” One fun aspect about “Man of Steel” is picking up all the little nods to previous versions of Superman’s origins in both film and TV. It has been 75 years since Superman made the cover of Action Comics #1 and in that time we have seen him love, mourning, loss, death, resurrection and on rare occasions murder. What all incarnations have in common is Superman never failing to inspire. What director Zack Snyder, writer David S. Goyer and writer/producer Christopher Nolan did in this new version is re-imagine what a Superman film could be, while honoring different incarnations of the character. I view “Man of Steel” as a film that honors the past while giving die-hards, like myself, hope for the future. That hope lies in the truth that no matter where we come from, no matter whom we have been we can inspire to become greater than ourselves.