Man of Steel
Time/place: 9:50am showing at Krikorian
My interest in this movie has waxed and waned so often, that this morning’s viewing was almost just pure curiosity – to see which side the final product tipped onto. I heard that Jonathon Nolan was involved as the writer/director, and I was excited. I heard that his brother, Christopher Nolan was producing, in what seemed to be an effort to protect and nurture his brother’s vision, and I was ecstatic! Then I heard that Nolan brought on Zack Snyder to direct, and I was disheartened (I’m not a fan), but also very confused. Then I saw that Michael Shannon was cast as General Zod, and I my interest was again slightly piqued. Then I saw the first image they released, and my interest waned. The teaser trailer played before The Dark Knight Rises, and it pulled me in.. as did the full-length trailer (watching Shannon scream, “I WILL find HIM!” made me laugh giddily). So, where did I end up in the midst of all of this back-and-forth?
Well, let’s just say that “back-and-forth” pretty well describes my feelings from AFTER seeing the movie, too.
The opening scenes from Man of Steel are similar to what was done in Superman: The Movie, wherein we watch the end of Krypton and the salvation of its final baby inhabitant as he’s launched towards Earth. I knew there would be similarities between the two movies, of course, since they’re covering the same basic story, but what I wasn’t expecting was for the opening to be great. Like, really great :). During the entire opening, I was enthralled – I loved the writing, the performances, the pacing, the creative designs in this alien world. It really caught me off guard… was this to finally be a Zack Snyder movie I liked? Were we finally getting a GREAT Superman movie in the theaters? Even once the opening was done, and we were on Earth, I was still really liking what they were doing with the titular character. Eventually, though, the movie started to unravel, and I was left with a movie that I didn’t hate, but wasn’t excitedly stirred by, either.
To start with the good, in this non-spoiler section, I’ll begin with our actors. All of the main performances are top-notch in this movie, and their characters feel real and interesting. Zod wasn’t just a madman, he was understandable (even if not empathetic). Lois wasn’t a daffy damsel, but she wasn’t annoying and unlikable, either. Jor-El set a tone of character that was continued with Jonathan Kent. Martha Kent wasn’t a frail old lady, but a believably robust Kansas farming woman. And, of course, the main man himself was absolutely engaging and conflicted. Whatever my thoughts on this movie are, I would be quite happy to see Henry Cavill don the red cape again. He has a boyish charm, a grasp on the internal conflicts that naturally come with this character (without being brooding like his counterpart, the dark knight), but above all else – he felt like he was Superman. He looks the part, his acting abilities are more than competent, and just he had a quality about him that felt hopeful and strong. The kinda guy that women want to be with and men want to be – just like me!
The second praise for this movie comes for Hans Zimmer. Oh, Hans.. you grinning little German, you. While the movie didn’t lead to any amazing moments of iconic revelation (more on that later), the theme created by Zimmer is absolutely a perfect fit for the character of Superman. It’s not the classic theme we all think of, but its tone is similar.. it’s powerful, driving, a little somber, and very hopeful. It’s a really beautiful tune – the kind I could imagine a little kid, today, listening to as they don their red cape and prepare themselves in their bedroom mirror… before dashing off into the backyard to save the world :). And, quite frankly, I could imagine myself doing the same thing ;).
I hate to segue from such a high to such a low, but there is no middle-ground. Even in what follows, I’m sure I will mention hints of great things.. but, ultimately, the movie left me wanting. I can’t even entirely place it, I’ve been mulling it over all day and reading other reviews, but the movie, on a whole, was disappointing. I know that it IS disappointing, but I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s because I can very obviously see Nolan’s fingerprints all over the characters, story, and the practical elements, but it’s still not actually a Christopher Nolan movie. Perhaps it’s because the mood felt disjointed, at times, due to some odd pacing in the second half of the movie. Perhaps it’s because there was no “BAM” moment where Superman is finally revealed – the suit is casually revealed earlier and a random military dude first utters the word Superman, out of the blue, as something other people have already started calling this alien in a cape. Perhaps it’s because the Jesus allegory wasn’t just painted in broad strokes, but rather the canvas was taken off of the easel and bashed over our heads. Perhaps it’s because the wonderful, WONDERFUL moments between Jonathon Kent and his son weren’t placed well, really undercutting the emotion that could have played out so amazingly (compare, in contrast, the relationship between Bruce Wayne and his dad that echoes throughout Nolan’s Batman movies). Perhaps it’s that TONS of people are massacred during the end battles (thousands, bajillions.. who knows), and the amount of destruction begins to feel Michael-Bay-level unnecessary. Perhaps it’s that, for as much as I loved this character of Superman, I just didn’t get swept up into this movie.
I walked into the theater this morning, entirely unsure what to expect, but after I saw so much potential in what they have created, so much that I really liked, it’s a little sad that I didn’t walk out of the theater breathless and absolutely in love. The fighting scenes that take up a huge amount of time near the end of the movie end up dragging on for what feels like forever, but for as long as this movie is… it also feels really, surprisingly short. I think it’s great that we can finally see Superman wailing on enemies that can take it, but I would have much rather cut down those moments to expand others. Even Zod, our lead villain, is almost outshone by his female henchman – who we see more than Zod, himself, for a decent chunk of the movie. She was fine (and I do mean FINE), but I didn’t need to watch her fighting Superman or soldiers for as long as I did – especially when it felt like I lost the time for so much more because of it (and, especially, since this General Zod is one of my favorite on-screen characters I’ve had the pleasure of knowing). I think, mostly, that my disappointment rests mainly in this issue. With Nolan behind the lens, and maybe less David Goyer behind the script, I think I might have been able to see more of what I loved and less of what I didn’t, but I have no idea who is more to blame in any of this (producer? director? writer? studio? all?) – all I do know is that I couldn’t wrap myself up in this movie, because the more it went on, the more I missed in it.
Man of Steel is a decent movie. The lead actors put in grand performances, and the score is ideal, and I love so many of the small details and ideas that round out the movie. On a whole, though, I simply found myself wanting the movie to do so much more… for as good as parts of it were, it could have been even better.
Warning: There be spoilers below…
I’ll start with what I couldn’t talk about much above – General Zod. Oh, but that I could watch Michael Shannon play Zod forever.. but, alas, his neck is no longer properly together. When Zod storms into the council meeting on Krypton in the beginning of the movie, he’s scary (I laughed a disbelief/frightened laugh when he shot and obliterated that woman with such calm menace). But then, as he talks, he almost makes sense. Of course, Jor-El knows him better than we do, and calls him on it, but throughout the entire movie, Zod’s actions aren’t just “evil villain” – he has a purpose and it’s not entirely illogical. He isn’t pursuing Superman because he hates him and wants to get revenge for what Jor-El did… his goals are actually above that. This movie elevated this villain from a fun, insane killer, to a loyal warrior who just happens to be capable of doing atrocious things in the name of saving his people. I actually kinda liked that his own words and Jor-El’s opinion of him don’t coincide – as if Jor-El is talking about Zod as a “person” (for lack of a better word), but Zod is talking about himself as simply doing the will of his people. When Zod is broken near the end of the movie, on his knees in devastation and emptiness in front of Superman who he describes as stealing his soul, it was an absolutely great moment of watching this killing machine, a monster of a man, come to terms with losing its purpose. Of course, then he boils over into rage and madness, and I read a review that didn’t like his “villainous” turn… but I thought it fit very well. What happens to a war-hardened soldier, a warrior who has led a life to protect his people, is suddenly void of a homeland and a reason to fight? In this case, he unhinged and that anger exploded against the person responsible for his complete failure – Superman.
Speaking of Superman, Clark’s beginning introductions were really great to watch. Henry Cavill had barely been on screen a few moments, when he’s suddenly diving off onto a burning oil rig, saving a group of men. His childhood deed to save the bus full of his classmates wasn’t anywhere near as cheesy as it could have been, and even the calm moment of standing up for the waitress in the bar (as an adult, again) was absolutely great. This movie set up such a great character – a man of integrity, conflicted by his powers and living a normal life, who showed great amounts of compassion. That, almost entirely, faded away during the big fight scenes. In the beginning of the showdown in Smallville, he warns people to get inside, and he saves a guy from a falling helicopter, but that’s all I can really remember seeing during the rest of the action. Both of those happen in Smallville, too, which means that I can’t recall anything similar going on in the Metropolis fight. Sure, for part of it he’s on the other side of the world, and that does lead to one of the most emotional moments in the movie, when he’s straining before flying through the machine and Perry White is on the other side of Earth straining to save a single person (that really is a wonderful moment.. and it’s such a satisfying conclusion), but Metropolis is absolutely leveled during all of the super-man fighting that goes on, and I really wished I could have seen him not only taking on Zod, but saving people in the city as they went, too. His conclusion with Zod, was actually really great – a singular moment based on the antithetical comparison of Superman’s compassion and Zod’s whatever-it-takes rage, and the ensuing cries of pain and sadness that come out of Superman could easily be in reference to so many things (the millions who have died, the loss of his people, the loss of his fathers, the fact that he was forced to kill), but I wanted to see Superman doing more Superman-ish things AS Superman… not just when he was a drifter or a kid.
This is a less serious commentary, but let me just say – I absolutely loved Martha Kent :). I think she should have been a bit more cautious and aggressive when Lois Lane just shows up and says she knows who her son is, but other than that, she was this fiesty, tough old farmer’s wife. When her house is half-destroyed, and Superman comes racing back, she brushes him off with a casual, “I’m fine, I’m fine” reaction. Haha, I just imagine her sleeping in the barn that night, and going out to milk the cows the next morning, as if nothing had happened, because that’s just what needs to be done. Oh, Martha :).
I can also say that this is my favorite iteration of Lois Lane I’ve yet seen. Yes, she has to be rescued by Superman a few times, but I didn’t find her as grating or ditzy as others have been. The timeline in this movie is a bit different than in other stories, but I have no doubt that this Lois would’ve figured out who Clark was as soon as she saw him. Granted, in the Donner cut of Superman II, they brought Lois to the realization very craftily and sincerely, and Christopher Reeves did pull of a pretty great Clark, but I really liked that Lois is in on the truth right from the beginning in Man of Steel. In fact, they actually reverse it… she knows who Clark Kent is BEFORE he comes to work at the Daily Planet – and that sat right with me.
I also really liked how it ended. The final voice-over and scene of Clark going into his new job was a great build-up for those of us who know the story so well, only to be paid off with Lois welcoming him to the planet (get it? GET IT??). It was a fun moment that reminded me of the less-happy (but more powerful) ending of The Dark Knight… the wink at the audience and the acknowledgement that the story is just continuing on from here, whether you’re seeing it or not.
I mentioned the Christ analogy above, but my goodness, was it darn embarrassing to watch that church seen. How bad is it? If you’ve seen it, and you didn’t notice the backgrounds during that conversation, I might suggest you visit an optometrist. On the angle of the priest Clark is talking with, half of the frame is a cross on the wall behind him – and on Clark’s shot, of course, Jesus is illuminated in a stained glass window that almost has more focus on it than Clark. Of course, then he also later mentions that he’s 33 (the age Jesus is believed to have died), and he pulls off a nice crucifix position as he floats out of a spaceship to go save Earth. The elements are already there in the story, and that’s more than fine with me, but my goodness Zack Snyder wanted to make sure that we freaking KNOW it. Without the church scene, the other details would be minor, but altogether it makes one heck of a noisy point.
Another point I mentioned above, but would like to expand on here, is how the movie treated Jonathan Kent. The dynamic between father(s) and son in this movie was really wonderful, but while the opening with Russell Crowe’s Jor-El was dynamic and strong, Pa Kent’s death left me feeling much less emotional than it should have. This isn’t the fault of Kevin Costner or Henry Cavill, who both sell the moment as best they can, but rather it’s the fault of how it was written and presented. I was watching the entire thing, thinking, “Why is the slow old man going after the dog and not the young man with super powers?” The reason Jonathan dies in that scene isn’t because he’s old and slow, but because he twists his ankle… something that wouldn’t have happened to Clark. I could forgive even that, but the way it all goes down, with him just fading into a dust cloud, just didn’t affect me. The following flashbacks of their conversations and everything else we see him in, really put a weight on that relationship that just doesn’t pay off – either in the death scene or in how we interpret the gravity of that moment from Clark’s perspective.
It’s funny, but as I’ve written this review (as I have been doing for hours, now, yikes), my reaction has only polarized more – for every point that I love, I’m reminded of something that I really didn’t. Quite honestly, actually, I think this movie has more going for it than against it… but I can’t deny how I felt while watching it, and the detracting elements really are strong enough to have swayed my interest away from loving this movie.
C’est la vie… there’s always the next adaptation :).