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Man of Steel - Film Review: Deliberately Harder

Lars HindsleyBy Lars Hindsley Thu 13 Jun 2013 1:54 PM EST | 4445 Views
Four Dangers

The once all-American fictional superhero of Detective Comics (Then Action Comics) created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938 is once again rebooted in the most modern effort yet. With comic book movies shifting from all action to dramatic character dynamics, storytelling mastery in a darker style similar to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is the vehicle delivering the goods in Man of Steel. If there is any challenge to a Superman movie it is making a dry character like Superman relatable. Can a change be done without going too far?

It's hard to provide any spoilers as this story has been told many times in print, radio and celluloid of all forms. Familiarity is what makes sitting through Superman Man of Steel  potentially a bit underwhelming. The good news – casting Henry Cavill against animation and print type as Superman is part of what makes this new character relatable.  He's not the Superman you'd expect. Visually, the slicked black hair is all that remains. He's a deliberate new definition of dashing, not-in-tights. To anyone who knows the name Superman you ask yourself what surprises can be offered in yet another reboot? What is the message or story to be told if it's the same story being told? Director Zach Snyder is careful to not give us another version of Batman. No one wants to see one more brooding superhero. What we get is the soul of Superman.
Man of Steel
Who enjoy's a character that has no flaws, no back-story of struggle or any emotional journey of any sort? Despite Man of Steel's effort to create a more complex Superman, Kal-El's toughest challenge is to accept how great he is. Past incarnations result in the greatest boring boy scout. Marry his squeaky clean persona with limitless power and no matter how many times you tell this story, Superman remains inaccessible. Man of Steel spends a good amount of time taking you along with Kal-El on a journey of discovery. In his journey as a wandering good Samaritan, journalist Lois Lane tracks his superhuman feats. In tracking Kal-El Lois is Clark Kent's protector.

If you are Superman, what kind of woman do you fall for? If you are Clark Kent, Superman's alter ego, what values your earthly father instilled upon you make you look for in a woman? The answer is Lois Lane, an intelligent being with down to earth qualities. Every incarnation of her in the past made her a street savvy news reporter that lacked that endearing element. Amy Adam's does capture the essence of a more plausible love interest but she does fall short in the chemistry department with Kal-El. Thankfully this end of the story isn't a major plot force. The film makers make a smart decision remembering that Superman's power is the stories driving force. That means they avoid making Kryptonite part of the story!
Man of Steel and Superman Action Comics
You won't be insulted watching something as small as a stone cripple the Man of Steel. His great strength and ability body mass is stronger here on earth due to gravitational pull among other details.  Why then would a rock from his home planet of Krypton make him weak, let alone cause him pain? The answer, it is radiated and only lead creates a safe buffer to protect him from it.  In terms of storytelling, it's hard for any director to make this juicy and dramatic. It's gone in Man of Steel.
General Zod
What does Man of Steel have to go on if it is to avoid this horrible historical story line element? Director Zack Snyder's storytelling that respects the world of comic books. Or does he? This is no Superman reboot, it's a retooling.

Man of Steel goes beyond retooling the existing hackneyed origin story. It reinvents Superman's psyche. Great actors and great directors have helped comic books shift in film from action only to character driven journeys. Zack Snyder taps Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne and Russell Crow for the skill needed to express the deeper story of anxiety laden choices Kal-El experiences. At one time in history comic books – or graphic novels as they are most recently known as were treated with disdain by Hollywood. In the same way voice acting an animated character is now a respected trade, comic books have come of age. They now dominate the landscape in blockbuster moving making. 
Jor-el and Kal-el logos
Perhaps co-producer Christopher Nolan's influence in redefining Superman's traits as a more complex character than a pure superhuman boy scout become the real story of Man of Steel. From dual father son subtexts proving children do in fact listen to their parents advice growing up, to Kal-El's choice to live by his conservative values in a contemporary society.

Superman is the kingpin of comic book characters. Told from the beginning Kal-El's father Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe is one of the few smart Kryptonian's left as their planet is about to bite the dust. Literally. Shooting his son off into space to planet Earth, he ensures his son will be invulnerable to death in a litany of ways. Kal-El lands in America on a farm where he's immediately understood to be from another planet by two farmers Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his wife Marta Kent (Diane Lane).

Man of Steel initially offers no deviation from the Richard Donner Superman series spawned in 1978. Nor just about any other Superman story. Then Superman gets modern. All modern. Man of Steel rejects much of what you expect of the comic book character. You'd hardly see him as the same guy Batman resents – the governments messiah boy scout. Messiah is not a word to be used lightly here, although unlike Muslims, Christians don't mind seeing false gods in the form of their God.  After all, Kal-El, as his alter ego Clark Kent is found standing in front of a stained glass image of Christ. We are also introduced to him at the age of 33, the same age Christ died. Note that Christ did exist and die as a historical fact in recorded Roman history. Then we are reminded openly he is not the Superman you see in comic books. Kal-El tells reporter Lois Lane in an interview directly the "S" is not in fact an "S". It's a symbol. The name Superman is uttered in one scene its two and one half hours. Snyder's intent is clear, Kal-El is lonely and melancholy in the knowledge no one else is like him.

No Superman story is dramatic if Superman is facing mere mortals. Thankfully absent from this  Superman is Lex Luthor. Instead Kal-El'a challenge is equal powered Kryptonians. To this end action abounds.

Man of Steel has to overcome so much from familiarity and accessibility to plausibility and motivation. Motivation and understanding a villain is key to any action movie. To the director's credit, antagonist Zod played by Michael Shannon is a well understood villain. The weak link of a Zod villain is he's not exciting to look at and there is no special attribute for Superman to cope with other than Zod's strength and understanding of Kal-El's background from their home planet. What could have made this better was a battle with his true nemesis Doomsday, the character that killed Superman in 1992.  

A Doomsday follow-up may happen as film execs keep making DC movies 'stand-alone' universes. Aside from Marvel's licensing issues, Marvel's characters and stories cross-over. The Avengers made perfect use of each franchise creating a super blockbuster film that became highly accessible by developing each character in their own element first.

This Superman is a fighter. While he doesn't become unhinged, even his fighting displays him with more brute force than any prior Superman.  Writer David Goyer sums it up best, “Superman, overpowered by the Kryptonians, tries to flee by flying down the street. But as he jets off, his foot is caught by the Kryptonian and he is slammed into the pavement like a rag doll. Faora and the CG character stand on either side of him ready to strike.– Superman then grabs Faora, slams her into the pavement, then slams her into the other attacking Kryptonian. Superman then flies down the street dragging the stunned Faora behind him. Yes, he uses Faora as a club to beat his other opponent. As the brutal action shows, “Man of Steel” is truly unlike any Superman movie we’ve seen before.”

Superman and DC aficionados will pick up on characters that may come into play in future installments such as Tahmoh Penikett (Metallo?), and S.T.A.R. Labs making a Cyborg character a possibility in the future. Other DC references? Zod destroy's a Wayne Enterprises satellite.

For geeks that must have every Superhero film in their media library, Superman... Man of Steel will make a nice addition to the shelf.  It's the best origin Superman story told yet for a character that will perhaps always remain inaccessible to anyone looking for a relatable driven superhero. This Superman is the best representation of the character outside comic books. The Richard Donner Superman of the 1980's is campy compared to Man of Steel
Superman Batman
There will be a sequel to Man of Steel, the film is good enough that we now have a sustainable Superman to go along with Batman, but the Batman referenced in Man of Steel is clearly NOT the Batman portrayed by Christian Bale in the Dark Knight trilogy. In fact neither Batman or Gotham City is ever referenced in Man of Steel. Script writer David Goyer has reiterated Zach Snyder's position that Superman in the Man of Steel franchise will stand on its own and they won't be incorporating any Batman references directly.  Goyer let on that Justice League is desired and wanted and will be made possible based on the success of Man of Steel. So while this Superman may be in Justice League movie, the Dark Knight trilogy Batman will not be in any upcoming Justice League movie. While we avoided Lex Luthor in this franchise reboot, LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises do get fleeting cameos, but you need to be on your toes to catch them. Smallville's continuity is intact too. For those wanting to see both Batman and Superman superheroes in a Justice League film, you will have it, but no mention of Batman exists in Man of Steel.  Goyer has also spoken out that Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise is a world that does not co-exist in a Justice League or Man of Steel universe. Any introduction to Batman going forward will be a new Batman rebooted once again, one that is part of Man of Steel's continuity.  Man of Steel will see a sequel before anyone sees a Justice League film.

Should you watch the credits for an Easter Egg?  No.  Don't bother. 

Cast: SuperMan/Henry Cavill, Lois Lane/Amy Adams, General Zod/Michael Shannon, Martha Kent/Diane Lane, Jonathan Kent/Kevin Costner, Jor-El/Russell Crowe
Rating: PG-13
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: David S. Goyer
Runtime: 2 hr 28 min
Release Date: June 14, 2013
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