Monday, June 17, 2013

It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's A Kansan!

Man of Steel Asks If Superman Should Even Bother

Reviewed By Kemper
3 out of 5 Stars With Doomed Planets Orbiting Them

Clark tries to bring news fashions to Smallville.
As the most iconic of the super-heroes, it’s more than a little odd that Superman got left behind in the wave of comic book movies in recent years.  Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006 felt more like a homage to the Christopher Reeve movies than a genuine attempt to come up with a fresh film version, and it failed to live up to anyone’s expectations. So Superman was on the bench while Batman was revitalized in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and Marvel steadily released a string of movies including their enormous hits with The Avengers in 2012 and Iron Man 3 earlier this year.

Trying to come up with a new spin on Superman that would satisfy old fans and the mainstream movie audiences was a tough gig.  It’s natural that Warner Brothers and DC turned to Nolan as a producer to get Superman back into theaters, but the choice of Zach Snyder as director seemed risky since he flopped with his previous comic book film, Watchmen.  With a story from Nolan and veteran comic book movie scripter David Goyer, Snyder has presented a new version of Superman that keeps the familiar elements but tweaks them so that we get a revised origin story that also delivers plenty of action.

On the planet Krypton scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) have rebelled against a long-standing breeding program and had a son, Kal-El, via a natural birth.  Unfortunately, Krypton is doomed thanks to short-sighted government leaders who have done some kind of strip mining of the planet’s core.  Fanatical General Zod (Michael Shannon) leads a coup attempt in an effort to save the planet, but he and Jor-El clash over Zod‘s plans for the future.  Jor-El steals data vital to the breeding program and puts it in the spaceship with his infant son and sends him to Earth where the yellow sun and lower gravity will give him incredible powers.

Kal-El is found by the Kents and raised on their Kansas farm as their son Clark.  Jonathan (Kevin Costner) worries that the world isn’t ready to find out about his adopted alien while Martha (Diane Lane) tries to help Clark adjust to his powers.  As an adult Clark (Henry Cavill) tries to hide his true nature with a nomadic existence of menial jobs and fake names, but his need to help people sometimes threatens to reveal him. 

While Clark is following up on a clue to his origins he crosses paths with intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams).  After Lois sees enough to know there‘s something special about him, Clark flees and wonders if the time has come to reveal himself to the world.  Lois starts tracking down Clark by following the rumors of a mysterious savior who has appeared over the years.

General Zod has some anger issues.
However, Clark’s decision is complicated by the appearance of General Zod and some of his followers who demand that Kal-El be turned over to him or he’ll start attacking Earth.  

While the familiar origin story is still here, it’s the additions and alterations that make it interesting.  We get a fuller picture of Krypton that we ever have in the movies, and it’s an intriguing bit of world building that had me wishing for a prequel  with Russell Crowe’s adventures as Jor-El.

In order to focus on the Superman elements, not much is done with the traditional Clark Kent secret identity lore. This is less about Superman trying to come to terms with who he is and more about him trying to decide whether he can trust people enough to try and help them.  Jonathan’s belief that the world would collectively freak out over the revelation of an alien with super powers echoes strongly within him, and Clark has little reason to expect the best of people since he's been treated like an outcast by almost everyone except his adopted parents.  

This was an interesting way to play it because we know that Superman is the epitome of a hero so there’s no point in trying to make us think that he doesn’t want to try and use his powers for good.  Instead the question becomes whether people really deserve his help, and if the revelation of a super-powered alien might do more harm than good.  Clark has to decide if he can trust humanity enough to change their world, and that’s an original question for a super-hero flick.

Aside from the character drama, there’s also plenty of action.  As is befitting of a Superman movie, the segments of him fighting Zod and his henchmen or performing other super-powered acts of heroism are epic and downright bone rattling.  The battles take place from Krypton to a small town in Kansas to the Indian Ocean to outer space to the streets of Metropolis and there’s plenty of property damage wherever they occur.  Whether it’s trying to save men from a burning oil rig or learning how to fly, the special effects are generally eye popping although there are a few scenes where CGI figures become obvious and the sheer scale of the action starts to overwhelm the viewer.  

Geez, you guys.  Get a room already.
Anchoring all of this are good performances from a very strong cast.  Cavill is a real find with an ability to make Clark feel all-too-human yet also projecting the bigger than life image needed when he puts on the Superman suit.  Amy Adams is more than just the typical damsel-in-distress that Lois usually is, and the script gives her important things to do.  Costner and Crowe really stand out as the two father figures who instinctively grasp all the dangers and opportunities that Clark/Kal-El has in front of him.  While Michael Shannon goes a little over the top at times, he’s playing the villain in a comic book movie so that isn’t the worst thing in the world.  It also helps that Zod actually sees himself as fighting for something so that he’s got a motivation beyond just being the crazy bad guy.

Like a lot of big blockbuster movies, Man of Steel goes on a bit too long and should have wrapped up its ending faster.  Some Superman fans probably won’t like the changes to the traditional story, and some viewers may be put off by the big sci-fi elements that sometimes distance us from the quieter character moments.

Still, this is the first Superman movie that really felt as big as a Superman movie should, and it manages to get across genuine moments of awe and wonder worthy of a comic book while still providing relatable characters and dilemmas.


  1. Great review! I have an intense dislike of Superman, but the darker elements and the shift away from his conflicted self-identity intrigues me. Amy Adams as Lois Lane, though, just doesn't do it for me.

    1. Thanks! Superman isn't my favorite superhero, but this is the kind of story that gets me interested. I actually liked Amy Adams as Lois quite a bit.

  2. Very nice review, Mr. K. Makes me even more anxious to see the movie.

    1. What?!? I didn't think you went in for comic book movies?