“Man of Steel” Movie Review

     Hype is a hard thing to resist, especially when it is done effectively.  The Warner Brothers marketing machine went to work early and often for Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel”, intent on making audiences forget the past with a new take on the famed DC Comics character, Superman.  For me, there is no replacing the original 1978 film, “Superman: The Movie”, starring Christopher Reeve, nor the 1980 sequel, “Superman 2”, which I consider to be one of the few sequels to surpass the original.  Though I didn’t look at 2006’s “Superman Returns” as a disappointment, I did feel director Bryan Singer’s take left a lot to be desired.  No doubt the concept of starting over in “Man of Steel” was the right call.  Singer’s version suffered as a sequel and the casting of soap star Brandon Routh as a Christopher Reeve look a like left it with somewhat of a faux quality.  Since the origin story is being retold in “Man of Steel”, I think it gives Henry Cavill as the new Superman the chance to build the character from the ground up, rather than imitate mannerisms from past incarnations.

     “Man of Steel” seemingly has all of the big time pieces in place for a blockbuster super hero epic.  Christopher Nolan, fresh off his mega successful “Batman” trilogy has taken the producing reigns on this one and is teamed up with visionary director Zack Snyder, who’s had his ups and downs with the fantastic “300” and the awful “Sucker Punch”.  Snyder works from a story and script by Nolan and David Goyer (“Blade”, “Batman” trilogy) and the trio have rewritten and re-imagined practically everything from both the 1978 and 1981 films.  Even the iconic Superman Theme composed by John Williams is gone and now replaced with a new score from Nolan regular Hans Zimmer (which is outstanding).  Snyder immediately brings a fresh new look to the film with an opening epilogue on Krypton, as the society of that planet clashes in the midst of a military coup.

     Krypton is now presented as a planet more along the lines of what we saw in last year’s “John Carter” or even 1984’s “Dune”.  Rather than the simple dark, icy technology of the original film, Snyder populates his Krypton with familiar looking space craft and futuristic structures.  When we meet Jor-El (Russell Crowe), he’s in a race against time to send his new born son, Kal-El, to Earth before he is found by General Zod (Michael Shannon), whom he has refused to join.  When Jor-El is running from the enemy, he curiously doesn’t have his own sleek space craft to fly away in.  Instead, he summons a giant dinosaur like bird that he proceeds to ride on while being pursued by gun firing hover craft.  This whole first action sequence reminded me a little too much of the same scenes in “Avatar”.  Snyder even uses the same fast camera zooms used in the “Avatar” scenes.  I was quite surprised to see “Man of Steel” open with such a blatant rip off of a better film, especially since Snyder has already shown himself capable visually.  This really got “Man of Steel” off to a rough start.

     The film picks up 33 years later when Kal-El, now Clark Kent, is grown and working on, get this, a “Perfect Storm” like fishing boat!  I had no idea the filmmakers would go the “Deadliest Catch” route with of all people, Superman!  Sporting a George Clooney beard, he gets wind of trouble on a near by oil rig in the middle of the ocean.  He holds up a huge piece of metal framing so trapped workers can board a helicopter to safety, but then disappears.  It’s at this point where “Man of Steel” begins to show some substance and the necessary emotional resonance to make a superhero film like this work.  In an early scene, we see Clark struggle as a grade schooler with his uncontrollable x-ray vision, as he sees through his teacher’s and classmate’s clothing revealing their muscles, organs, and veins.  He’s also discovering his ability to hear at an astonishing level and the constant barrage of sounds seem to overload his senses.  This is a great beginning to the younger Clark and reminds me of one of the better scenes in “Spiderman” where Peter Parker is unable to control his web slinging.

     Likely the best performance in the film is by Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, Clark’s Earth father.  He’s convinced it is necessary to conceal Clark’s identity simply because he feels the world is not ready for the answer to the question “Are we alone?”  When Clark is confronted with a situation on a school bus in which the occupants will drown if he doesn’t act, he decides to push the bus to safety, even though this leads to the saved kids telling their parents what he did.  When Clark confronts Jonathan about where he came from, the elder Kent brings him to the barn on their farm and reveals the space craft he and his wife, Martha (Diane Lane), found him in when he was a baby.

     Back to present day, Clark makes his way to a remote location in the Arctic, where researchers are looking for a spacecraft believed to be 18,000 years old buried in the ice.  Clark finds the craft and is told by a hologram of his late father Jor-El that the craft was sent to Earth when Krypton was looking at planets for colonization.  It is explained to Clark why he has special powers on Earth and shortly after he puts on the familiar suit for the first time.  This is also where Clark first meets investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) for the first time.

     In the film’s opening sequence, General Zod and his conspirators are sent to the Phantom Zone for treason.  This, of course, allows them to survive the doom bestowed on Krypton and eventually escape.  When Clark activates the Krypton craft on Earth, Zod picks up on the signal and travels to Earth via space craft he was able to salvage from dead Krypton colonists on other planets.  He intends on finding Kal-El and seeking revenge for his father’s actions.  Zod sends a message to Earth telling the world’s population they have 24 hours to turn over Kal-El or face the consequences.

     This sets off a string of high impact action sequences at about the midway point of the film.  The problem with Superman and in this case the Super Villains he must defeat, is they are indestructible and they don’t use weapons or vehicles to their advantage.  Whereas we long to see what kind of gadget or vehicle Batman will use next, there is no mystery as to what Superman will do next.  He flies really fast and punches his adversaries, who in turn simply punch him back.  None of this has any noticeable effect and their seems to be no advantage for either side.  In the same situation in “Superman 2”, the screen writers solved this issue by simply having Superman win using smarts rather than brute strength.  In “Man of Steel”, Snyder piles on loud, bombastic, action scene after action scene leveling Smallville first and than moving to Metropolis (AKA New York City) where we get to see falling sky scrapers and the poor people below running to avoid them (no different than last summer’s “The Avengers”).  The hero and adversaries here are one trick ponies making the film’s resolution an overall dud. 

     These scenes become so numbing that I was reminded of the same feeling I had watching the wretched “Transformers” sequels.  The action is so frantic and blurry that at times it’s difficult to determine who is who or what just happened.  I have to say I’m surprised by these choices since Snyder excelled with high definition slow motion in “300” with outstanding results.  Slowing the action down and making room for some meaningful dialogue and character development likely would’ve improved the third act and made these scenes more satisfying.  As presented here, they seem to go on and on with no end in sight.

     All is not lost however, since the origin story and the General Zod story are over with, the filmmakers can now concentrate on threats a little closer to home that will match wits with Superman’s strength and courage.  “Man of Steel” doesn’t come close to the origin story told for Batman in “Batman Begins”, but it has enough strong points to build upon for the next installment.  Snyder beats the audience down with action galore, but is short on the “You’ve got me....Whose got you?” moments of the original films.  Cavill plays this Superman dead serious from the beginning and lacks the opportunity to be in scenes like a young Clark Kent punting a football to the next state or smiling as he’s running next to a speeding train with a young Lois Lane inside.  There’s really nothing in Snyder’s film that makes you smile until he manages one of those moments at the very end when Clark arrives at his new place of employment.  At least the ending gives us something to look forward to.  Clearly, I expected more of “Man of Steel”.  If you want to watch a Superman film, you’re better off popping in the Blu ray of the original. GRADE: C+