REVIEW: "Man of Steel" - (Re)Birth of a Franchise?

BEWARE:  MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD

How long has it been since we had a truly good Superman film? That would accurately be Superman II, which was released in 1981. Arguably the best in the series, Superman II is famous for having been shot with two directors, one version by the original director, Richard Donner, and the theatrical release directed by Richard Lester.  Both are great films, with the Donner cut being just a little bit better.  These films were followed by Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  These films were just awful, mainly because of bad writing and that Christopher Reeve had a little too much directorial and producing input.  A "sequel" to Superman II was produced, the 2006 Superman Returns, which while not an awful film, was an absolutely AWFUL Superman/superhero movie.  Brandon Routh, while also not a bad actor, was a horrible decision to cast as the titular character, with most of his casting based on his uncanny resemblance to Christopher Reeve.  Ironically, the new Superman, Henry Cavill, was originally attached to play Superman in Superman: Flyby, a film by director McG and writer J.J. Abrams, that was originally meant to be the sequel before McG dropped out and Bryan Singer took over, who proceeded to cast Routh.  So how did Man of Steel fare, with the original actor who was supposed to take over in 2006?  Well, quite well actually.  

But before I get to that, let me preface the rest of my article:  There will be two scores for this review; one scoring this film as a sci-fi action movie, and one as a "Superman" movie. My reasons for this are explained below.

Henry Cavill has been one of the most unlucky actors on the planet when it comes to being cast as an iconic character in a film.  As stated earlier, he was originally slated to play Clark Kent/Superman in the McG screenplay in 2004, only to have it taken away when Bryan Singer took over directorial duties.  He was then penned to play Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, before losing out to Robert Pattinson (really?).  He was THEN a favorite to play Edward Cullen in the Twilight series, losing out to Robert Pattinson, again (REALLY?).   He was a final contender to play the new James Bond, before the producers went with Daniel Craig, reportedly because they wanted an older Bond.  I honestly think we are all okay knowing that our new Man of Steel was not also a sparkly vampire that created a spawn with the lifeless being know as Kristen Stewart...

That being said, Henry Cavill is, in my opinion, the perfect choice to play Superman.  He has the physique (even I swooned a little bit seeing him in the suit the first time), the charisma, and the acting chops to convey Clark Kent as someone who wants to so much be like the people around him, but knowing he inevitably can never be, as both an alien and an outsider.  His scenes of Clark as a fisherman and oil rig worker show him as a somewhat tortured soul, knowing he must protect his secret at all cost, but willing to pack up and make himself gone in a moments notice if it means saving the lives of others around him. 

Finding the abandoned ship and "seeing" his father right before his eyes, or the last scene between Cavill and Michael Shannon's character, Zod, Cavill shows an emotional range that has sorely been missed in the franchise.  Even when he is being snarky/funny, he pulls it off almost effortlessly, shown by his scenes with Lois Lane midway through the film.  Also, no one ever actually calls Clark "Superman" in his presence, which makes sense because the film isn't about what they call him, its about what he will mean to humanity.  While the Superman scenes themselves are good, it is Cavill's portrayal as Clark Kent that truly make this film work and give audiences a look at the not-so-super side of Superman's alter ego, to great avail.  I am fully behind Cavill as my new Superman.  

Amy Adams is the new Lois Lane, following in the footsteps of women like Margot Kidder, Teri Hatcher, and Kate Bosworth.  Is she the best Lois Lane?  No, not by a long shot.  But she is definitely better than the last film's Kate Bosworth, whose portrayal was stale, boring, and ultimately forgettable.  Adams' best scenes in the film are those shared with Cavill, with the two having a natural chemistry and a reluctance to show their affections to one another, until later in the film.  She does possess the plucky and spunky attitude needed to properly convey the Lois Lane, but her time away from the man the press are calling Superman is unfortunately lackluster.  

When it comes to General Zod, one has to look to Terrance Stamp as a reference and inspiration when portraying the character.  He was the first person to portray the renegade Kryptonian on film, and arguably the best foil to Christopher Reeves in Superman II.  Michael Shannon is a great character actor, and I find him at his best when portraying menacing, calculating villains, as noticed in films like The Iceman, and the show Boardwalk Empire.  Here, his version of Zod is much more physically imposing than Stamp's, and thats for the better.  His cold, malicious stares and his imposing expressions make for a truly troubled and evil-looking villain.  He has the tone of a militaristic tyrant, as heard in his messages to the people of Earth, and his conversations with Russell Crowe's Jor-El.  While his overall story arc is a little lacking, and his character growth minimal (save for his scenes at the end of the film), he is still a cruel, physically dominating presence in the film.  

Jor-El was famously portrayed by the great Marlon Brando in the original Reeves Superman films, and later snippets of unused footage were used in the Singer sequel.  He was then voiced by the original Zod, Terrance Stamp, in the Smallville television show, which showed audiences a version of Clark Kent before he eventually donned the cape.  Both versions have been well received, and Crowe's turn at the wheel is no different.  In many aspects, he supersedes both those who came before him.  He has a much more physical presence, literally and figuratively, and a more regal sense about him.  He portrays Jor-El as the caring and loving father that has not always been shown, and we even get to see Jor-El kick some ass before his untimely demise.  We see a lot of Crowe in this film (roughly 45 mins?) and he has great presence throughout.  He is a big part of the reason Henry Cavill makes his Clark Kent so convincing, as the two have what seems to be a natural father-son mentality with one another.  

The film, from a technical standpoint, is gorgeous.  Easily the highlight of the film are the scenes at the beginning of the film on the planet Krypton.  Gone is the snowy, ice and crystalline look of the Superman films and Smallville series.  Instead, we get a lush, red hued planet, complete with red sun.  The technology has a very techno-organic look to it, which works well with the native creatures we see on the planet.  It is even more prevalent in the weapons, armor, and tech used by the Kryptonians.  The monitors used have a magnetic bead/liquid metal feel to them, which looks very impressive.  The armor has organic looks to it, making a bit more regal in appearance.  Even the ship transports have an organic, whale and claw like appearances to them.  The fight scenes look fantastic, and make the damage to Metropolis look absolutely horrific and amazing at the same time.  As one of my friends have put it, Superman throws 1000% more punches than he did in Superman Returns and has ferocity in his physicality.  Watching Cavill fly is gorgeous, and looks painful at breakneck speeds, like it should, unlike previous iterations. 

Also, I love the new look of the suit.  There, I said it...

One of my major gripes about the film is the constant jumping back and forth between Kal-El's early days with Jonathan and Martha Kent in Smallville and the present day.  Many times it makes the film seem disjointed, like they said, "Oh hey, lets insert this scene here since it moderately connects with what is going on right now".  It made me wonder sometimes just where I was in the film.  Also, the almost super-speed pacing they used to get Clark into the blue and red duds, and how easy it seemed for Lois to track down Clark's true identity and the Kryptonian ship in the arctic.  It seems a little as though they were rushing it just to get to the whole Superman/Lois Lane dynamic at the sacrifice of the Clark Kent/Lois Lane dynamic which is actually the more enjoyable and interesting one.  

Other Notes: 

Lawrence Fishburne is notably forgettable in this film, his scenes as Perry White being both dull and sparse.  I feel they could have made much more use of an actor of his caliber.  The gender-swapping of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen to Jenny Olsen, is also unnecessary and pointless as we don't really learn who she is or why she's there.  Another forgettable role.  

In a surprising little nod to Smallville, Alessandro Juliani (best known as the voice of "L" in the anime series Death Note and as Felix Gaeta in new Battlestar Gallactica) plays a technician assisting Dr. Emil Hamilton, the character whom he portrayed in the Smallville television series in a recurring role.

There are a few inside jokes to be had here as well.  The idea of all Kryptonians having a full body suit under their normal attire, complete with family shield, both makes sense and seems like a nod to the whole "red underwear" joke.  Also, the scene at the end of the film where Clark makes his debut at the Daily Planet is also fun.  We all know that Lois can see its Superman under the glasses, but seeing as few people have seen him so up close, the disguise actually makes sense, playing on the "Clark Kent is still Superman, just with glasses" idea.  

Recommendation:   

Man of Steel is a great sci-fi film, but just an okay superhero film.  It's more focused on the background and complexity that is Kal-El, not so much the Super-part.  It's about society's reaction to the notion that there are other, more powerful beings, in the universe that could overwhelm us and ultimately destroy us.  Yes, Superman is a hero, and an idea.  But in Man of Steel he is not that symbol for truth, justice, and the American way.  Not yet.  Hopefully in the next film, the sequel, he will be well on his way to being just that.  

If you want a great action flick, fit for the title of summer blockbuster, that also has a lot of character to it, then go see this film.  If you want to see a superhero being the idea or icon that people have come to expect in the world around him, best look elsewhere like Iron Man 3 or The Dark Knight.

Would I consider this film theater worthy?

Yes I would.  It is perfect for sitting in a crowded theater, popcorn in one hand, soda in the other, and look at a great looking film that gives all the "umphf" and "pow!" one could ask for from a summer blockbuster.  The 3D is surprisingly good, being used very well where it needed it, and not used where unnecessary. 

Final Thoughts:

Zach Snyder and company are on the right track to rejuvenating the Superman film franchise.  I look forward to the sequel, with much, albeit cautious, optimism.  This is a very good sci-fi flick.  An okay hero film.  The film may named after the Man of Steel, but its more about Clark Kent and his journey to eventually become the iconic Superman we all know today.   Like this film, he's on his way, just not quite there yet...

Slamfist Rating: 

Sci-Fi/ Action Blockbuster - 9 out of 10

Superman/superhero Movie - 7 out of 10