Sunday, June 30, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel

Director: Zach Snyder
Genre: superhero
Rating: ** (2.5 out of 5)

ALERT: This review contains spoilers.

After wrapping up the enormously successful Batman franchise last summer, DC Comics (a subsidiary of Warner Brothers) is in desperate need of a hit. Green Lantern was such a box office bomb that any chance of a sequel is out of the question. Unfortunately for DC, other superheroes in its war chest like Flash, Aquaman and Wonder Woman seem unfit for the modern cinema. Meanwhile, rival Marvel Comics is churning out a blockbuster every few months. Out of options and out of time, DC Comics turns to its most dependable man in tights: Superman. Never mind that the studio already attempted to reboot the series in 2006 and failed. Superman Returns, starring the uncharismatic ex-model Brandon Routh, was panned by both critics and fans. Even Warner Brothers executives admitted that Routh failed to “position the character the way he needed to be positioned” and aborted a 2009 sequel.

Man of Steel by Zach Snyder

That brings us to Man of Steel. The conspicuous absence of the word “Superman” in the movie title – it was only uttered twice in the entire 143-minute film – suggests the studio’s intention to disassociate the “re-reboot” from Superman Returns and to approach the franchise very differently. Director Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen) is at the helm under the watchful eye of co-producer and co-writer Christopher Nolan (the Batman trilogy, Inception). Replacing Brandon Routh is the gruffer and buffer Henry Cavill. It is a break-out role for the British actor, who was passed over for being too young to play James Bond and too old to play Edward Cullen in the Twilight Saga

With Nolan on the set and a weightier leading man, what can possibly go wrong? Man of Steel is the most anticipated action movie this summer and is already a box office bonanza for Warner Brothers. The movie grossed US$416 million worldwide within the first two weeks of its release, which has more than paid for the quarter-billion investment. Despite its financial success, the movie is a disappointment to Superman devotees. There are several reasons why.

How Superman loses his underwear

Let’s start with the story. Like the original Superman film in 1978, Man of Steel begins with the birth of Kal-El. Baby Superman is sent to Earth because his planet Krypton is about to explode. The opening sequence is a drawn-out action set piece that takes place on the alien planet, which looks like a mix between Mordor in The Lord of the Rings and Pandora in Avatar. Unless it is a Star Wars movie, fantasy worlds are better left to the audience’s imagination. The underwhelming opening then gives way to the haunted present of an adult Kent Clark (Kal-El’s earth name) who, like Wolverine, takes up odd jobs while searching for the answer to who he really is. Next thing we know, gung-ho reporter Lois Lane discovers Clark’s alien identity while she was snooping around in an abandoned Kryptonian spaceship lodged in an Arctic iceberg. That means less than 20 minutes into the film, Clark's secret is already out. Boo-hoo. But as soon as the jig is up, super villain General Zod – who was also featured in the 1980 sequel Superman II – shows up with an alien army and declares war on earth. So before there is time for Clark’s identity crisis to play out or any of the characters to properly develop, the stakes have become irreversibly high. Mind-numbing action sequences follow. Entire city blocks are shattered the way they were in The Avengers and the earth’s core is being drilled just like in Star Trek. Concepts like the Codex, the Genesis Chamber and the World Engine are explained in a couple of hasty lines and never get fleshed out.

Another problem with the movie is that it takes itself far too seriously. Let’s face it, Superman is a beefcake flying around in blue tights, a red cape and matching rubber boots. Even without the yellow belt and the red underwear worn outside, his Spandex suit still gets a snigger from today’s audience. The story is also plagued by obvious but unaddressed questions like why Kryptonians speak English and why they are anatomically identical to us. That’s why Christopher Reeve’s bumbling rendition works, but a tortured and unsmiling Henry Cavill doesn’t. But anxious to replicate the winning formula from Batman, DC Comics turns Superman into a Dark Knight who struggles with the same moral dilemma of having to save a people that neither trusts him nor can be trusted. The “Nolan’ification” of Superman drains the franchise of the humor it needs to avoid slipping into silliness.

The "Nolan'ification" of Superman

The casting also leaves much to be desired. Amy Adams who plays Lois Lane is too petite and not photogenic enough. She seems more interested in using Superman to advance her journalism career than getting to know the man who is frankly too busy saving the world to start a new relationship. As such, there is zero chemistry between the glass ceiling breaker and the alien Savior. Michael Shannon should have dialed back General Zod’s diabolical  desire for world destruction and played up his forgivable one to preserve his own species. Throughout the film, Shannon looks and sounds more like an over-acting Macbeth than the calculating rebel leader of a superior race.

"Let's just be friends, alright?"

The last and fatal flaw is that the Snyder/Nolan dream team has gotten the mythology all wrong. Unlike a Spartan soldier in 300, Superman is supposed to kick ass without throwing a punch or rolling in the mud. In Man of Steel, however, the caped hero is constantly locked in hand-to-hand combat with his fellow Kryptonians. Street fights simply cheapen him. What’s more, the Superman we know is compassionate. He will save every last human no matter what the personal price is -- even if he has to turn back time and interfere with human history. But in Man of Steel, buildings fall over each other with thousands still trapped inside. Fighter planes get shot down killing both pilots and passengers. Just the same, Superman charges on unmoved. He appears perfectly at ease with fighting his epic battles in the middle of a financial district, not to mention personally contributing to the human death toll as he is tossed around by his alien enemies. 

The only bright spots in Man of Steel are the many flashbacks to Kent Clark’s childhood in the American prairies. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play Clark’s earth parents and supply the emotional pull that the movie so badly needs. The audience wishes that there were more human touches like that and fewer CG set pieces that go on and on. The audience also walks out of the theater feeling nostalgic for the 70s and thinking that Superman Returns wasn’t so bad after all.


  1. I am frankly sick of movies where some alien comes to earth, waxes poetics about the innate potential of human beings, and then chooses to save his/her/its adopted planet. Isn't that also the plot of the Transformers?

    I get it, we human beings are the cutest beings in the galaxy, but recently there are photos from NASA showing how global warming may have accelerated. A more appropriate and possibly a better movie would have been Kal El originating from Earth and being shot towards Krypton. I can already foresee a atupid Wayan Brothers movie along that line.

  2. I agree with every word in your review, Jason. No wonder I felt like watching Batman the whole 2.5 hours (not to mention Superman wearing a batman suit in blue color), the man behind was Nolan!


  3. I had such high hopes and wanted to watch this; but now that after reading your review, I'd better think twice before doing so. But irrespective of the poor plot, casting etc,I have to own up my true reason for wanting to watch Superman again was that I missed Christopher Reeve and his portrayal of superman. In face I think his real person is more of a superman than in the film, and I had wanted to write to him personally about what he he has gone through and contributed. Sadly, I'll never get the chance now.


  4. I thought it wasn't that bad truly. But i miss the Clark Kent of old very much.


  5. I would give it 3.5.


  6. I just saw it. Not nearly as bad I as expected but the Chris Reeve shadow is a long one; the 1978 film is one of my favorite pieces of cinema ever. Lane and Costner's scenes were surprisingly good -- I agree with you there.


  7. The 1978 original set the gold standard. How can you beat Superman circling the planet to turn back time just to bring back Lois Lane?! It's pure genius.


  8. But you know when I was 11, I thought *that* was the hokey bit (even if Supe's scream was cool). Now as an adult i feel differently. I thought that the pre-Superman scenes in Man of Steel were pretty good -- the oil rig and stuff.


  9. Well-written review, and i agree with some of your points, though i probably would've given the movie a 3.5. maybe i'm more forgiving because i like superman, but the more i think about the film the more i feel that it will probably get better with repeated viewings. also i feel that despite its problems, the filmmakers understand the essence of the superman character. i think we're likely to see a more refined interpretation in man of steel 2.


  10. Jeremy,

    I love superheroes too! But you are definitely more forgiving than I am. I think the fact that Man of Steel is in need of "redemption" by a sequel speaks volumes...


  11. If you feel nostalgic about General Zod from the 80's, then you're free to go back and rent it. If you want the plot and story to be spoon fed and articulated in simple sentences and superfluous monologues, you're obviously a big fan of the cheesy genre. Superman was only cheesy because hollywood made him cheesy. The source material for Kal-el is very serious and Sci-Fi. This film did a service to Superman's real fans, rather than the "just add water" Sunday morning drivers from the 90s. The reason why Dark knight did so well is because it took itself seriously. Man of steel, just like Nolan's Batman, did not waste time with thick explanations because it didn't want to insult the audience's intelligence, which is clearly lost on this reviewer's simplistic view of the world's greatest superhero. Snyder gave the hero the emotional weight and seriousness he deserved in both in his reflection of his emotional vulnerabilities as he did to his physical ones - because, quite frankly, the invulnerable superman of old does not resonate in today's age of science and logic. To the readers, watch this movie and enjoy it. It is so much fun.


  12. Finally found time to watch the movie today then read your review. Not as disappointed as you may have been as I am a super fan of superman series. But I have to admit this one just slaps all fans in face especially the scenes showing how superman was seriously hit and how he generated 911 like disaster to the buildings.

    What's more, the plot goes much beyond the original. Lois didn't get to realize Clark is superman in this way. This even sets up a hitch for the next sequel. How can Lois get out to report superman's life saving news while she actually knows Superman is her colleague?

    Another thing is... Hey that's enough! I don't need to know how he was sent to Earth anymore. Though I know this is one of the few story-telling moments about superman, that's enough and just don't wanna see that I the next sequel. This team, if they are still given chance, should start thinking which line of plots to be selected next time.