By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
The marriage of realism and fantasy in comic book-based movies can often be a double-edged sword. Through the years, comic book stories have matured, focusing less on the goofy and campy and more on serious themes of a more adult nature. Comic writers have strived for stronger development of their stories, heroes and villains. Even though their medium consists of two dimensional drawings, the characters have evolved into seemingly flesh and blood people. Thus, even a character such as Superman, a hero who probably has some of the more fantastic powers of all heroes, has undergone this evolution.
In both comics and other media, artists, writers and filmmakers have interpreted and almost reinvented this character with the styles and moods of their respective eras. I grew up with not only the Super Friends cartoon, geared towards children, but also Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie and its sequels. When Superman the Movie opened in theaters in 1978, the film became a landmark motion picture setting a high standard for comic book inspired films that many filmmakers have tried to emulate. This movie successfully presented a realistic Superman, but also had a wonderful wit and charm, not to mention some thrilling and exciting action sequences. For some strange reason, many years would pass before superhero films of this caliber would get made and would become a cinematic staple.
In 2007, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns attempted to recapture the spirit and tone of Donner’s film, but had its setting in modern times. While the movie works as a nostalgic homage, it doesn’t offer audiences anything fresh or relevant to the era in which it is set. Perhaps we as people are more jaded and cynical to appreciate its style and tone. Ironically, the story makes a case for the relevance of that type of hero in the present, but fails to completely deliver on an entertainment level. Flash forward to 2013, after several upon several successful and failed comic adaptations and the “big blue boy scout” is back in theaters in his seventh feature film adaptation. Director Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen) and writer David Goyer (Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy) have attempted to make a Superman origin film more relevant to modern times and with the character development that modern comic book stories have. The result is Man of Steel, a film rich with such development, but somewhat lacking in some of the excitement and wonder that have made other Superman movies more entertaining.
For the most part Snyder and Goyer’s movie remains faithful to Superman’s roots. Born on the planet Krypton, Kal-El is sent to Earth by his parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) as Krypton stands on the brink of destruction. Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane) raise Kal, whom they name Clark as their own child, but remain highly cautious about protecting his secret. Clark grows up, carefully guarding his secret out of fear of being discovered, but often feels obligated to use his powers when people are in need of help. When former Kryptonian military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his unit threaten to destroy the Earth, Clark has no choice, but to reveal himself to the world.
Snyder and Goyer’s take on the “strange visitor from another planet” definitely has its poignant and enthralling moments when it comes to portraying the alienation Kal-El feels growing up, knowing of his other-worldly background and awkwardly, sometimes painfully, discovering his gifts. The film is at its best when the Kents struggle to raise their alien son, but still attempt to instill in him their morals and values. It is obvious that the script is written by the same guy who wrote Batman Begins. Both films spend a lot of time setting up the origin story, and often relate to past incidents in flashback scenes. The differences, however, are that Snyder is not quite the caliber of director that Christopher Nolan is, and that this Superman story often takes itself a little too seriously and is missing the thrills, the wonderment and the romance often expected with a Superman movie.
Another gripe I do have with the film has to do with an excess of exposition used to tell this story. Perhaps Donner’s Superman glossed over these details too quickly, but Snyder’s movie often drags and stretches this a bit much. Aesthetically, the film often looks gorgeous with cinematography by Amir Mokr and impressive production design by Alex McDowell. The CGI effects hit and miss with both impressive effects shots and some cringeworthy, fake looking ones. I saw the film in RealD 3D, and the post-conversion work appears terrible. I would like to see the film again in IMAX 3D in hopes of improving the experience, but the regular 3D experience failed to impress me.
The movie does have an exciting and amazing climax which does takes a major risk by giving Kal-El a major life changing choice never before presented in a film. In keeping with the attempt at a more realistic portrayal, I found this moment to be a landmark scene in Superman’s cinematic history. The overall development is solid on a dramatic level; I was just hoping for more thrills, excitement and humor. I have no gripes whatsoever regarding the cast who all deliver outstanding performances.
Henry Cavill perfectly portrays and physically embodies this type of Superman. His character is one that is slowly developing and evolving. He hasn’t completely found his confidence or swagger, but now knows what he must do and how he should utilize his abilities. I’d love to see his character further evolve in subsequent installments. Amy Adams does a great job as the tenacious, but sympathetic journalist, Lois Lane, a lovely lady who makes quite an impression on Kal. Michael Shannon impresses as a more dimensional version of Zod. His villain is less cartoonish and over-the-top than Stamp’s and this works well within the context of this movie. The film also features some beautiful and compelling work by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane who portray the loving, but highly concerned Kents. I cannot think of any other modern actors who could fill these roles as wonderfully as they do.
I will highly recommend this film, despite some of my issues with it. It certainly does have its merits and it is a movie that should be enjoyed on a theater screen. If one is expecting or desiring something more like Superman The Movie, then this adaptation will probably disappoint. If wanting something more realistic and comparable to modern comic books, then this will definitely appease. I can easily see a generational divide with this film. Much like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man have their different fans, I can see the same thing happening once Man of Steel opens in theaters.