For the last seven or eight years, I’ve requested one thing from a Superman movie: that he hit things with his fists. At long last, director Zack Snyder delivers on that wish in Warner Bros. upcoming “Man of Steel.” Boy, does it deliver on my request. It features plenty of Kryptonian-charged fisticuffs, but left me wondering if excellent fights scenes are enough to carry a film about Superman.
Retracing the well-known origin story, the film starts on an amped-up, bio-organic Krypton. Almost as soon as baby Kal-El is born — the first such natural birth in millennia, we’re told — the action begins as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) not only fights Zod (Michael Shannon), but flees a council building as the general’s rebellion rages on behind him. The action, both in the background and foreground of the shot serve as a statement of purpose for the whole film. Instead of the static Kryptonians of previous live-action tellings, these aliens are about action.
Once the Krypton sequence ends, we get our first glimpse of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). Acting as a sort of “Superman Begins,” the film finds new ground in the well-trod material by utilizing the period between Clark discovering his powers and becoming known to the world as a hero. Like Bruce Wayne at the start of his “Begins” film, Clark is also lost and bearded. In this case, he’s somewhere in Canada (or Alaska) working odd jobs on boats and in cafes, trying to reconcile the lessons imparted to him by his adoptive Earth-father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) that both tell him to hide and be great.
The contemplative mood, complete with “Lost” style flashbacks, is punctuated by a pretty spectacular rescue scene. Just as in the Krypton scene, the Canada sequence sets the film’s non-action mood. It also reveals the rhythm of the film overall, which could leave some people wanting as the action takes breaks for a flashback, or a moment for Clark to learn more about his Kryptonian heritage. It is not entirely successful as the pace varies wildly. The flashbacks interrupt the momentum of Clark’s self-discovery and end just as a pace of their own is established. While I suppose it is better than delaying the arrival of the adult Clark on screen for 45 minutes (as was done in the 1979 film) it still makes for a movie that feels overly long — which leads me to a controversial notion: removing Krypton and Smallville entirely. This could just be the bias of a life-long fan of the character, but I truly think most people know this myth and the screentime could be devoted to less explored elements, like Clark wandering North America.
That material has a strong anchor in Henry Cavill, who takes on the awesome responsibility of Superman with great skill. Even with the changes to the suit, the focus on Clark as an outsider, and the less peppy way he becomes Superman, Cavill shoulders it all and makes this fan forget all his quibbles with the script. Cavill’s morose and conflicted Clark is still capable of the dry humor of the Reeve Superman. He fights like a pro and — perhaps most importantly — you want him to succeed. I’m happy to have him around and I sincerely hope he gets to stay in the costume for a couple more films.
Equally brilliant is Michael Shannon as General Zod. While the script attempts to gray up his motives, Shannon plays him as an unhinged megalomaniac less obsessed with getting revenge on the son of Jor-El and more focused on rebuilding Krypton. Well, Krypton as Zod would see it rebuilt. He’s a worthy opponent for Cavill’s Superman: loud where Clark is quiet; trained and focused where Clark fumbles. While he never utters lines as memorable as “Kneel before Zod!” or “How can you say this me when you know I will kill you for it?” it is a whole performance that carries weight and earns the stakes of his ultimate confrontation with Clark.
The cast also includes a charming and strong Lois Lane in the form of Amy Adams and solid performances by Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Christopher Meloni. Quite honestly, the cast is nearly uniformly superb from Meloni doing his best Meloni to Michael Kelly’s all-too-brief appearance as Lombard. He looks nothing like his comic book counterpart, but he’s a damn near perfect live action realization of the sleazy Daily Planet reporter. No, the acting isn’t the problem here.
My issues with the film stem from the script by David S. Goyer from a story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan. There are many virtues to the writing, with Lois Lane’s role in the action being a highlight. Also, the way she first meets Superman and what she does after are just so right and appropriate, DC Comics should incorporate the scenario the next time they reboot the universe. Unfortunately, for everything they get right, there are facets of the story I can’t help but see as wrong. The way we’re introduced to Clark’s alienation as a boy strikes me as coming from another comic book company’s stable of characters. Elements of Jonathan Kent’s fathering smack of character assassination so Jor-El can glow when Clark finally encounters an echo of him. Also, Jonathan does something to prove a point that is just so wrong-headed and out of character that it nearly drove me out of the theater.
Those problems mostly fall away when the film sticks firmly in the present and Clark, in the suit, learns more about his powers, his lost world, and Zod. It’s a good progression and will no doubt entertain Superman fans and more casual moviegoers alike. It is also where director Zack Snyder gets to flex his muscles in the film’s greatest strengths: the fights. The sequences have weight and tension to them. Super-speed has never looked better. Flight has never been so natural and a few moments even capture the power of the best panels of a Superman comic. For critics of Snyder, there is nary a moment of slow-motion. For his fans, there is visceral action as Kryptonians make contact with one another. And to give him another credit, the movie rarely looks as set-bound as his earlier films. The world of “Man of Steel” is alive and resembles our own. He also realizes an utterly fantastic “This is Krypton” sequence that easily could’ve replaced the first 15 minutes of the film.
Did I get everything I wanted out of “Man of Steel?” No, but is that a realistic expectation? I have a Superman in my mind formed by Christopher Reeve and “Superman: The Animated Series,” which sets a nearly impossible standard. Even adjusting for that bias, the film is still overly long and paced so oddly that once it is over, you feel more like you’ve survived an ordeal than been inspired by a character we’re told repeatedly is meant to bring us into the light. While it has many strengths to offer, the film is not a completely satisfying whole. But, at the very least, Superman finally gets to fight someone with his fists and that is definitely a satisfying thing to see.
Directed by Zack Snyder and arriving in theaters June 14, “Man of Steel” stars Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni and more.