Superman Returns, Again, in Man Of Steel: A Movie Review

* * (Minor Spoiler Alert. Nothing much, but a few basics and a few minor specifics are mentioned that aren't in the trailers) * *

In 1978, the first comic book superhero came to life as a major motion picture event, and the world first believed that a man could fly. That film was Superman, directed by Richard Donner. It was fitting that the original superhero star that had launched a new wave of comic books would be the first to grace the silver screen in such a way, ushering in a new wave of comic heroes on film. While the current superhero movie craze began with the success of 2000's X-Men and 2003's Spider-Man, it all goes back to the first one to treat the source and characters with respect, instead of simply treating it as a comic book. The film went on to be a box office smash, garner critical acclaim, and was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning a Special Achievement Award for its visual effects. It is still one of the highest rated films of the genre (93% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, 86 MetaCritic Average), and many (myself included) still consider it to be the best, or one of the best, comicbook superhero films ever made.

However, as the films starring Christopher Reeve continued on, each subsequent film degenerated back to the campy, often corny, simplistic versions that the original film tried so hard to distance itself from. By 1987, when Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was released, the series had become laughably bad, with both critics and audiences panning the film. The series would then go through many false starts, as changes and ideas were thrown around about how to re-establish the quintessential superhero on film, and it would languish in what is known in Hollywood as "Development Hell" for the next 19 years.

In 2004, director Bryan Singer, fresh off of his success with X2: X-Men United, pitched an idea to his producer Lauren Schuler Donner and her husband Richard Donner. The idea was that Superman was returning to Earth after a five year absence, and would therefore work as both a continuation of the Donner film (and the Donner version of Superman II) and also as a reboot of the character for modern audiences as Superman tries to find his place in a world that has gotten along just fine without him. In 2006, Superman Returns was released. The film opened strong at the box office and performed well enough to make a profit (almost $400 million worldwide), and was well-received by critics (75% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, 72 MetaCritic Average). It was nominated for an Academy Award for Visual Effects, and went on to be a huge success on Home Media Sales Charts (DVD sales/rentals, Bluray, HD-DVD).

Despite all of this, fan reactions were mixed upon its release. Criticisms began circulating through the internet community, fuel was added by a notable, and influential, review by comic book fan/filmmaker Kevin Smith (who had drafted one of the previous false-start scripts), and all of this created a negative buzz that has lingered over the film ever since. In 2009, partly due to this backlash, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino publicly declared his appreciation for Bryan Singer's work on the film, particularly the romantic and classic style. Alas, the sequel that Singer had built towards and planned had by that time been cancelled, the film was considered a disappointment overall, and Warner Bros. had decided to try to reboot the character... again.

And so, here we arrive, finally, at the latest incarnation of Superman on the silver screen, 35 years after his debut:

Man of Steel.

The title itself forgoes the superhero brand-name for something a little stronger, a little darker, and a little less corny, much like the re-titling of the recent Batman films. That's probably because this time the character is being brought to life by the same hands that helped bring Batman to life in The Dark Knight trilogy (producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer), with visually-striking filmmaker Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole) in the director's seat. In the title role as Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman is Henry Cavill (The Immortals, "The Tutors"), with an amazing cast of supporting actors and actresses: Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Michael Kelly, Christopher Meloni, Harry J. Lennix, Ayelet Zurer, Antje Traue, and Laurence Fishburne.

The new film is as different as one could get from the emotional character piece that was Superman Returns. Instead of delving into what makes the world need Superman, and more importantly, how does Superman learn to live in a world where things have changed, this new incarnation strips away the emotional inner-conflict to delve into the origin: the character's need to understand what he is, who he is, where he came from, and in doing so understand his place on Earth (done in a fresh new way, though). Once he has the answers, he'll also need to come to terms with whether or not the human race can be trusted to not freak out when they find out the truth about him. While the basic "Who am I?" storyline has been covered in much more detail and in a much more tonally balanced, if not wholly entertaining, way by the Donner film, the latter 'trust-issues' are a new development that the film deals with nicely. Realistically speaking, how will the human race react when faced with the knowledge that not only are they not alone in the universe, but an alien is here among them.

The main departure from the previous films and comics, without going into the plot too much, is the way Krypton and Earth play into the story; or more specifically, how the original home of our hero brings the villainous General Zod and his loyal army into the story of Clark Kent on Earth. The film's main plot line deals with Zod's relationship to our hero, and the how's and why's of his villainy. By the way, but for a few minor details, it's almost nothing like the Zod famously portrayed by Terrence Stamp in Superman II.

Hands down, my favorite thing about Man of Steel is its villain, Zod, and the performance that brings him to life. Michael Shannon shines in the role, bringing a sense of menace and a distinct physical presence. He's the perfect film villain, a scary force to be reckoned with that isn't completely evil. He's got his reasons and they are valid in his eyes, they just aren't the right reasons and they are at odds with the hero.

Henry Cavill is a great Superman, as well, bringing a calm, heroic, normal-guy-yet-larger-than-life stature to the character. Add in a little bit of humor, a good understanding of his own humanity, all the things that make for a great Superman. Some of my favorite bits, surprisingly, are the little pieces of the past that pop up periodically throughout the film. Unlike the Donner version (but not unlike Singer's film, although there's much more shown here as it's a full-on reboot), Superman's past is shown via flashbacks during the film instead of the story being told chronologically. Basically, it doesn't start out with him as a kid growing up in Smallville and work it's way forward from there, it tells the story in a much more interesting/less seen-it-all-before way.

The other characters and their interactions with the lead and his story, however, are where my problems with the film begin. Amy Adams is a great choice for Lois Lane, but her character is written in a way that she seems like she's in on more information that she should be, or at the very least is processing everything that's going on around her a little too well to be completely believable. She's a great actress, I think it's just the way the role is written, or perhaps some cuts were made to keep the pace up. Anyway, she jumps into the craziness head-first a little too fast, in my opinion. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are great in the roles of Jonathan and Martha Kent, but Costner's advice, expertly delivered and heartfelt in that Costner sort of way, feels at odds with itself at times. Conflicting moral stances in the same sentence? No wonder young Clark is so lost.

Russell Crowe, taking over the Jor-El duties from the legendary Marlon Brando, is another standout in the cast, as his acting experience brings a perfect balance of seriousness and levity to the answers he bestows upon his only son. The use of Jor-El as a character in the film is nicely done, as well, instead of simply existing to move the plot along. The rest of the cast: Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni as the military officers, Antje Traue as Zod's second in command Faora, Fishburne as Perry White and Michael Kelly as Steve Lombard of the Daily Planet, Ayelet Zurer as Kal-El's birthmother Lara, they're all pretty good, some get used more than others for the story, but in the scenes they are in they do a good job.

The film is, by and large, all about the action. This is, what I feel, a direct response to the aforementioned criticisms by the internet community and Kevin Smith and so on that Superman Returns was too slow-paced, too character-heavy, and therefore "too boring" for a modern summer blockbuster. So, the action in Man of Steel is kicked into ultra-super-hyper-drive. Most of the time, it works, though. Some of the time, it's a bit much. For instance, the opening action scenes, while servicing the story, seem a little... goofy? Out of place? I don't know, the opening sequence is a mixed bag of awesome and "huh?"

When it works, the action utilizes the latest visual effects to portray Superman in a way never before seen on film. His speed, his strength, his powers, all of it are fully realized to the point where there is never a question that he, or the villains he's fighting, are not of this Earth. The way that it's all mixed up, too (the choreography, I mean), with super-fast dashes flowing perfectly into super-strong punches, launching targets into the air, and then in the blink of an eye flying out to catch a target in midair and toss them into a building or pound them back down into the pavement... it's pretty cool stuff, I must say.

They look super, the feel super. Downside: the scenes of destruction/consequences are also super, which is something that didn't sit well with me. Maybe I'm over-thinking it, but it seems to me that there's a lot of 'collateral damage' (i.e. millions of bystanders getting killed off screen) in these types of scenes (not unlike the New York or Chicago scenes in The Avengers and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, or to a lesser extent when Batman blows up the parked cars just so he can drive his bike through a parking lot in The Dark Knight... how did he know no one was in those cars? Obviously, some people are, because those kids were in there? What if he had hit their car, killing two kids just because he wasn't paying attention? Anyway, I think about this stuff sometimes, and it bugs me a little).

Getting back on point, when the action doesn't work, it's a muddled mess of dizzying "handheld" camera-work that makes those cool action scenes hard to follow. Most of the big scenes are well done and are well shot with the proper amount of energy felt in the movements, but there are a few times when some of the camera-work is ridiculously difficult to follow for no apparent reason. I'm a huge defender of camera movements that are done to deliberately evoke a feeling to bring an audience in (Cloverfield, the Bourne films), but I'll just as easily call out "shaky-cam bull****" when it's unnecessary and does a disservice to the scene for the sake of "looking cool." It bugs me because I've grown accustomed to noticing it in lesser films or crappy television action shows, and if I'm noticing the camera shaking because the camera guy is doing it on purpose to create the illusion of movement for the sake of making it stylish, then I'm being taken out of the scene and out of the movie, which is precisely what the camera moves are NOT supposed to do.

The visual effects are outstanding, as expected from a film like this. The production design work is great (the sets all looks amazing, especially the Kryptonian elements), the costumes are all great. In the context of the film, the changes to the costume work completely, all of the work involved with that seems to have paid off. The music score by Hans Zimmer is appropriately heroic, melancholy, pulse-pounding, and beautiful, and sounds like a Superman movie should. Which, honestly, is a real testament to Zimmer considering that the John Williams Superman theme is considered the second most recognizable theme in film history, behind Star Wars.

Overall, I liked the film. The few gripes that I have - such as the sometimes unnecessary use of distracting shaky camera movements, the slightly unbelievable reactions/actions by key supporting characters, the overly-destructive action scenes - are not deal-breakers for me. I still enjoyed the film, I had a lot of fun with it, and I think it's a good blockbuster movie. My biggest issue is that, while Man of Steel is more of a Superman movie than I think any of The Dark Knight trilogy are Batman films (i.e. Superman is doing Superman things in a movie about Superman), I still can't shake one itsy, bitsy tiny little thing...

I loved Superman Returns.

You can say anything you want about it, but nothing you say will change the fact that I think it's a perfect Superman film. I've stood by my original thoughts on it since it came out, that I like it more than Batman Begins, that it set up the character better for future films (it set up the world of Superman, as well as the characters), had more, and bigger, action set pieces, had a truer sense of the entire character and not just certain aspects of him, and since its release in 2006, my views have not changed. It's not a film that I watch all the time (I don't watch the 1978 Superman film all the time either, but I still consider it the best superhero film ever made). Yes, it is slow-paced, and while it has huge action scenes there are more small, emotional character moments than there is action. Yes, it's about Lex Luther again, since he's THE Superman villain (everyone complains about Luther, yet no one complains when The Joker is re-done again... strange). Yes, yes, yes, everything you hate about it is true... but I loved it, possibly for some of the very reasons that you hate it for.

Now that I have another Superman film in the form of Man of Steel, with all of the things that the last one lacked, I can say that I prefer my Superman to yours. I think mine "feels right." Superman Returns, love it or hate it, feels like a Superman film. Not because it feels like Donner's film, but because Donner got it right all those years ago. I would argue that if you don't like Superman Returns, maybe you don't like Superman, and you should stop trying to turn him into a character that he's not just because you think being a boyscout is an outdated notion, or that all superhero films need to be darker and more realistic, or that Superman needs to be updated with the times. The things that the character represents are things that should not change with the times (truth, justice, freedom, etc. are not era-specific). I don't hate your version, Man of Steel is definitely an epic Superman film with some of the most grandiose action scenes ever filmed, but I don't know... maybe I think there's more to super-strong characters than action scenes. (I like Ang Lee's Hulk better than Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk, too... so, sue me).

Man of Steel may be more fun to watch, but I don't know if that makes it better. It didn't get to the heart of the character as well as previous entries, it didn't build up any relationships that were as believable as the ones in previous entries, and it didn't provide me with the feeling of hope that the previous entries did. When I watch Superman or Superman Returns, I feel like a kid again. When I came out of Man of Steel, I felt like I just watched a kickass summer action movie. I felt like I did walking out of Star Trek Into Darkness. No more, no less. It's fun, it's exciting, it's well done, and has a lot of awesome scenes and moments... but, there's a few little things I didn't like, and while they're forgivable things, something just didn't quite sit right overall.

I'll buy it, I'll like it, and I'll watch it again, but Tim Burton's Batman is still the best Batman movie, even though I gave a perfect rating to The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Ang Lee's Hulk is still the best Hulk movie (not counting The Avengers, which is the best Hulk) despite the problems it has, and the 1978 Superman is still the best Superman movie, with Superman Returns coming in second.

Man of Steel is good, but it's a little too far in the other direction for me to say that I loved it.

(4 out of 5)
(see below for rating revision)

- gARTh -

NOTE: When I came out of the theater after watching Zack Snyder's previous comic book adaptation Watchmen, I had a few little nitpicky things to say about the overly-violent violence in a few scenes (scenes where it didn't seem to be necessary, just there to be "cool"), overly-obvious song uses ("All Along the Watchtower" and "Sound of Silence" made me roll my eyes in the theater because they came across as comical), anyway... a few little things. Over time and with multiple viewings, though, I don't think about this stuff, and it sort of went away. Now I watch the film with no issues. So it is very possible that some of the things in Man of Steel, like the flow of action and the character reactions/actions feeling unbelievable, could go away. The movie could grow on me with multiple viewings, because as I said, I liked it for the most part. So take this entire review as a first impression.

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As far as Zack Snyder goes as a filmmaker, Man of Steel is not as unbalanced as Sucker Punch, but almost is. Sucker Punch looks better (it's filmed better, I mean), and has a tad more plot holes, but the more I think about Man of Steel, the more I find wrong with certain things. Maybe wrong isn't the right word.. the more certain things don't make any sense, and the more I think about those things, the more it ripples outwards to include other things.

My review rating is now 3.5 out of 5, I'm dropping .5 points because of issues I'm having with the basic plot making sense. You know how when you watch a Michael Bay movie certain things get covered up by the action, but when it's all said and done, and the action isn't right in your face, and you're left trying to piece together what it is you've watched, and you start going "wait a minute..." - I'm getting that sort of feeling now.

And in thinking about this, I came to a realization. David Goyer is a very uneven writer. Here's the films he's written the screenplays for on his own, without assistance from other writers: Kickboxer 2: The Road Back, Demonic Toys, Arcade, The Substitute (1993 TV movie, not the Tom Berenger film), The Crow: City of Angels, Blade, Zig Zag (also directed), Blade II, Blade: Trinity (also directed), The Unborn (also directed). Everything else he's done he's had help, and the best stuff, like Dark City and the Batman films, he had help from really talented people. He didn't write the screenplay for The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises at all, he was just there to help come up with the story. the Nolan brothers wrote both of them on their own.

I think this makes  a difference, because the screenplay for Man of Steel feels more in line, concerning dialogue and plot-thread, with the Blade films than it does The Dark Knight series. There's too many issues. Without going into specifics and spoilers and such, think about if in Batman Begins there was no explanation on how the fear toxin worked, what it did, and really anything about it other than its name. So all of the stuff with how it ties into the villain's story and how the hero plans on doing this or that to counter it is all summed up with one or two very basic lines early in the film (that still don't offer much in the way of explanation), and for the rest of Batman Begins it's treated as if you should already know what it is. You'd still be able to follow what's going on, but it wouldn't make any sense in context. Plus, if you go into with your comic book knowledge, then it really doesn't make any sense, so it's not like the writing is simply hoping you already know what it is as a fan, because it's been changed for the film. That's sort of the issue I'm wrestling with in Man of Steel, and it's a major plot point.

Revised review rating: 3.5 out of 5