I’ve now seen this summer’s most anticipated film twice, and the experience was surprisingly different on each viewing. The first time around the film fell down in the weight of my expectations. How couldn’t it? With a story by Christopher Nolan, screenplay by Nolan and David Goyer, and directed by Zack Snyder (of 300 fame), Man of Steel was the most anticipated worldwide film since last year’s The Dark Knight Rises. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet up to those standards. However, on a second viewing, after having removed my expectation-tinted glasses, I realize that it is a worthy reboot of the world’s most famous superhero (coming from a Batman fan here).
At the outset, it’d be wise to talk about the man donning the cape this time around. As with Christian Bale and Robert Downey Jr., Henry Cavill proves that a strong actor in the superhero outfit can elevate those around him, and the film in general. Without losing my heterosexuality, I’d say that he’s one of the hottest screen men in a long time. That he is also gifted with a strong screen presence, disarming smile and British acting chops works in his favor. He just about beats Brandon Routh as the definitive modern Superman. He has made the cape his own, and the primary selling point of the sequel which will obviously be made.
Amy Adams makes a feisty Lois Lane. Her role, as with all other supporting characters, is criminally under-written. And her relationship with Clark Kent/Superman has been slightly modified in this re-imagining. She still shares good chemistry with Cavill, which is to be expected since they’re strong actors to begin with. Russell Crowe as Kal-El’s birth father and Kevin Costner as Kent’s adopted dad are both well-cast. Costner in particular brings to the role the perfect amount of softness it deserves. Michael Shannon chews the scenery with gusto as General Zod. The rest of the cast - comprised of the ever-reliable Laurence Fishburne who makes a great Perry White - perform their jobs admirably.
Considering all that I’ve said, it should come as a huge surprise that the most anticipated aspect of Man of Steel is the one that disappoints the most. Yes, I am talking about the script and the story. For the first half, Man of Steel was one of the best superhero films I’ve seen in quite a while. It sets up all the principal characters effectively, and Superman’s origins are presented in a similar fashion to Batman Begins, which made it a great watch. However, it all goes downhill in the second half.
With Snyder at the helm, there’s a tendency to blow things out of proportion and make everything only about eye-candy. Man of Steel is not immune to this effect, and it steals the film of humanity in the second half. Here, a comparison can be made to last year’s The Avengers. However, while the second half of that film was also about blowing stuff up, Joss Whedon made sure to focus on the regular humans by showing scenes of people getting evacuated from buildings and being protected by the heroes. That is not the case with Man of Steel.
You get to witness a significant amount of collateral damage as buildings with people nearby get blown to smithereens. However, you also get the sense that this was all inserted only to increase the CGI usage and the sense of spectacle. They don’t serve any higher purpose in the end. This is a flaw which has been brought up by other reviewers who’re making the point that it shows Superman as someone who loses sight of his humanity, which shouldn’t be the case when it comes to this superhero. This stands out as a sore point when thinking about the film in retrospect, and only the explosions are stuck in your memories, clouding your overall judgment.
Another significant mis-step is that the film essentially has two climaxes. The second half is comprised of three battles of various sizes and scope. The first one teaches humanity whose side Superman really is on, as the Man of Steel battles Zod and his cohorts single-handedly. This serves as the setup for the even larger battle which comes later, when Zod deploys superior technology against Earth. This battle is longer than the first, and the payoff comes in the form of Superman’s victory. Once it is over, there’s a long, deeply-felt kiss between Superman and Lois afterward, which would’ve proved to be the perfect climax for the film.
Unfortunately for us, somewhere along the way Snyder realized that there’s no reason to put General Zod in there if he wasn’t going to go head-to-head with Superman. And that is what the third and final battle is all about. But by this point, we’re already spent. We’ve seen enough explosions and buildings tumbling over that one more long, overwrought battle feels like overkill. This is what made me think so low of the film the first time around. Take this out of the equation and put the Superman/Zod battle side-by-side with the battle between Earth’s and Zod’s tech, end the film with the passionate kiss, and you’re left with a solid 3.5 (out of 4) film.
One thing that came to my mind, and surprised me, while watching the film is how much Man of Steel borrows from modern science-fiction. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since this version of Superman is more of a science-fiction film than a superhero film. In particular, I was reminded of Mass Effect in a number of places. For one, the plot involving a race of lost aliens whose technology is rediscovered was eerily reminiscent of Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic. Another aspect that increased the sense of déjà vu was Hans Zimmer’s score. Besides all the bombastic sequences you associate with the composer, he has borrowed from familiar sci-fi themes for the subtler moments, and it shows. The music during the quieter, contemplative moments specifically reminded me of Mass Effect. Finally, the world machine deployed by Zod to harvest and terraform Earth’s surface borrows the now familiar tripod-looking alien design, made famous by H.G. Wells’ in War of the Worlds, and used in Half Life 2 as well. But this version reminded me more of the Reaper destroyers from Mass Effect 2 and 3. Even things getting blown up harkens back to apocalyptic blockbusters like Independence Day, which isn’t a good comparison for this film.
Science-fiction tropes aside, Man of Steel has all the requisite ingredients of the summer superhero movie. It features a solid cast who do their jobs admirably; spectacular action sequences featuring things getting blown up; the rebirth of the world’s most famous superhero; and most importantly, It sets up for forthcoming sequels, which we can look forward in the coming summers. If all the negatives I’ve spoken about have not put you off, Man of Steel is still one of this summer’s best blockbusters, and while it doesn’t deliver on all our expectations, it delivers enough to satisfy us when taken in the context of the big picture.
- Banner image used falls under fair use and taken from Flickr