Note: spoilers ahead!
Casting: MoS gets some things right and others wrong, but this aspect hits the ball out of the park. This is an absolutely wonderful ensemble, where the casting is so good that it’s nearly archetypal. You want your Superman to have muscles and a chiseled jaw? Then Henry Cavill is perfect – he looks the part, and is low-profile enough that there aren’t any preconceived notions about him to get in the way. You want your dependable, middle-American ideal of fatherhood? The screen practically sighs in relief whenever Kevin Costner is on. You want a compelling villain? Just look at Michael Shannon’s face:
- Requisite facial scar? Check.
- Evil goatee? Check.
- Steely gaze? Check.
I was leery of the decision to cast Russell Crow as Jor-El, but his burly gravitas is perfectly in keeping with the task at hand. Also, Amy Adams makes a credible Lois Lane: when she talks about winning a Pulitzer, it sounds much more believable coming out of her mouth than it did when Kate Bosworth played the role in Superman Returns. (Incidentally, I kind of liked SR, if only because Kevin Spacey was so over-the-top as Luthor. Nobody on MoS exhibits the same level of maniacal glee.) Finally, Laurence Fishburne works well as Perry White. He’s gruff and paternal, but not a caricature.
Dialogue: Only one or two lines stand out, most of them delivered by Zod, but boy, do they work. Especially the “I will rebuild my world atop his bones” one. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m referring to.
Story arc: Man of Steel hits all of the necessary beats of Superman’s origin story: Krypton’s destruction, the spaceship, landing on Earth, being adopted and raised by the Kents, learning about Krypton’s history, and learning to use his powers. However, the trailers led me to believe that this movie would really be a hymn to some long-lost, golden middle-America. Instead, little time was devoted to Clark’s childhood and upbringing, and much more was spent on his adulthood and sense of rootlessness. This made it a lot like Nolan’s Batman movies – of which I’ll talk about more below.
Certain visual effects sequences: I really liked how Krypton looked – the red light, the underwater birthing pools, the mountains, the four-winged dragons. It was way more like Barsoom and less like Coruscant than I expected. Likewise, I loved the scene where Clark encounters his father (or rather, a simulacrum of him) in the scout ship and gets a condensed version of Krypton’s history. The animated sequence showing the end of Krypton was fluid yet oddly angular, and I consider it the movie’s most distinctive moment – here, MoS was trying to establish something on its own terms rather than follow the typical comic book movie template.
Pacing: One of the things I loved about The Avengers was how it succeeded in building a story despite having to braid several different plot threads together. That movie was frenetic, yet found a way to give people space to breathe. Unfortunately, Man of Steel does none of that. The first half-hour of it is go-go-go, from the destruction of Krypton to Clark’s acts of derring-do on a burning oil rig, and the effect is fatiguing rather than electrifying.
Action sequences: Speaking of fatigue, this movie suffers from a terminal case of Climactic Battle Overload. There’s a fight on Zod’s ship! Then Lois Lane escapes in a space pod that’s about to explode! Then there’s fighting on Earth! Then Zod’s army unleashes these two huge machines that terraform Earth, laying waste to Metropolis and the Indian Ocean! Then there are these sweet-ass metal tentacle things that Superman fights with! Then there’s a huge battle in the middle of Metropolis! Then Superman manages to destroy one of the terraforming machines, resulting in the deactivation of both! Then the army manages to fire Superman’s baby-ship into Zod’s ship, resulting in a singularity that collapses in on itself and destroys his armada!
Then Zod gives his speech about how his sole purpose in life was to protect Krypton, and how he’s lost his reason for being now that his invading force has been destroyed.
Then there’s a final knock-down, drag’em out fight between Superman and Zod, in which Metropolis experiences yet more carnage!
Seriously. This movie has way too much going on. Once the fighting resumed after Zod’s speech, I metaphorically snorted and rolled my eyes.
Camerawork: Too mush shaki-cam. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the Hunger Games movie, but it was still awful. Is it really that difficult to find a working camera dolly?
Plot holes: At one point, one of Zod’s officers demands that Lois Lane come with her on the invading ship. Why? Who knows? But at least she’s there to receive the critical piece of information from Jor-El’s simulacrum that turns the tide of battle. And yes, the movie ends with Clark Kent joining the Daily Planet. How he manages to do so with a spotty work history and no journalism degree is never explained, but hey, he’s wearing Hipster Glasses at the end to form his secret identity! Maybe that’s all you need.
Religious symbolism: Guess how old Clark Kent is. Go on, guess. Because he states openly in the dialogue – twice! – that he’s 33. Then, there’s the scene where he discusses with an unnamed character whether to give himself up to Zod, and whether humans are worth that sacrifice. Did you guess that it takes place in a church, and that he’s talking to a priest? Did you guess that when he discusses sacrificing himself, there’s a big ol’ out-of-focus stained-glass window right behind him, with a blurry Jesus just to the left of Clark’s head?
Oh, and hey, did you notice that when Superman is about to rescue Lois Lane from the space-pod thing, he passes through the breach in the hull of Zod’s ship and floats in space like he’s suspended from a cross? Here, have a cookie – Zack Synder obviously thinks we’re in need of Sunday School.
Things I’m still conflicted about
Tone: It’s obvious that DC wants to do the same thing as Marvel and build up to a blockbuster extravaganza on the level of The Avengers, with lots of explosions and bang-zoom action and cosmic stakes. But DC also saw that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy did pretty well, and that Nolan’s success rested upon how “gritty” and “realistic” his movies were.
Man of Steel tries very hard to thread this needle – to have the cosmic, world-in-the-balance struggle of the Marvel movies while maintaining the gritty, down-to-earth character focus of the Batman movies. I’m not sure if it succeeded.
Cinematography/Lighting: This sense of trying to have it both ways also extends into the movie’s aesthetic. The scenes on Krypton were lush and super-saturated, with a vividness of colour reminiscent of comic books in general. But everything else on Earth looked flat and desaturated – almost like it was being seen through some lens that made everything look old and burnished. It’s almost like the people involved were trying to make everything look hyper-real, and failed.
A lot of people I know, and many more I don’t, have been looking forward to this movie. What are your thoughts on it?