Man of Steel is nowhere near as bad as some of the critics have said. Yes, it’s too long by a good 25 minutes, and the action scenes/fights are nearly endless and almost pointless. But as a reboot of the series, it works.
It lays the groundwork for a franchise right from the start. A great deal of time is spent on Krypton, establishing a background for where Superman begins his life as well as laying the groundwork for this particular film’s conflicts. Russell Crowe plays Jor-El, Kal-El’s (Superman’s) father and the one who arranges for his trip to Earth. The accent is occasionally distracting as he goes for the general English-ish tones of the educated cinematic alien. His general persona of authority works well for him here, and contrary to the opinion of others, he’s nowhere near as miscast as he was in Les Misérables.
Director Zack Snyder (300) spends a great deal of time—too much—on giving us the background of how Kal-El makes it to earth and why, but (spoiler alert) the fact that Krypton bad guy General Zod (Michael Shannon) shows up later helps justify the time spent on his actions, motives and general evil character. What isn’t justified are the drawn-out action sequences, which strain patience as well as credibility. The fights almost reach the point of the ridiculous at (several) times. And poor New York City—just when it was recuperating from the smack-down of The Avengers, Superman and Zod tear block after block to shreds here. This is my vote for another city to be the site of the next superhero battle. And even for a film that begins an another planet and puts us in an unreal world from the get-go, some of the plot set-ups are so literally incredible that it can take you out of the film: Would anyone have really let Lois Lane do half the things the folks in the film allow???
Much has been made of the humorlessness of the film, and that’s true. There are a few notes of humor, but the only real moments we’re given to enjoy comes right at the end. (I did burst out laughing, however, at the quick shot of a work sign trumpeting how many days had gone by without an industrial accident—right in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out.) One of the great successes of The Avengers was the layer of humor throughout the film that added some joy, real humor and a break from the intensity of our world being in danger. The action keeps moving so quickly here that you almost don’t notice the lack of humor until the end, when we all get a chance to breathe.
Henry Cavill (The Tudors, Immortals) is, as Zoolander might put it, ridiculously good-looking and certainly the buffest of all Supermen. All the attention has been paid to his exercise regimen and 5,000-calorie-a-day diet. But he’s pretty good here, as it’s as challenging to play this character (and pull it off) as it is to do an Iron Man, Spider-Man, or even Jay Gatsby. Not being that familiar with his work, I don’t know his range. But beyond the look, he has the focus and confidence needed, as well as the loving-son traits necessary for scenes with his father (Kevin Costner, solid), and mother (Diane Lane, lovely as ever and just as solid). He doesn’t play the nerd when he’s Clark Kent as Christopher Reeve did, and comes off as more lost and a bit confused about his role on earth—which fits perfectly the arc of the storyline here. His character seems a bit more hidden, which is either an actor’s victory with the character, or a slight failure to nail down the character in the midst of identity struggles with being a superior alien, slowing falling for a reporter, and oh, yes, constantly saving the earth while your government may be wanting to capture you. Perhaps future iterations will help make this performance clearer.
As Lois Lane, the talented Amy Adams is a bit too long in the tooth for both the role and for Cavill (she’s nearly 9 years older). But I’d likely have cast her in spite of her age as well. She brings all the necessary brain, sweetness, and toughness to the role. But as she heads closer to her 40th birthday, the age difference might seem greater in subsequent films.
Michael Shannon’s Zod makes a fascinating contrast to the season’s other great fantasy villain—Star Trek Into Darkness’ (possible spoiler alert) Khan, played so brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch. His Khan is deeply felt and fierce at the same time, and it is a performance that resonates internally within the character, which creates believability and adds depth to the film. Shannon knows how to do that, but seems to have more experience playing Very Bad People Who Yell a Lot (see Premium Rush). His Zod is all external anger and sputtering, and is less impacting than Khan. (Clearly, he, Crowe and Cavill spent months adjusting their weight—only Cavill gained—and pumping iron. I’ve never seen Shannon in real shape before.) And for some reason, his slight speech impediment seems increasingly pronounced the more he spews his verbal venom, which almost reaches the point of distraction.
Lastly, the traditional Superman-Christ comparisons are anything but subtle. The film actually functions well as a Rorschach test for this generation’s level of Biblical literacy. “El” is one of the Hebrew names for God in the Old Testament. Kal-El is sent to earth as a savior from a father who loves him. He’s raised by someone who isn’t his “real” father, and at 33, he enters his destiny. And in case you might have missed it, Superman’s agonizing over whether to give himself up to save others is placed in a church, with a priest, with an overly obvious stained-glass image of Christ agonizing in the garden before His crucifixion in the background. Yes, we get it! (At least most of us do.)
If the film reaches too high and far and occasionally falters, it nevertheless gives this generation a new and acceptable Superman. The time on Krypton was too long, the time growing up in Kansas is short-changed, and the fight scenes are both unbelievable and unnecessarily long. But the film sets a solid foundation for future films, the effects are top-notch, and we have a Superman who appears to be able to handle whatever direction the series may take us all in. Not a great film, but a good start.