As readers (all 3 or 4 of ya) may have noticed from past reviews, I’m a big fan of Zack Snyders films. A significant chunk of his filmography falls squarely onto several of my ‘Favorite Movies’ lists; with Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Watchmen (2009) being distinct ‘stand outs’. So naturally, when I heard that he was going to be taking the reins on yet another reboot/attempt at a new, viable Superman franchise, one that was (hopefully) palatable to the masses AND the Geek Fanboy/girl ‘base’, I was curious to see what Snyders distinctive visual panache would bring. Now, for the record, I didn’t hate Bryan Singers Superman Returns (2006). Quite to the contrary, I had fun with it the first time I saw it (and several subsequent viewings). I still feel that Supermans entrance via the saving of a stricken jet and it’s space shuttle cargo stands out as an awesome ‘superhero’ action sequence. But many people out there have opted to shit all over THAT film with a slew of complaints, notably the lack of ‘super’ action. Well, to them I say: Don’t fret. That complaint was apparently heard ‘loud n clear’ because the level of massive, god-like carnage in THIS one is truly something to behold, for better or for worse. EVERYTHING seems to get destroyed…like the city of Metropolis itself. Skyscrapers, at times looking a little TOO similar to the images of 9/11 that we all have burned in our minds, crash down left, right and centre.
But before I get into the little details, this is the plot: On the far-off planet Krypton, a wise and forward-thinking scientist named Jor-El (Russell Crowe) opts to send his new born son, the first ‘natural’ birth in centuries, to a small, habitable world across the galaxy named Earth. His plans are nearly thwarted by a sudden coup, led by a growling, Republican-like general named Zod (Michael Shannon). Through a series of increasingly destructive and heart-breaking events, Zod and his rogue troops are banished, just before the planets core goes ‘critical mass’ and spectacularly wipes Krypton out. The baby, Kal-El, plummets to earth (specifically Kansas), and is taken in by a kindly married couple, Ma n Pa Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who give him the human name of Clark. As Clark struggles, growing up as a freak who must hide his ‘true’ self, he begins to understand his place in our world and his blossoming responsibilities. Becoming a drifter, Clark finds himself using his powers to save lives (and occasionally and hilariously fucking with bullies), which eventually attracts the inquisitive attention of a plucky and daring reporter named Lois Lane. Then…Zod shows up, eager to claim Kal-El, being that Zod believes he holds the secret to reviving Krypton. And much destruction ensues.
So pretty much all of that synopsis should not come as a surprise to anyone who has even the most rudimentary knowledge of this 75 year old superhero. The big distinction is HOW this familiar story and character is presented. Henry Cavill is an inspired choice for Clark/Supes, with his chiseled good looks, bulky but toned physique and slight under-current of vulnerability. It’s this vulnerability that caught my eye, given how much attention THAT aspect is given. As we see Clark growing up (via non-linear flashbacks) we see the terror and frustration that he endures, as his abilities begin to show themselves (damn YOU, Puberty!). There’s a brilliant scene in which we see Clark, as a kid, begin to essentially loose his marbles as his heightened senses threaten to overwhelm his young mind. And there is always the question of ‘destiny’, basically ‘divine interference’ and the ‘rights and wrongs’ of it, hanging over every major decision Clark/Supes must make. In many respects, the heavy dilemma of The Question is taken from him the moment that Zod addresses the world from orbit, threatening to destroy us if we don’t hand Superman over. And much destruction ensues.
The cast is well picked, as many of Snyders films are. Besides Cavill, Shannon, Costner and Lane, we also get Laurence Fishburne (who looks like he ate Morpheus) as Daily Planet boss Perry White, Amy Adams as Lois Lane (bringing a new spark to the character beyond what Margot Kidder and Kate Bosworth brought in the previous incarnations), Christoper Meloni as the skeptical Colonel Hardy and Michael Kelly (reteaming with Snyder again after Dawn of the Dead) as a prominent Daily Planet staffer named Lombard.
From a visual stand-point (again, Snyders strong suit), there is a LOT to be loved here. The man knows how to make the most basic shots, like heat-distorted Kryptonian battle ships silhouetted against a massive glowing sun or a trippy alien ship slowly and deliberately lowering into downtown Metropolis, just pop off the screen (and I saw it in 2D!). But, for every one of these beautiful examples, there were others that, strangely, had me shaking my head. Now, I don’t know if this is Christopher Nolans (the Dark Knight trilogy) influence, given that as Producer, he does get a degree of ‘say’ into the presentation but there was an unneeded overabundance of hand-held ‘shaky’ cam, even for the most basic of shots. Now, I’m not talking about full-on Cloverfield-type shit but shots that could’ve (and probably should’ve) been locked down, dollied, tracked or streadicam’d were simply shot hand-held. Having the frame edges be oh so slightly ‘on the move’ constantly, began to get on my nerves…along with too many examples of the annoying ‘in tight’, quick-cut flurries of movement and sound that represented fisticuffs, and many chunks of the key action scenes. I was a little taken aback by this as Snyder, in the past, has VERY admirably shown a flair for ‘full’ shots that show you ALL the action, at times in glorious ‘slow-mo’. Not here. Unfortunately, many sequences had me reminded of the climactic action scenes from the intellectually-delayed Transformers franchise. I’m a huge fan of ‘detail’ in genre flicks…but I can certainly admit it when ‘they’ve’ gone too far. There are instances here where I guarantee you’ll be hard-pressed to grasp the ‘geography’ of the action. There is a shit-ton of structural destruction (and loads of accompanying human collateral damage) that results in debris flying EVERYWHERE on-screen, to the point where I was starting to lose track of where people were and what they were doing. But there was also MANY shots that will drop your jaw from the beauty. With regards to good visuals, the design of Krypton itself was VERY cool, VERY unlike the other versions we’ve seen (no blindingly white rooms and crystalline buildings here). The details in the architecture, technology, clothing and landscapes were excellent, and came back many times to help serve the narrative. Seeing Russell Crowe ride a large, flying dog-bug through a full-blown laser/explosion fight, in among the stone and metal spires and ’rounded’ building shapes was great.
On a more personal note, as a proud Canadian, I liked to see OUR military get featured prominently in a number of scenes…operating alone on Canadian soil or working hand in hand with our American military counterparts. Being that EVERY film Snyder has done, with the obvious exception of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010 ), was filmed, at least in part, in Canada, I guess it’s safe to say that we’re in Snyders ‘good books’. Yay Canada!!
All in all, Man of Steel is PROBABLY the best version of Superman, to date (even though the 1978 original still holds a special place for me as the first movie I actually remember seeing in a theatre)…or at least where modern day, ADHD-addled movie-going audiences are concerned. It’s got TONS of destructive action, inventive sci-fi elements, some well-timed humor, and a heart. It’s not The Second Geek Resurrection of Superman Christ…but it is a (largely) well-crafted and pretty ‘popcorn’ movie that fits right into the Summer Movie Blockbuster Season. Just next time…hold the fucking camera steady, guys!!! Jeez. And much destruction ensues.
*In my earlier review of Chronicle (2012), I mentioned that, if Hollywood insisted on making Akira (1988) into a live-action epic, they should use Chronicle as their template for how to ‘do’ large-scale, demi-god inspired destruction and drama. THAT tune has changed…THIS flick should now be the one they use. Just saying.