Renn Brown: From all the jokes and bellows of frustration over the last seven years, superhero fans would have you believe that having Superman punch something was pretty much the only benchmark Zach Snyder and his team would need to clear with Man Of Steel. We all know that’s not true though- the superhero benchmark has been raised by a wave of superhero films, the best of which have taken drama, action, and characterization in comic book movies to new heights.
But this is Superman, should he not fly above them all?
By virtue of being pretty much first, Superman is effectively the default superhero in the eyes of the world, and with that comes his mostly unchallenged position as the supreme Titan of the comic book page. Powerful to the point of often being unfairly maligned as a dramatically inert character, it’s at least true that Superman represents a unique cinematic challenge. Donner did great things with him at the start of the first golden age of visual effects, but the first attempt to bring him to the screen in the age of CGI’s unlimited tools was a bafflingly constrained homage from Bryan Singer. Why Singer took his blank check from WB and made a pseudo-sequel to cinematic relics I’ll never understand. And now comes Nolan, who parlayed his Dark Knight clout into Man Of Steel by shepherding the lightbulb above David Goyer’s head through the pipes of Warner Bros. and into the hands of Zach Snyder.
The result is a film that is going to be absolutely huge. It will put stars in the eyes of millions of children. It will wipe the taste of a handful of awful sequels and reboots out of every Superman fan’s mouth. It will reset the bar for superhero action and superpowered spectacle that The Avengers so recently pushed to already unbelievable heights. It will make a star out of the powerfully magnetic Henry Cavill and remind everyone why Kevin Costner is so damned beloved. It will shake up assumptions about what Zach Snyder is capable of.
It will also ultimately disappoint those hoping for the perfect Superman film to finally arrive. Man Of Steel is plagued by Nolan problems, Goyer Problems, and Snyder problems. It does dumb things. Occasionally it does really dumb things.
But man, it’s a really really good start.
Nick Nunziata: There’s no such thing as a perfect superhero film. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner believing that X2 or Spider-Man 2 or Hellboy or The Dark Knight Returns is the barometer and they never are. Nor is Richard Donner’s Superman. Nor is Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. The best to hope for is to be perfect for right now, and Man of Steel comes close. Also a factor is one’s perception of the character. I die-hard fan may see this as manna from Heaven or as an affront while casual or nonfans are much more likely to be impressed. It truly is built as a four corner juggernaut.
There’s a level of dumb one has to accept when you’re telling a story of a ripped alien stud flying around in a blue suit punching things but Man of Steel does just about everything so well that it’s hard to allow minor issues to dampen the experience. This genre is one of the most forgiving for stupidity because of the incredible suspension of disbelief required to even enjoy these kinds of films. It’s hard to let the experience suffer. And an experience it is. This is a huge movie. Huge in scope, huge in presentation, and huge in redefining the landscape for DC. Batman was one thing. It lends itself to a more mature and rich experience, but having Superman take his rightful place in the pantheon really ups the ante further.Best yet, this doesn’t feel like a Zack Snyder, David Goyer, or Christopher Nolan film. They each have signatures that obviously serve the material but there’s no singular authorship at play and it makes the movie better because of it.
Renn Brown: The movie is huge, undoubtedly. It starts big, ends big, and even manages to make the small aspects of Clark’s journey feel epic. That’s the kind of impression a new Superman film needed to make, especially with fans eagerly looking to the future for DC’s heroes in light of all of Marvel’s recent efforts. Man Of Steel is very much its own movie though, upping the stakes not just in how much CGI it uses and buildings it destroys, but how imaginatively it unfolds the story of the last son of Krypton.
I have to disagree in that this is clearly, plainly, sometimes painfully a Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder film. It’s true- the mix of voices is enough that the film doesn’t feel like any one voice rules everything. The time-shifted origin is a distinctly Nolan/Goyer affectation, while no one but Snyder would find the specific texture in the action and exposition that he does. The basic Batman Begins playbook informs the first two acts, which bounce us between Clark Kent’s movement towards revealing himself to the world and his childhood journey as guided by Pa Kent. Eventually the two timelines catch up with each other and the grand villainous plot takes over. Snyder’s treatment of the material dispenses with a lot of his more tangible, obvious trademarks like copious speed-ramping, but his sensibilities are still there all the way down to his grungy film look.
Nick Nunziata: He does tend to use visual ideas over and over again, particularly when Superman is doing his exciting things like flying or punching but it’s handled in a much more interesting manner that doesn’t take the viewer out of the movie. I totally think the film has its own energy that overrules the creative team but a second viewing may change that.Henry Cavill is the perfect Superman. The look. The performance. The size. The empathy. He’s perfect and he seems to be the first to not totally feel compelled to emulate Christopher Reeve. Everyone in the cast is fantastic, though Amy Adams doesn’t wholly sell the popular vision of Lois Lane. Michael Shannon creates a General Zod all his own and it’s enlightening. Surprisingly, the filmmakers actually give performers like Chris Meloni, Atlanta Braves fan Michael Kelly, and the always amazing Richard Schiff stuff to do.
Renn Brown: The casting is almost supernaturally good. Cavill looks ripped from straight from a comic book cover, with a titanically masculine physique perfect for Superman. His hand-chiseled good looks are backed by distinct charm that is easily the best interpretation of the character put to screen- powerful yet demure, polite yet capable of extreme force. That magnetism plays nicely off the mystic wisdom of Jor-el, who is given a surprising amount of screentime to be an action-ready scientist Buddha. In between them both, Michael Shannon brings his trademarked unhinged energy to General Zod, yet he’s not all shouting insanity- there’s purpose and heart in this character. He’s a spectacular villain that lights up the screen without reliance on a villainous affectation, and yet he’s as distinctive a threat as one could ask for for Superman’s first trial by fire. Even if his plan is kind of dumb.
And it’s the villainous plot that represents my biggest problems with this film. The fantastically established thematic connection between the destruction of Krypton and General Zod’s ultimate goal to find Kal-el and subjugate Earth are wrapped up in infinitely tired cliches. Granted, this particular “alien laser in the middle of the city / planetary terraforming” scenario puts Transformers 3 and The Avengers to shame in terms of scale. Still, it’s distressing when everything comes down to ramming a thing into another thing, or Superman clenching his asshole tight enough to overpower the other thing to save the day. There’s a feeling a lot of this could have been made smarter with relatively minimal effort. The other red flags include the completely superfluous involvement of Perry White in the climax, some embarrassing punchline-level female characters, and more of the psychopathic destruction fetishry that blockbusters are relying on more and more. If you thought Star Trek Into Darkness had a shockingly callous attitude towards the urban public, just wait till you see Kal-el and Zod brawl.
It’s the sort of thing that may not bother everyone, but it’s tough to stomach, much less gleefully enjoy the truly incredible spectacle when I’m constantly waiting for Superman to punch Zod somewhere, anywhere that won’t instantly result in a thousand dead people. This isn’t an over-thinking it thing- it made me physically uncomfortable in my gut more than once.
Nick Nunziata: The bottom line is that it’s a Superman movie and by the time the combat really escalates to Metropolis there is already a mass exodus happening in the city. Pragmatically one could think a lot of the buildings are empty because it is a time of mass destruction and that’s part of the deal you just have to accept in movies like this. Considering how total Zod’s destruction aims to be it’s small potatoes. The entire species is about to be exterminated and the planet rendered uninhabitable for most species? One can assume Superman’s main goal is to win at all costs. But the above borders on apologizing for filmmaker behavior. The simple fact is that in a nearly three-hour film that has covered so much ground and covered it well the joy of seeing the character in peak form against a worthy adversary is the reason butts are in seats. I suppose one could spend their time assessing collateral damage but that’s no fun or interesting.
What’s interesting though is how the film takes what we thought was big and then makes it huge.
The spectacle. The destruction. The geography. it escalates way beyond where The Avengers or Michael Bay went with his Transformers movies and it finally delivers on what they were trying to accomplish in the latter Matrix films in a way that has the tech and resources to back it. There’s a weird Matrix vein running through this film with its cloning chambers and designs and in the superhuman combat in the last act. There’s also a polar bear in the film, which should appease folks up to date with Kevin Smith horror stories and Jon Peters fantasies.
I also appreciate the DC this isn’t trying to become Marvel. Green Lantern wasn’t a horrible film and the Batmans were huge successes but they each have their own energy and Man of Steel takes that to be a larger degree, actually resulting in something that parallels what the Marvel movies did in its own wavelength.
The first 30 minutes the film feels like a Star Wars movie with Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon really bringing A-game in scenes that serve the whole spectacle of life on Krypton to the point where it feels becoming deserving of its own film. Make no mistake, Man of Steel is sci-fi. And deeply so. Before we even meet young Clark Kent the film has delivered more spectacle and ambition than many of its competitors do in their entire running time.
Renn Brown: I’m a big fan of how shamelessly scifi the Krypton sequence gets, with Snyder’s camera soaking up weird alien tech and space creatures with no regard for “realism” or “grit.” It borders on hilarious how one Kryptonian ship docks into another that docks into another that locks into another- each one showcasing some crazy design straight out of a 50’s B flick. It’s an awesome way to start the film out with a bold statement, and it’s well balanced by Russell Crowe and Shannon’s gravitas.
Still, at the risk of belaboring the point, Snyder isn’t breaking new ground when people break out into fisticuffs or blast through a few more building than in The Avengers (which, lest we forget, leveled its fair share of citywide destruction captured in massive-scaled sequences). It’s fair enough to start Superman off by putting him in a familiar superhero scenario and making it BIGGER than we’ve seen, but when you ostensibly have two Gods beating each other and an infinite budget, maybe have them kick each other into the ocean or space or deep into the Earth of something. There’s only so much inventiveness you can pull by knocking over buildings. Especially when the film spends no time examining the fallout from all of this, or what it means to Kal-el. I hope that means we see Clark Kent’s relationship with Metropolis and its people flourish in the next film, even as I hope we don’t have to see it torn apart again.
And that’s what’s truly exciting about all of this. Man Of Steel is great, but the promise of what is to come is just as exciting. Superman has a roster of incredible scifi villains that have only been tapped in cartoons, and even if Lex Luthor has to show up eventually, it should be Metallo and Brainiac and Doomsday and Darkseid eventually going toe to toe with Superman. I don’t’ know about you, but I’m looking forward to seeing the Last Son of Krypton hurling a demon god to the surface of the sun to pulverize him before dragging him to the edge of the universe and leaving him there. Man Of Steel suggests that kind of scale is both possible and inevtiable. I couldn’t be more excited to see that happen, now that Snyder has covered the usual tropes and covered them hard.
Nick Nunziata: It’s good when it’s big and it’s good when it’s small. That’s the true test. I’m astounded that this film is garnering a mixed reception considering how head and shoulders it is above every DC movie ever made aside from the first two Batman movies. Henry Cavill is perfect and hopefully in for the extreme long haul as the character. The universe is ripe, the bar has been set for scope and unlike Iron Man or Batman Begins there’s a vital emphasis on third act. Yes lots of innocent people die and yes they shoehorn a useless action beat in for Perry White and Associates but the film is so breakneck and exhilarating by them it’s really hard to not be caught up in it. I’m a firm believer that Zack Snyder is best served shooting other people’s established material. This is proof positive of that.
Renn Brown: I wish Snyder hasn’t taken this moment to completely dispense with speed-ramping, as he’s always done the best job with the technique and it could have worked for some spectacular images here. His visualization of flight and the physics of the Kryptonians’ might are occasionally outright amazing, but there are a lot of visual shortcuts and unexpectedly clumsy moments that I didn’t expect. And as much as I’ve tried to come to terms with the use of reality-style jump zooms in blockbuster films, I really just can’t help wishing Abrams and his ilk would knock it off.
Gripes aside, Snyder more than proves he has a command over his camera and the kinetics of action that few other filmmakers can match. He was the right choice for Man Of Steel, and his efforts to capture the majesty, power, and heart of this hero richly fill the screen. If the scripts get better from here and the scale continues to gracefully expand, the best days for Superman, the DC universe, and superhero films in general are ahead of us.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Nick Nunziata: I love this movie. I flat out love it, cannot wait to see it again, and plan to see it at least two more times in the theater. This is escapism. This is summer movie making. This is how you flat out do it. Man of Steel is a total blast. The war between the part of my brain devoted to picking apart logic and looking for things to take umbrage with and the part devoted to being exhilarated and swept away in magic was won in a first act TKO by the latter. May Superman fly high for as long as those in control want him to.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars