Movie Review: Man of Steel


So... Man of Steel. Sorry I haven't reviewed this sooner, but my wife wanted to see it and this is the first opportunity we've had to get away. She's not really the type to dig superhero movies, but she has had a certain... fondness, shall we say, for Henry Cavill ever since he was on The Tudors. Whatever, as long as it gets her in the theaters with me, it's a-okay by me. I was just looking forward to seeing one of my favorite superheroes on the big screen.

Although, Superman hasn't worked particularly well in live-action movies in the past. I was never into the Christopher Reeve movies as a kid because the special effects never impressed me. They just didn't effectively convey the extraordinariness of Superman's powers. 2005's Superman Returns had cooler special effects but it couldn't pull itself together into an interesting and cohesive movie.

(Note: This is a spoiler-heavy review since the movie's been out a few weeks. You've been warned!)

So how does Man of Steel fare? Not very well, according to my wife. While she enjoys Henry Cavill as Superman (of course), she thinks that the movie is a Michael Bay-esque visual catastrophe, with the action scenes all blending together into one multi-faceted explosion. She also finds issue with Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams). Not only did she complain that Lois is bland and lacks chemistry with Superman, but also that Lois has traditionally been a brunette (Amy Adams is, of course, a redhead). So what, you might ask? Well, her problem is not with breaking from comic book canon, it's that all the villainesses in the movie are brunettes while the heroine (namely Lois) is fair-haired. She claims that it's a common Hollywood cliche to cast brunettes as the "bad guys" in movies, with the "pure" and "perfect" redheads/blondes as the "good guys".

I haven't noticed that myself, but it's an interesting idea. In Man of Steel, Superman's biological mother is a brunette. And obviously other actresses playing Lois in the past were brunettes. Regardless, I think there might be some truth to her hypothesis. Would the villainess, Faora, look right as a blonde? Probably not. But, hair aside, I do agree that Amy Adams' Lois is somewhat of a blank, especially compared to Margot Kidder's memorable performance of Lois that was just dripping with personality.

I also agree that the action in MOS is too high-paced and quick-cutting, turning the movie into a mind-numbing cacophony. A slo-mo punctuated action style similar to Zach Snyder's 300 would have worked better because it would accentuate the incredibly powerful impact of Superman's super-punches.

Finally, I agree with my wife that Henry Cavill is great as Superman (but for different reasons). He certainly has the looks and acting chops to pull off the character, but I'll go a little further and say that the MOS Superman as a whole is a great character. The movie flips from the present to the past, showing Superman's dilemma dealing with his superpowers as a kid, which just accentuates his situation as an alien outcast. Most importantly, Superboy has to learn how to control his powers, he doesn't just instantly understand them as usually portrayed in Superman origin stories. It's not like, BING! Here's x-ray vision! It's actually portrayed as a traumatic experience at first. Clark has to not only learn how to deal with his superpowers in an un-super world, but he also has to decide to whether or not he wants to become Superman at all.

Speaking of great characterizations, Michael Shannon's General Zod is one of the best comic movie villains yet. The most important aspect of a villain is his or her motive because it helps the audience understand why the villain is such a jerk in the first place. The audience doesn't agree with the motive (if they did, the villain would be a hero instead), but it does have to understand why the motive is there. In this case, the back story of Kypton and Zod's conflict with Jor-El are fleshed out well enough to present an effective motive for Zod.

And speaking of villains, Faora, the female underling to Zod, is way cooler than I expected. She has some of the coolest action sequences, with a nifty blipping-around fighting style, and her cold performance is menacingly cool. Also, her character isn't developed enough to take any of the spotlight away from Zod, which is actually a good thing. The movie needs to be laser-focused on Zod as the bad guy, while it's perfectly fine for Faora to be nothing more than a background villain.

Unfortunately, not all the characters are as cool. Jor-El, in particular, is completely overplayed. He's great in the beginning of the movie as you rally behind him during the coup on Krypton and the launch of his son to Earth. But that's where we should have left him. Instead, Jor-El is resurrected later as sort of an interactive hologram because he imprinted his consciousness into a Kryptonian flash drive that can be downloaded onto spaceships. It's never quite explained how all this works, but the point is that Jor-El's presence takes away from Superman's feeling of loss and isolation.

If that Jor-El hologram was just a recording, rather than an interactive consciousness, it would have been much more poignant. Superman can see and hear his father, but he would never really know him. Character development! But in this movie, Jor-El is not really dead at all; he's an interactive hologram with a consciousness. Superman can get to know him, alleviating his feelings of isolation and the sense of mystery that Jor-El would have otherwise instilled on him. I suppose that in and of itself isn't all that bad, but the main problem is that this all means that Jor-El divides the fatherly role with Pa Kent, diffusing it away from Superman's Earth father.

And that's bad because Superman's motives for helping humanity are never clear. Almost all the humans are total jerks to him, and he has to restrain himself from tearing people apart numerous times. When Zod appears on the scene, it's not clear why Superman doesn't say, "Howdy, Zod! Pleased to meet you. Let's exterminate these dirtbags." If there was more of a focus on Pa Kent as the influence of Superman's morality and kindness, that would have helped explain his decision.

Many people complain that this is a depressing movie. I wouldn't go that far, but I will say it needs to lighten up a little. I hesitate to say that because that's part of the reasoning behind the awful "sheeple humor" that pervades Marvel movies, but this is the other extreme. Let's look for some middle ground.

One other thing bears mentioning. Back in the day, movies had a good deal of film grain that softened the picture. But film cameras are so insanely high-def nowadays that we can see every little pore, oil sheen, and stray imperfection on everyone's face. And you know what? It's actually kind of gross. Amy Adams, who is normally as cute as a button, looks just awful in this movie. It's clear that humans are not meant to be seen in high definition. Can we tone this back a bit? Maybe add a grain filter to the digital cameras? Hell, even the old maneuver of putting vaseline on the lens would be an improvement. I saw this movie in an IMAX theater, so maybe a normal showing would be less grotesque.

Overall, this is a good step in the right direction for Superman. The plot is a bit too heavy, the action a bit too Michael Bay, and Lois a bit too blah. But I can see this as a strong foundation for a nice trilogy of Superman movies. Let's just infuse a little more fun next time, okay?

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