Film Review: ‘Man of Steel’

A humorless tone and relentlessly noisy aesthetics drag down this heavily hyped, brilliantly marketed tentpole attraction.

There’s nary a mention of kryptonite, the Fortress of Solitude is only an existential locale, and Clark Kent never earns so much as a single Daily Planet byline in “Man of Steel,” director Zack Snyder, writer David S. Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan’s strenuously revisionist Superman origin story, which might more accurately have been titled “Rock Em Sock Em Spacemen,” given the amount of screen time devoted to exiled Kryptonians body-slamming each other into all manner of natural and manmade structures. Clearly designed to do for DC Comics’ other most venerable property what Nolan and Goyer’s “Batman Begins” did for the Caped Crusader, this heavily hyped, brilliantly marketed tentpole attraction seems destined to soar with worldwide audiences this summer, even if the humorless tone and relentlessly noisy (visually and sonically) aesthetics leave much to be desired — chiefly, a “Steel” sequel directed with less of an iron fist.

Where the red-booted one’s last bigscreen appearance, Bryan Singer’s 2006 “Superman Returns,” was conceived as a mash note to Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 “Superman,” Snyder, Goyer and Nolan (who also shares a story credit) labor to distance “Man of Steel” from those precursors, starting with a Krypton that looks less like an ice castle in the sky than a grayer, grimier version of “Avatar’s” Pandora (by way of “Alien”). There, the noble scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) plots to spirit his newborn son, Kal-El, away from the dying planet — a plan that coincides with a military coup staged by the rogue Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon, sporting a most unflattering bowl cut). That sequence sets the tone for much of what follows in “Man of Steel,” with Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score rattling both speakers and eardrums, the actors dwarfed by layer upon layer of crumbling buildings and warring spacecraft.

SEE ALSO: “Man of Steel” on Track for $100 Million Debut

After Zod and his accomplices are caught, they’re frozen solid and banished to a black-hole Siberia, just before Krypton itself goes kaboom. “Man of Steel” then breaks from a linear timeline to jump ahead some 33 years, where we find the adult Clark (Henry Cavill) working as a grunt on a commercial fishing trawler, not yet having revealed his superego to the world, but occasionally dabbling in large-scale heroics nonetheless. When a nearby oil rig is engulfed in a fiery blaze, he barges in to rescue the crew, then just as quickly disappears before anyone can ask too many questions. As in “Batman Begins” (which opened with a wayward Bruce Wayne wandering the earth like “Kung Fu’s” Caine), these are supposed to be Clark/Kal’s years in the wilderness, grappling with daddy issues and an amorphous sense of self as he bounces from place to place and one odd job to the next.

Pic also adopts a similar flashback structure in which present events trigger memories of Clark’s past, as the adopted son of Illinois farm folk Jonathan (a touching Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, as a loner/outcast bullied by schoolmates, and as a superhero-to-be coming to terms with his alien heritage and powerful gifts. But even here, Snyder seems averse to staging a single scene in which there isn’t something catastrophic happening, whether it’s a schoolbus accident that plunges Clark and his classmates into a raging ravine, or the entire Kent family finding itself stranded on a highway in the path of an oncoming twister.

Things finally snap into sharper focus for Clark when he follows news reports of a strange “anomalous object” to a NORAD outpost somewhere in the Arctic and, via a little Kryptonian hocus-pocus, communes with the holographic consciousness of his birth father (who narrates a brief animated history of the rise and fall of Krypton, drawn in striking, Soviet propaganda-art style). It’s there, at just around the 50-minute mark, that Clark first dons the trademark “S” suit, and also where he first encounters Lois Lane (Amy Adams), this time a Pulitzer Prize-winning hard-news reporter who uses her journalistic acumen to quickly deduce Supes’ secret identity. But rather than moving logically on to Metropolis, “Man of Steel” somewhat curiously dovetails back to Smallville, where Clark’s reunion with dear old mum is interrupted by the arrival of Zod. Newly freed from his interstellar limbo, he threatens to make haste with all of humanity unless Clark/Kal surrenders both himself and a coveted “Codex” that can be used to rebuild Krypton … on Earth.

WATCH the Final “Man of Steel” Teaser (VIDEO)

So far, so gloomy, with little of the genuine wonderment the very name “Superman” calls to mind. Blessed with the most classically chiseled jawline of any actor who’s yet donned the red cape, Cavill is also the most dour and brooding, lacking even the sardonic self-amusement of Christian Bale in Bruce Wayne mode — and he appears to have been directed to be exactly this way. Like its lead, Snyder’s entire movie seems afraid to crack a smile.

The ambition to make a grittier kind of Superman pic is certainly admirable, but much of what Snyder and Goyer set out to fix wasn’t really broken in the first place. By having Lois discover Clark’s true identity so early on, “Man of Steel” relinquishes the halting romantic chemistry between the two characters that brightened previous versions of the tale. And the narrow focus on Clark, Lois and Zod gives the movie an oddly circumscribed feel. Nowhere to be found is the rich gallery of colorful supporting players that populated the Donner film, Nolan’s “Batman” pics and Snyder’s own “Watchmen” (one of the richest and most satisfying of all comicbook adaptations). Gone, too, are any of those lighter moments, fondly remembered from Supermen past,  in which our hero — in or out of disguise — used his powers for decidedly non-super feats and, by doing so, grew closer to his fellow man. One longs to see this Superman change a flat or rescue a kitten from a tree or take Lois for a flight around the block.

Instead, we get two climactic rumbles — one on the streets of Smallville, one (finally) in downtown Metropolis — that test one’s patience for blurs of movement smashing through buildings with little if any respect for the laws of physics. Indeed, if “Man of Steel” doesn’t much look like previous “Superman” movies, it does closely resemble such other recent sci-fi/fantasy pics like “Thor,” “The Avengers” and “Transformers” and their symphonies of disorienting CGI destruction. At points, the action scenes even recall the hallucinogenic dream sequences from Snyder’s own crazily ambitious mental-hospital musical, “Sucker Punch,” except everyone here is supposed to be wide awake.

Pic is undeniably impressive, in the sense that little if any expense has been spared in bringing Snyder’s vision to the screen, though this is a case where less would almost surely have been more. Much of the craft work exudes the same general feeling of overkill, from the frantic handheld shooting and desaturated colors of lenser Amir Mokri to the unceasing Wagnerian bombast of Zimmer’s score.

Film Review: 'Man of Steel'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, June, 6, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 142 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release presented with Legendary Pictures of a Syncopy production. Produced by Charles Roven, Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Deborah Snyder. Executive producers, Thomas Tull, Lloyd Phillips, Jon Peters. Co-producer, Wesley Coller.

Crew

Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay, David S. Goyer; story, Goyer, Christopher Nolan, based upon “Superman” created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Camera (Deluxe color, Technicolor prints, 35mm, widescreen), Amir Mokri; editor, David Brenner; music, Hans Zimmer; production designer, Alex McDowell; supervising art director, Kim Sinclair; art director, Chris Farmer; set decorator, Anne Kuljian; set designers, Aric Cheng, Scott Herbertson, Tammy S. Lee, Thomas Machan, Richard F. Mays, David Moreau, Patrick M. Sullivan Jr.; costume designers, James Acheson, Michael Wilkinson; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital/SDDS), Michael McGee; sound design/supervision, Scott Hecker, Eric A. Norris; re-recording mixers, Chris Jenkins, Frank Montano; visual effects supervisor, John “DJ” Desjardin; visual effects producer, Josh R. Jaggars; visual effects, Weta Digital, Double Negative, MPC, Scanline VFX, Blur Studio, Look Effects, Teamworks Digital; associate producer, Curt Kanemoto; assistant director, Bruce G. Moriarty; second unit director/camera, Pete Romano; second unit camera, William Dalgleish; casting, Lora Kennedy, Kristy Carlson. 

With

Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Ayelet Zurer, Laurence Fishburne.

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  1. FU says:

    Have you even read a comic book before bro?

  2. R. Paul Dhillon says:

    The review states what I posted earlier that it is indeed a bad retread and will probably only appeal to the hardcore fans!

  3. Sean says:

    Hell, i’m thankful that this movie doesnt “harken” any of the old Superman nostalgia. We all want a dark and epic battle. People don’t go watch comic book movies for character depth and plots. We want action. Big, epic, and loud action.

  4. jtbaxter12 says:

    I was lucky to attend an early screening in Houston last week, and I don’t understand how anyone can say this movie is humorless. There were plenty of moments where Cavill’s Superman made me laugh. I only wish that I could detail them without spoiling the movie.

  5. Kenmandu says:

    from the trailers it looks like another grim blue/black palette and CGI overkill… the re-imagined superman is beset by angst as has every superhero non-stop since spiderman in the mid-60’s. So what’s new? Does one have a rooting interest in superman and why? just curious om that point.

  6. Did you like the old Spider-Man movies with Tibet McGuire? Did you like the new Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield? I did and I’ll say this, there’s so many different tellings and stories(comics) of each character. Ya there is an essence of superman that we’re all “familiar” with and are all have trouble getting used to something they’re unfamiliar with as far the original story of superman reeves played but, this is what these types of movies, this day in age, are about. Action! We’re you really expecting an Oscar winning script and extraordinary character development? Intimate relationships and heartfelt moments? No man. Supermans about beating up bad guys and flying around. So if Snyder did a great job showing that!,,,, he’s got my fifteen bucks. And probably another fifteen bucks a few days later just so I can absorb all the magnificent imagery. So don’t over analyze a superman movie. Just enjoy the show

  7. eli says:

    Who the PHK gives a SHT what Scott Fatass says about a movie.

    • Lothar says:

      Apparently you do. I wonder what your attitude would be if his review said ZOMG SUPERMAN TOTALLY WUZ AWESOME DOODZ!!!!111

  8. mosesscurry says:

    I hate that no one can go into a movie without their own biased baggage. Stop dealing with the past, deal with the movie itself. Lord of the Rings changed things from the book, who cares, he made an incredible movie out of something most couldn’t even begin to wrap their heads around. Superman is incredible difficult to write and flesh out and if they can pull it off without you rolling your eyes that in itself is a major achievement in my book. Richard Donner and Reeves had their time and it was great but it should mean nothing to this movie.

  9. Michael says:

    This review is the reason I believe this movie will be amazing!!! You seem to be stuck in the boring past of superman… I don’t want humor or suierman saving a cat!! I want pain and fighting with heart & passion.

  10. I think this is great review, and just solidifies my ‘being on the fence’ about the whole production. I’m a huge Christopher Reeve / Richard Donner Superman fan, and have had concerns about how many original canon aspects were being changed, as well as how dark they were going with a character who, I firmly believe, benefits from those winks and brief comic nods. I’ve been reading about how people feel we all needed to break from the Donner mold. Hey…you don’t need to fix what isn’t broken, and Christopher Reeve’s iconic take on the Man of Steel will certainly be remembered far longer than any other post-incarnation, including this one. For a Superman film to splinter away from a certain amount of tradition is one thing, but to go against the grain that so many people worldwide hold near and dear is not always for the best…no matter how much punching and fighting the younger generation desire in their action movies.

    • johnsmall says:

      David, I doff my cap to you sir. I agree with everything you’ve said. Nice to know there are some people out there who get it.

    • Sean says:

      David, the Donner mold is done. Superman Returns proved that. Your looking at the team that took a George Clooney Batman disaster and turned it into the greatest comic movies of all time. Why would you want another movie like the Donner version? Do you want to see Solar man again? Should we spend 2 more hours watching Superman pout and Luthor try to get more real estate? The fact is the only good thing about the Reeves Superman movies was the Zod factor. All the rest of the 4 were dull and dreary. That formula is outdated. Bring on the super villans! Boom.

      • I’m not saying we should continue with the Donner mold. I’m just saying it’s probably going to be hard to top for a very long time, this movie included from the other reviews I’ve been reading. The guy’s name was Nuclear Man, btw, and no I don’t want his return. I never thought Superman pouted and I loved Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, actually.

        So what you’re saying is Christopher Reeve sucked and Zod was the only good thing in those movies? That’s probably why you’re probably going to love this shallow new version; Punching, fighting, and explosions make a good movie. Sorry, not my take. Did you like the new “Star Trek” movies? They had the same mentality.

        Moviegoers today don’t seem to care about character or depth, just so long as giant cities are demolished. I mean, c’mon, really! That’s not entertainment, that’s disposable crap that everyone will forget in two or three weeks. But then again, this is how movies come and go these days; in and out of the theater and onto the next big thing for all of fifteen minutes. 35 years later, much of the world still adores the Christopher Reeve movies. Now, what does that say?

        I have the utmost respect for Christopher Nolan, and have trusted that his work will be good for a long time. Even though I felt that “Inception” was not the greatest movie in the world, as just about everyone else will herald. And going against the rest of the world’s opinion, I actually appreciate some of Zach Snyder’s films, including “Watchmen”, which I thoroughly enjoyed…and yes, I am a fan of the original graphic novel. But that doesn’t necessarily mean these guys can turn out the best Superman film ever.

        I agree that you can never make a movie like “Superman, The Movie” today. It would not work. But back in the day, and looking back at that time, it absolutely worked and works!

    • Maya Ayala says:

      “Original canon?” Have you EVER read the comic book? The origin story, powers and even career of Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent have changed quite a few times. The original Superman couldn’t even fly (he could only leap ala John Carter).

      There is not an “official” history of Superman. There are just different stories for each moment of time.

      A few years ago, some critics whined about BATMAN BEGINS. They complained that Christopher Nolan was “rewriting history” in a way that it didn’t need to be “rewritten.” They preferred the weird yet popular Tim Burton take on Batman that was eventually killed by George Clooney, bat-nipples and an outlandish yet heavily convoluted story.

      A couple of years later, THE DARK KNIGHT became the most critically acclaimed superhero movie of all time. It made people forget about Tim Burton’s BATMAN. All of those professional critics forgot about their whiny criticisms and applauded THE DARK KNIGHT for all of the reasons that they said were negatives in BATMAN BEGINS.

      I suspect that the same thing will happen with MAN OF STEEL. It is a movie that is rooted in both DARK KNIGHT-like gritty realism and inner turmoil yet energetic enough to entrance even attention span deficient fans of THE AVENGERS. It is a great crossover film that will set up an even more appealing sequel (and, hopefully, a JUSTICE LEAGUE film).

      VARIETY should be careful about which critics are assigned to movies like this. If they aren’t careful, VARIETY will lose credibility by employing critics who think of themselves as clever when assailing a comic book film for “splintering away” from a history that has been changed many times over the last 75 years and basing itself into a present day scenario that is too realistic and too far-fetched at the same time.

      • Yes, I grew up with the comics, and am well aware about changes that were made over the years. But there is a backbone to the story of Superman that’s almost like a Bible of sorts. The same thing is true about “Star Trek”, but they actually decided to throw that out for a lot of explosions and high-fiving on the bridge in the new movies. Therefore, it ended up sucking. I believe there is a limit to what you change and what you don’t. A barrier, if you will. To break that barrier shows a good amount of disrespect for the property.

        I see what you’re saying about Nolan’s Batman, and I never heard anyone screaming about how they shouldn’t veer from Burton’s version, actually. All I heard was nervousness because Clooney’s bat nipple version almost destroyed the franchise and people were concerned it wouldn’t get any better. But yes, it did!

        Now, everyone wants team efforts and team-ups. I have to say I was never a fan of having so many heroes in one place in the comics, working together. Felt it kind of muddied the waters of the individual stories, and I was very concerned that “The Avengers” was going to jump the superhero shark. It didn’t, and I was wrong. Plus, I actually enjoyed the movie much more than I expected.

        Superman didn’t, and doesn’t need gritty realism. He was never that type of character to begin with. But here he is, dark and gloomy, in “Man of Steel”. I think the best approach to this whole thing is that everyone has his or her Superman. Mine will always be Christopher Reeve, hands down. And if audiences today don’t like that, it’s their problem, not mine.

      • Floridaphil says:

        Well said. This gets to the heart of this debate. Superheroes are modern mythological gods, whose tales are told for generations by different authors, each adapting the essence of the hero to suit their own times. Astute Bible scholars can discern different authors and eras of the New Testament, for example, each presenting diverse and even conflicting accounts of The Gospel. None of which is to say it isn’t all true and accurate, just that it presents different facets of the same story from different perspectives that come from different eras.

        In modern times, the Adam West Batman series accurately and colorfully reflected the often silly nature of Batman comics of the 50s and 60s, just as Nolan’s Dark Knight was accurately inspired by how the comics were written decades later. Which is the “real” Batman? They both are.

        Which is the real Superman, Donner’s or Nolan’s? They both are.

        Where this review goes off track is by his projection for the Superman of a bygone era for how the story is being written today. MoS is not the Superman of any other era but the current one. Deride today’s comics all you wish, sir, but to dismiss a film in large part for this reason alone is as inane and pathetic as someone whining about cell phones because he misses the days when phone calls were made in phone booths where you used a rotary dial. Those were indeed telephones that worked quite well, but those phones, and that Superman and Batman, are gone. Judge today’s films on their merits, without seeing them through your attachment to the good
        old days.

        I say this as one who also has read Superman and other DC comics faithfully for 50 years, enjoyed them through all their changes and loves today’s style more than ever.

        Life and culture move pretty fast. Do try to keep up.

  11. Matt says:

    Pretty much the things you’re saying you didn’t like about the film are the reasons I think I’ll enjoy it. The fact that Lois discovers right away his identity is refreshing. The only difference between Superman and Clark Kent was simply a pair of glasses and the suit, and it always bothered me that she couldnt tell the difference. I’m glad they’re taking a more serious “realistic” approach to this film. I’ve never been a huge fan of superman, but this movie looks like it could be epic.

    • Eric says:

      While I respect your dedication to Reeve (the man was born to play Superman), the Donner Superman movies are far from canon. In fact, they break away from many aspects of the Superman from the comics (super-speed time travel, memory wipe kiss, Lex being reduced to a greedy, underground real estate criminal, etc.) I love Superman and Superman II, but for what they are: the first Superman movies and firmly embedded in 70s and 80s culture.

      • I’m not saying Reeve’s Superman, or it’s universe are canon. I’m speaking more about costume, characters, and revisions to canon from the overall history, in “Man of Steel”. And yes, I agree. The Donner movies are firmly connected to the late 1970’s and early 80’s.

      • Eric says:

        Sorry, that was supposed to be in response to David Blanchard. Dunno why it went here.

  12. MDB says:

    Zack Snyder’s of “Man of Steel” is a more realistic and truer
    adaptation to the original Superman and is a welcome departure of
    yesterday’s unrealistic squeaky clean Superman that was crafted for the
    censors.
    Life is messy and this “Man of Steel Delivers and Cleans up.

  13. Jeff says:

    I guess taking a contrary position in a film review is the only way a chief film critic can try to prove their relevancy these days. It seems the chief film critic doesn’t remember the complaints about Superman Returns lack of action, or the tepid box office earnings. And we’re supposed to worry about the laws of physics regarding a fictional character, in a sci-fi action movie, about an alien who can fly, shoot concentrated heat beams from his eyes and lift hundreds of tons? lulz @ Scott.

  14. Bobby says:

    Not a very good review. You shouldn’t tell the entire plot of the film.

  15. Diane says:

    That is how Henry acts all the time, he did not have to be directed to act as such, he IS that boring. Nice looking mannequin is what he is. The CGI was amazing, good, because the Man Of Steel Was boring. It was a beautiful looking film but with no heart, no humor.

    • Aggeliki says:

      @Diane: You’ve obviously not seen much of Cavill’s acting in other projects. He has a very wide range, from parody and comedy to romance and heartbreaking drama. But he has the bad habbit to act exactly as he’s been directed. Here, like the reviewer said correctly, he was directed for the most part to be a taciturn, troubled, introvert Clark and an ultra-serious, anxious Superman, and so he did. The film was humorless, so Cavill was too, against his own nature. Maybe we should wait for the sequel, maybe then Clark and Supes will be less anxious and more happy and fun.

    • Bobby says:

      Did Fat Cavill break your heart long ago. For shame.

  16. Eric says:

    I feel like you are relying way too much on the Donner films as a point of comparison. For years, people have been clamoring for a disconnect from those films, as proven by the tepid response to Superman Returns; it was finally time to let go. I for one am glad this Superman isn’t saving kittens from trees in this film. For one, he is just starting out as the hero and realistically wouldn’t automatically become everyone’s favorite guy performing everyday heroics. Also, Kryptonite is a narrative crutch that needed a break, as it has been featured in every single movie incarnation before. Where the review really lost me was when you mentioned that the movie had little respect for the laws of physics. Really? You are gonna complain about the physics of a movie where people can fly, lift trucks, and shoot lasers from their eyes. C’mon man.

  17. Allan says:

    Scott apparently doesn’t want action from super beings. They should have toned it down to superman returns levels.

  18. George Valentin says:

    I just read this review, and from what I read, there’s not much “super” about Superman. I will opine that the TV series from the 50’s remains the quintessential Superman.

    If the negative reviews for “Man of Steel” proceed, an apology is owed to “After Earth.” I’d laugh if this movie becomes a box office flop.

    • allan says:

      Georege, no disrespect. But you sound like a moron.

      Continue to watch your 50`s Superman. I’m sure its aged quite well. In fact, they should re-air it for the new generation!

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