Man of Steel review: Mind-numbing action scenes sink Superman reboot

Despite being the prototypical superhero, Superman hasn’t often translated well to film. Yeah, we can all agree that Richard Donner’s Superman pretty much invented the modern comic-book movie, and Superman II was a fine follow-up. But since then it’s been pretty much 30-some years of cinematic futility. Superman III was an overstuffed mess, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a chintzy dud that killed the franchise for almost 20 years until Bryan Singer’s reverent-to-a-fault 2006 reboot Superman Returns amounted to a nice try, no thanks attempt.

So hopes were high that a fresh approach with a fresh director would finally do the trick. Director Zack Snyder’s effort might be called Man of Steel, but it really amounts to Superman Begins, with the thumbprints of Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer all over it. They approach Superman with a sense of gritty realism and relentless seriousness, which might not seem like a good fit for what is often seen as a positive, feel-good character, but hey, I was willing to give it a shot. The wild card was Snyder. The man can definitely create striking images, but when it comes to making those images move and speak and create a coherent story for two hours, that’s where he has a few deficiencies.

Would Snyder insist on making Man of Steel a slo-mo bonanza, like he did with 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch?

Well, the answer is a surprising, refreshing no. Snyder reins in his worse habits, and even at two-and-a-half hours, Man of Steel never drags. Yes, it’s yet another origin story, but it wisely focuses on parts of the story we haven’t seen much of before. Krypton is fleshed out beyond the crystals and robes from Donner’s time to a living, breathing world where genetic engineering has long replaced biological reproduction. Russell Crowe is probably an improvement over Marlon Brando as Jor-El, despite his weird insistence on speaking with a British accent. He’s definitely given more to do, popping up throughout the movie to help out his son in his new world. Then there are the parts of Clark Kent’s childhood that we’ve never really explored, like just how freaking scary it would be to discover you can shoot lasers out of your eyeballs and see through the skin of everyone around you.

Snyder shoots Clark’s childhood scenes like they were cut out of a Terrence Malick film, which while being hopelessly derivative, actually works pretty well.

But it is casting where Man of Steel really shines. From Amy Adams as the absolute perfect Lois Lane, to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Ma and Pa Kent, Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White and Michael Shannon as the terrifying but oddly sympathetic General Zod, the pieces were all in place. Well, wait, notice who I didn’t include in that rundown? Henry Cavill as Superman. Cavill certainly looks the part, with piercing eyes and a buffed-up physique that makes Christopher Reeve look like a couch potato. But whether it’s his bland delivery or an underwritten part, his time in the role just isn’t that compelling. It’s odd, because the scenes of young Clark are dynamite. Too bad the adult Supes just isn’t as exciting.

Where Man of Steel really goes wrong is in the last half hour, which devolves into one long CGI brawl where buildings crumble, superbeings fly through the sky at lightning speed and nobody really cares. How many times can you see someone’s speechifying be interrupted by a sudden super ramming and still find it interesting? Man of Steel will answer that for you. (For me, I started checking my watch after No. 5) It also doesn’t help that the choreography is so muddled that it’s difficult to tell who’s where doing what and what the exact pseudo physics are involved. Yes, the old Superman movies may look cheesy and dated to modern eyes, but the action scenes carried far more weight because you could actually follow along. When Man of Steel does stop to take a breath and let characters interact, the potential for what this movie could have been shines through.

But hey, while I have some major misgivings, I do believe the seeds have been planted for a successful Superman franchise. Don’t think I didn’t notice those LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises signs in the background. Perhaps after ironing out some kinks, Snyder and company can turn the volume down a bit let Superman soar.

Man of Steel Henry Cavill

Photo: © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding, LLC

1 Comment

  1. If there’s any criticism of this film from some critics, its always about the 45 mins. of the action infused climax. Action and CGI should be the last things examined. There is exceedingly well character development,strong performances from Crowe, Costner, Shannon and a solid script. My suggestion to them is that they stop looking for any more of “The Dark Knight” cliche in future DC films. If this was a Marvel film, you’d all be praising about everything else except the climax.

    This is Superman we’re talking about, and the last time he was a mute no-action cry baby, it was the biggest disaster in his filmography (Superman Returns). More importantly, the story arc of Zod and his rogue Kryptonians obviously demand violence.Perhaps critics will find heir cerebral storyline in Man of Steel 2 due to Lex Luthor’s presence.

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