Directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), Man of Steel is the strangest movie I have ever seen. While it is a fairly straightforward super hero/comic book film, what was strange about it is that I absolutely adored and loved about half of it and hated the other half. I have never seen a film that I have loved and hated at the same time. Typically, I either love or hate or am in the blah category from the beginnings of the film. I have never had an experience like this one before. This has left me extremely confused on how I should write this review, let alone rate it.
My personal history with Superman began with the 1978 Richard Donner film starring Christopher Reeve. Of course I didn’t see it in the theater, I was all of 2 when it came out. With the advent of the VCR, I discovered Superman: The Movie and Superman II. I adore those two films to this day. To me they are the perfect example of how a Superman film should be done. A little lighthearted and fun. Sure, they are a bit silly nowadays but Christopher Reeve WAS Superman. The boy scout in the blue tights. The epitome of how the character should be portrayed on the big screen. A nice Kansas boy who just happens to have amazing super powers. A hero and a savior.
I was a comic book kid growing up. But I was more Marvel over DC. I never read Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman or any of the other DC books. So when I go into the meat of this review, keep in mind that I loved the original Superman films, but am not a complete stickler when it comes to the comic book source material. I went into this film knowing that it was going to be different than what had come before. I knew that it would be a bit darker for a more cynical world and modern movie goers. I knew that the fantastic score by John Williams was not going to be there. I knew this was not the Superman I knew and loved growing up. And I accepted that, just as I accepted the way that J.J. Abrams dealt with Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t accept everything that Znyder and screenwriter David Goyer changed about the character in this film. While they didn’t change anything drastically, there were just some things that I couldn’t get on board with. While I am not going to give away any major plot points, just be warned that there may be slight spoilers for the film from this point on.
The film opens on Krypton, Superman’s homeworld, while his mother is giving birth to him. Literally, that is where the film starts. It wasn’t enough to have the baby having been born already, we have to see it. Within the first 45 seconds of the movie I actually said aloud to myself “uh oh.” Luckily, it gets better from there. We see Jor-El (Russell Crowe) arguing with the council about the planet being doomed and then General Zod (Michael Shannon) bursts in staging a coup. Jor-El and Zod fight, Jor-El escapes and eventually sends young Kal-El to Earth to get him away from not only Zod but the destruction of the planet.
These first fifteen minutes or so are intense and certainly feels more like a science fiction film than what we would expect from a Superman film. Krypton isn’t all cold crystals but a thriving planet on the cusp of disaster. I could have actually watched a full film of just the Krypton envisioned by Snyder.
What I did like about the film is that Superman’s origin wasn’t changed. Some of the details, perhaps, but he was still sent to Earth to avoid the destruction of Krypton. He was raised by Johnathon (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). Instead of getting the straight up, linear origin story, though, we flash between different time periods in Clark’s life. We go from his ship arching over a Kansas barn to him as an adult working on a fishing boat. The film then goes back to his time as a young boy in Kansas with his adoptive parents. These scene I absolutely loved. Honestly, at this point in the film I was leaning towards unabashed praise. I was all in on Snyder’s vision of the character. The changes were minor and I loved it.
Once Zod shows up, though, things start to go downhill fast. Eventually we end up at a point near the end that completely destroyed all the goodwill I had for the film.
When I say things go downhill fast, I mean that once Clark puts on the suit and Zod shows up, the film becomes nothing but an action spectacle film full of explosions and fighting. While I am sure this is what some people want to see, I didn’t need forty five minutes to an hour of it, which is what we get. It becomes too much which peaks at an ending that is so out of character for Superman that it adversely affected the rest of the movie for me. It forced me to shake my head and get up and leave the theater as soon as the credits started. I did not stay to see if there was a scene after the credits.
I saw the film yesterday and am still struggling with it. There was so much I liked about it, not the least of which were some of the performances. When you have actors the caliber of Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Russell Crowe, you know that the performances aren’t going to be phoned in. And all four of them were fantastic in their respective roles. Especially Kevin Costner. I have always liked him, but here, with little screen time, he is just as fantastic as his starring roles. The dialogue in a particular scene and the way he delivered it actually made me tear up a little bit. (The scene in question is the scene in the trailer where Clark asks if they can keep pretending he’s John’s son. Truly heartrending.)
While there were a lot of things I loved about the film, there was just as much I didn’t. Sadly, to go into what I didn’t like as much would require excessive amounts of spoilers, which I will spare you in this review. Just know that there is a lot to love here, but just as much to hate. And I mean hate. There were choices made which made me question where Goyer and Snyder actually had any concept of the character other than he’s strong and can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes.
Just be prepared when you go see this film. While I can tell it is a sure-fire crowd pleaser, it didn’t completely please me. Perhaps on a second viewing I will have a different opinion. I doubt it though.
** out of **** (This rating actually breaks my heart a little.)