CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: MAN OF STEEL (2013)
Review by L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: An outpost in the middle of the Arctic. A group of SCIENTISTS in heavy coats are looking down at a spaceship encased in ice, as workers use machines to melt and cut through the frozen surface. L.L. SOARES comes up from behind, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and drinking a Margarita.)
LS: What are you guys up to? Is this another remake of THE THING?
SCIENTIST 1: I have no idea what you are talking about. What is zis…thing?
LS: It’s a movie, Chop Top. About an alien shape-changing monster found in the ice in the Arctic. That’s why we’re here, right? (slurps drink loudly through straw)
SCIENTIST 2: We are here to welcome the last son of Krypton, Kal-El.
LS: Kal-El? Doesn’t Nicolas Cage have a son with that name? What, is he all grown up and dating a Kardashian now?
SCIENTIST 1: No, no. This has nothing to do with Nicolas Cage or monsters.
SCIENTIST 2: We are here to greet Superman.
LS: Superman? He’s back again?
SCIENTIST 2: Yes, and he will fight for truth, justice, and the American way.
LS: That’s nice. I was wondering when they were going to bring that overgrown Boy Scout back to the movies, considering all the success Batman has had lately. Y’know, I really didn’t mind SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006). Brandon Routh was actually pretty decent in the role, but he got the short end of the stick. It should have been a hit.
SCIENTIST 1: Brandon Routh? How dare you mention his name here, in zis sacred place. (Points down at the ship frozen in the ice)
LS: Get over it, Doc. I bet nobody is even in there. You guys are standing around in the cold for nothing. Speaking of which, anyone got a spare jacket? I didn’t bring the right clothes for this trip. That’s what I get for asking Jimmy Buffet for travel tips.
SCIENTIST 2: So why are you here anyway? We did not invite you?
LS: I’m here for the ambiance, and to review the new movie MAN OF STEEL.
SCIENTIST 1: Yes, MAN OF STEEL. You mean zee Superman. So you are here for zee same reason as we.
LS: The Man of Steel and Superman are the same thing? Imagine that!
SCIENTIST 2: You have been joshing us all along. Busting our jaws, so to speak.
LS: Busting your jaws? Yeah, yeah, that’s it.
SCIENTIST 1: So go ahead, movie man, give us your review of zee MAN OF STEEL.
SCIENTIST 2: Yes, stop your joshing.
LS: Okay, okay. First off, I want to preface this by saying that my Cinema Knife Fight cohort, Michael Arruda, reviewed MAN OF STEEL when it first came out. You can read that review here. So this is kind of an afterthought. I saw the movie myself recently and figured I’d give my two cents.
SCIENTIST 2: Enough with the preface. What did you think of it?
LS: Well, I should first get around to a brief synopsis. MAN OF STEEL is the story of Kal-El, who would later go on to become known on Earth as Clark Kent…
SCIENTIST 1: And Superman!
LS: Yes, of course, Superman. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? But he has to get there first.
SCIENTIST 2: So his father Jor-El sends him here from the planet Krypton.
LS: Yeah, and I thought the way the movie handled Krypton was kind of interesting. Usually in these movies, it just looks like a futuristic version of Earth, with crystal buildings and stuff. However, in MAN OF STEEL, it actually looks like an alien planet, and a dying one at that. For once, we get to see some of the animal life on Krypton. And their machines and technology looks so weird. I liked this a lot. And everyone has these robots who are like CGI machines, constantly creating weird shapes and they seem to have a mind of their own, even as they serve their human-like masters. I just really liked the way the Krypton scenes looked. I wanted to spend more time there.
I originally had a hard time picturing Russell Crowe in the Marlon Brando role of Jor-El, but he’s actually pretty good here. He’s older and kind of stately now, and he fills in for Brando pretty well. I also really liked the Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as Superman’s mother, Lara Lor-Van. They were both commanding and classy, and you could see them as the parents of someone as colossal as Superman.
SCIENTIST 1: Do not forget zee General Zod.
LS: How could I forget him? Michael Shannon plays General Zod, the head of Krypton’s military. He’s in the middle of a coup, trying to take things over from the decrepit leaders who rule the planet. The old guard have botched things and the planet is on the verge of dying, so Zod decides it would be better if he was in charge. Of course, Zod and Jor-El are friends from way back, but they disagree about how to handle the last days of Krypton, probably because Zod’s big plan to change things comes way too late in the game. He claims he wants to alter the future of Krypton, but, let’s face it, there is no future there. At least Jor-El and Lara have a plan to keep their race alive, involving shooting little Kal-El out into the universe shortly after he is born. A plan which, for some odd reason I didn’t understand, Zod is completely opposed to. He’s so opposed to it, he goes to great lengths to try to stop them, even to the point of killing poor Jor-El. But Lara beats him to the punch – or rather, the launch button.
It’s not long afterwards that Zod and his officers are arrested and tried for treason. So much for his big takeover attempt. Zod and his pals are shot up into space in some weird giant tooth ship that turns into a black hole, or something like that. The other dimension they’re sent to is called the Phantom Zone, by the way.
Meanwhile, little Kal-El shoots through space like a Kryptonian sperm looking for the big mother egg of Earth.
SCIENTIST 2: A vivid image.
SCIENTIST: Enough of zee sex talk. What about Kal-El. He gets found by zose farmers!
LS: Yes, the Kents. They find him after his ship crashes in Kansas and amazingly nobody tracks the ship down or knows anything about their intergalactic adoption, so they raise the little tyke to be their son. Of course, they realize early on that Clark isn’t like other boys. And Pa Kent teaches him to control his temper so he doesn’t get arrested for murder on a daily basis. When Clark saves a school bus full of kids that crashes into a river, there are witnesses, but they just chalk it up to an act of God.
Kevin Costner is actually pretty good as Jonathan Kent. You know, when he was younger and a big star, I didn’t care for him all that much, but now that he’s older and plays more character roles, I’ve grown to like him a lot. And he’s a perfect choice for Pa Kent. The great Diane Lane, who I always liked, plays Clark’s mother, Martha Kent. So we’ve got more good casting here.
So eventually, Clark grows up and decides to go out into the world. He becomes a kind of quiet loner, drifting around the earth, taking a variety of jobs from fisherman to bartender to construction worker, trying to figure out where he came from, and why he’s here on Earth. It’s in the Arctic that he finds an alien ship that is pretty much the Fortress of Solitude, and a hologram of his father pops up to explain everything.
SCIENTIST 1 (looks down): And zat is what is in zee frozen in the ice beneath us.
LS: I guess so. Boy, you think Russell Crowe is dead in the movie, and then he’s onscreen more after he’s dead than he was before. I almost got sick of seeing him. And he always shows up just at the right minute to help out.
SCIENTIST 2: What about the great Cavill?
LS: Henry Cavill? The guy who plays Superman?
SCIENTIST 1: Yes! Zee great Cavill.
LS: He’s not bad here. While I still think Brandon Routh got cheated by not getting to be in any sequels, I have to admit, Cavill’s pretty good. He plays the role completely different, though.
And this is a big part of why I liked the new movie so much. I have never been a Superman fan. I always thought he was too one-dimensional. Superman = Good. It’s all so black and white. There was never any dark side to him. You knew what you were getting, and you knew he would always do the right thing. And frankly, to me, that’s pretty damn boring. Not like Batman, who at least has enough darkness to him to make him a wee bit unpredictable.
In MAN OF STEEL, Superman is still a force for good. It’s not like he suddenly turned into an anti-hero. But the movie plays up the fact that he’s an alien from another world. That he doesn’t belong here. That, even though he grew up here and has been assimilated into this world (something that will come in real handy during his battles with Zod), there’s still a kind of “otherness” to him. And I liked that. It made him more interesting than the kind of character Christopher Reeve played him in the original SUPERMAN films. All good and golly gee. I liked Reeve, but I like Cavill’s Superman better. I like that there’s actually some mystery to him.
SCIENTIST 1: What about Lois Lane?
I liked Amy Adams a lot as Lois. She seemed more like a real reporter than in previous incarnations. But there is a vulnerability to her. Even though she’s in a job that can be dangerous, she never seems particularly tough. And if she acts like a damsel in distress when Zod and his minions come to Earth—well, any human would seem weak in the face of such super-powered beings.
SCIENTIST 2: And Zod?
Michael Shannon was the main reason I was excited about seeing this movie going in. I didn’t know much about Henry Cavill, but I’ve been a Shannon fan for years. He’s been pretty amazing in independent films for years, and stuff like William Friedkin’s BUG (2006) and he had a supporting role, but was a scene-stealer in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008). But his most impressive role so far has been as Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden in the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE. Van Alden has gone from a do-gooder government agent to a much darker character who’s rather unpredictable, and capable of murder and violence. It has been fascinating seeing his character grow and change through the seasons of that show.
I actually liked Shannon in MAN OF STEEL, but I had a mixed reaction to his General Zod. Mainly because I still remember the great Terence Stamp’s portrayal of Zod in SUPERMAN II (1980). Stamp’s take on the character was more that of a sadistic soldier with a god complex, and he had a bit of a dark sense of humor. In comparison, Shannon plays the character completely humorless. This isn’t really a man who is pushing his own agenda and a lust for power. Shannon’s Zod is a zealot who believe he is doing the right thing. He was bred to be a warrior and to safeguard the Kryptonian race, and he takes this responsibility very seriously. I think I still like Stamp’s version of the character better, he was a hoot and you could cheer him on as a real bad guy. I’m not sure I like Shannon’s Zod as much, but the actor takes him into a completely different direction, and I can appreciate that.
I also really liked German actress Antje Traue as Zod’s “right hand” woman, Faora-Ul. She’s just as ruthless and formidable as Zod is, and is a strong ally, instead of being just another faceless flunkie.
I also like that there was so much destruction in the movie during the battles between Superman and his Kryptonian enemies. These people have god-like powers, and would make as much of a mess as Godzilla if they fought it out in a major city. It was just nice to see some of the fall-out from that. By the time the fighting is over, Metropolis looks like a bomb hit it.
The script for MAN OF STEEL is by David S. Goyer, the guy who gave us the BLADE movies and the really cool script for DARK CITY (1998), as well as Christopher Nolan’s excellent DARK KNIGHT trilogy. He’s a solid screenwriter and has become the go-to-guy for a lot of superhero stuff. And I liked what he did with Superman here. By the way, Goyer’s script for MAN OF STEEL is based on a storyline he wrote with Christopher Nolan.
The movie is directed by Zack Snyder, who has also done his share of comic book adaptations, like Frank Miller’s 300 and Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN. I thought he did a good job with MAN OF STEEL. I like the more science fiction focus of the film, since Superman is an alien being, and there would be repercussions about this—something that previous films completely ignored. He’s not just some super strong guy who fights crime, he’s proof that we’re not alone in the universe. And it was nice to see a movie finally address this.
While I like the script and the direction and the acting, there are flaws. I’m actually sick of seeing Superman’s origin story yet again, even if it’s used to give us a different perspective this time around. And the action scenes are pretty good, but, as usual, go on way too long. The movie is definitely longer than it needs to be, but that seems to be a common thing among blockbusters these days—there’s this idea that more is better. But, with tighter editing, and a more focused storyline, a little shorter film could actually be an improvement.
But my complaints are actually kind of minor. I think everyone involved tried to do something different with a character we’ve seen a hundred times before, and they succeeded in breathing new life into the concept. I’m still not a huge Superman fan, but I’m more of a fan than I was.
I give MAN OF STEEL, three knives.
SCIENTIST 1: Arruda only gave it two and a half knives.
LS: I know. I liked it more than he did. I would have given it even more knives if they had ditched the origin story and done something really daring. But, for what it is, it’s a solid, well-made superhero film.
I’ve got to go now. What is it you guys were waiting for again?
SCIENTIST 1: We are waiting for Superman to emerge from zee ship.
LS: The ship trapped down there in the ice? You guys are idiots. Nobody’s in there.
(LS suddenly leaps into the air and flies away)
SCIENTIST 2 (staring up into the sky): WTF?
© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares
LL Soares gives MAN OF STEEL ~three knives.