Bryan Singer is smiling. The lag time on getting the Superman reboot up and running, after Warner Bros. decided
that Singer took the wrong course with his 2006 Richard
Donner-inflected “Superman Returns,” has not been kind to “Man of
Since then we’ve seen the continued rise of the Marvel universe, with each successive movie delivering a coherent and satisfying superhero who makes sense; the Marvel Comics sensibility comes through in each picture: we know the rules, we believe. But now that we’ve seen Hulk smash and Captain America fight and Thor pound and Spider-Man swoosh and soar and bounce off skyscrapers, why would we want to see Superman do the same thing?
The debate has raged on about what Warner Bros. should do with the 75-year-old DC Comics
superhero. The fanboys objected to the relatively smart and sophisticated Superman
played by Brandon Routh, and so this iteration, written by David S.
Goyer and supervised by Batman auteur Christopher Nolan, returns us to
an action-packed comic book movie that is, unfortunately, all over the
place and compares unfavorably to “Superman Returns,” which actually earned upbeat reviews
and delivered decent box office in its day– $391 million worldwide. The problem was that it cost more than $232 million (probably closer to $300 million). Warners felt it could
have performed better with more action and a powerful villain–and no
Superman kid. So Singer was taken off the franchise.
Warners motion picture chief Jeff Robinov struggled with what to do and finally went to the one guy that he could trust. Nolan, who was
winding down from his Batman obsession, worked with Goyer on a
new direction for “Man of Steel.” He was very involved throughout the
writing, planning and editing, while leaving visually gifted director
Zack Snyder (“300,” “The Watchmen”) in charge during the actual filming.
They went back to the earliest comics to rediscover the sci-fi origins
of the visitor from another planet. “I realized that if the world became aware that Kal existed, it
would be the first contact story, and in many ways, it would be the
biggest thing that ever happened in human history,” explained Goyer during our “Man of Steel” set visit.
Going into my screening Monday night, the buzz on “Man of Steel” was strong. Warners and Legendary Pictures have fashioned a new model Superman for the fanboy demo, bringing us a stalwart American superhero (Brit actor Henry Cavill as Kal-El), two robust father figures (Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent), Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and a powerful villain in General Zod (Michael Shannon). These actors are all remarkable considering the reams of expositional, flat and lame dialogue they have to utter, along the lines of “initiate,” “the fate of your planet rests in your hands,” and “leave the building now!”
But a return to form for the DC side of the comics universe this is not. This movie errs so far on the side of “Whiz!” “Bang!” “Pow!” that it makes me long for Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay, who would have done a far better job with the action pyrotechnics. Scene after scene devolves to soul-crushingly dull man on man combat.
Inevitably the women come up far short, as Diane Lane and Amy Adams try to somehow bring life to the sketchily written middle-aged farmwife Martha Kent and ace Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter Lois Lane, whose work for the Daily Planet and romance with Superman bring the movie to a thudding halt.
And so the debate
continues. Early reviews are below:
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.
Visually and rhythmically, however, Snyder has gone his own
way, summoning up memories of Dune in the sculpted architectural look of
Krypton, echoing Jesus by underlining the sacrifice Clark Kent is called upon
to make for the good of mankind, and simply by hardly letting five minutes go
by without inventing some new excuse for a staggering action scene — any one
of which undoubtedly cost more than the combined budgets of all of this year’s
Sundance competition lineup.
“I can’t print this,” Louis’ trenchant editor
(Laurence Fishburne) says after receiving her first draft of her unpublished
Superman scoop. “You could have hallucinated half of it.” When
“Man of Steel” comes to a close, viewers can relate. And once they
come back down to Earth, perhaps warmer memories of the Supermen no longer
considered viable will come rushing back. In “Man of Steel,” Superman
never suffers from exposure to fragments of Kryptonite. His single weakness —
and the movie’s, after promising earlier bits drop off to make room for the
extravagant conclusion — is depth.
There are remarkable visual coups every few minutes,
courtesy of wizardly production designer Alex McDowell and a computer effects
team stretched to the creative maximum. Downsides? It would cost the movie
nothing to lighten up a little with its My Two Dads routine, or to inject some
wit into its save-the-world-from-extremism routine. Then again, with Costner
and Crowe in an adept growl-off as said dads, and Snyder and Nolan fathering
the production, it was never going to be long on flippancy or showtunes. A
Superman movie lacking Lex Luthor was always in danger of underperforming in
the irony department, too. And this is fine. But it’s not just that: all levity
is more or less banished, and even romance, as if putting on a hairshirt for
what fans didn’t like about Superman Returns (2006). Amy Adams bears the brunt
as Lois Lane, here a serious investigative journo. “I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning
reporter!”, she feels the need to remind her editor (Laurence Fishburne)
while trying to get the scoop on this broodingly restrained alien do-gooder.
Man of Steel is similarly keen to flaunt its credentials – it has heft, it
looks amazing, and it’s businesslike to a fault.
It has to be said that the failure to cook up much in the
way of meaningful interaction for [Clark Kent and Lois Lane] throughout the film’s midsection
means that Man of Steel begins to labour even as the visual spectacle
intensifies: no amount of whip-pans and crash-zooms, spaceship flameouts or
collapsing edifices can compensate for an inert focal relationship. The whole film ends up feeling weighed down: though Man of
Steel bounds from one epic setpiece to another, you’re left with the nagging
feeling that you just can’t work out what the central twosome see in each
Snyder’s film, written by David Goyer and starring an
impeccably cast ensemble, is remarkable mythmaking, a canny spin on the
oft-told details that have defined the character over time. While there is
plenty about it that can be described as new, the bones of it are instantly
familiar. Make no mistake; this is Superman. For my own personal sensibilities,
this is the most interesting, emotionally-satisfying, richly imagined version
of the story. Ever.
I could spend page after page talking about what I love
about this film. First and foremost, I am blown away by the sheer scale of it.
Marvel’s biggest film so far, The Avengers, looks like a charming episode of
the Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk by comparison, and while size doesn’t always
make something better, if you want to sell the idea that these are godlike
beings battling, then the only way to truly sell that idea is to show what they
would do to our planet in the process. No one has ever staged superhero action
like this. No one.