I've had a tough time with British men portraying iconic American superheroes. The first wave of the British superhero invasion was Christian Bale as Batman, followed by Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man. They both did excellent jobs, but when Henry Cavill was cast as Superman, a superhero who may be foreign-born but has been raised to be as American as apple pie, I was extremely skeptical.
"Man of Steel" has converted me — mostly.
The film starts with the birth of Kal-El to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) on the planet of Krypton, which is in its final death throes. They swaddle their precious son, put him into a spaceship bound for Earth, and say farewell. General Zod (Michael Shannon), who has staged a coup to take over the planet in its weakened state, tries to stop the spaceship from taking off. He's unsuccessful but vows to track down Kal-El, no matter how long it takes. Meanwhile, the vessel lands in Smallville, Kansas, where Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) find him and raise him as their son, Clark Kent.
Although earlier films and television series have portrayed Superman as a bumbling, happy-go-lucky guy who happens to be strong, director Zack Snyder ("300", "Sucker Punch") delves into the superhero's origin story and manages to portray him as simultaneously strong and extremely vulnerable. He's happy to have been raised by wonderful parents, but he's also lonely because he doesn't know his background, and there's no one else like him on the planet. His dad has counseled that the world won't know how to deal with his abilities, so he's hidden them and blended in with society.
To add to Clark's mantle of responsibility, Zod has finally located Earth and is threatening to destroy the planet if Clark doesn't out himself as an alien and submit to Zod's custody. It's not as if he needed more obligations, but the fate of the entire planet now rests on his shoulders.
Yeah, "Man of Steel" is kind of a downer, but it also makes the film's resolution that much sweeter because you feel like you've been to hell and back with him and are now emotionally invested in his well-being. There are a couple of chuckles throughout to add a touch of levity.
The movie turns the Superman story on its ear in a few key ways, and that's for the better. It was always insulting that Lois Lane (Amy Adams), investigative reporter and overall smart cookie, would be unable to recognize Clark simply because of a pair of glasses. In "Man of Steel," Lois ferrets out the truth rather early on, and while it takes away some of the "Will she or won't she?" anticipation, it proves that she's a damn good reporter. Adams may have big, blue eyes, but she manages to sell the role in a way that Kate Bosworth's mousy portrayal in "Superman Returns" simply couldn't.
Cavill was previously lean and wiry in "The Immortals," but he worked with the "300" trainer to pack on enough muscle to resemble the man of steel, and the results are impressive. In scenes where he's sporting a beard, Cavill looks like a contender for the Wolverine role. The Internet was atwitter about his costume not including the trademark red briefs, but honestly, it's a tiny detail, and they aren't missed. He also does an excellent job of sounding like the iconic American superhero, so he gets a gold star from me.
Costner and Lane are amazing as the Kents. Snyder wanted serious actors to add a realistic air to the movie, and they certainly deliver. Shannon is very convincing as the maniacal Zod, and he certainly gets into character with some intense "crazy" eyes.
Given Snyder's background with gorgeous green screen effects in "300" and "Sucker Punch," it's no surprise that "Man of Steel" is a beautiful film. His capabilities have only been magnified by the bigger production budget, so your eyes are in for a real treat (and I'm not just talking about Cavill). In the flying scenes, it's neat to see the effects when Superman breaks the sound barrier. The action sequences are good, and punches, kicks and body slams feel like there's an appropriate amount of weight behind them. The Kryptonian battle method is interesting and reminded me, oddly, of Bayonetta. The 3-D was done in post-production, and while the effects are all right, they're nothing to write home about and not worth the extra cash.
The film is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, but most of it went by in a flash, and I never checked the time — until the final battle sequence, which overstays its welcome and goes on for 10 minutes too long. The more you think about the final resolution, the more your brain will hurt, and the angrier you'll be that the movie tried to improve on near-perfection and landed with a resounding belly flop instead. If more of the final battle sequence had ended up on the cutting room floor, the movie would've been stronger.
There are also numerous instances of Superman's identity being the worst-kept secret in the world, and they'll have you shaking your head or slapping your forehead — or both. I still have some reservations about flashbacks being used to fill in Clark's past. Although a more linear method would've been easier to digest, it may not have had the same emotional impact.
All in all, "Man of Steel" is an excellent origin story that reinvigorates the Superman franchise. Cavill's return for two more installments as Superman hinges on this film's box office success, but really, it should be a no-brainer. "Iron Man 3" was supposed to kick-start the summer movie season this year, but that was a disappointment, so I'm declaring that the summer movie season begins with "Man of Steel."
"Man of Steel" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes. It is showing in 2-D, 3-D, IMAX and 3-D IMAX.
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