Review for Man of Steel
For a long time now, I’ve really only rated the first Superman feature film as a worthy adaptation. It’s a film that took the time to get its origin story right, found the perfect cast in Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman, and really found the heart in the story and the characters. Superman II on the other hand, a collision between two directors was wildly variable in tone, occasionally brilliant, but often resorting to a comedy that was out of place with the first film. I have a soft spot for Superman III, a little bit for the good versus evil Superman fight, but mostly for Richard Pryor, Pamela Stephenson, and Robert Vaughn, and its goofy, computer out of control plot. It doesn’t feel like a Superman movie. Over the years, I’ve managed to convince myself that I’ve never even seen Superman IV. The biggest surprise was Superman Returns, made by Bryan Singer, probably the ideal director off the back of the first two X-Men movies, looking to remain faithful to the tone established by Richard Donner in the first one and half movies. Superman Returns fell utterly flat, and worse, resulted in Brett Rattner’s X-Men 3. I for one didn’t expect another Superman movie anytime soon.
I’ve also always had this lingering annoyance with Superman II, that the battle between Superman and Zod in Metropolis was terribly insipid. You have these god-like aliens with impossible powers, abilities and invulnerability, and their fight in a major city resulted in a few dented cars, a bit of rubble, and high winds. For me, such a battle should have been a lot more devastating... Which is where Man of Steel comes in, another look at the Superman mythos, albeit from another angle, another reboot, and another origin story. What intrigued me about it was not the director, Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen fame, but the producer, Christopher Nolan, who had made a big splash in re-inventing Batman, offering a realistic take on the character, an exploration of the man behind the bat, his motivations and psychology. A realistic look at Superman would be a fascinating direction to take.
Of course, with Superman an alien from the planet Krypton, sent here in a spaceship as a baby, attaining superpowers through the sun’s radiation, flying around in a blue suit and a red cape, realism of character is practically impossible. What realism is possible is in the world that he inhabits. His interactions with the world would be dictated by real-world physics, even if he is not. So if he tries to pick a car up by the bumper, he’ll rip the bumper off. More importantly, how would we react to an alien showing up with fantastic abilities, offering to help humanity?
Krypton is a world that is doomed. Its people have grown indolent, set in their ways, have retreated from the universe and exploration, and have instead used up their world’s resources, setting the planet on a path to inevitable destruction. Two people have seen this disaster coming and attempt to do something about it. General Zod, determined to save his people even from themselves, launches a coup attempt, hoping to alter fate through military force. He fails, and he and his followers are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone. The other, the scientist Jor-El breaks with tradition and has a natural born child, who he hopes will escape the destruction and find a home on another world, where he can hopefully rebuild the Kryptonian race. To that end, Jor-El steals the genetic directory of Krypton, the Codex, and launches it with his son, Kal-El towards Earth. Zod’s last act is to try and gain the Codex, but he fails, although he swears to find Jor-El’s son no matter how long it takes.
On Earth, Kal-El is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who raise him as Clark Kent, to keep his slowly manifesting powers and abilities secret, until the day that he understands what they are and who he really is. That search for who he is, his origins eventually takes him north, to the site of an ancient crashed Kryptonian ship, where he encounters a memory of his father, where he learns who he is, and what he has been sent to Earth for. The superhero has been born, but by reactivating the ship, he has alerted Zod, now escaped from the Phantom Zone, to his presence. Zod wants Kal-El, he wants the Codex, and now that he’s seen what a fertile world Earth is, he wants Krypton reborn as well.
What’s there to say about a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p transfer of a recent, big budget blockbuster? It looks pixel perfect to me, clear and sharp, no compression artefacts, just a fantastic image. So the criticism will come down to the film’s aesthetic, whether you’re happy with the movie using the handheld style that’s so common these days, whether the toned down colour palette, divorcing the film from its comic book roots, and emphasising the ‘realism’ is something that should be applied to the Superman franchise. It works for me, and it looks a lot better than Singer’s soft-focus Superman Returns. We’re well past the point where effects have become seamlessly blended into live action, although ironically given my earlier statement, the city-shattering climax of the movie becomes something of an impersonal effects budget expenditure rather than dramatic performances. However I do appreciate the reinvention of Krypton, as this film really fills out that world in a way that not even the first movie did. It also goes to town creating the history and the technology of that world, making it feel a lived in and real place, rather than a convenient story element.
Ditto with the audio, present here in DTS-HD MA 7.1 English form, with DD 5.1 Spanish, French, Italian, and English audio descriptive, with several subtitle languages to choose from. I just can’t fault it, an expressive and dynamic surround track that makes full use of the soundstage to deliver the film’s epic sound effects, and while dialogue can be low in the mix at times, it’s never low enough to be inaudible. I also thought that I’d miss John Williams’ iconic theme, but Hans Zimmer creates a theme which is both majestic, triumphant and dramatic, well suited to the character, even if it isn’t quite memorable.
The disc comes in an Amaray style Blu-ray case, with an o-card merely repeating the sleeve art and blurb. There’s an Ultraviolet code, which expires on 2/12/15. The disc autoplays with a trailer for Pacific Rim and then boots to an animated menu.
There are just a handful of extra features with this release, leading me to suspect a re-release in the future, but they are useful extras, and all in HD.
Behind The Scenes: Strong Characters, Legendary Roles, has the cast and crew discuss the characters and the story, the invention and reinvention of the comic book stories that informed this version of the Superman myth. This lasts 25:59
Behind The Scenes: All-Out Action lasts 26:02 and takes us from the training regimen of the actors to the action sequences, stunts and wirework that went into creating the film, and eventually the application of special effects.
Behind The Scenes: Krypton Decoded is a short (6:42) look at the technology and world design of Krypton.
Superman 75th Anniversary Animated Short is nothing to get excited about. It’s just a 2:03 promo reel of how Superman has evolved over the years. It’s also the one place on the disc that you’ll hear a bit of John Williams.
Finally the Featurette: New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth (6:35) has somehow escaped from a Hobbit Blu-ray disc to sell New Zealand holidays to unsuspecting Superman fans.
This is the single disc version. The US got a 3-disc version with a whole lot more in the way of extra features, and as that is Region free, that’s the one to go for if you’re a fan of the film.
That turned out to be a pretty good, interesting take on the Superman mythology, although I have to admit it’s a little jarring to suddenly be watching a Superman movie that pulls back on the humour completely, opting to play it as straight as possible. I’m so used to the comic book overtones of the Christopher Reeve movies; the scenery chewing villains, that the initial sense is that Man of Steel is comparatively lifeless, not helped by its subdued colour palette. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a useful touchstone in approaching The Man of Steel, as it establishes the sort of gritty realism to expect from this new kind of superhero movie. It doesn’t hurt that Man of Steel follows a similar formula to Batman Begins, in starting from the middle of the story (Krypton prologue aside), and then flashing back to random moments in Clark Kent’s life that serve to build his character, and inform who he is today.
In terms of story, it’s an amalgam of The Motion Picture and Superman II, dropping Lex Luthor, and concentrating on re-telling the origin story, before bringing in the Zod storyline. In broad strokes it’s pretty much the same, Kal-El, the Kryptonian orphan sent to Earth after the destruction of his planet, and Zod, escaping the Phantom Zone, aggrieved at Jor-El, and ready to take it out on his son, but in terms of the fine details, this film takes it in a wholly different direction, especially when it comes to the characterisations.
This is a more conflicted Clark Kent that grows up in rural Kansas, one who has a whole lot of trouble coming to terms with his growing powers, and whose adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha are almost paranoid at keeping their son secret, fearful of how the world would react if the truth about aliens living among them came out. So all his life he’s told to keep his head down, stay out of sight, to not use his abilities, to not reveal himself until he’s sure the world is ready. But then, when he does eventually find the Kryptonian scout ship, and activates the Jor-El hologram, it turns out that his biological father has a wholly different plan. Jor-El sent his son to Earth to be a saviour, an almost religious figure to lead by example, and to take the poor, weak, and flawed humanity towards the light. It’s a megalomaniacal side to the Jor-El’s character that is just as flawed and for want of a better word, villainous as Zod is, committed to saving Krypton by any means, and when that fails, doing whatever it takes to recreate it on Earth.
‘Whatever it takes’ results in the epic battle that I longed for in Superman 2, as Zod and his legions lay waste first to Smallville, and then Metropolis, hunting for the son of Jor-El and the Codex, and then putting into motion their scheme of terraforming the Earth. You know what they say, be careful what you wish for... It is an epic battle that deftly blends live action with CGI, so that you can’t even register the seams. And somewhere within the massive explosions, the buildings crashing down, the city turned to wasteland, the character and narrative of the film is lost.
That is Man of Steel’s one weakness, not Kryptonite, but a lack of character. That Kal-El is somewhat detached from the humanity that he fights to protect is understandable, given the upbringing that he got from the Kents telling him to remain isolated, and the burden put on his shoulder by Jor-El. It’s only when he meets Lois Lane that he forms a tangible human connection. Even then it’s notable that following the battle of Metropolis, with all that destruction and loss of human life, it’s not that loss that causes him anguish. However, the rest of the characters seem under-developed too. I never really got the sense of Lois Lane or Perry White, while most of the rest of the cast blurred into a morass. There just wasn’t enough personality to the film.
Had I watched this film on release, I would have pointed out another weakness, a failure to address the questions that it asks. It has this epic battle of Metropolis, with Titans going at each other, seemingly uncaring of the ‘ants’ they step on in their eagerness to defeat the other, and the film doesn’t address the consequences of this. Also, it creates this dichotomy in Superman’s upbringing, the fear of xenophobia instilled by the Kents, and the role of Messiah cast by Jor-El upon his son, and again, the film doesn’t really address this. I would have said that this was a detriment, until I saw the trailer for the sequel, Batman V Superman: The Dawn of Justice, which seems to be all about these lingering questions. If there will be a consistent story arc going through the films, then Man of Steel would have been a worthy movie to kick things off.