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Man of Steel This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

I wanted to love Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel”. I really did. I may be the only living, breathing piece of flesh on this earth that genuinely reveres his adaptation of “Watchmen”—I find it artful without being pretentious and its moral conflicts to be equally as compelling as anything proposed in the “Dark Knight” trilogy—and his attachment to the Superman reboot legitimately had me pumped. The man understands action, he knows how to frame a scene, and he can tell a story. “300” took history, fantasy, groundbreaking visuals, unabashed escapism, and visceral thrill and made it into a cinematic smoothie of a near-perfect consistency. The general problem that plagues his work is a sort of signature breakneck pace that doesn’t leave much room to invest any sort of emotional stakes in the proceedings and a half-assed attempt at casting (Mickey Rourke, why were you in “Sin City”?). For “Man of Steel”, Snyder works from a script created by David S. Goyer and a story co-created by Christopher Nolan. Emotional stakes, check. His cast includes Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Shannon, and Russell Crowe. Full-assed casting attempt, double check. Everybody is firing on all cylinders here. The actors are never to fault for the considerable failings of the picture, but we’ll get to that later. For now, the good.

Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder have gone all-out in a complete overhaul of the Superman mythology. They do many, many compelling things with it. Clark’s adjustment to the physicality of Earth provides him his power, not the sun. He is referred to as Superman a total of two times throughout the entire film. Kryptonite is notably absent as Kal-El’s source of weakness—there’s a more rigid scientific explanation. There is an extended (too extended, in fact) opening sequence on Krypton that is visually breathtaking and does an admirable job of providing us necessary backstory regarding the circumstances of Kal-El’s creation and the souring political climate of the planet before its tragic self-destruction. They make the Zod (Shannon) of “Superman II” into a fully realized, compelling, layered villain. His predestination, and the predestination of all on Krypton with the exception of Kal-El, is endlessly intriguing in the area of character motivations. The cinematography is, in a word, awe-inspiring. Questions of belonging and morality of both the American public and those put in charge (Superhero or military hero) are interestingly examined throughout. Lois Lane is the highlight of the entire proceedings—Amy Adams gives a sensational performance, and she’s written as an intelligent, capable, funny woman who is entirely aware of the Clark Kent/Superman duality for a change. Gone is the goofy, lighthearted, period-specific Americana of the original film series—but that’s not to say the fun has suffered the same. The Goyer/Nolan/Snyder overhaul does not overshadow the more traditional aspects of the superhero blockbuster that “Man of Steel” gets very, very right: the climactic battle(s) are truly unparalleled in their visual mastery. The obligatory “good vs. evil” struggle is handled with a satisfyingly ambiguous twist. It, as superhero movies should, reflects the sociopolitical climate of its release with diligence and doesn’t shy away from big, loud set pieces guaranteed to satisfy.

In fact, loud is “Man of Steel”s biggest problem. Noise—narrative, literal, aural—deals some serious damage to the project. While the aforementioned changes to and revolutions of the Superman mythos are truly compelling, the actual script that contains them is fatally weak. It scratches the surface of insight numerous times without so much as attempting to break the skin. It favors the “With great power comes great responsibility” cliché over the naturalistic line of dialogue. Worst of all, this is an action movie that has never heard of pacing. The initial sequence on Krypton lurches the film into high-gear almost immediately, overstays its welcome by about 10 minutes, and then ends all-too-abruptly. It manages to be both too long and undercooked, refusing to tie up an incredible number of loose ends that don’t resurface for at least an hour. It also sports some of the clunkiest dialogue in a film that is really really in love with clunky dialogue. Sure, it’s less hammy than the Asgard-speak presented in the first third of “Thor”, but not by a comfortably wide margin. When we finally arrive on earth, things sink even deeper. Instead of showing us Kal-El’s arrival and subsequent coming of age, as expected, we are treated to a fully-grown and deeply tortured Clark Kent recalling his childhood in flashback. These recalled interactions with Clark’s parents and peers are rather successful. There’s some really emotionally satisfying moments and well-directed dramatic scenes to be found in these portions of the film (ignoring some obvious logic gaps: when Clark is told he’s an alien from another planet who was found in a cornfield, he has a pretty low number of questions). Unfortunately, Goyer’s narrative technique makes it impossible to invest in these moments. The non-linear storytelling is a gimmick that’s intriguing for a second because of the audacity of its subversion, but ultimately it just undercuts the job of these scenes in the first place: it’s difficult to actually care about a boy you meet at age 7, 11, and 14 for a few minutes at inconsistent intervals. During this, the film’s exposition, we don’t really learn anything about any of the characters. We see key moments but we’re given absolutely no context, and it leaves the viewer unpleasantly cold. The entire development of the story we’re supposed to care about just plays like a trailer for itself, a build up with no payoff and a promise that’s left unfulfilled. It’s a shame, because Henry Cavill is a capable newcomer and it’s clear that he could command the screen with gravitas. But the backstory that’s supposed to be supporting his acting choices for the last hour and a half of the picture is so weak and vague that we’re essentially watching a cardboard cutout that someone has loaded with a hard-working artificial heart.

And then there’s those unparalleled action sequences. The whizzing exhilaration of POV shots with Superman causing the air to melt beneath him. Stunning. Heart-pounding. Legitimately awe-inspiring…until they’re not. Snyder remains so gleefully committed to showing the audience what destruction must be wrought by two super-beings at war (Superman and faces Zod and numerous other Kryptonian semi-fascists) that he goes completely overboard and ends up creating a noisy bore. Nearly 45 minutes of all-out destruction with little breathers begin to blend together, and each time a new giant set piece is introduced it becomes a little more exhausting—by the time Kal-El is sent off to fight some sort of giant atmosphere-gravity machine (equally unclear in the film), watch checking is all but inevitable. Snyder creates a beautiful beast that eventually just numbs the senses. He builds Frankenstein, and then makes 50 more. Excess is a quality that I generally admire in filmmakers, but Snyder does not yet understand how to inject excess with vitality. By the time we see the fifteenth building break in about 20 minutes, it’s over. There’s nowhere new to go, and the film suffers for it. He’s not helped by Hans Zimmerman’s deafening assault of a score, which bludgeons from the get-go and never really lets up.

What “Man of Steel” really needs is a sequel. I suppose I’m being so hard this entry because of its wasted potential, but there is plenty of potential fulfilled—and that which isn’t fulfilled still remains. The rampant flaws of this origin story don’t entirely overshadow its value as a piece of popular entertainment. A honing of its overblown action sequences would render them mind-bending. A fleshing-out of character development in the script could give us a rich compulsion to undercut the breathtaking visuals. And some of its questions—most notably that of Superman’s “no kill rule”, broken at the culmination of the Superman/Zod battle (in what is ultimately an incredibly moving payoff and brief glimpse of emotional redemption to the mindless climactic chaos that precedes it)—remain rich. Clark’s choice to come out and protect the people that raised him while inadvertently destroying his roots is rife with Shakesperean tragedy. The Lois Lane dynamic is left in its early stages, and could be mined for romance that’s equally as satisfying as the Stark/Potts banter in the “Iron Man” films. And the attempt to synthesize the serious and the grand gives “Man of Steel” a definite tonal identity in a sea of faux-clever, toneless, assembly-line superhero films. As it stands, it’s an occasionally riveting, emotionally shaky, admirably flawed first step into what could be the skeleton of a great franchise, and it’s eons above fodder like “The Amazing Spider-Man”, “Thor”, “Captain America” or either of the “Hulk” pictures. Its issues keep it from scraping the heights reached by genre classics like “The Avengers”, Nolan’s own “Dark Knight” trilogy, or even the first two “Spider-Man” films, but there’s hope yet. This man is, at most, a strong aluminum, but fine-tuning can reinforce his steel.

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StarSophia98 said...
Sept. 7, 2013 at 11:27 pm
Not having seen many super hero movies or any other Superman ones, I really enjoyed the movie.  The value placed on family and the importance of taking a "leap of faith" were really cool to see.  Not amazing, but worth watching!
Cyber-SkullThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jun. 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm
I thought the movie was okay for what it was. I was honestly surprised by what we got. I thought it was going to bomb. Guess not.
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