Look! Up in the cinema! It’s a bird… it’s a plane… you know how this one goes, right?
(Warning: SuperSpoilers ahead!)
Just in case that didn’t sink in; in this review there will be massive, plot destroying SPOILERS.
SPOILERS, PEOPLE. I’LL BE BUSTING THEM OUT, DOOMSDAY STYLE. Here, have a trailer to give you a taste:
Look, just in case, here’s a massive picture of Captain Caveman to scroll past. Go past his furry little toes, and I’m presuming you’ve either seen Man Of Steel, or you’ve got no interest in doing so.
Image: Spike’s Sketch Squad, Captain Caveman is © Hanna Barbera, etc.
If you’re anything like me, inside your head you just shouted CAPTAIN CAAAAAAAAVEMAN!!!. But I digress, because Man Of Steel isn’t a movie about Captain Caveman (although that’s a fine, fine idea). It’s a movie about Superman, which is its main selling point.
It’s also its main problem, as it always is with any Superman movie. By very definition, Superman movies will feature… Superman.
Which all sounds very obvious, but the problem with Superman, in a movie sense, is that he’s an exceptionally difficult character to write anything with a compelling narrative arc, because he’s Superman. Technically invincible, can fly, super-strong, heat vision, x-ray vision, big blue boy scout, all that baggage. It makes it tough for any movie scriptwriter to approach Superman in a genuinely new way, because it’s tough to put Superman in any kind of believable peril.
So Man Of Steel doesn’t really try to do that, instead opting to tell a Superman story set around War Of The Worlds, by way of the grittier Christopher Nolan Batman movies, but not too much. That’s probably a good thing; Superman isn’t really a character that lends itself all that well to subtle nuance. Equally, though, there’s only so much you can do to put Superman in realistic peril (which is to say, almost nothing), so you’ve got to instead create peril for Superman to oppose.
If you’re after lots of exploding buildings — and I mean LOTS of exploding buildings — then Man Of Steel certainly delivers. I reckon there’s an interesting bit of academic research to be done on how American attitudes to falling buildings has shifted in the last twelve years, but it’s clear that Man Of Steel’s remit was to digitally knock as many of those suckers down as possible. It’s visually pretty well done (with the exception of one shot, which I’ll address below), but also done to excess. One building collapsing is terrifying; by the time the fiftieth has gone down the impact is lost.
Impact is a problem for Man Of Steel, because it often slows down into being a slow, ponderous movie. In all sorts of ways, it reminds me of Ang Lee’s Hulk, another movie character who has invincibility problems. Joss Whedon got the Hulk balance right in The Avengers by limiting his on-screen time, but naturally in a Superman movie you don’t have that kind of luxury.
Man Of Steel takes its time telling the origin story, and while I rather like the forced-flashback-yes-we-know-you’ve-seen-this-before style used, there’s no doubt that it takes its damn time getting to the point. The opening scenes on Krypton run for… forever, basically, especially again as the later quick cuts make it clear the movie-going audience is expected to be au fait with the overarching Superman mythos.
When it’s not being slow and ponderous, it tries for lots of ‘splosions. Lots and lots of ‘splosions (nothing wrong with ‘splosions, mind you), intercut with product placement. Yes, Nikon, I get that Lois Lane uses a Nikon camera with a Nikon lens to shoot digital photos that somehow never seem to end up getting used for anything. But that Nikon. It’s there. Always. It deserves its own little red cape.
Anyway, we interrupt this commercial break to get back to our movie… which features lots of fight scenes. Again, this falls against the classic Superman problem; he’s pretty much indestructible. There’s a brief — and very War Of The Worlds-esque — bit where he’s so affected by a Kryptonian atmosphere that he pukes blood (lovely…) but it’s rather rapidly dealt with by making the shipboard scene very quick.
Before I move on, a glaring plot hole (or possibly a deleted scene) that bugged me as I was watching; Zod demands Lois be brought onto the ship, quite randomly. She’s basically there to advance the plot; Superman needs to hand her the Kryptonian USB drive (with pre-installed Jor-El Operating System (™) ) so she can install it and get some advice to defeat the aliens with (
the common cold) another macguffin… but why did Zod want her, and specifically her? There’s later mention of having her mind scanned, but we never see that, and if Faora had picked ANY other soldier present as the mind scannee — which might make sense, military being military and perhaps, you know, knowing something that Lois wouldn’t — then Superman wouldn’t have trusted them, and the plot just falls over flat.
That out of the way, Man Of Steel falls into most of the classic Superman movie problem areas. Superman can’t be hurt, so we need to empathise with other characters… but there aren’t that many of them. Lois is only intermittently in peril (or is placed in it stupid ways; why did she need to fly with the Phantom Zone bomb?), Martha Kent is remarkably tough but equally stupid in that she goes back into a collapsing house with A CAR SKEWERED THROUGH IT because… photos, apparently. After that, there’s a few key soldiers, none of which have much beyond a clichéd military pose to strike, and that’s it. The movie’s quite happy to off random soldiers on a whim, so you don’t really care about any of them.
What about the civilians? Sure, there’s Perry White and a few interns, but they’re not given much screen time or character either. There’s a particularly ludicrous shot where Laurence Fishburne (who does a good job with the limited role he’s got) has to run away… very slowly… from a poorly composited building that’s shattering right behind him. For me, it was a solid suspension of disbelief problem, compounded not that long after, when, after the Worldengine has been pounding Metropolis into smaller and smaller chunks, we shift slightly wider to discover LOTS of bystanders gawping up at Superman and Zod as they biff into each other for a solid fifteen minutes. While buildings collapse around them. Which has been happening for about twenty minutes by now, but they never thought to, say, evacuate. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re fine.
But I’m not so sure about the guys in boats we see on the other end of the Worldengine somewhere in the Indian Ocean. They’re probably crisped when it goes up, but that’s OK — they weren’t Americans anyway…
Despite what might seem like me being on a downer on this flick, I can’t fault the performances. Henry Cavill’s got the physique and even the aloofness to make a great Superman, Diane Lane makes a nicely fragile Martha Kent, and so on. They do a good job with material that isn’t that great. Although I must admit I kept waiting for Lois Lane to break into “Life’s A Happy Song”
If you just want big explosions, then Man Of Steel has them in spades. If you want a Superman movie that’s been shot through the filter of the Nolan Batman movies, then it’s got that too, without any of the characterisation that goes with it. That’s partly a problem with the Superman story as it stands, but also a fault of the script that doesn’t create that many compelling characters to begin with. If you’re happy to switch your brain off — a LOT — then Man Of Steel is OK, but compared even against the popcorn-fodder that is your typical superhero movie, it’s got some problems you could run faster-than-a-speeding-train through.