Aside from The Host and Iron Man 3, this was the only other film I really wanted to watch this year. Now that I've watched it, I can safely say I've probably watched too many films for my own good, as I'm not enjoying these 'big films' as much as I think I should, I blame the overpopulation of films crowding my brain fighting to be deemed worthy of long term potentiation. Shall I cut back further to maybe only one film a month? Once I finish setting up my website and start working on new projects I probably would have to anyway.
But having said all that, Man of Steel is a film that has great moments but even greater flaws. Perhaps the biggest issues I had with this film stems from the logical liberties the source material took, thus not really the fault of the director or the production team in adapting this material. Between the extensive fight scenes and rapid transitions, I could see moments of genius in the writing that took unreal, fantastical characters from modern parables and make it relevant to a modern audience. The most of the good bits were in the trailers, so if you weren't convinced by the trailer to see the film, then I'd say you should give this a pass.
I have watched the first two Superman films from 1978 and 1980, which from a nostalgic perspective were the most iconic of the comic book films before the 2000s modernized the genre, giving it a more realistic and serious tone to appeal to an increasingly pessimistic world. Honestly I can't say this film is dark as much as it is a tragedy.
This is a story about the end of a civilization, and how Kal-El (or Clark Kent/Superman/The Man of Steel) is the remnant of that race, serving as both the hope and the reminder to humanity that "with great power comes great responsibility". There are social, political, psychological and philosophical undertones that could have matched those in The Dark Knight, but too much focus has been placed on fighting and screaming and duelling. Not that they aren't fun to watch but I think half the audience would have gotten bored of it as they came into the film expecting more focus on the psyche and development of Superman as a character.
Their ambition was huge, but being compressed for time you can see they rushed a lot of scenes and probably cut out some important scenes which would have glued character development better. There's a lot of assumptions that you've seen previous films as they gloss over 'familiar' characters, despite being given arguably more screen time and personality than in previous reboots. The back-stories and relationships of most characters felt like genuine improvements over previous attempts, but ironically created more suspense-of-disbelief-killing plot holes, especially on the Kryptonian side of the story.
Hans Zimmer also replaces the originally light-hearted but epic themes with panning and atmospheric music that is supposed to be ominous but also giving a sense of elevation or uplifting. While I appreciate what he was trying to convey, being paired with scenes that are too rushed or chopped up, it's hard to be fully absorbed when you're snatched out of the moment at supersonic speeds every time a fight pops up. Also, the film works so hard to hammer in the new motifs, trying desperately to make you forget John William's classic version, it ends up feeling like they have no variety at all in their soundtrack, with that same drum beat and string pattern drilled into your subconscious.
Perhaps this film deserved a 3-4 hour cut release; that way they can give more time for each of the scenes, and slow down the development so that it feels less like a reader's digest article and more like a novel. Most of the talky bits are actually the least interesting. It is seeing the subtle emotions, the facial expressions of people when they are confronted with the truth, death, hope within the quieter scenes. A lot more was said in a lot less of the film. Also, the action pieces, especially the last ones, were too reminiscent of The Matrix Revolutions; I kept forgetting that it was Superman fighting General Zod as they ripped apart the city while trying to save it.
But overall, the film has lots of intelligence, a lot of depth in between the action pieces, dialogues were mature and well intended, but perhaps too incompatible when what follows are chaotic, city-razing action that is dizzying at best and often excessive. I can see there was a lot of heart put into the film, the visuals, and character development, but at the same time I left the screening with so many unanswered questions. The Steel part of the man was shown very convincingly, but not the Super part, so I guess the choice if the film's title is appropriate. This is a unique and decent reboot, but not a fully satisfactory one. Maybe I shall just wait for its sequel, which given that Snyder is using the approach taken by Nolan, should be the best of the three!
7.0 / 10.0 (Spoilers ahead)
One of the most glaring problems I found with this film is the back story segments; how clumsily it explains away the destruction of Krypton as well as both Jor-El and Zod's mission to save their race from extinction. We get a really rushed opening act, filled with too much action and "visionary science fiction" show off but not giving enough explanation. You see more of Zod than in the original but understand his motivation even less.
It is quickly established in the opening act that Krypton is a highly advanced civilisation that have mastered space exploration for millenia, yet it is unable to escape its home planet because of core depletion? We see later that both Superman and General Zod's prison ship had no trouble travelling faster than the speed of light to get to Earth, so really at least some evacuation ships should've been able to escape doom. I guess you could argue that the Kryptonians chose not to abandon their dying planet, but that seems opposite to their philosophy of preserving their race, given their previous attempts at finding habitable planets, other civilizations and lots of active spaceflight technology.
We are also told that Krypton has been using genetic engineering for centuries to breed a superior race and also control population. General Zod was evidently born to be a military leader, and Jor-El was born to be some form of scientist/engineer to design...err...spaceships? Lets say their genetic engineering process wasn't perfect, which is why Zod somewhat strayed/distorted from his purpose. But even so, why would Krypton need a military to begin with? That implies they have someone to defend itself against. Was the planet at war? Are there other civilisations out there other than Earth they have seen as a threat? If yes, why didn't they help Krypton in their time of need? So many questions, but this potential larger world is basically overlooked because the theatrical clock is ticking and we need to get to superman, so lets just quickly destroy Krypton so we can get moving!
Also, after so many Superman movies, we still don't really get a satisfactory explanation of how Superman's powers work. Yes this is science fantasy rather than science fiction, but given how hard Snyder was trying to construct this film as if it could happen in our world, it felt really implausible that a Superman who grew up on Earth would only discover his ability to fly in adulthood. I mean, what was he doing during his teen years, where he wasn't popular enough to be hanging out with the cool kids, and living in a farm? Did he seriously spend all that time moping about his identity and never tried exploring his abilities like Spiderman did? Of course, this aspect of the film also has very powerful moments, but we'll get back to Superman in a bit; I'll wrap up one more issue with the Krypton part of this story, and that is the Codex.
Essentially the Codex is the master copy hard drive of Kryptonian DNA, which allows them to engineer any Kryptonian baby tailored to have a particular function in their society. But then Jor-El infuses Kal-El's cells with the Codex. Does that mean Superman is the perfect Kryptonian, or does his blood cells just have two strands of DNA? Also, for something as important as the Codex, you would think that it is more heavily guarded and harder to reach. But nope, Jor-El manages to steal it just by jumping in and out of the breeding pool. By the way, I have to mention this (and probably will a few more times), but there are many scenes in this film that looks heavily influenced by ideas from The Matrix trilogy. Are babies grown in nutrition bubbles on trees really the most efficient way to mass produce offsprings?
On the other hand, the best aspect of this film is definitely the human characters. I don't just mean Lois Lane and the human half of Superman, but also the side characters like Perry White (Daily Planet's editor-in-chief, who is played by Morpheus), the adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, and to my pleasant surprise, the several military characters with significant screen time like the Lieutenant who Superman initially surrenders to, and the Colonel who has the galls to fight Faora knowing he is far outmatched by this superspeed Krytonian warrior.
Firstly, I can see Nolan's influence on how they reshaped the hero and his 'damsel in distress' into a more gritty, more juicy characters and not just cardboard cutouts of cinematic cliches. I mean yeah they both still make it out alive, but their involvement in the story is a lot more complex and there are times when it's not simply one party saving another, but also both parties ready to take action despite not knowing if either will make it. They are characters who walk the talk, and show both the strength and weaknesses of humanity embedded in their personalities. They are never over the top and never straightforward. Okay Lois Lane is a bit one-note but she is a functional part of the resolution, and not simply the love interest that needs to be saved.
Clark Kent is a lot more fascinating than Superman because you can see how he is born with a good nature, but also struggles with being brought up with human culture, philosophy and morality. His natural instinct to help people is hindered only by his adoptive father's insistence that the world would not accept him if he showed people his true abilities publicly, a belief so strong that he literally died for it when Clark could have saved him. This would have really scarred him as a teenager to feel like he should have saved his adoptive father but also that he shouldn't have.
Unfortunately, the transition from not knowing who he should be to accepting his true heritage and purpose was probably the weakest and least convincing part of his character development, given it was basically a pep talk from a projection of the biological father he never knew that convinced him to instantly don the cape and immediately become Superman.
I really liked the expanded role they gave Perry White. Perhaps he was too smart to be realistic, but at the same time I'm glad he isn't a throwaway cliche about the ignorant boss who only cares about the story and selling newspapers. Similarly the colonel and lieutenant that works most closely with Superman are reasonable people. They don't adopt the "shoot first ask questions later" cliche of military people in most Hollywood action films. Unfortunately the off-screen US government they must answer to is a bit too obvious. Good thing they're off screen.
You do really learn to appreciate what Nolan did to the superhero genre when he transformed what are essentially 2-dimensional characters squeezed into rectangles on a piece of papers into real humans (though still projected through a 2-dimensional rectangular screen). I do love how they make fun of how useless and counterproductive that cape is as well.
The crowning failure of Man of Steel has got to be its ending. I'm talking about the entire process of starting the terraforming process until Superman thwarts their plan and kills Zod. Now where do I begin...
Okay lets talk about the terraforming device first. I can buy that the Kryptonian soldiers were able to improvise a "world engine". I can buy that they built defensive transmorphing claws on one of the ends of the engine to prevent sabotage all within the matter of hours. I can even buy that you can stop the engine by crashing two engine to create a micro blackhole that is big enough to absorb the spaceships but conveniently small enough that it doesn't consume at least half of New York (or even all of Earth) thus sparing the sole Daily Planet survivors, but when Lois falls from the plane she is obviously within range of the blackhole since it is picking up building parts tens to hundreds times larger/heavier than her. How on Earth is she still falling AWAY from it? And she is the ONLY thing that is falling away from it. I guess for all the cliches they avoided in the rest of the film, this is what they were making up for.
On the other side of the planet, we also have Superman trying to destroy the other half of the terraforming device. There are several important beat-changers about how Superman's power works here. Firstly, the film suggests that the limit to what he can do is tied to both his exposure to the yellow sun, his belief in his own abilities, as well as the motivation he has for protecting Earth. This is why he is able to continue to fight with super abilities and flight despite being immersed in an increasingly Kryptonian environment. While I can appreciate this symbolism, I have to say it is too far removed from the rest of the film that it makes it hard for me to see him as the same Superman from earlier.
Obviously in a superhero movie, the climax must have action, because it needs to be the point in the film with the highest stakes and greatest conflict between the main protagonist and antagonist. However given that the end of the previous act (around 90 minutes in) was also action-filled, with short pauses here and there, this means that you have to watch a total of about 40 minutes of super fight scenes with the complete devastation of New York as a backdrop. He really makes The Avengers look comparatively professional at saving humanity. Oh well it's his first day on the job so lets give him some slack.
The last scene of the film is not good or bad. It is however a very quick and possibly unintentional commentary about individualism, patriotism and privacy. Given the recent plethora of stories about how the privacy of American citizens has been ignored by government, the fact that Superman took down a spy satellite is in a way endorsing activites by WikiLeaks, Anonymous and other modern Hacktivists to serving people "on their own terms".
I get a feeling that Snyder wanted to leave us with an image of Superman that is not yet mature, who is good natured but still has some human selfishness. He values his privacy, he wants to serve his country in his own 'ways'. This is a very dangerous view, which the colonel does point out very bluntly. Given the globality of his original mission, what if one day America is no longer the 'good guys'? Does he change his uniform to another color (say red and yellow)?
I'm hoping there will be an extended edition released. I have very strong feelings that this film has more to it than in the theatrical cut. There is definitely a lot of good things in this film, most of it you have to pay attention and think about in retrospect to notice, but the one I saw in the cinema is too rushed to be a fully satsifactory experience, so I think I shall wait for the home media release before watching it again.