Man of Steel: More “OK” than “Super”

Batman and Superman, the two most iconic superheroes of DC Comics, also followed similar patterns when they were initially adapted to film; the first two adaptations were well-received by the fanbase, while the third film in both franchises was more divisive and the fourth effectively killed each until the modern upswing in superhero movies revived them. Batman and Superman diverged in their revivals, however; Christopher Nolan’s new Batman trilogy took off explosively, remaining one of the more popular modern superhero films today, but Superman Returns, the intended resurrection of Superman, met with a lukewarm reception, leading to today’s topic, Man of Steel, a new start for the character directed by Nolan himself.

There were some concerns prior to Man of Steel’s release that the reboot might not feel like a Superman film, as the rather dark, pseudo-realistic tone that worked so well for the Batman reboot would not work for a brighter and more fantastic character like Superman. I believe these concerns are unfounded now that I have seen the movie; Man of Steel does feel like a Superman movie to me rather than trying to recapture the Batman feel with a very different superhero. Unfortunately, while I felt Man of Steel did a number of things well, I also had a number of problems with it that prevented me from finding it as compelling an origin movie as Batman Begins.

The film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime acts as both a blessing and a curse, but its primary benefit is that it lets the film take more time than a shorter movie would have available to try and balance out the matter of an origin film’s three crucial parts; life before the cape, donning the new identity, and the superhero’s first great battle against evil. The longer timeframe available in Man of Steel allows for increased focus and exploration on the first two parts without minimizing the third. The film has an interesting prologue that gives a perspective on Kryptonian culture that is not usually seen in adaptations of Superman; in Man of Steel, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is the first natural-born child in generations, born free of the genetically pre-determined roles encoded onto artificially born Kryptonians. Between the philosophy of Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe, one of the movie’s best performances) and Kal-El’s somewhat troubled but loving upbringing as Clark Kent, we are given a more complicated look at Superman, a character who has needed to struggle with abilities he doesn’t fully understand his entire childhood, and how the need to balance his secrecy against his compulsion to help people in need has made Clark into an anonymous drifter before he discovers his origins.

The movie also pays attention to the third element of the origin equation, and deftly sidesteps the problems Superman often faces of being too powerful for most forces to truly challenge him by immediately pitting Superman against enemies as powerful as he is in his first outing; evil Kryptonians led by General Zod (Michael Shannon), one of Superman’s best-known archenemies after Lex Luthor himself. The battles between the Kryptonians makes for a good way to have Superman come out of the gate with no artificial restrictions on his abilities, simply showing how powerful he is by struggling and eventually overcoming enemies just as strong as he is and far more ruthless with their power.

That said, as I mentioned earlier, Man of Steel is a very long film, and that does also work to its detriment in places. I am typically of the belief that complaining about the length of a film is absurd as long as the film remains compelling throughout, but I feel Man of Steel loses some of its ability to compel when its sheer scale becomes too bulky for its own good, particularly when some performances or the story itself just can’t pick up the slack. Repeatedly during the film, I felt that some scenes could have probably benefitted from some editing for brevity; Jor-El’s info dump to Clark in particular seems to drag, especially since a large part of it is covering events we already witnessed in detail at the prologue. The action scenes, too, also seemed to be in need of some editing; for a movie clocking in at two and a half hours, the last hour or so of that feels like one long, barely interrupted fight scene, until all of the action and the massive amounts of collateral damage lovingly captured in the midst of it sort of blurs together, lacking the impact of a concise, intense battle. Going as long as it did meant Man of Steel could avoid having to sacrifice elements it was supposed to balance, but this came at the cost of making the movie feel plodding in places and overstuffed in others where more efficiency might have improved its impact. The movie also suffers from a needlessly shaky camera, which becomes noticeable in the first ten minutes and annoying by the first fifteen.

Overall, I found Man of Steel to be a very middle-of-the-road movie; while ambitious and certainly in-depth in its attempts to examine what makes Superman who he is, the movie’s reach often exceeds its grasp to the pacing’s cost, and the viewer is left with the paradox of Superman, the superhero with the greatest possible scale of all DC’s creations, being better off with a little less in his new origin movie. Attempting to have too much in their opening film ultimately ends up stealing away the chance for what they do well to have as much impact as it might in a more efficient film; the performances, the action, and the story have stretched to the point where “good” becomes “decent” and greatness just isn’t there in enough abundance to carry the movie beyond adequacy to glory.

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