"Full of sound and fury signifying nothing"
Richard Donner, you may rest easy tonight. The honor of directing the best live-action Superman film still belongs to you. And Christopher Reeve, in whatever Valhalla you now reside in, you may take comfort in the fact that you are forever and always the living incarnation of the greatest superhero of them all. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978) despite its' flaws, remains the reigning champion of Superman films despite the current pretender to the throne.
MAN OF STEEL (which I saw this morning) is not as bad a film as SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006) but it's far from a good one. Like almost all contemporary action films it's far too long, with multiple climaxes. And it's too grim and gritty. There's almost no humor in the film and Henry Cavill, who plays Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman never smiles. Come on guys, lighten up just a little.
I have no beef with Cavill as a physical presence. He's far superior to Brandon Routh in RETURNS. Cavill is good-looking and well-built and brings some serious acting chops to the role. I'm not crazy about the costume, although I did dig the extra-long cape (but it should have had a yellow "S" shield on the back). Amy Adams makes a good Lois Lane but there's no Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle, no romantic tension in the air whatsoever. She figures out the identity of the mysterious super-doer early on and keeps his secret.
There is a Daily Planet and a Perry White (competently played by Laurence Fishburne) but there's no Jimmy Olsen (say what?). Instead, we get Steve Lombard (a nice nod to comic book continuity but not as good as the red-haired cub reporter and Superman's pal).
There's the destruction of Krypton in an opening sequence that owes as much to George Lucas as Siegel and Shuster. Russell Crowe makes a good Jor-El and he proves it's hard to keep a good man dead as the ghost of Jor-El keeps popping up time and time again throughout the film to provide convenient info-dumps.
Kevin Costner is also good as Jonathan Kent who, like Jor-El, dies a noble death and makes repeated appearances throughout the film in numerous flashback sequences. I suspect both Crowe and Costner agreed to the parts on the condition that even though their characters both die, they would receive an almost equal amount of screen time.
The problem with this film is that it's cranked up to 11 with the third act an orgy of destruction on an unprecedented scale. Smallville is destroyed by Superman's battle with the Kryptonians, a large part of Metropolis is likewise obliterated and there's major damage to the earth itself thanks to something called "the world engine", a nefarious device the Kryptonians use to attempt to terra-form the earth into a more Kryptonesque planet.
The final battle between Superman and Zod is where I have my biggest beef with the film. It's a spectacular knock-down, drag out fight loaded with CGI action that goes on entirely too long. Frankly, I was bored by the sequence. While the two were duking it out, I kept thinking how much property damage has been caused by Superman and the Kryptonians. Billions of dollars? Trillions? A small mid-western town is razed and a good part of a very large city is simply gone by the time the fights are over.
That's not to mention the countless innocent lives that must have been lost in such a massive amount of destruction. We're never shown these deaths on-screen but they surely must occur. At the end of the film, two cities (and the very planet) itself face a rebuilding task that will take untold years and uncounted dollars to accomplish. Superman stands not as earth's greatest hero, but as it's greatest threat. If he could do this much damage while trying to save the earth, imagine what he could do if he was trying to destroy it. Every man, woman and child on earth should should be very afraid of this powerful being in their midst.
During the wholesale devastation of Metropolis sequence I also kept thinking to myself, this is not the way MY Superman would handle this. He'd get Zod out of a heavily populated area (like the eastern seaboard) and take the fight to an isolated, unpopulated area of the country where they could fight their hearts out rather than jeopardize (and kill) thousands of innocent people.
And MY Superman would never, never, never have resulted to (SPOILER WARNING) killing Zod to stop his rampage. MY Superman would have used his brain to figure out a way to defeat the villain. It's as much his brain as his brawn that makes Superman super and his moral code against ever taking a life is a strongly ingrained part of the Superman mythos. Superman's moral compass, no matter what, always points true north.
The film is so full to bursting with CGI and blurry, whizzy action that at times I wasn't sure exactly what I was seeing on the screen. There are lens flares (though not as many as there would be if this was a J.J. Abrams film) and the score by Hans Zimmer (is there a worse contemporary film composer?) is totally devoid of any of the heroic fanfares that made John Williams original the classic masterpiece that it is.
Product placement abounds (Sears, 7-Eleven, Ihop, LexCorp) and it's only in the final scene that Kal-El becomes the mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. I wonder how much time has elapsed between the destruction of Metropolis and the Daily Planet building and Clark's first day on the job? It's as if nothing had ever happened when he walks into the newsroom. And of course Lois knows full well who he is so there's no chance of her disdaining puny Clark to moon over Superman.
There is only one shot in this entire film which made my heart swell. It comes near the end of the film during a flashback sequence to Clark's boyhood in Kansas. Young Clark is running around the yard with his dog and he has a red towel tied around his neck. At one point he stops running, puts his fists on his hips and strikes the Superman pose, the pose that sums up everything that is good and noble and pure about this greatest hero of them all. It's a brief moment that put a small lump in my throat.
Trouble is, it's a fleeting few seconds of screen-time at the end of a very long film which should have been full of such grace notes. Truth, justice and the American way, as corny and old-fashioned as it sounds, is a very large part of what makes Superman super. It's the very essence of Superman's character and it is nowhere to be found in MAN OF STEEL.