Man of Steel

Movie Information

The Story: A reworking of the Superman origin story. The Lowdown: A mixed bag of a movie that holds its own for about 90 minutes before turning into 45 minutes of noisy, repetitive action. It is not, however, without merit.
Genre: Comic Book Sci-Fi Action
Director: Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch)
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne
Rated: PG-13

Believe me, I am as surprised as anyone that I didn’t hate Man of Steel. I have never found the character of Superman interesting. The last Zack Snyder movie I actually liked was his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. And as much as I could do without anymore comic book movies in general, I am particularly over the Christopher Nolanized brand of heavy-handed phony seriousness. Man of Steel contains all these things in one mind-numbingly long package, but for the first 90 minutes I found much to admire. For that matter, there are good things to be found in the nonstop, soul-killing action orgy of the climactic 45 minutes, but you have to dig for them. In fact, I’m convinced there’s probably a pretty darn good 105-minute movie wrapped inside this unwieldy 143-minute one — not that we’ll ever see it.

As expected, Snyder seems to be somewhat reined in on this film. The box office disaster Sucker Punch (2011) guaranteed that, but it’s still surprising how much of Snyder’s pop-culture sensibility has remained intact. More surprising: this makes up much of what is best about Man of Steel. The scenes on Krypton are remarkable in that so much of the look seems to be drawn from 1930s sci-fi pulp magazine covers. That may not be original, but it gives the film a distinctive look that is not without appeal. All right, so Snyder overplays some of it, and I freely admit to bursting out laughing at Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe) death scene — that straight, stiff fall to the ground is priceless. I do not suspect that was the intent. But all in all, the opening beats the pants off the one in 1978’s Superman. (It has become unfashionable to speak ill of that version, but at the time of its release, I recall one wag of a critic saying that the destruction of Krypton looked like a windstorm in a Styrofoam cup factory.)

Overall, the whole first part of the film works. I like the flashback structure, which keeps things moving while delivering the requisite background as to how Superman (only refered to as such late in the film) became Superman. Oh, yes, I had issues with Snyder channeling his inner-Terrence Malick for the Kansas scenes. (And why would a pre-Superman Clark don a towel for a cape while playing, not to mention why that would seem to trouble Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent? Maybe he thought it was a sissy affectation.) The less said about the film’s overemphatic Christ imagery the better, though I got a good chuckle over our hero having his big moment of doubt in front of a stained glass window depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Again, I suspect amusement was not the intent.) I am even willing to overlook the unfortunate choice of calling the film’s MacGuffin “the codex” — when spoken it sometimes sounds like General Zod (Michael Shannon) is in search of a sanitary napkin.

Then there’s that last 45 minutes. Once Superman and Zod have their Thor-like showdown in Smallville, the movie goes into full Michael Bay mode. It’s not just that 45 minutes of non-stop action is overkill—not to mention boring—it’s that this 45 minutes of action is largely just the same action over and over and over. There’s no building excitement. It’s all on one massive level that doesn’t build to some incredible climax. It just goes on and on and then stops when it’s worn itself and the audience out. And then everybody’s happy — despite what must amount to thousands of deaths and billions in property damage. It never occurs to anyone that none of this would have happened if Superman hadn’t been here. Maybe the sequel will deal with the realization that Superman is on par with Carl Denham bringing King Kong to town.

The bottom line is that Man of Steel is a partly good and partly dumb, personality-free, property-damage blockbuster. Henry Cavill makes as good a Superman as the film gives him the chance to be. And I really liked Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. In fact, the cast was fine overall — and considering some of the unwieldy tosh they had to say, that’s remarkable. Your enjoyment may well depend on how attached you are to the Christopher Reeve pictures. Nearly all of the negative reviews the film has garnered are from reviewers who are cheesed that this isn’t the campy fun of those movies. That I found them altogether too campy to be much fun may be why this one doesn’t bother me. In any case, I sort of liked it. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Flat Rock Cinema, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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27 thoughts on “Man of Steel

  1. Dionysis

    And not a mention of Superman Returns (a film I thought was the worst of the bunch) in comparison.

  2. TwoBears

    Mr Hanke,

    I’ve learned to take your movie reviews at face value. Film ,as art, is left up to the interpretation of the viewer v. the artist…Having said that, I agree with the mind numbing violence, even though the comic book raised side of me NEEDS to see Superman kick proverbial ass, especially after being bullied…but what interests me more is the fact that you and the rest of the liberal media found more at fault in the ‘christ’ metaphors than the blatantly obvious ‘Liberty’ references…It leads me to wonder, does religion offend you so much that you’re blinded by, ironically, freewill?…I am TwoBears…I have opened a debate…

  3. Ken Hanke

    Goodness, I’m not sure if One Ken Hanke is able to contend with two entire bears — especially ones who trot out Mr. Agnew’s bewhiskered canard about the “liberal media.” I will, however, give it a shot. First of all, while I am not religious in any traditional sense, I am more fascinated by religion than offended by it. (The use of religion as a battering ram and a justification is another matter.) I also am actually drawn to religious allegory and Christ symbolism — in everything from Bride of Frankenstein to Strange Cargo to Meet John Doe to Tommy. But this? This doesn’t offend me — though I question the implications of “Jor-El so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” On the contrary, it is just so heavy-handed and bereft of genuine emotional content that it amuses me. Now, how any of this has anything to do with being blinded by freewill — ironically or otherwise — I’m not too sure.

  4. Big Al

    While the concept of a comparison between God/Christ and Jor-El/Superman is intriguing (especially considering that Supe’s creator was Jewish and based the character on the Hebrew myth of the Golem), I was more intrigued by the evolution of politics in the franchise.

    In “Superman Returns”, there was a deliberate omission of “…and the American Way” from Perry White’s reference to the hero’s original television manifesto, implying that “Truth, Justice..” no longer fits into any concept of American nationalism.

    In contrast, in this film American military personnel are portrayed with such selflessness, integrity and patriotism, that when an American general questions Superman’s ability to always act within the nation’s best interests, Supe responds “I was raised in Kansas…you can’t get more American than that.”

    It would seem that American nationalism is back in style, albeit in a muted form. The internationalists will no doubt be marching on Hollywood very soon in protest.

    Maybe Tube Airs can be there to greet them.

  5. Ken Hanke

    You raise an interesting point, though I don’t think the phrase finds a home in this film at all, and there are some mixed signals in the way that Superman insists on being taken at his word. Then again, what’s the option? What can they do to him?

  6. Big Al

    The catch-phrase is not, to my knowledge, part of the original Superman concept and only became canon by its’ inclusion in the 50s TV show (which was produced during the fiercely nationalistic McCarthy era) and is found nowhere in the movie franchise except sarcastically in “..Returns”, which is why I mentioned it.

    Patriotism does find its’ way into “Superman 2” (which was actually the second half of a two-fer with the first film so it applies to both) when Supe restores the American flag to the White House, and in the awful “Quest for Peace” he restored the fallen flag on the moon, so Americanism has always run a consistent thread through the movies without the “American Way” catchphrase…UNTIL cynicism over the middle eastern wars and economic conditions resulted in the sarcasm of ..Returns”.

    I see the overall portrayal of Americanism in “Man of Steel” to show a cautious return to the character being a distinctly American figure who, while defending the entire Earth, maintains the American values he was raised with and remains true to the “colors” that he has worn since his inception.

    As for the “mixed signals”, he is talking to people who once treated him as the enemy, and are still suspicious of him. The predator drone was a subtle political dig at the imperfection of the American values that he fights for and a reinder that he so far holds enough moral high ground to demand privacy.

    • Jeff Britton

      To be factual (and more than a little geeky, not that there’s anything wrong with that), the “Truth, Justice and the American Way” quote came from the 1940’s radio show. (Along with the first mention of Krytonite and the first Superman/Batman teamup.)

  7. Ken Hanke

    maintains the American values he was raised with and remains true to the “colors” that he has worn since his inception

    Where’s the white? (Answers involving puns about the managing editor of the Daily Planet do not count.)

    Speaking of “where is…” What became of the double ursine gentleman and his debate?

  8. Big Al

    The white was toned down, like the patriotism that he once represented. Modern versions of Wonder Woman, who fought in WW2, no longer have stars on her butt either. It is no longer PC to be obviously Patriotic American, heroes must be internationalistic.

    Or you could just say the “white” is the man himself. Unlike Green Lantern, there are no black (or gay) versions of Superman.

  9. Ken Hanke

    The thing is I don’t think there’s ever been a Superman with white in his costume. Then again, the US isn’t the only country with a red, white, and blue flag.

  10. Orbit DVD

    Speaking of “where is…” What became of the double ursine gentleman and his debate?

    What? You expect him to respond?

    The review is spot on… not the best, not the worst Superman.

  11. Ken Hanke

    Remember that was one million dollars worth of robed Marlon Brando, too — an outrageous sum at the time for what amounted to little more than a cameo.

  12. Sean R. Moorhead

    The idea that superheroes are the modern answers to messiahs and demigods is an old one in the comic book community, a way to attribute broader significance to stories that originated as disposable entertainment for children, but honestly, although I’ve enjoyed any number of works that invoke that kind of imagery, I find the equation of corporate mascots with religious figures, and of brand loyalty with faith, a little insulting.

    I mean, granted, a lot about our religious and nationalistic culture smacks of brand loyalty. It’s an inherent risk of large-scale organization that we will become more loyal to the institution than to the values it’s supposed to represent.

    And if people find spiritual significance in superheroes, it’s not my place to invalidate that. Goodness, I find deep significance in a lot of works of fiction that are, by any serious standard, even sillier and hollower than Superman.

    But speaking only for myself, I would hope that our culture could produce modern gods more charismatic than a bunch of humorless meatheads in long underwear.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I guess we must conclude that our bruin friend was of the “Two Bears One Post” variety.

  14. Ken Hanke

    I think that’s more Brando as Kaftan queen than anything. But it’s also a whole new level of Brando-osity.

  15. Jeremy Dylan

    I’m impressed that they resisted the urge to call this SUPERMAN STARTS.

  16. Ken Hanke

    But speaking only for myself, I would hope that our culture could produce modern gods more charismatic than a bunch of humorless meatheads in long underwear.

    I’m certain it has, but whether they’ve been embraced is another matter.

  17. Ken Hanke

    I’m impressed that they resisted the urge to call this SUPERMAN STARTS.

    You bring in Nolan and you get what you get.

  18. Dionysis

    I finaly got around to seeing this; while it was better than the gawd-awful ‘Superman Returns’, I would have no interest in seeing it again.

    A wooden Superman, Avatar-cribbed special effects, the most egregious product placements I can recall seeing ever and Superman destroying lots of innocent people.


  19. Ken Hanke

    I’m not planning on watching it again. Well, maybe if they send out a year end screener — and screwy as that may sound for awards consideration, it’s far from the screwiest I’ve received.

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