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Tired Action Scenes Aside, "Man of Steel" is Serious, Substantial

Movies & DVDs

Release Date: June 14, 2013
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language)
Genre: Science Fiction/Action/Superhero
Run Time: 143 min.
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon, Christopher Meloni, Ayelet Zurer



Much like Batman Begins, the first chapter in Christopher Nolan’s celebrated Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel immediately distinguishes itself from its campier predecessors by invoking a more serious tone.

Lest one think that "serious" equals "boring" along the lines of, say, the snooze-worthy Superman Returns in 2006, that’s certainly not the case here. That said, for anyone who likes their superhero movies with a side of humor a la Iron Man 3, well, you’ll have to wait until the film’s final moments for the faintest of chuckles because this Superman is basically all business.

One of the major challenges of revisiting well-traveled cinematic territory is finding a way to inject new life into the character's journey, and that’s something that Zack Snyder (300), with a little help from the aforementioned Nolan, actually manages to accomplish with Man of Steel. By considerably bulking up the familiar origin story in the first act, Snyder gives the viewer a better sense of Kal-El's home planet of Krypton, its inhabitants, and the divisive politics that threaten its future.

On a planet where a sense of morality doesn't typically figure into mass decision-making, the sacrifice that Kal-El’s parents make for their newborn son, especially in light of their own crumbling realities, is particularly moving. It's a testament to good storytelling that not even a miscast Russell Crowe as Jor-El can hamper the emotional impact. As with his portrayal of Javert in last year's Les Misérables, Crowe is the odd man out here, too. When forced to play things serious, he's stiff, and it's almost like he accidentally stumbled onto the wrong movie set—Hamlet, perhaps?

That acting misstep aside, the introduction effectively paves the way for Kal-El's next chapter, where he will be renamed Clark by his adoptive human parents and where he doesn't exactly make the smoothest of transitions from one planet to the next. The filmmakers wisely retreat from the normal fish-out-of-water experiences and focus on the stirring emotional stakes instead.

By tapping into the very real and relatable experiences that come with being a kid, even one with superhuman abilities, Snyder shows us that Clark is often bullied and a bit of a loner. He feels isolated from the rest of humanity since he's always been encouraged to keep his "true self" a secret. Being told his "gift" could forever change humanity causes him to struggle with anger, resentment and regular panic attacks.

In one of the film's quietest but most effective scenes, we feel the full weight of Clark's double life as his mom (Diane Lane, Secretariat) gently coaxes him out of a janitorial closet he's locked himself in at school. Lovingly advising him to imagine the world as "small" when it feels so big and out of reach, she reaches into Clark's inherently sacrificial nature that is both a blessing and a burden to him—a theme that rings throughout Man of Steel.

Even at 33, Clark (played as an adult by Henry Cavill) still struggles with many of the same issues. Drifting from place to place and finding little real connection in the process, Clark nonetheless shows up when the fate of his adopted planet hangs in the balance. While it would be far easier to remain in obscurity and let someone else intervene, he opts to reveal his true identity, fight a formidable foe and save his country from danger, no matter the cost.

Clear parallels to the life of Christ and themes of sacrifice, redemption and an unwavering love of mankind elevate Superman's story above the realm of mere entertainment. Trouble is, as emotionally effective as Man of Steel’s underlying story is, the filmmakers simply can't resist all the trivial trappings that come with big-budget behemoths, particularly the seemingly endless action sequences that feel like leftovers from Transformers.

One almost forgets who's fighting with whom—and why. Worse yet, some characters you'd expect to play a more integral role in a Superman story, namely journalist Lois Lane, are practically M.I.A. While Amy Adams (The Muppets) does her best with what she's been given, she's basically playing second fiddle to a slew of meaningless special effects.

Still, when compared to most summer blockbusters and superhero movies, Man of Steel offers a superior balance of substance and style. And who knows? If we're lucky, this Superman franchise (and Justice League movie?) will follow the trajectory of The Dark Knight Trilogy, with the inevitable sequels significantly upping the ante.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: None
  • Language/Profanity: Not excessive, but there are a couple of exclamations of God’s name and uses of milder profanity including he--, da--, as-.
  • Sex/Nudity: A quick childbirth scene (nothing too graphic) and a couple of shots of a naked baby boy. Some kissing. A reference to Superman being "hot."
  • Violence/Mature Themes: In a scene that looks strikingly familiar to what happened recently in Oklahoma, a tornado rips through Kansas, and several people perish as a result. In one of the film’s most intense scenes, a school bus filled with children falls from a bridge into a nearby river. We see the bus sink and kids on the verge of drowning until Superman intervenes. There are several extended scenes involving rapid gunfire, crumbling buildings, explosions and intense fight sequences with the fate of Earth in question. Although not as menacing as, say, the Joker or Bane in the recent Batman franchise, General Zod is plenty scary. Lacking any sort of moral compass, he will take out anyone in his way. There are also some troubling scenes of bullying/persecution as classmates make fun of Clark for being different.
  • Spiritual Themes: Although Jesus is never mentioned by name, there are clear parallels in how Clark conducts himself, particularly with his selfless nature. When Clark’s mom's house crumbles spectacularly to pieces, she remarks how it’s "just stuff." Clark is encouraged to make a difference in the world, and while he’s not perfect, it’s clearly a guiding principle for his existence.

Christa Banister is an author and full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the MeddlersBased in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog.

Publication date: June 13, 2013

Page Source (url): http://www.crosswalk.com/culture/movies/man-of-steel-movie-review.html

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