(If you read nothing else of this review, please note: skip the 3D and go with 2D. This will be explained in the review.)
Full compliments go to director Zack Snyder and his cast and crew for tackling a venerated, well-established property. Superman has been around for 75 years, and the various incarnations of him – from the comics to George Reeves to Christopher Reeve to Dean Cain to Tom Welling to Brandon Routh – have created a canon so rich and thick that it’s hard to make a notable dent or imprint in his history. With Snyder’s Man of Steel, Superman is reborn into our modern America with our somewhat xenophobic and cautious post-9/11 sensibilities, starting anew and fresh without relying on familiar music cues (not one lick of John Williams’ iconic score is heard here) or cinematic tips of the hat.
The filmmakers should be lauded for trying to break new ground and bring a little realism to fantasy. Snyder makes it more real than previous films have attempted, opting to show more of Superman’s human roots and his path to becoming the superhero everyone knows and loves. Lest you fret, we are shown the destruction of his home planet, Krypton; the planet’s resources have been exhausted and the core has collapsed, thus prompting his parents Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van (played by Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) to save him by sending him to Earth. From there, it’s an entirely new direction from the film series started by Richard Donner in 1978, as it is an entirely new world altogether.
Coming from someone not having much in the way of comic book knowledge and whose experience with the Superman canon is mostly limited to the previous films, I found Man of Steel to have a good, compelling story and a wonderful performance by Henry Cavill. As Clark Kent/Superman, Cavill brings a good depth to what could have been a paycheck performance for lesser actors; he carefully balances his semi-mistrust for the world with all the good hopes for the people in it, and you can see this constant struggle within him for much of the movie.
The care put into Cavill’s performance seems to have taken away from the other actors, sadly. Everyone else seems to suffer from an abject lack of personality, resulting in flat performances and a general lack of care for the other characters. Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a supposedly hardnosed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, goes from “get the story at all costs” to what amounts to being a meek bystander over the course of the movie. The script, even though it has her engaging in gunfights and bomb drops, doesn’t give her the space to be strong or bold, and a lot of it doesn’t make sense for her. Likewise with Michael Shannon’s portrayal of General Zod, Kryptonian insurrectionist and escaped prisoner – his drive for Earth’s domination comes out of biological programming, which doesn’t make him truly evil. He’s basically a misguided military mope going about his business the wrong way, and it’s Superman’s duty to stop him. Shannon tries to chew as much scenery as possible, but the script just doesn’t make him enough of a villain; instead, he gets explained away with too much dialogue without leaving anything to our imaginations.
Also, updating the property for modern audiences seems to mean using modern film techniques, and that’s another place the film falters. It’s both the faults of Snyder, whose mantra seems to be “bolder, faster, in your face” (take a look at his excellent remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), and cinematographer Amir Mokri’s camera, which never stops moving, not even for a second; there doesn’t seem to be a single locked-down shot in the whole movie. Even during tender moments (most notably the “The world isn’t ready for you” speech that Jonathan Kent gives to young Clark Kent), we are not spared this wretched technique, as the camera keeps jiggling around, forcing us to switch our perspective seemingly every other half-second.
For all its faults, Man of Steel winds up being a decent film that’s nearly totally ruined by its unstable, jarring photography and subpar writing. Having seen this movie in 3D, I can say this with absolute surety: please watch this in conventional 2D. Snyder shot this movie on film (hooray!) and had it converted to 3D afterward; seeing this movie in its native format is an absolute must. The dreaded shakycam effect combined with a lack of good 3D visuals don’t warrant the extra money you may spend, and watching it how Snyder shot it will definitely increase your enjoyment of the movie.
(Special thanks to Jenn Carlson.)