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Man of Steel

by Leonard Maltin
June 14, 2013 12:00 AM
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Photo by Clay Enos - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

If casting were all it took to make a successful movie, Man of Steel would be a slam-dunk. Starting with the talented, finely-chiseled Henry Cavill, the key roles in the newest Superman film are cleverly filled. But writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, who did such a good job reinventing an origin story in Batman Begins, haven’t fared as well this time around. Or perhaps it’s director Zack Snyder who decided to turn the film into a giant video-game-like demolition derby. This may please ardent fans of the Transformers movies, but it left me—a lifelong Superman fan—disappointed.

It’s especially discouraging because the movie starts out so well. The filmmakers decided to throw us a curve, and distinguish themselves from other Superman sagas, by telling the story in non-linear fashion. It’s a bit jarring at first but it plays fairly well, interspersing scenes of Krypton’s final days (featuring a stoic Russell Crowe as Superman’s father, Jor-El) with snapshots of young Kal-El’s rocky transition into a “normal” earthling. Kevin Costner is a perfect choice to embody the all-American qualities of Pa Kent. He offers meaningful advice to his son, who’s conflicted about harnessing or suppressing his super-powers. Amy Adams is a pleasingly plucky Lois Lane, who stumbles onto the secret of this superhuman shadow-figure and tries to track down his identity.

Then there’s Michael Shannon as General Zod, who locks horns with Jor-El on Krypton and makes himself Kal-El’s sworn enemy on Earth. Shannon is a refreshing villain because he’s not organically evil; we understand what drives Zod toward his single-minded goal of conquering humanity. What’s more, he’s not British. (No offense intended, but an American bad-guy is a genuine novelty nowadays.)

So what goes wrong? Man of Steel drags on much longer than it needs to (a familiar trait in Goyer and Nolan’s work) and loses sight of its characters’ journey as the focal point of the story. The latter half of the film is overwhelmed by destruction—of cities, towns, property, and people. A climactic story point involving a superhuman challenge to set the world right is so abstract and convoluted that it’s hard to know what we’re rooting for.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Clark Kent’s relationship with Lois Lane is barely developed here; I suspect they’re holding back for the inevitable sequel. Laurence Fishburne has little to do as Perry White, as we don’t spend much time at the Daily Planet. Diane Lane suffers well enough as Ma Kent, but she too has an essentially thankless role.

Henry Cavill is an extremely relatable Kal-El/Superman/Clark Kent, and provides many of the film’s best moments. This being an origin story, however, we don’t get to see him at work as a reporter; that, too, will have to wait for the next movie. He’s too busy tearing up entire city blocks in direct combat with General Zod and his allies. (A small-town iHop restaurant is even trashed in the process.)

I’d call Man of Steel half a good movie, which is better than an outright dud. In this age of preordained “franchises” and marketing-driven blockbusters, that may not matter, as the movie goes on to earn big bucks around the world. But it’s a crime that such a great character isn’t better showcased in this overlong, overblown epic.  

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  • Tyler | August 30, 2013 4:14 PMReply

    This coming from the guy who didn't like The Dark Knight.

  • casual reader | December 6, 2013 4:29 PM

    Which was also a terrible film.

    The arrogance of comic book fans surprises me. If we don't like what they like then the fault is entirely ours.

    Man of Steel was an ugly, disjointed, ill-thought out mess. Others have explained why the film didn't work for them - Costner's terrible death scene where Superman chooses not to save him is only one of many major failings.

    MoS will never compare to the 1978 film. It seems nobody knows how to do a good old-fashioned entertainment sans existential brooding any more.

  • Glen | July 19, 2013 4:09 AMReply

    Man of Steel IS what the majority of Superman fans have been waiting for since Superman II. It's action packed, a non stop thrill ride that kept getting better and better! The tone was perfect to a "T"... With that said, there are a few people who are saying there was too much action, to much VFX's, and not enough of "this" or "that"... All I can say is this.... When Superman Returns came out, EVERY ONE complained that there wasn't enough action. As a matter of fact, I even said SR just sucked and bored the heck out of me. I fell asleep after the first hour! Not everyone can be pleased, but Man of Steel pleased more fan's than the past 3 Superman films. Numbers don't lie, and being that Man of Steel is #2 for highest grossing film of 2013, it's safe to say that Superman fans are now happy again. Most of them anyway... I give it a 4.9 out of 5. Had the "Superman" Theme be in it, then it would have 5.

  • Dale | July 8, 2013 7:59 AMReply

    "a giant video-game-like demolition derby" I couldn't agree more Leonard. 25 minutes of banging and crashing was all I could take and walked out. Whatever happened to story and character?

  • Donella | July 1, 2013 1:31 AMReply

    Exhaustive, excessive, mindless, repetitive action, violence, destruction. How many ways can you throw someone through a building? Twenty? How many ways can you punch your way through the hull of an airplane or spacecraft? Thousands? How many buildings have to collapse before the audience goes catatonic? Flat, washed-out, vanilla, drab Lois Lane. Lack of chemistry between Lois and Clark. Bad, choppy editing. Storyline with curious plot points. Russell Crowe as Jor-El excellent. Henry Cavill as Kal-El decent. In order of excellence for thoughtful character development, warmth, humor, epic storyline, screenplay, memorable and quotable dialogue, majestic music score, insightful direction, and appropriate casting: Superman (1978), Superman II, Superman Returns, Man of Steel.

  • Daniel Delago | June 16, 2013 6:49 AMReply

    Honestly, with comic book movies nowadays, the plot regretfully doesn't matter anymore. The mass audience wants to see CGI fireworks like an E-ticket at Disneyland. Spielberg is right. He predicts an implosion within the film industry. Movies are getting too expensive and generic to sustain this business model forever.

  • Trevor | June 15, 2013 9:23 AMReply

    Nolan did a solid job of telling a story that's so old and over used that there is no way to satisfy everyone's expectations. This movie was a blast, action packed, and the best action movie of the year. Go see it. Go see it with your kids.

  • Lon Morgan | June 15, 2013 10:40 AM

    That's your opinion and your entitled to it! Leonard and the other critics that don't like it (and there are a good number of them!) are also entitled to their opinion. What bothers me is some fans of films of this type seem to think it blasphemy for someone else NOT to like something they do. With one of the recent Batman movies it got so heated with vitriolic rhetoric (even some death threats!) on one of the discussion boards (Rotten Tomatoes I think) that they had to shut the thread down. Relax guys (and a few gals too I guess!) it's only a movie!

  • Zach | June 15, 2013 2:25 AMReply

    I just wish this film wasn't so similar to Nolan's Batman trilogy. Under his influence, superhero movies apparently have to take the realistic approach, which is a bad idea for any Superman movie. Not only that, but Zack Snyder's direction makes it feel like we're watching a documentary than an feature film, not to mention the action becomes way too excessive in the last half. I suspect the filmmakers are compensating for the lack of action in previous installments (or as several of Superman Returns severely misguided critics would say). However, the action scenes in Krypton and Smallville are superb, the cast is mostly good (though Henry Cavill stumbles at times), and there are great moments of character development.

  • Sam | June 14, 2013 11:44 PMReply

    Why do these comic strip fan boys get so upset when somebody gives a negative review to the latest action hero action flick? You'd think Superman or Batman was their father! Lighten up zombies!

  • Grifter | July 20, 2013 11:09 PM

    Are there things that DON'T match with certain other actions in the movie, aka plot holes? Too many.

    A bit of a important "typo" there. My bad.

  • Grifter | July 20, 2013 11:05 PM

    @Glen - I would defend my father. However being a logical being, I also know my father is merely human and flawed at that, who in turn can grow from a critic or two, regardless of my support.

    However, this isn't my father. This is a movie about a hero who is damn near flawless and an embodiment of good. It's pretty clear cut.

    So, when I see a mythical hero that should embody goodness trash through an entire town and city with little regard for others, I do think something is very wrong with it all. You yourself give the answer to the problem. He isn't necessarily a good person or denoting the character traits he's world famous for in Man of Steel. Those are moved away for relentless, awesome looking action.

    However lets look beyond pre-conceived notions of the character we grew up with.

    Is this a new origin and take on the character? Sure. Is this a different Superman? Absolutely. Are there things that match with certain other actions in the movie, aka plot holes? Too many.

    Dude, he even leaves his mother alone with three death machine Kryptonians to beat up Zod through a town! Not only doesn't that fit with the scene itself, it also adds to the fact of it really not looking like the hero you grew up admiring, does it?

  • Glen | July 19, 2013 4:16 AM

    1. We are not "Zombies". 2. Some of us didn't have anyone else to look up to growing up, so we looked to these Super Hero's as a model of who we can be. Not in the way of being able to fly around saving people, or hope to win the lotto and go around in the night taking down bad guys. But more in the way of just being a good person, helping others, and so on. And when people like us do look up to these figures as sorta of a "Father", we do get mad, upset when someone tried to bring them down. Wouldn't you defend your father?

  • Daniel Delago | June 16, 2013 6:55 AM

    Lol Sam. It's true! They get so emotional when someone writes a negative comic book movie review. They have to defend the latest schlock as a badge of honor.

  • Jesse | June 14, 2013 6:47 PMReply

    Man of Steel is finally a Superman movie made the way it should have always been made. As I was discussing the film upon exiting the theater, I found myself asking "what would be the one focus beyond anything else I would put in a film about Superman?" The answer is power. Superman is such a powerful being that we cannot begin to comprehend his true strength. Zack Snyder has managed to bombard our senses with so many amazing shots of Superman's power to fight for his life and the right of humanity to have it's own chance to shape the planet's destiny, that I was simply blown away. It is hard to imagine the power that it must take to do some of the things that were simple for Superman. This picture gets it right. The sheer amount of carnage produced in the amazing fight between Kal-El and General Zod was like riding a rocket into a wall. It was blunt force trauma at its best. Henry Cavill as Superman manages to meld his human and Kryptonian traits with a balance that puts the viewer at ease, and commands we root for both sides of him to exist. The movies one flaw as I see it is that we are never given the opportunity to see what General Zod was really about. In the movie we are led to believe he sees himself as a patriot, with the only goal to extend the gene pool of his people. That being said that may be exactly what he is, but as the viewer I wanted it to be fleshed out a bit. Overall I give the film 4.5 stars, and would recommend running to the theater to see it.

  • Tin | June 15, 2013 6:23 AM

    You're basically saying Superman is strong. Really strong. So he's essentially just the Hulk.

  • Jason Scott | June 14, 2013 5:04 PMReply

    This must be movie # 187,248,026 that Leonard Maltin says "goes on longer than it needs to", "is overlong", etc. It's at the point now where it just makes me laugh.

  • mike schlesinger | June 14, 2013 7:18 PM

    Or maybe it's just the 187,248,026th movie that actually IS too long.

  • Prometheus | June 14, 2013 4:55 PMReply

    I am lost... did we see the same film?
    Zod wants nothing more than to rebuild Krypton upon Earth. That's why Superman is thrashing him about... where is the confusion on who to root for? Where is the convoluted abstraction? Furthermore, Your review, and I must say I am a fan of your work, seems to pine for more Donner/Reeves films. You mention that this lacks some of the elements of those films but you forget that this is a Superman who for 33 years has been lost. He doesn't know his place in the world then he discovers it and isn't sure how to fully go about it. I'd say it's similar to a first time driver unsure of the cars full power. Yes he staggers here and there but that's because he's still learning. And the 'lack of depth'? - again, did we watch the same movie? Jor-El and Jonathan Kent play tug of war upon Kal-El/Clarks moral being. One father suggest that he is the beckon of hope and have the potential to lead the human race to it's greatness and glory while the other plays more towards the be ashamed of what gifts you have. John here doesn't have much hope for mankind and doesn't think that humans are or will ever be ready for a Super-Man so he tries to impress upon his foster child to suppress who he really is out of fear and misunderstanding. To be a child stuck in a spiders web like that would make one a bit leery of himself. In fact it's even pointed out in the film when Feora tells Superman in mid-fight, he's unsure of himself.

    Just as we have seen Batman Begins we are witnessing in this film Superman Ascending. we are watching him struggle to obtain Apotheosis. I therefore elect that if this film isn't an example of the monomyth, which the said cycle wouldn't see completion until the second installment, then I truly do not know what film you saw.

    The Man of Steel is a film that glimmers upon the silver screen like the silver line that cracks the darkest night at dawn. In other words here in this film Superman has just started to take flight.

  • Dan H | June 14, 2013 4:45 PMReply

    The central characters are really Supes and his two dads. One represents Supes fears and his need to grow up before he can take on his mantle (Costner). One represents Supes goals who drives him to be that hero (Crowe). The interplay between them, I thought, was wonderfully done. The best part of the movie was watching Supes go from being tentative and dour at the beginning, to being the Superman/Clark kent we always knew (Cue that big Supes smile at the end when he dons the glasses and "meets" Lois). The best part (and art) is at the end, when we see the flashback where Costner watched hi don a cape as a boy. We see that Costner didn't really want him not to be a hero, he just knew he (and we) needed more time. That interplay was enough character for me for an origin story.
    Then there is the fact that I got to finally...FINALLY...see a superhero movie that shows just how strong, fast and stunningly powerful Superman can be. If you think the action took too long, let me ask you this: If you were albeit indestructible, how long do you think it would really take to destroy a being nearly as invincible as you are. And do you think getting kicked into a "Coke" neon sign would really hurt, or might you have to get smacked with a train and tossed through three (yes I said three) skyscrapers.
    I cannot wait to see the next one, because of how well the characters can grow from this origin story.
    I'll take Man of Steel as the BEST Superman movie of all time. The great part will be watching him grow to BECOME the Superman that Maltin remembers from the Reeves movies. That will be the best part.

  • Tin | June 15, 2013 6:26 AM

    Another person who thinks Superman is just a really, really, REALLY strong dude. So the whole movie can be just about him showing that he's really, really, REALLY strong. Duh!

  • Dave A | June 14, 2013 1:48 PMReply

    How do you get any significant amount of character depth in a two hour action movie? i haven't seen the movie yet so i cannot speak if its good or bad. If you want character depth, which i like myself, i certainly wont go looking for it in most comic hero movies. The only medium that will supply that is TV. Try Smallville, which will touch upon most of this movies plots without all the darkness that guides CN movies (love most of his stuff)

  • David Finucane | June 14, 2013 10:51 AMReply

    No one that writes a "half negative" review can do so without referencing pre-existing knowledge of the 75 years of Superman that came before this. A seasoned critic of all people should have been able to go into the movie on its own merits. Thankfully this was made for fans. Otherwise it would have been called "We'll Never Live Up To Christopher Reeve But We Made Ma Kent The Focal Point For All The Emasculated Critics". Then critics would complain there wasn't enough superman and too much sappy stuff. Scratch that, that already happened with Superman Returns. There is no pleasing critics with action movies, especially when said movie is a remake of something held in high regard more for nostalgia and John Williams thanks for quality.

  • Santos | June 14, 2013 4:10 AMReply

    They trashed an IHOP? How dare they?

  • Stop the hate | June 14, 2013 3:13 AMReply

    Uhm. I think your Superman has died along with Reeve and the old Superman of yesteryears. You can't be a Superman fan and not know what the current changes of Superman are.

  • J-H | June 15, 2013 11:35 AM

    But he really had occurred during a flashback sequence of Clark as a teenager in as a rebellious stage as we've seen. Could he have handled the responsibility of letting the world know of what he could do at that age compared to later on? Probably not, or at least not as well as he ended up doing later on.

  • Superdude | June 15, 2013 2:41 AM

    @TYLER - Not true. Clark didn't choose to let his father die. Clark was OBEYING his father. Jonathan Kent told Clark to protect his mother during that pesky tornado, thereby insisting on protecting Clark's true identity in the process. Clark's father knew the world wasn't ready for someone as magnificent as Clark to be exposed and as a result, made the ultimate sacrifice. Do-gooder Clark could only standby respecting his father's wishes, not coming forth as a superhuman capable of saving his dad in front of the entire town, thus allowing his father to die a hero- Superman's hero. Way more poetic odds/circumstance than a heart attack. And something I totally found "jive-worthy."

  • Tyler | June 14, 2013 8:05 PM

    I agree wholly with your review Mr. Maltin. I didn't hate the film but I came away from it numb and a little let down. I'm not a slave to the Reeve interpretation but I do feel that there was room in this film to flesh out the characters better. I hated to whole geneticly created to be the villain bit with Zod. I also felt like SPOILERS the way that Clark's step father dies was awful. In he '78 movie he dies from a heart attack. The message there was that with all of Superman's powers he couldn't save his father. The way it is in this movie Clark chooses not to save his father when he could have. It's a completely different message that I really didn't jive with.

  • Mass | June 14, 2013 4:28 AM

    What...? I don't even...

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