By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 17, 2013 at 4:34PM
If you listen to the internet -- and that’s always a precarious thing to do -- Warner Bros. “Man Of Steel” is either the worst movie of all time or the best movie of all time and of course, nothing in between (and lord there’s been some kicking and screaming by people who disagree with one another). It’s either all due Zack Snyder inability to direct or David Goyer’s (and to an extent Christopher Nolan’s) writing genius. Granted some Playlisters did not like this movie much and some of it thought it was decent-to-ok, but we’d still like to think there’s a middle ground to be found when looking at this latest Superman movie (in fact, we’re happy to say our original review does just that).
So, will this movie beget a “Justice League” super-team-up movie? Is that even the success metric? A “Man Of Steel” sequel is already in the works and while Superman couldn’t outgun “Iron Man 3” at the 2013 box-office this year, it did break some June release records and grossed north of $110 million domestically this weekend (helping to bring the worldwide tally over $200 million) which is nothing to sneeze at.
What most of us at The Playlist can agree on -- no matter how impressive “Man of Steel” occasionally can be -- it's that the film is far from perfect and often very uneven. So, as we’re wont to do, we thought we’d look at what worked, what didn’t work, and what kinda worked in the superhero film. Or to make it simpler -- the Best & Worst Of “Man of Steel.” Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the film, but really, you should probably see it before you read this piece.
“The Best”/What Worked
John Williams' iconic score for Richard Donner's 1978 "Superman: The Movie" is so unforgettable that it would have been a fool's errand to try and replicate or even pay homage to its kind of sweeping grandeur (Bryan Singer's abortive remake/sequel/whatever-the-fuck "Superman Returns" was chose to just forgo any originality and play the original theme song.) Instead, composer Hans Zimmer, who had just finished crafting a trio of legendary superhero scores for Nolan's three Batman movies, went the other direction: instead of sweeping, he went brooding and rhythmic, with a heavy emphasis on hardcore drums (some played by none other than Pharrell). The music serves to make the action sequences even more thrillingly intense and (occasionally) tragic, yet there are also moments of quiet, reserved beauty, like the twinkly synths that accompany some of the outer space stuff. Zimmer balances these quieter moments with the unrelenting intensity of the rest of the score evenly and with a sure hand. What makes the music even more miraculous is the fact that, like with Batman, he creates so much stirring emotion while only utilizing a handful of notes. Even if you didn't care for more of "Man of Steel," you had to begrudgingly admit that the score was a feat of super-heroism.
The Fresh & Bold Take On Superman
If you have to drill down and pick out the best elements of “Man of Steel,” it really makes you wish Christopher Nolan was more involved. Nolan always said his Batman trilogy -- one in which Batman controversially fakes his death and then hands down the cape to another generation of crime fighters -- was the story he wanted to tell. Fanboys may not have liked it -- Harry Knowles infamously lost his shit about the end of “The Dark Knight Rises,” but Nolan stuck to his guns and vision, letting it play out right from "Batman Begins" with little compromise. And so the best element bar-none of “Man of Steel,” is its foundational story, premise, ideas and themes. Nolan and Goyer wanted to modernize Superman so that meant boldly changing his origin wherever possible. They told the story that they needed to tell no matter how much that fucked with the origin stories that most audiences are familiar and comfortable with. That meant Clark Kent isn’t a journalist (well, not until the end anyhow). It means he’s a brooding outsider living on the fringes of society trying to figure out where he fits in. This means Pa Kent being killed right in front of Superman’s eyes -- almost at Pa Kent’s request; the father making his final point, if you intervene, they will know and that will change the world and the world isn’t ready. Smallville isn’t even mentioned as Smallville by name (though it is seen quite clearly on a water tower). Goyer and Nolan eschew most of the outdated, cheesier relic moments of Superman’s origin in favor of the story they’re telling, which is a man torn between two fathers, struggling with his own identity, grappling with having had to turn the other cheek his entire life, and haunted by the fact that he could have saved his father from death, but was prevented from doing so. This is all great, deep emotional texture to work with and as much as you can argue that the execution messes it up, the central ideas are modern, fresh, compelling and affecting. Pa & Ma Kent aren’t shown finding the baby, or dealing with a child with super powers and lifting cars because we’ve seen this before and it can be extremely hokey. Goyer and Nolan focus on the emotional and spiritual burden of being superhuman and we can’t think of finer philosophical building blocks to work with.
There’s no, “it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!” And thank god. The name Superman is barely said and when it first appears it’s in the form of an audio joke. This Superman wants to boldly go into modern times and we’re, ahem, super appreciative of that. That means building a plausible and grounded world and a similar context. What Nolan and Goyer clearly started off with was this question: what would happen if an alien being with super powers revealed himself to the people of Earth? And that central and essential query is what drives most of “Man of Steel,” and is part of its very fabric. How would the world react? Well, there would be a lot of fear. This is embodied by Pa Kent, a wise man who is all too familiar with the way the world works: humanity’s mistrust and fear of the unknown, even of religions that aren’t familiar to us. He raises Clark from a young age to keep his powers hidden. Not for the greater good, but for himself. If humanity knew, the CIA/FBI/etc would be on the Kent doorstep in seconds flat and not only would their family be torn apart, but Clark’s life would be ruined. How would the world react? A news editor might squelch one of the biggest stories in the world from one of his own writers for fear of the panic it could create. Selling newspapers is important, but having an ethical responsibility to the public is even more essential. And so a boy who becomes a man grows up with a secret that is often too much to bear. He knows he isn’t from this world and thus feels alienated from it and his parents. He struggles with his father’s ideals and then has to live with the fact that his father died because he chose to keep his secret safe, just as his father always asked. You’d grow up into a hell of a moody kid too and it’s this entire modern context, modern, relatable emotional context that Nolan and Goyer create that we not only appreciate, but respond and relate to. The world they set up is plausible and the reactions to Superman -- the government coming out in full force to try and contain him, their mistrust and fear -- feels very real. Everything from news stories leaking on blogs to drones trailing Superman to find out his whereabouts (illustrating that the government doesn’t fully trust him despite the fact that he saved the world and fought off an alien invasion), there’s a solid modern world built in “Man of Steel,” and it’s as solid as anything you’d find on Krypton.
The fresh take, the bold redoing on the origin, the modern context...we realize this is all cut from the same cloth. But if you look deeper at this texture, all the themes of the film emerge and again, and this is the richness within a film that’s, well...not always that rich. But it’s also what makes us enjoy “Man of Steel.” Without it, what you’re left with is pretty surface level (and it’s why many critics are rightfully complaining). So choice is a big theme as discussed, with Clark having to choose between Earth and Krypton and its potential rebirth should Kal-El have chosen to go that route (knowing what he knows, probably not). But “Man Of Steel” is also about fathers, Clark’s two disparate patriarchal figures and choosing between them. Both instil Clark with values, but Pa Kent admittedly is on the apprehensive side of things with good reason. But the turning the other cheek philosophy is also god-like is it not? Jor-El envisions his son like a god amongst the people of Earth if he chooses, and its his initial meeting with Superman in the arctic that finally forces Clark to piss or get off the pot. His father essentially galvanizes him. Clark’s been internal for years and finally, there’s a figure who says, “Embrace what you are,” and Clark is very ready to hear this message. It gives Clark's embrace of being Superman, the same kind of rebirth that Jor-El and Zod would like to bring to Krypton. And while all of this doesn’t always work -- is the movie saying Pa Kent was just a cautious wuss, what does he take from him? -- these dimensions and philosophical compositions are what keep “Man Of Steel” interesting and not just the tentpole super showdown the movie is constantly threatening to become. It’s an uneven picture to be sure, but to say due thought wasn’t initially put into the movie would be grossly unfair.
The Cast & Henry Cavill
We’ll say this, while there's no real masterpiece theater of acting to be found in this tentpole, films like “The Cold Light of Day” and “Immortals” didn’t convince us of Henry Cavill’s acting abilities, indeed the former is so bad that the English actor seemed positively wooden. But we’ll admit Cavill is really confident, self-assured and comfortable in both conveying his angst and confusion and the in moments he has to play the more-cool and collected Superman. The writers thankfully give Amy Adams much more to do than previous Lois's and she puts a nice spin on Lois Lane as an ahead of the curve, tenacious journalist that grows the character from the Margot Kidder days. Special shoutout must be given to Kevin Costner who makes it look all too easy as Pa Kent, who loves his son completely, but also aims to protect him from a world that simply won't understand. Costner's appearance is brief, but so good and so natural that when his death comes, it's one of the most powerful moments of the entire film. Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni -- even if not all these actors have a lot of screen time or worthwhile scenes, they all sell their characters well. Zod on the other hand, we’ll get to that…