By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 17, 2013 at 4:34PM
The Jor-El we know from most Superman comics and Superman films is the father who wants to save his child from death, provide him another chance and sends him to another world where he may have a chance to survive. But Nolan and Goyer, cribbing from the comics a little bit, create a much more layered and complex Jor-El. He’s a scientist with a rogue streak in him. He’s a maverick and probably closer in spirit to Zod then he’d like to admit. He is responsible for Kal-El, the first naturally born child in Krypton in centuries and normally, if the planet wasn’t going to all hell, he’d likely be tried and put to death for ethical crimes. But it’s more than just that. As a free will thinker, Jor-El isn’t simply saving his son, he has a similar motivation to Zod but a bigger purpose and plan in play. Of course, as a free-will thinker, the plan he’s set up is one that Kal-El will have to choose to enact or not. Jor-El isn’t selfish or simply in love with his son. The scientist doesn’t just send Clark to save the baby, he embeds the Kryptonian codex within him to Earth, and a planet he knows contains a ship with Kryptonian embryos. Jor-El, like Zod is also trying to save civilization, albeit in a totally different manner. Essentially, he’s armed Kal-El with all the knowledge he’ll need to restart Krypton on Earth (presuming he knows Kal-El will eventually find this ship and his spirit life force). “We can co-exist” he says several times. As an ethical man, Jor-El believes that Kal-El could “help them achieve wonders” and with this alien technology could thrust Earth into a golden age of civilization. Of course, all of this is rather convoluted and Jor-El’s spiritual life force or whatever it is that allows him to interact with people beyond the grave is a little hokey. In fact, we’re not even sure Jor-El’s would-be “plan” (again, it’s up to Clark if he wants to) is even clear to audiences who probably just enjoyed a punch fest. Of course, the events of the movie render said plan moot, but it is there and it adds interesting layers and texture to Jor-El that you don’t normally see beyond the comic stories and drills down deeply into the myths of Krypton.
The Ahead Of The Curve Lois
As mentioned above, “Man Of Steel” puts a nice twist on the Lois Lane mythology. In this version of the movie her character is proactive, is chasing down a story and is ahead of the curve. She’s the first person to find Superman and she doesn’t have to wait for his alter ego Clark Kent to join the Daily Planet to meet him. In fact, Lois is a defining part of Superman’s outing to the public. She’s instrumental part of his decision to unveil himself and when they meet in a cemetery, it’s nice to see a realistic side of Lois with some humanity. Even though she’s an intrepid reporter, her conversation with Superman strikes a chord in her: what if the world isn’t ready like he says? The conversation weighs heavily on her sense of morality and subsequently Lois is absolutely ready to drop the story. All this is fairly new in the Lois Lane character mythology -- at least in the movies we’ve seen previously -- and this new twist on her character, familiar, while still fresh is deeply appreciated. The problem with it however, is that Lois really doesn’t have a lot do in the 2nd and 3rd acts of the film other than be a damsel in distress who’s constantly being saved by Superman. Sure, she and Jor-El lead the charge on the key to ridding Earth of the Militarized Kryptonians, but we couldn’t help but feel this element of the movie felt out of step with the movie’s “realistic” side. Adams is a wonderful actress with an impressive range -- see “Enchanted” or “The Muppets” to “The Master” and “The Fighter” -- but beyond the first act Lois drops out of the story for the most part, and has almost zero chemistry with Superman. Their romance is rushed in favor of the big dumb action finale so therefore their kiss and blossoming romance feels unearned by the time it finally arrives.
The Krypton Stuff At The Beginning
No Superman movie before "Man of Steel" has started with such a bang (literally), depicting both the legislative turmoil and the physical war that accompanied the planet-wide destruction of Krypton. It seemed like the filmmakers were throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck – a "council" like from the "Matrix" sequels? Sure, why not! Russell Crowe riding a dragon? Yes please! Crazy robot assistants who have faces that look like art deco murals you'd see at a World's Fair? Yeah we've got a few of those. The opening moments of "Man of Steel" are ballsy and borderline brilliant; they have a zippy energy and a kind of breathless enthusiasm that suggests that the filmmakers were not only trying to recreate what we've seen before in the mythology but push the same general material to weird, exciting new places. Filled with enough sturm and drang for at least a half dozen summertime blockbusters, there was a kind of fearlessness to the prologue that the rest of the movie could have greatly benefited from. That being said, it was also Snyder on maximum overdrive, and many of the sequences were incomprehensible and left the audience to sort out just what the fuck was actually happening.
The First Act
So “Man Of Steel” is arguably broken up into brawn and heart. The first act serving as its pulse and soul, its second and third acts becoming louder and louder and more punchy (see below). However, there are some little problems in establishing the world of "Man Of Steel." Kevin Costner is great, but every one of his speeches to Clark is a little monologue-y. One can argue, the Krypton stuff (as mentioned above) is interesting, but like we said tries to cram too much into this futuristic world. The other issue is that it seems to just want to yell, “Don’t worry there’s lots of action in this Superman movie!” over the din of explosions, lasers, fights, shouting and constant flashbacks. Still, there’s a lot of good stuff here changed from the Superman origin you know that merits high marks, such as Clark wandering Alaska searching for a purpose, the emotional and moving death of Pa Kent, the school bullying scenes and the overall set-up leading to who our Superman is, an emotionally anguished man who doesn’t know his proper identity. Is he an alien? Is he an earthling? Does he belong to this world? In many ways Clark, like in his angry early 20s scenes, is resentful of his lineage, his earth parents and the fact he has to hide who he is. And as established from when he discovers Jor-El, the ship and his alien origin, Clark seems to have romanticized his heretofore unknown Kryptonian heritage. It’s all this texture built up in the first act that gives the movie its legs and what makes it much more memorable than a loud and clumsy third act.
Villain motivations for superhero or sci-fi fantasy films are seemingly more and more predictable or annoying. Ever since The Joker in “The Dark Knight” -- “some people just want to see the world burn” -- film writers and producers have been invoking what seems to be terrorism masked as madness. As Vulture aptly put it, evoking 9/11 in a superhero film is getting a little played. “Man Of Steel” certainly has a lot of these issues just as “Star Trek: Into Darkness” does (it may be the best example of overly convoluted super villain revenge). But more and more we’re seeing mad men terrorists and some kind of revenge being the super villain norm (even in “Iron Man 3,” Guy Pearce’s motivation seems to be revenge for being blown off at a party decades ago). As problematic as Michael Shannon’s Zod is in “Man Of Steel” (we’ll get to that), his motivation is a strong and good one. As patriots, Zod and Jor-El are two different sides of the same coin in “Man of Steel.” Though, Jor-El uses his mind and knowledge of science and Zod uses his muscle and military training, their motivations are the same: to keep the Kryptonian race alive. Of course, Zod will do it at all costs, even if it means genocide, but this devout protector's spirit is programmed in his DNA much like all of the citizens of Krypton (minus the naturally born Kal-El), who are born and bred for a specific purpose. Zod’s purpose is protecting his race and his planet by any means necessary, which means going as far as attempting military coup, to combing the ends of the galaxy to find the DNA-skull, Kryptonian mumbo jumbo Codex stuff that’s embedded into Kal-El’s DNA and essentially contains the bloodlines of everyone on the planet. Just by the sheer fact that Zod’s not simply a power-hungry mad man who wants to destroy Earth, well, hell, we’ll take it. He essentially has a noble cause manifested in an ignoble manner. Of course, Zod is also pretty one-dimensional and shouty which tends to ruin the character.
While some of the visuals are beautiful, more poetic/striking than anything you’d find in a Marvel film but we can’t help but admit that it would’ve been nice to ease up on the CGI a bit during the big fight sequences. The grey/drab palette could’ve infused a little more color into the look (the blue/grey scheme is played). And again, the lazy 9/11 imagery -- complete with a collapsing skyscraper, characters covered in ash, even more running away down a smoke filled street -- borders on tasteless and at best is cheap trick to gain audience sympathy and awe. On other other hand, middle America has never looked this good, and Snyder shoots the heartland with the kind of reserved lens we never knew he had in him.
Yes, we just lauded it above, and yes, Hans Zimmer’s score is quite anthemic, emotional and powerful, but too bad Zack Snyder has no idea what to do with it. Perhaps this is no surprise given that the director has never quite shown the sturdiest hand with music in his movies (see the nearly unlistenable alt-rock of “Sucker Punch”; Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” making the awkward sex scene in “Watchmen” even more laughable) and that continues with “Man Of Steel.” Where Nolan knows when and where to let Zimmer’s music take over and do some of the emotional heavy lifting, Snyder instead pours it on over nearly every scene of the movie. Not only are the action segments filled with bombast, so too are the quieter domestic scenes, with nary a moment without some kind of cue or rising tide from Zimmer’s score. An unintended effect is that actually drains the excellent soundtrack of any real power. Take for instance the triumphant song featured in the trailer (“What Are You Doing When You’re Not Saving The World?” on the official soundtrack) -- instead of being brought out during select moments to heighten the picture Snyder is content to let it play out during several scenes, often forgettably. Unfortunately, the director treats Zimmer score as just another noise to toss into the assault on the senses and it devolves into this way far too frequently.