We film critics and viewers “of a certain age” who came to cinema-blockbuster awareness 30 or so years ago will likely recall that 1978’s Superman and 1981’s Superman II were initially shot as one movie. However, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind — sensing not one but two potential hits on their hands — decided to split their 3-hour+ opus into two films (they had taken a similar road with their earlier 1970’s productions The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, with considerable success). But in order to pad the shorter sequel into a fuller feature length, they replaced original director Richard Donner with Richard Lester and re-shot much of what would become Superman II. Donner’s original cut of the sequel was more recently released on home video and is well worth comparing and contrasting with Lester’s version.
Man of Steel, Superman’s just-released return to the big screen after a 7-year hiatus, struck me upon viewing as nothing so much as a higher-tech remake of the original Superman/Superman II combo. Director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer again recount the hero’s brief infancy on the doomed planet Krypton, his upbringing on Earth (now depicted in generally effective flashback sequences rather than as a straightforward narrative) and his eventual showdown with a fellow Kryptonian survivor, the villainous General Zod. I was surprised as well as disappointed that the new movie didn’t take more risks in the plot department, especially given the much-ballyhooed involvement of executive producer Christopher Nolan. A brief-less Superman costume, some briefly-glimpsed Kryptonian critters, a somewhat tougher Lois Lane (played by perpetually-perky Amy Adams) and an absent Jimmy Olson are the filmmakers’ chief innovations.
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So yes, baby Kal-El is once again spared Krypton’s destruction by his scientist father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe, subbing for Marlon Brando), while Zod and his rebellious compatriots are banished to the Phantom Zone. Henry Cavill is physically and dramatically impressive, if a bit dour, as the grown-up incarnation of Kal-El; I hope he will be permitted to bring a lighter touch to the inevitable sequel. Michael Shannon, meanwhile, makes an imposing nemesis as Zod and gets to show off his own spandex-appropriate physique during his final battle with Superman. (Snyder, though straight, can always be counted on to highlight his male actors’ gym-honed attributes as he previously did in 300 and Watchmen.)
In reflecting on the film a few days after seeing it, it crossed my mind that a nervier approach to re-introducing Superman to today’s more pessimistic moviegoers might have been ditching the all-knowing, God-like ghost of Jor-El (whose historical explanations to his son get very tiresome here, despite a cool art deco-ish visual montage at one point) and, instead, making Zod the long-lost fellow citizen who tracks a lonely Kal-El and mentors him deceitfully until the burgeoning hero gets wise. With potential echoes of religious-fundamentalist conditioning, such a plot would definitely be timely and resonant. Too bad Goyer cops out in this regard, or didn’t have me as a muse while he was writing the script.
Despite Man of Steel’s darker tone and hues as well as its epic running time, kids will likely adore it and will eat up the over-the-top, video game-like fight scenes, which were generally too fast-moving and confusing to me. If you’ll forgive me for once again comparing it to the older Superman films, there are no special effects in Man of Steel that top Superman II’s climactic fight wherein the actual actors playing the Kryptonian villains hold a full-sized city bus over their heads and then proceed to throw it. Pre-CGI, the older movie’s special effects hold up as truly innovative.
Judging Man of Steel on its own terms, it is an occasionally exciting, intelligent and visually impressive sci-fi adventure with a fine cast (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne shine in well-known supporting roles). It is also frequently excessive and over-produced but then what else should one expect from a summer blockbuster, whether released 30+ years ago or today?
Reverend’s Rating: B-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.