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Review: ‘Man Of Steel’ is an epic, angsty Superman reboot

If the intent of 1978’s Superman: The Movie was to make audiences believe a man can fly, then Man Of Steel would have you believe a superhero can sulk – and punch things while doing so.

There’s something to be said for the willingness of the Man Of Steel team to test boundaries and break new ground with such an iconic character.

Directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen) and produced by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises), who also served as co-writer with his Batman collaborator David Goyer, Man Of Steel retells the origin story of DC Comics’ famous hero with some twists likely to polarize fans and cause no small amount of debate regarding the latest iteration of the caped character. And despite a clear effort to correct the mistakes of past Superman films, Man Of Steel struggles with an entirely new set of problems that distract from an otherwise entertaining movie.

Over the course of its sprawling, 143-minute running time, Man Of Steel strives to be the very definition of “epic,” covering a span of time that begins with a military coup on the planet Krypton, and runs through the planet’s self-destruction, the arrival of baby Kal-El (Superman) on Earth, his maturation with his adopted parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), and an uncertain number of years he spends wandering America as a melancholy, super-powered drifter. All of these story elements serve as preamble to a massive conflict with Kryptonian criminal Zod (Michael Shannon) that forces him to finally reveal his presence to the world after posing as a human for more than 30 years.

From the movie’s very first act – built around an effects-driven, fast-paced chase through the skies of Krypton with Kal-El’s scientist father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) riding a four-winged, dragon-like creature – there’s a sense that Man Of Steel isn’t quite certain what type of film it’s trying to be. The opening sequence on Krypton is a fantastic, eye-popping trip that would seem right at home in a big-budget, sci-fi fantasy like Avatar, but it feels like a very different movie than the angsty hero’s journey that the film soon becomes. Similarly, Superman’s evolution on Earth fluctuates between weighty, brooding explorations of the burden Clark Kent must carry and brief, explosive brawls that serve as palate-cleansing breaks in the drama.

Man Of Steel Henry Cavill Kal_El

In many ways, the film seems to benefit more from Snyder’s touch than that of Nolan, with the former bringing an eye for action that previous Superman films had lacked and providing exactly the sort of raw displays of power that the character’s fanbase has long been demanding. The Man of Steel has never looked more impressive during a big-screen brawl, and Snyder’s knack for visual effects make every example of Superman’s abilities feel as awesome as they should to human eyes.

When Nolan was attached to the project, many feared that his affinity for “grim and gritty” would give us a Superman story far darker than anything we’ve seen so far, and the final product doesn’t stray too far from that prediction. This version of Superman spends much of the film dwelling on the darkest moments of his life and the lessons these experiences – and his adopted father – taught him about the people of Earth. In this initial chapter of what’s sure to be a multi-film franchise, it’s regret and doubt, not Kryptonite, that are the Man of Steel’s real weakness.

Despite its tonal problems, Man Of Steel does offer some fantastic, memorable performances from its leads, particularly Michael Shannon as Zod. The Take Shelter actor goes a long way toward making the character his own, and the confidence and charisma he exudes as the Kryptonian villain provides the perfect counter to Henry Cavill’s somewhat stiff, doubt-plagued Superman.

Even though he seems to get less screen time than his Kryptonian counterpart, Costner does a fine job portraying Superman’s human father, Jonathan Kent, and provides the audience with a good sense of why Clark Kent developed into such a hero. Jor-El, on the other hand, seems to spend a bit too much time in the spotlight over the course of the film, especially after his part in Superman’s maturation would seem to be resolved.

Beyond the impressive fight sequences, the visual elements of Man Of Steel are everything audiences have come to expect from Snyder. While there are a few instances of shaky camera work that create some blur in 3-D screenings, the majority of the film is a crisp, bright, adventure that showcases the power of its characters and complements the ambitious scope of the story.

Without getting into spoiler territory, it will be interesting to see how audiences react to the final outcome of Superman’s battle with Zod, which is likely to prompt endless debate among mainstream audiences and hardcore fans alike. Over the course of Man Of Steel, Snyder and the movie’s creative team don’t shy away from redefining the character on their terms rather than what’s come before, and the climax of the film slams that point home with an act that will likely be this iteration of the character’s defining moment.

Still, there’s something to be said for the willingness of the Man Of Steel team to test boundaries and break new ground with such an iconic character. While there’s no shortage of elements that could be handled more efficiently, many of those elements are nevertheless necessary for audiences to understand why they don’t work with this particular character. There’s been a long list of demands made by fans of any potential Superman movie in the time since Superman Returns failed to impress audiences – more action, more Krypton, grander scale, a comparable villain to name just a few. In light of all that, there’s a strong argument to be made that, while Man Of Steel may not be the Superman movie we wanted, it is the Superman movie we deserve.

Man Of Steel arrives in theaters June 14.

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