Man of Steel (Blu-ray Review)

Man of Steel

Out tomorrow, November 12, on home video is Man of Steel, this summer’s Superman remake. I saw it for the first time this weekend on Blu-ray, and my first impression was that it looked very much like a modern superhero movie. Like many other films this summer, it had big-budget effects, a big plot with world-shattering potential impact, computer-generated fantasy environments, and big, noisy battles — but I was left with little sense of what made *this* story special.

The action and visuals were spectacular, as I’d expect from a Zack Snyder-directed movie (Watchmen, Sucker Punch), but if the names were changed, I’d have no connection to these characters or this story. I didn’t care about watching Jor-El (Russell Crowe) beat on General Zod (Michael Shannon), and I had no idea why they were fighting over the maguffin, I mean, codex. There seemed to be more affection from the filmmakers for the machines, bombastic soundtrack, and costumes than the characters.

Like many recent science fiction movies, I kept seeing echoes of ones gone before. The early chase scene reminded me of John Carter, while the imprisonment sequence has echoes of Han Solo’s famous carbonite fate. The council members’ fashion also reminded me of Gallifrey.

Man of Steel

This version of Krypton is, as far as I know, unique to the film, but it felt like a proto-naturalist, biologically driven, anime-influenced biosphere, particularly with the flying creatures. I didn’t get the sense of futurism that I always liked about the original version. Jor-El as action hero was also a surprising take, although not a totally unpleasant one. A friend did say, during this sequence, that he had a hard time seeing how Batman would fit into the sequel. I was wondering, all that technology, and they can’t make childbirth less painful and stressful?

Our first sight of Superman (Henry Cavill) shows him as a powerful, manly loner, with beard and bare chest (shades of Wolverine), before we flash back to a childhood sequence of powers as curse, not benefit. Young Clark is overwhelmed by his abilities, while older Kal-El doesn’t fit in. Which illustrates one of the movie’s internal contradictions — most of the flashbacks to his life show him in fear or pain or rejected as an outsider, yet we’re supposed to believe that he’s so compelled to protect humans that he’ll reject his moral code.

Ma Kent (Diane Lane) seems up to the charge of parenting a troubled child with superpowers but Pa Kent (Kevin Costner), telling him to pick secrecy over saving lives, doesn’t. That’s the line that upsets a lot of traditional fans, who have a much more positive, inspiring view of the father figure. Pa as a character didn’t make much sense to me, but he wasn’t around enough to really worry me. Clark spent more time with Daddy’s robot ghost.

I like Amy Adams, and she does a fine, determined, sometimes foolhardy Lois Lane, but she seems too young and perky for an established, award-winning reporter. She inadvertently echoes the theme of the movie by seeming more like a mascot or a pet than a partner — reinforcing the alien view of humans as something to fight over. (Although, in the way she does stupid things and then Superman saves her, she might be the most authentic version of the character in the film.) The romance between the two fell flat for me, with no chemistry and the forced moments contradicting the “alien on earth” motif.

Unlike the Marvel movies, there aren’t a lot of hooks for the female viewer here. Everything is played in a dour tone, without humor or lightheartedness that I think makes these movies more entertaining. (We did have fun making wisecracks, though, as when someone said, “Don’t you think the Kryptonians should have shot themselves into survival mode instead of their war criminals?”) The movie is also very long, nearly 2 1/2 hours, which I found difficult to sit through.

We aren’t encouraged to identify with Superman — instead, we’re the people facing the possibility of “alien invasion”. That’s the biggest difference I can identify between Superman stories of the past and this one. It adds an overlay of fear to the entire encounter. The first appearance of the costume is him alone, in a snowy wasteland, instead of with other people in Metropolis. His subsequent flight looks like a tryout reel for a video game. Instead of being outward, community-focused, this “hero” is all about what he wants and is lacking (his planet, his history). I feel as though I have very little idea what Clark thinks about things or how he feels. (I also didn’t need to see his origin yet again — I would have appreciated a new story.) Yet there was never any tension or uncertainty over whether he’d protect the humans.

When the other aliens arrive, their costumes and “breathers” make them look like bastard children of a Ridley Scott alien, a Stormtrooper, and a robotic insect. Conveniently, it allows for lots of stunt substitution. The scope of destruction, as in other films this summer, disturbed me. What did Smallville do, other than take in an orphan, that made it deserve to be effectively wiped off the map? I don’t have much to care about in a movie that’s focused on new and better ways to show things blowing up and spinning off into space.

The message of Man of Steel remains disturbing, from the idea that an alien has to turn on his own people to be accepted as “not our enemy” to the juvenile belief that you can’t really have a strong moral principle against something without having done the bad thing first. Some people are capable of making decisions without having to have their own experience with the subject, but the idea that you will *really* mean it after you’ve made a mistake first fits our more selfish, me-centered culture. It also shows the lack of imagination of the filmmakers that they do the best they can to make it seem that “there’s no other way”. But with Superman, there’s always another way. “It doesn’t matter unless it’s personal to me” is a horrible attitude, because we lose all empathy with others thinking that way. Also, for a movie that wants to say something, apparently, about xenophobia and the definition of humanity, it’s something of a shock to see that the answer is still hitting things and other people really, really hard.

I’m glad I watched the film, because it led to some interesting discussions with the friends I saw it with, some of whom liked it a lot, all of whom disagreed slightly with each other about it. I want to see a sequel of the further adventures of Faora-Ul (Antje Traue) and Colonel Hardy (Christopher Meloni). They could be roommates!

Special Features

There are a number of different editions, but I reviewed the basic Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. It comes with two Blu-ray discs, a DVD, and a code for a copy of the movie on UltraViolet. On the movie Blu-ray disc are these features:

“Strong Characters, Legendary Roles” (26 minutes) contains the usual type of behind-the-scenes coverage, with Zack Snyder’s comments on making the film and information on the comic history. Participants include the major actors, David Goyer, Geoff Johns, and producers, most of whom emphasize how this is a modern take on the character. Cavill seems like a nice guy with a good attitude — I wish more of that was allowed to come through in the movie. Otherwise, the piece moves quickly and tosses in lots of information bits.

“All-Out Action” (26 minutes) talks about the effects, fights, and stunts, particularly the extreme training required of Cavill and some of the other actors. It comes across as an informercial for the particular firm responsible for the muscle-building techniques.

“Krypton Decoded” (7 minutes) has Dylan Sprayberry (who plays one of the young Clark Kents) and a visual effects supervisor showing off some of the design material and discussing the concepts behind Krypton.

The “Superman 75th Anniversary Animated Short” (2 minutes) has already been available to watch online. It’s a charming compressed history of various cartoon versions of the hero.

“New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth” (6 1/2 minutes) is an ad for Warner’s next franchise-in-the-making, The Hobbit. (Peter Jackson directed that film. He also founded Weta, which did special effects for Man of Steel. That’s a very loose connection, and one not even made in this piece.)

The DVD contains only the last two. The second Blu-ray disc has two other extras:

“Planet Krypton” (17 minutes) is a fake news program about the “alien confrontation” stemming from Zod’s broadcast, as though scientists were really investigating and explaining news of another planet.

“Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel” is a multi-image presentation of the film hosted by Snyder and featuring inserts from cast and crew members, plus lots of set footage and design elements. I would have rather seen shorter mini-documentaries instead of watching the movie all over again, or followed along on a “second screen” style tablet app, but this is an impressive demonstration of the kind of programming that can be done on a Blu-ray. (The studio provided a review copy.)


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