Back when I was in college and in the waning days of my active comic book reading, I remember a conversation with my friend Brian in which we both agreed that we were tired of comics that spent eight to ten pages on fight scenes that didn’t amount to much other than a few bruises for the participants and lots of damaged property. We’d rather have more content that moved the story forward or presented the characters in an engaging way.
I was reminded of that conversation while watching “Man of Steel,” which – though I don’t know the actual ratio – seemed like it was 80 percent fighting, 20 percent story.
This reboot of the Superman film franchise is certainly doing well, and it has a number of things going for it.
First, the positive stuff.
The skeleton of the story is appealing with its emphasis on a Clark Kent who isn’t sure how or if he fits into this world because of his alien origins and powers. SPOILERS AHEAD
Some people weren’t looking forward to an angsty, lonely Superman, preferring the more noble, straightforward, man-on-a-mission Christopher Reeve version. That story element didn’t bother me. I thought it might give Superman added dimension for our modern era. And seeing Clark as a drifter in different scenarios, like teaching a truck stop bully a lesson in a unique way, is great.
Also, Amy Adams and Henry Cavill have a wonderful rapport as Lois and Clark. Cavill looks the part and does actually convey the boy next door nobility that Superman is supposed to. Adams’ brings her natural charm to the tough, principled Lois, coming across like a partner to Superman rather than a damsel in distress. One of the best scenes in the movie is one in which the two of them engage in some witty banter in a military holding room. It allowed the characters to connect on a human level. That human level is a quality “Man of Steel” desperately needed more of.
Here come the criticisms.
First, there are the fight sequences. Bullets whiz, bombs boom, buildings topple, all in the most bombastically loud way I’ve ever heard. Granted, I don’t see many action movies, but even the sound of a spaceship door sliding closed had to be punctuated by a theater-shaking bang. (Inexplicably, I heard a guy in the back of the theater snoring during the movie. I have no idea how he managed to sleep with Smallville being torn asunder.)
And these sequences seem endless. To me, the fight scenes should serve as an entertaining bridge between the main story elements. Here, the story elements appeared to bridge the fight scenes. That led to what I saw as a lot of missed opportunities.
For instance, one very effective scene involves Clark as a child being bullied by another boy, Pete Ross, on the school bus. Just then, an accident occurs sending the bus plunging off a bridge and sinking into a lake. Clark must choose to keep his identity secret or save his classmates. He chooses to lift the bus out of the water even though some of the kids see what he does. Then he goes back into the water to save Pete, the boy who was bullying him.
In a later scene when Clark is a little older, he’s being bullied again by a different boy. This bully knocks him to the ground before walking away. Then we see a helping hand extended to Clark, and it’s Pete Ross, no longer a bully, but a friend. All great stuff. I loved it.
But later on, during one of the interminable fight scenes, Superman gets knocked into an IHOP restaurant where none other than a now-adult Pete works as a manager. It looked like there would be a simple, human moment of recognition or connection between the two of them in the middle of all the shots of spacemen being thrown through buildings. For me, that’s what this scene cried out for. A break in the tension before moving on again. It could have even been played for a laugh. For instance:
Pete: Clark? Is that you?
Superman: Hey, Pete. How are you?
Pete: I’m doing well. I work at IHOP now. What are you up to?
My dialogue isn’t brilliant, but at least something akin to that would have produced a chuckle. But no. Before there’s any real recognition between Clark and Pete, another space baddie knocks Superman out of the IHOP and the fight continues. Blech.
And speaking of the bus incident, what was up with Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) suggesting Clark should have let the kids drown in order to protect his identity? I’m okay with Clark having inner demons to fight, but Pa Kent’s moral uprightness should be as sacrosanct as Uncle Ben telling Peter Parker that with great power comes great responsibility. Pa Kent is still a moral man, but that comment was totally out of character, in my opinion. He could have told Clark to be careful about revealing his identity, but not suggest the other option.
Another problem was Jor-El. Other than the desire to give Russell Crowe (who is excellent in his role) more screen time, there is no logical reason to keep bringing Jor-El back into the story in this weird Deus Ex Machina way. He’s dead! It would be understandable to have a hologram or something of him from the past explaining to Clark what happened. But here, his consciousness is so fully alive that he can actually impact current events. It makes no sense.
The supporting cast, which is top notch, also wasn’t given much to do. Most notable was Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, who didn’t get to display any of the funny, irascible personality the character is known for. On a positive note, it was fun identifying a number of TV actors who appear in the film, including Toby from “The West Wing” (Richard Schiff), Boyd Langton from “Dollhouse” (Henry Lennix), Helo from “Battlestar Galactica” (Tahmoh Penikett) and Lt. Gaeta from “Battlestar Galactica” (Alessandro Juliani)
So that’s my first impression of “Man of Steel.” Yes, I know I’m condemning an action movie for having too much action. Considering the crowd erupted in cheers at the end of the movie, I know I’ll be in the minority (though I loved the last scene which was classic Superman with a modern twist).
But I expect more from my comic book movie franchises. All these comic book characters have decades of storytelling in their past that mixed building-busting fights, effective characterization, and engaging plots. The trick is to find the right balance. If the story in “Man of Steel” were allowed to breathe more, that might have been the case. Unfortunately, I found it to be largely a lot of “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
FOR OTHER OPINIONS:
– Rebecca Cusey – ‘Man of Steel’ a Much-Needed Superman for 2013
– Steven Greydanus – A Superman movie for our times — but is that a good thing?
– Barbara Nicolosi – ‘Man of Steel’ – Movie of Slop