Release Date(s)2013 (November 12, 2013)
Studio(s)Legendary/Syncopy/DC Entertainment (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.]
Every few years in the pages of comic books, beloved characters are reinvented, altered or retconned. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man – each of these classic heroes has a long and colorful history that reflects changes in society at large, the attitudes and perspectives of their writers and editors, and the unique styles of the many different artists involved. Despite this, whenever an iconic character like Superman is reinvented for the big screen, fans seem to have a much more difficult time accepting it. As Exhibit A, consider the reaction to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel over the past summer.
Warner’s $225 million blockbuster scored huge with audiences worldwide, but sharply divided critics. Many veteran reviewers called it soulless, overly violent and lacking in romance, charm and humor. Meanwhile, some of the leading voices of Geekademia denounced its differences from their beloved Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve-era films. “That’s not the Superman I know!” is an accusation heard all too often in recent months.
Exactly. This isn’t the Superman you know… and it was never meant to be. Recall that, with the best of intentions, Brian Singer attempted to give fans back their beloved version of the character in 2006 with Superman Returns and the effort backfired horribly. Part of the problem is that while the character’s signature idealism and “big blue boy scout” rectitude are arguably as relevant now as ever, they’re also much harder to sell in our more cynical times. Wrapping the character in even the fondest papering of nostalgia only serves to make him seem just that much more out of date.
Faced with this reality, director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer – certainly no strangers to superhero films given their Watchmen and Dark Knight efforts – have wisely chosen to reinvent Superman instead. They’ve crafted a contemporary take on the mythos that embraces most of the classic aspects of the character and his origin story, but also abandons some of the silly tropes the character has been burdened with for years, and manage to make it all seem more grounded in reality by today’s standards. The broad outlines of the story are just as you remember them, but they’re penciled with new details and colored with new shades of texture and tone.
As before, Kryptonian scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe), anticipating the destruction of his homeworld, sends his infant son, Kal-El, to Earth in order that he might survive and one day lead humanity to its full potential. However this time, Krypton isn’t destroyed by a dying star but rather because its people have abandoned their principles – shunned natural childbirth, overharvested their resources and abandoned their once mighty effort to explore the Universe. As before, Kal-El is raised on Earth as a typical all-American farm boy by Kansas couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). But rather than simply teaching Clark good wholesome values, Jonathan also cautions him not to reveal his true nature to the world until he must, because once he does, everything will change – not just for Clark but for the entire human race. And humanity might not be ready for it. Still, as he grows into a teen and eventually becomes an adult, Clark (Brit actor Henry Cavill, best known in the States for his role on Showtime’s The Tudors) can’t resist helping people and saving lives, thus risking his own exposure as he wanders the world, struggling to find his place within it. As before, intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) tracks down the rumors of Clark’s exploits, ultimately discovering his true nature and identity. But rather than blowing his secret for a big headline, she keeps it instead, thus earning Clark’s trust and respect. Unfortunately, just as Clark finally begins to understand his true nature as Kal-El, and his destiny as Superman, the renegade Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives from deep space to find Clark and restore the lost glory of Krypton at any cost.
In spite of its changes to the Superman cannon, there is so much that’s great about this film! Grounding Kryptonian culture and technology in plausible science (fiction), as opposed to the typical comic book fantasy, makes the entire story more believable. Anyone who’s studied history (or read the work of Jared Diamond) knows that great civilizations collapse for but a few reasons: either they’re conquered by stronger ones, they deplete their resources or they simply lose sight of their own identity and decay from within. These ideas are all at play in this script and the film is stronger for it. Goyer’s writing is whip-smart, both in its broad strokes and its smallest moments. Here’s a wonderfully understated exchange between Jonathan and 13-year-old Clark (played by Dylan Sprayberry), after he’s just been bullied but managed to avoid retaliating with his unearthly strength:
Jonathan: “Did they hurt you?”
Clark: “You know they can’t.”
Jonathan: “That not what I meant.”
Every single major character in Man of Steel is strongly-motivated and perfectly cast. Christopher Reeve will always personify Superman for me, for far more reasons than just his time on screen in the blue tights and cape. But I love Cavill’s performance here – it’s not better, just different. I love that his Clark isn’t the klutzy, bumbling fellow everyone dismisses, who somehow becomes invisible to even his closest friends the moment he takes off his glasses. Cavill disappears into the role, absolutely owns it here. Perhaps the greatest thing one can say is that for all the complaints some fans have with this film, Cavill’s performance isn’t one of them. Unlike the villain of Superman II, Michael Shannon’s Zod isn’t just a megalomaniac. His sole reason for existence is to protect and serve Krypton, so he believes completely that his cause is just. Shannon tears into the role with his controlled purpose and fury. Here at last is a version of Lois Lane who’s intelligent and trustworthy, who looks before she leaps and who Superman can actually rely on. Amy Adams manages to do something I never anticipated – make her Lois an active, important participant in the story, who’s also the key to Crowe’s Jor-El remaining active in the story too. Yes, there’s less romantic interplay here than in past Superman films, but there’s real chemistry between this Lois and Clark that should pay off nicely in sequels to come. The His Girl Friday imitation can start later. (Or better yet, how about a fresh approach?) Speaking of Crowe, he soars as Krypton’s greatest scientist, knowingly facing the end of his civilization with resigned idealism even as he fights to save it. Diane Lane infuses Martha Kent with strength and vulnerability, while Kevin Costner steals scene after scene with his quiet integrity and subtle emotion. Even Laurence Fishburne’s take as Perry White is unexpectedly different, but fits well here and sets up greater involvement in the sequels.
Hans Zimmer’s score is a near-complete departure from John Williams’ classic themes, which has given some fans umbrage. Yet the pacing of Zimmer’s work is often very similar. Rather than helping to drive the viewer’s emotions with traditionally uplifting themes that give wings to the action on screen, Zimmer’s music is alternately strident with brass, warping electric string chords and drum-heavy bombast, then far more restrained through plaintive violin solos and subtly metallic/organic soundscapes – always more atmospheric, more dynamic, certainly edgier and more unsettling but also frequently poignant and beautiful. Fans for whom Williams’ work is inseparable from the Superman identity will hate this score, but if you’re open to a new and more experimental approach, Zimmer delivers a soundtrack that’s exactly right for this Superman. I’ve come to love this music more with each new listen.
To be fair, Man of Steel is a bit long. A good 10 or 15 minutes could have been trimmed from the film’s theatrical running time, particularly from the second half, which is a series of set-piece battles that form a protracted climax. I can also understand the difficultly many critics had with the level of destruction in Man of Steel, given its position in a grueling summer blockbuster slate heavy with CG devastation. A lot of people die in this film and that makes some Superman fans uncomfortable. But it works for me because, believe it or not, it’s actually part of what makes this story more realistic. I loved the Donner films back in the day and I love them still. But while Superman turning back time to save Lois Lane was brilliant when I was eleven, as an adult who’s suffered a few more of life’s real and all-too routine tragedies, it seems like exactly what it is: bullshit. People die. Not even Superman can save them. That’s real and acknowledging it within this mythos gives it a level of truth and authenticity – for me at least – that nothing else can. And in reality, if a group of Kryptonians came to Earth bent on destruction, that destruction would be horrific. Remember too that this Superman is only just beginning to discover his powers. He doesn’t have the luxury of years of experience in the cape, the wisdom that might one day come after a lifetime of being a superhero out in the open before the eyes of the world. Faced with such a threat, it’s all this Superman can do just to stay in the fight. Finally, I do think the film ends a bit too abruptly after all the carnage, with little service given to the aftermath, but again it’s something I suspect the sequels will address. In any case, quick or not, the film’s final scene is absolutely perfect.
Warner’s new Blu-ray edition offers the film in absolutely reference grade audio-visual quality. The HD image features terrific contrast and deep blacks, with rich, accurate color and refined details and texturing. The 2.4:1 aspect presentation is true to the theatrical experience. Audio is offered in lossless 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound space is big and enveloping, with lively rear channels and smooth panning. Dialogue is clear, bass is substantial – this is just a great viewing experience and the better your system, the better it gets.
The Blu-ray includes extras that are mostly good, if a bit uneven – not great, but better than I was expecting. These start on Disc One, which houses the film itself along with a trio of behind-the-scenes featurettes, all in HD. Strong Characters, Legendary Roles is the best of them at about 26 minutes. It has Snyder, Goyer, comic book writer Geoff Johns and members of the cast and crew talking about the history of these characters and where the inspiration and ideas for updating them came from. All-Out Action runs another 26 minutes and shows how the weight training and conditioning regimen these actors underwent helped them to more fully inhabit their characters, both physically and mentally – it’s also good. Krypton Decoded runs about 7 minutes and is hosted by young Dylan Sprayberry. It’s much more cutesy in tone – Dylan asks questions of the VFX supervisor about why things looked the way they did in the film and gets the answers – but it does give you a good look at some of the film’s design and visual effects elements. The surprise here is that there’s a reward for watching this piece: Once you’re done with it, a new selection appears on the main menu that lets you view Warner’s terrific Superman: 75th Anniversary Animated Tribute short in full HD. Finally, this disc includes a trailer for Pacific Rim and – oddly – the New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth promo featurette for The Hobbit. I guess I can understand the desire to cross-promote titles, but including it here is still an odd choice.
Disc Two is also a Blu-ray that contains more HD features. At first it’s a little off-putting, as there are only two menu choices: Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel and Planet Krypton. But these are both solid. The Planet Krypton featurette runs 17 minutes and plays like something you might see on the Discovery Channel if the events of the film were real and someone created a documentary about what they meant. So the piece reveals what’s known about Krypton, through data intercepted and decoded by S.T.A.R. Labs and DARPA, with visualizations provided by LexCorp. You learn about the history of the planet, its ecology, culture, technology and language, and how and why it’s believed the Kryptonians destroyed themselves. It’s fascinating material, culled from background detail created for the film itself. Journey of Discovery, on the other hand, is essentially an entire additional version of the film, with “making of” content edited into its running time every couple of minutes. So as you’re watching, Snyder will suddenly appear in a window to talk about the scene, and then you’ll see production footage or artwork or previz in additional windows. The film serves as a backbone upon which a ton of additional behind-the-scenes clips are offered up. I wasn’t expecting much from this, but there’s a lot of good content here. This feature isn’t done with BD-Java though, which means you can’t access this material separately via a menu – you have to experience the whole thing in context. That’s great in one sense, but might be irritating if you just want to sample. Finally, this set includes the usual DVD and UltraViolet Digital Copy versions.
What I was really hoping for (and missed) on this release was a more traditional audio commentary with Snyder and Goyer. I would have loved to hear them talking about the film more consistently from scene to scene, and explaining why they made the choices they did. Deleted scenes and a production artwork gallery would have been good too, but they’re not included. There were also good featurettes used online by WB WaterTower Music to promote the soundtrack, featuring composer Hans Zimmer and his musicians at work on the score. Not here. There was a featurette made for Dolby on the film’s sound design. Again, not here. But what I missed most was the film’s suite of teaser and theatrical trailers. The third trailer for this film in particular is one of the strongest I’ve seen in years. It caused quite a stir when it was released and it would have been great to have it on disc. Sadly, it’s not to be and that’s frustrating.
I should also note here that there is at least one retail-exclusive version that includes additional disc-based content. If you buy the Blu-ray from Target.com, there’s an additional 30-minute featurette called X-Ray Vision that looks more closely at 5 key sequences from the film. It comes in Blu-ray Book packaging that’s a mini version of Daniel Wallace’s Man of Steel: Inside the Legendary World of Superman hardcover book. I haven’t seen this yet, so I can’t say if the exclusive material is redundant, but it’s yet another irritating example of marketing taking special feature content created for a Blu-ray release and scattering it, and that’s not going to make any fan of this film especially happy. (It’s possible there are more content exclusives – we’ll update this review if need be to include them. There are additional exclusives that include swag items, special packaging and the like, but the Target version is the only one we know of so far that includes actual bonus features not available on the wide release.)
[Editor’s Note: It turns out there are TWO retail-exclusive versions, each with about 30 minutes of content not available anywhere else. Walmart has the 2D Blu-ray available in Steelbook package that adds two exclusive featurettes: The Iconic Characters of Man of Steel (18:57) and The Sonic Landscape of Man of Steel (12:49). That later piece is the Hans Zimmer featurette we were missing on the wide-release BD SKUs. Then Target has its 2D Blu-ray exclusive version that comes in BD Book packaging, which is a 64-page mini version of Daniel Wallace book. This set adds 5 exclusive X-Ray Vision featurettes: The Creation and Destruction of Krypton (6:02), Clark Discovers the Scout Ship (5:38), Battle on the Streets of Smallville (5:31), The Military Might of Man of Steel (6:15) and Attack on Metropolis (6:51). It’s all great content, with only a little bit of overlap. There’s much new material. It’s very, very disappointing that everyone who buys this title doesn’t get access to it.]
Blu-ray special feature issues aside, though, I still love Man of Steel. Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s cinematic take on this character spoke to me in ways that similar films in this genre haven’t in years – not since Donner’s original back in 1978 in fact. Yes… this Superman is different than you remember him. Yes… the film isn’t perfect. But for all its sound and fury, there’s a core strength, humanity and honesty here that is undeniable. Try watching Man of Steel for what it is, rather than what it’s not, and I think you’ll see something truly special. It’s quite simply the best, most realistic, complete and fully-realized superhero film I’ve ever seen.
- Bill Hunt