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MAN OF STEEL review

MAN OF STEEL is pretty darn good, the best attempt at bringing Superman to the big screen since the 1978 Richard Donner original. But a surprising lack of fun prevents it from being a 4-star experience.

Whichever executive at Warner Bros decided to release MAN OF STEEL on Father’s Day weekend should get a raise. This is, at its heart, a story of a boy raised by two fathers. In competing “I’m trying to top you with my earnestness” performances, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe bring heartache and emotion to Jonathan Kent and Jor El. Costner, in particular, has been sleep-walking through his roles for at least a decade. But just try and remain dry-eyed when he tells a young Clark, “You ARE my son.” He’s playing at a new level here, injecting a very brief role with warmth and goodness. While Henry Cavill’s Superman is a statue most of the time (by design) Costner reminds us of the pain of trying to protect your child from a world that will only destroy him. There are liberties taken in the inevitable Pa Kent death scene, but it’s an interesting change and it works.

Crowe has regal fun as Superman’s biological dad. Indeed, the scenes set on Krypton before baby Kal El flies off into space are fun and remind you of Avatar or John Carter. It’s in these scenes that the film is truly better than the 1978 original which was bogged down by Marlon Brando’s “this is the most important dialogue in the history of the world” performance.

The rest of the cast is perfect. Henry Cavill, as I mentioned, is appropriately stoic as the titular hero. He bottles his rage, only to unleash it at just the right moment. He’s got the look. The physique. And I could hug director Zach Snyder for not giving him a stupid spit curl or red underwear. And while I like Brandon Routh in SUPERMAN RETURNS, I’m comfortable with Cavill going forward. Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane ever seen on the big screen. Margot Kidder may have her fans, but I always thought she was too manic for the role. Adams is both plucky reporter and earnest investigator, and no one is better at projecting doe-eyed wonder when she is staring up at Cavill’s granite chin. They make a good, believable pairing, and it’s exciting to think where their relationship will go in future movies.

Michael Shannon has the right level of anger and violence as General Zod. In this telling, he is on a mission to save his dying race. The best bad guys are those that think they are the good guys. Yes, you can honestly sympathize with Zod’s position here. It’s impossible to top Terrance Stamp’s Zod in SUPERMAN II, and Shannon wisely steers clear. Instead, he makes Zod a powerful warrior with singular purpose. A comic book movie is only as good as its villain, and MAN OF STEEL has the best in ages, something the Marvel movies could learn from.

The Chitauri? Please.

Hans Zimmer’s score, while not as iconic as John Williams’ masterpiece, is still big and beautiful. DC has decided to go deeper and layered with their music, while Marvel has been better at creating a distinctive musical theme for their heroes. The visual effects are top-of-the-line. Cinematography, spectacular. This is truly one of the prettiest superhero movies ever made. You can thank Snyder for that, bringing his distinct visual style in all its sun-soaked glory. The destruction is unbelievable. From Smallville to Metropolis, superheroes punch each other through buildings and level square miles of real estate in scenes that top even last summer’s THE AVENGERS. We finally get to see Superman punch a bad guy. These are the scenes we pictured in our minds, but that SUPERMAN II could never fully realize with the limited effects of the time.

For all its bombast and slick presentation, MAN OF STEEL falls short of being the best comic book movie of all time. In my mind, that’s a three-way tie between SPIDERMAN 2, THE DARK KNIGHT, and THE AVENGERS. MAN OF STEEL is missing a sense of humor. Where are the jokes? The witty banter? I’m not expecting Clark Kent to start spouting off like Tony Stark, but I do want him to smile once or twice. Superman is not Batman. He’s the light to Batman’s darkness.

There seems to be a trend here. Marvel is definitely going for fun, while Warner Bros/DC is making serious comic book FILMS. While MAN OF STEEL is a better film than THE AVENGERS, which one will I most likely watch again five years from now? AVENGERS for the win.

I’m a little worried. These are, after all, movies about men wearing tights. I can watch LINCOLN if I want serious drama. If I want a rollicking good time, I turn to my comic book movies. If a Justice League movie comes to pass, and we are graced with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, etc. on screen at the same time, I’m worried Ryan Reynold’s Green Lantern will be cracking jokes and the others will just stare at him as crickets chirp in the background.

There was very little laughter and very little cheering in my screening of MAN OF STEEL. Plenty of both in last summer’s THE AVENGERS. Take from that what you will.

There are two men that can bring a sense of fun to the DC Universe. Their names are Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the creators of the DC Animated Universe. Put these guys in charge of Justice League. Let them write the movies. Zach Snyder and Christopher Nolan can direct/produce. Beyond stealing Joss Whedon away from Marvel, that’s how you guarantee success.

Sorry. Feels like I went off on a bit of a tirade there at the end. Don’t get me wrong: MAN OF STEEL is still worth your dollar. Awesome from beginning to end.

But fun? Leave that to THE AVENGERS. DC/Warner Bros aren’t interested.

3 stars out of 4.

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