by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 56% (damn…haters gonna hate)

PLOT: The last son of a dead planet finds a home on Earth and, thanks to enhanced senses and powers, becomes its mightiest defender when an ancient enemy attacks.

I never tire of repeating this: the majority of my enjoyment of a movie is derived from how it affects me on an emotional level.  And, brother, in my case, Man of Steel knows exactly which buttons to push to make the hairs on my arm stand on end.

I can still remember the first time I saw the very first teaser trailer, back in 2012.  It fired my imagination almost as much as the first trailers for The Phantom Menace did.  “At last,” I thought, “someone is going to make a SERIOUS Superman movie!  It worked for The Dark Knight, why not Superman?”

And in my humble opinion, it did work.  But before I get into the debate between different Superman versions, let me talk about this movie first.

Man of Steel is ambitious, audacious, and visually spectacular.  Its one major fault lies in the finale, in which a human family is threatened by a heat ray, and it seems all they have to do is just…run the other way.  But a point is being made (a good one, I might add), so I can forgive it after the fact.  On first viewing, though, I will admit the mildly absurd situation took me a little bit out of the moment.

But I’m picking nits.  The rest of Man of Steel is just a great experience at the movies.

Right from the get-go, we know we’re in for something different when, for the first time since Superman II [1980], we get a glimpse of Kal-El’s homeworld, Krypton.  But this is not your father’s Krypton.  This is a lush, red-sky world, with stunning vistas, flying creatures, and hyper-advanced technology.

The familiar story is all there: a dying race and a loving mother and father who send their infant son to the stars for one last chance of survival, for him and for their race.  In flashback, we see Kal-El’s childhood in Kansas, as he struggles to adapt to his enhanced senses.  This is one of the great concepts I’m glad the movie took the time to show.  We see him trying to cope with seeing and hearing EVERYTHING, all at once, and learning to focus his powers so he can function in this new world.  That was a nice touch.  The school bus scene was handled especially well.

We see him as a grown man (played by Henry Cavill) before he dons the familiar suit, a drifter, only reluctantly playing the hero from time to time.  I liked the beats in this section because they echoed some of the good deeds we saw in “Superman” [1978], but everything was done from a standpoint of genuine awe and astonishment.

Then an alien ship is discovered buried under the ice in northern Canada, Clark investigates, and so does ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and things start to snowball from there.  But in “Man of Steel”, everything is handled in a way that makes the far-fetched story seem more real and relatable, more so than its predecessors.  And that appeals to some part of me that is hard to quantify or put into words.

Ever since I was a kid, I was drawn to the darker, grittier aspects of comic books.  My favorite Batman comic?  “The Dark Knight Returns,” Frank Miller’s magnum opus in which Bruce Wayne is an old man, the Joker winds up getting killed, and Batman and Superman fight to the death.  My favorite Marvel comic?  “Identity Crisis,” in which a superhero’s wife is murdered and the Justice League bands together to find her killer.  My other favorite comics?  “Preacher”, “Y: The Last Man”, “Saga”, “Watchmen”, “V for Vendetta”, and “Ronin.”  I was always, and still am, a fan of how the medium of comics can be used for telling mature stories that don’t always depend on happy endings, or heroes swooping from the skies to catch falling helicopters.

So when a movie DOES come along that, by default, has swooping heroes and a happy ending, but can ALSO make things a little darker or grittier than usual, I am thrilled, because it means the filmmakers are not confining themselves to ancient stereotypes.  They’re trying to surprise me.  They’re making a movie for ME.  …at least, that’s how I feel, because it’s right up my alley.  For example, one of the heaviest criticisms involves the overblown battle scenes.  But, man, I was TOTALLY okay with it.  No flying sheets of cellophane or creepy identical twins here.  These guys are playing for KEEPS.

Does this mean I am somehow in favor of comic book movies removing all traces of fun?  Of course not.  One of my favorite DC movies is “Shazam!” which was WAY more fun than I anticipated.  It’s pretty much a straight up comedy.  Would I prefer a grittier “Shazam” movie drained of fun, with dark skies and a darker ending?  No.  For “Shazam”, the fun approach worked.

When it comes to Superman, I think it’s a mark of the character’s versatility and endurance that it’s even possible for the “fun” Superman (yes, including “Superman Returns [2006]) to exist alongside the darker Superman.  It’s not like “Man of Steel” or its sequels somehow erased or replaced previously existing versions.  They’re still there.  If the comic book industry has taught us anything, it’s that the market for reboots and “remixes” is almost inexhaustible, as long as you stay true to the core principles of the character you’re working with.  In my opinion, “Man of Steel” does exactly that.  It keeps Clark Kent’s innate principles and values in place while dressing up the story to give us one of the best reboots of a character since “The Dark Knight” [2005].

There is, perhaps, one glaring exception, and it comes at the finale of “Man of Steel”, so SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER.

SPOILER ALERT.  You have been warned.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about: Superman is forced to kill General Zod (Michael Shannon) when it becomes clear that Zod will never stop his war on humanity, when he vows to kill everyone on Earth to avenge his lost civilization.  In the comic book, it’s a given that Superman himself does not kill anyone.  (There may be exceptions, but give me a break, I don’t read comic books religiously.)  So why this egregious contradiction?

Since “Man of Steel” is a reboot, I choose to think of it this way:

This is Kal-El’s first test as a hero, his first battle with an enemy as strong as he is in every physical way possible.  He is faced with an impossible choice: kill Zod, or allow countless more humans to die in who-knows-how-many-more battles.  He may be more powerful than a locomotive, but he is just plain inexperienced when it comes to this kind of decision.  So he does what he feels is necessary to preserve life.  He is definitely NOT okay with it.  Watch the movie, and you’ll see his howl of anguish and regret after the deed is done.

But he makes his choice.  He is the son of two worlds, but he chooses Earth.  “Krypton had its chance,” he yells at one point.  It’s time for him to move on.

I know, movies are subjective, and there are no doubt many excellent arguments against my interpretation.  Maybe that’s what makes “Man of Steel” and the Superman character so durable: the fact that there are so many vastly differing interpretations, and that they all apply equally.  Superman can be many things to many people, but no matter how many years go by, he’ll still be what he’s always been: a symbol of hope.

(Got a little mushy there at the end, hope you don’t mind.)


By Marc S. Sanders

Bruce Willis is a time traveler from an ugly dystopian future in 12 Monkeys.  His name is James Cole and his mission is to uncover why all but one percent of the world’s human population perished from a mysterious virus in the year 1996. 

Director Terry Gilliam specializes in disorienting his films.  No shot or closeup is well defined.  He’ll position his camera on a slant or he’ll turn it on an uneven axis so that nothing appears completely clear.  In 12 Monkeys, the viewer is as confused as the protagonist, James Cole, along with a psychiatrist he periodically encounters named Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe).  Beyond the camera trickery, the script of the film offers up oddball characters in both Cole’s present time period (the “future”) and in his past.  Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, in his first Oscar nominated role) is one particular weirdo, residing in a mental institution that Cole is entered into when he time traveled back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1990.  During his stay in the loony bin, Cole is talking gibberish to Dr. Railly and her team.  Jeffrey has his own language of nonsense.

Cole’s dreams of himself as a child are intermittently weaved into the final edit of the film.  There’s a woman running after a man, a rapid beep, beep, beep and a gunshot.  Later returns to this dream will provide more clues fleshing out its significance.

It would be easy to have a five-minute conversation and spell out what occurs in 12 Monkeys, but that would be defeating the cleverness of the film.  The achievement of its story relies on the sum of its parts.  Terry Gilliam strategically lays out breadcrumbs with fractional pieces of dialogue, words and pictures that quickly flash in front of you.  It may even hinge on a news story or memorable pieces of music playing on a radio. Still, he also unnerves the characters and the viewer with uncomfortable and sometimes grotesque imagery. 

The first time you watch the film your attention may turn to the long stream of bloody drool hanging from Bruce Willis’ mouth when he shares his first scene with Madeleine Stowe.  Repeat viewings, which I believe only enhance the picture, will have you focus on the nonsensical dialogue that James Cole is continuously uttering.  Other characters are seemingly disruptive to your concentration, particularly the herky jerky behavior of Brad Pitt’s character, but their purpose is essential to a mystery that has left the world of the future in a tailspin where the last of the human race lives underground while animal wildlife roam the cities above.  Furthermore, who or what can explain the enigma behind a team of people perhaps known as The Army Of The 12 Monkeys?

12 Monkeys is a very weird and very unusual kind of science fiction film and that is its crowning achievement.  I have spoken before of how sometimes a movie can not be determined as a success until it reaches its climax, say the last five minutes of its running time.  Terry Gilliam’s picture is one such example.  Gilliam has a keen sense of foreshadowing with tactical layering of complexity.  He is wise with how everything neatly unravels at just the right moment. The answers to the mysteries that James Cole pursues eventually rise to the surface, reminding us that everything was right under our nose the whole time. 

I recall the elation I had the first time I saw the film in theaters.  On repeat viewings, I grin at how the movie is assembled.  Quick references that seem like blink and you miss it moments add up to a satisfying conclusion in Terry Gilliam’s film.  My colleague, Miguel, and I both agree on the time travel motif in 12 Monkeys.  It is one of those rare occasions where the science built within the story’s fiction seems to make sense.  Too often time travel movies paint themselves into a corner and can’t escape the gaping plot holes they leave behind.  Yet the different time settings of 12 Monkeys cooperate with themselves.  Because the film doesn’t color outside of its lines, its worth applauding how ingenious the picture truly is from beginning to end.

12 Monkeys may require your patience the first time you watch it.  It’s not a comfortable journey.  However, you’ll be glad you stayed with it as the story answers its own questions.


By Marc S. Sanders

The first time I saw Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel, I was disappointed.  Very disappointed.  It was only after a second viewing about a year later that I realized I was simply biased and unfair with my perception of the film.  I grew up with the Richards’, Donner and Lester, films that featured Christopher Reeve in the role of Superman/Clark Kent.  Nothing could violate what was done in those films from the ’70s and ’80s. 

My impression of Man Of Steel now is that it is a marvelous film.  It’s an exploration of a stranger in a strange land questioning how to adapt to a living environment that he is not from, nor where anyone around him is genetically built like him either.  Henry Cavill fills the role of the title character.  What’s especially important is that he is not attempting to do what Reeve memorably did before him.  Actually, David S Goyer’s script really doesn’t allow for the hijinks of the prior films.  Clark Kent is not portrayed as a goofy and lovable klutz this time around.  Instead, the boy from Smallville, Kansas is challenged to limit his abilities at the behest of his Earthling father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner).  It’s dangerous for Clark to show all that he is capable of from his super strength to his heat vision.  Clark’s Earth mother, Martha (Diane Lane), is more protective of her son.  A really powerful scene occurs when young Clark is in the classroom and he has a bout with sensory overload of super hearing and super x-ray vision.  He can’t get the encompassing sounds and sights out of his head.  One of many CGI effects in the film come with Snyder showing the skeletal insides of Clark’s classmates and teachers.  It’s frightening; even to an innocent alien boy from another world.  This is good conflict.  Does the world need Clark Kent?  Would Clark Kent be better off someplace else?  Can he manage to live with daily life drowning out his sensibilities?

Another dilemma opens the film on Clark’s home planet of Krypton where he was born with the name Kal-el.  His father, Jor-el (Russell Crowe) has insisted to the governing body that the planet is expected to self destruct soon, and civilization needs to be relocated to another planet.  The politicians refuse to accept his theory.  Jor-el’s friend, the military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) sides with his opinion.  Though his approach is violent insurrection of the Kryptonians.  Zod is punished for his crimes and sentenced to an eternal prison known as The Phantom Zone before baby Kal-el is shipped away, and the planet implodes with all its inhabitants.

Following this opening, Snyder cuts his film with flashbacks and forwards showing Clark in various different roles as either a fishing boat crewman or a bartender trying his best to remain undercover even when the temptation for use of his powers repeatedly shows itself.  Clark reflects on moments from his childhood when he and his Earth parents questioned how to present himself.  

Superman’s known love interest eventually shows herself, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Daily Planet, Lois Lane (Amy Adams).  She’s following up on an alien ship that has been discovered in the arctic after 20,000 years.  Clark and Lois connect at this moment.  Of all the Superman angles that are familiar to so many of us, this is where Goyer and Snyder perhaps do not focus enough.  Man Of Steel is a satisfyingly long film, but there’s a lot of material and drawn out action to cover as well.  So the Lois and Clark relationship is somewhat sacrificed and not as nuanced as we have experienced in other iterations.

Zod arrives on Earth requesting that Kal-el reveal himself along with the intent to destructively turn Earth into a new Krypton at the sacrifice of the planet’s human population.  Naturally, a city wide battle will ensue. and lemme tell you reader you wanna talk about destroying the village just to save it….well…that’s what happens here.  When New York got destroyed in Marvel’s The Avengers or Ghostbusters, those pictures looked like spilled milk compared to what Superman and Zod do here.

Man Of Steel is the best film of the new Warner Bros/DC universe.  It might be Zack Snyder’s best film as well.  The assembly of the picture is masterful.  Hans Zimmer’s score has these great build ups as Clark discovers more of his capabilities.  It especially lends to when the character dons the cape and costume for the first time ready to leap in the sky and fly.  Snyder shows the efforts needed for Superman to carry out this talent.  The flying doesn’t come easy.  It looks like work on the super hero.  Zimmer’s score starts out quiet and then advances to these powerful notes as Superman soars higher and higher.  The boy from Kansas is making himself into something greater that he has no familiarity with.

Michael Shannon plays another of many kinds of villains and antagonists on his resume.  I’m not sick of this guy’s antics yet.  It’s time he become a James Bond villain.  He plays Zod with an uncompromising determination and disregard for anything else but to rule.  It’s all very sci fi like but I love how unforgiving he is with the role.  Much less Shakespearean than when Terrance Stamp played the part so well with Reeve as the hero.  Shannon is more direct and bloodthirsty.  Michael Shannon just knows how to be scary on film. This kind of personality would work great in a silly comedy from the Farrelly brothers as well.

Amy Adams is fine as Lois, but there’s not much here to work with honestly.  More details of her relationship with Superman come through in later films.  However, this story development soured me on my initial viewing.  The iconic irony of Superman pathos is that as sharp a reporter as Lois Lane is, she can not realize that the guy wearing the glasses who is working right next to her is actually Clark Kent?!?!?! Readers and viewers were always thankfully in on the joke.  On follow up viewings of Man Of Steel, I understand that Goyer and Snyder were never aiming for irony.  Lois knows who Clark really is from the get go. What was once an unforgivable departure for me, no longer is a concern.  There are deeper angles to question in Man Of Steel, like a purpose to others and the freedom to force a change because it can be done.

Snyder and Goyer broach on the well known Christ allegory with Superman.  The film takes place in Clark’s thirty third Earth year.  Jor-el is slain with with a stabbing to his rib.  There’s also the crucifixion  pose on a number of occasions.  I must admit, as a Jew raised conservatively with just the Old Testament, I am not very educated on the texts of Jesus Christ.  However, the basics are explored in Man Of Steel.  Is Superman a savior?  Snyder wisely even has Clark visit with his Smallville priest to question his obligations to Earth and to Zod’s calling, with window artwork of Christ in the background.  

One vice I have with Snyder’s picture is the shameless plugging.  How overt must signage from Sears, U-Haul, 7-Eleven and IHop be?  Granted, all of these summer blockbuster films have the inserts of brand labels going all the way back to the original Superman films.  Here though, the corporate advertising is a true eyesore.  Superman being thrown into the dining area of an IHop is not as memorably funny as when Zod’s underling, Non, crashed into New York’s famed Coca-Cola sign back in 1981.

The seemingly endless battle consuming about forty five minutes of the third act of the film are over the top outrageous.  I might normally be saying I’ve seen enough while casualties are never considered as buildings literally topple over into mushroom clouds of concrete dust.  Still, the cast keeps these moments alive.  Shannon and Cavill, along with Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, the Daily Planet editor, and Amy Adams, actually show risk and fear amid all of this bombastic action.  Still, Snyder is insistent on his freedom to go crazy with CGI effects.  It’s more than a bit much, but the characters up to this point keep me engaged with the film all the way through.  Later DC films in this franchise don’t do it so much for me, but that’s another column altogether.  

Again, what I especially like about Man Of Steel is how Snyder cuts back and forth with the film.  Heroic moments occur and then are reflected back to times in Clark’s childhood with Jonathan and Martha.  With Zimmer’s score, it seems to allow Clark to consider conversations and moments from his past as meaningful to what he is experiencing in the present.  When Zack Snyder stays on this trajectory it makes Man Of Steel more than just another comic book movie for summer box office.  There’s depth from Goyer’s script that Snyder wisely does not disregard.  

Man Of Steel is a new and unfamiliar kind of Superman, but its a very welcome Superman too.