Man Of Steel Review

Review of: Man of Steel
Product by:
Jonathan R. Lack

Reviewed by:
Rating:
5
On June 11, 2013
Last modified:July 19, 2013

Summary:

At once vaster in scope than any superhero movie yet produced, and as intimately, crushingly emotional as any other entry in the genre, Man of Steel lands with the precise, explosive weight of a true historical milestone.

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I have seen the future of blockbuster cinema, and the future is Man of Steel.

When audiences flock to theatres this Friday, they will be treated to an experience absolutely unlike anything they have ever seen before. This is not hyperbole. On every level, in every way, by every critical criterion I have to judge the effectiveness of film, and every benchmark of spectacle and wonder I have experienced in my time reviewing movies, Man of Steel is completely, utterly singular. I have never seen anything like it. At once vaster in scope than any superhero movie yet produced, and as intimately, crushingly emotional as any other entry in the genre, Man of Steel speaks in a fresh cinematic language viewers will be largely unaccustomed to. The scale of its action is completely unprecedented, an enormously, viscerally powerful shock to the system, yet in its narrative design and treatment of character, it employs the elliptical, understated rhythms of arthouse cinema. Suffice it to say such a blend has never been attempted on a production with this high a budget.

But just as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight threw out and re-wrote the rulebook for what a comic-book film could aspire to – and more importantly, what it could achieve – Zack Snyder and his team have made something that plays by very few of the preexisting rules for productions of this size. And like The Dark Knight, Man of Steel lands with the precise, explosive weight of a true historical milestone, a major step forward in the evolution of blockbuster cinema and a beautiful, thrilling, and above all else, emotionally moving masterpiece in its own right.

What impresses me most about the film is how incredibly, uniformly tight it all feels. Superman is, as evidenced by the majority of his underwhelming cinematic career, an extremely difficult character to get right, and throughout Man of Steel, one can sense Snyder, Nolan (serving as producer), and writer David S. Goyer putting in every ounce of the work necessary to do him justice. As such, all aspects of the film – every narrative component, character beat, and aesthetic element – is directly, thoughtfully tailored to inform our understanding not only of Superman himself, but of how he fits into our world. I do not intend to draw many comparisons between Man of Steel and prior incarnations of the character – as previously stated, this film is unique – but when one looks at Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film, one can frequently sense the difficulty those filmmakers faced. It wasn’t just the technological limitations of the time – the script essentially splits the film into three separate, loosely-related movies: one on Krypton, one dramatizing Clark Kent’s ascent to superhero status, and one built around the threat of Lex Luthor. In the balance, it is a very good film, but structurally, it comes across as fragmented, lacking the holistic sense of purpose and function necessary to make Superman – or any character, for that matter – truly palpable.

Man of Steel, on the other hand, feels effortless, because all the pieces are exactly where they need to be for viewers to get swept up in a unified, overall momentum. The introductory material on Krypton is more than just an excuse to ship Kal-El off to earth – it is narrative and emotional context, where what we learn about this society directly informs our understanding of father Jor-El, antagonist General Zod, their respective worldviews, and all conflict to come. Similarly, Clark Kent’s years in Smallville are about more than merely instilling the character with ‘American values;’ by contextualizing Clark’s profound identity crisis within the difficult, identity-forming years of childhood and adolescence, which every single viewer can relate to, we are drawn emotionally closer to the character while the fundamentals of his attitude towards humanity, and the impact and ideology of his earth parents, are illustrated for us. A supporting player like Lois Lane is made indispensible, introduced not as a fiery love interest, but an active participant in the affairs of earth, someone who would be attracted to Superman because he embodies the ‘greater’ that a good journalist naturally strives to discover, and whom Superman would fall for because she represents the best of his adopted species. And perhaps most importantly – because this is where so many blockbusters get it wrong – the nature of the antagonist reaches back around to the film’s Kryptonian starting point, representing Superman’s history while providing the exact challenge necessary to forge his future.

In short, the story is rock-solid and economically told, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes dramatizing Superman’s childhood. I genuinely teared up every single time Kevin Costner was on-screen as Jonathan Kent, and in at least one of Diane Lane’s dynamite moments as Martha, not only because the actors are extraordinary, and have the presence to convey lifetimes worth of love and personal history, but because even their briefest of scenes bears enormous weight in the larger story being told. Just as Russell Crowe’s every appearance tells us more about how Jor-El sees both the world and his son’s place in it, every last moment spent with Jonathan and Martha further illuminates the influences Clark carries with him into adulthood.

Those belief systems – Jor-El’s confidence that Kal-El can act as a beacon of hope and inspiration for humanity, and Jonathan Kent’s insistence that humanity is not ready for the revelation of his son’s true nature – are the launching pad for everything that happens in the film, both literally and thematically. Superman’s physical and ideological battles with General Zod are grounded in these ideas, and Clark’s central arc lies in finding a way to live that honors the teachings of both fathers. Fundamentally, Man of Steel is about the ways in which we struggle to reconcile who we are and what we feel inside with the influences of our pasts, and when I say the film is tight, it is because every single moment extends organically from these basic, human-scale themes. That is a rare feat for blockbuster filmmaking in general, and a balance only a small number of superhero films – Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight topping the list – have ever struck.

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The themes of the film are embedded in its structure, which, after the opening sequence on Krypton, is organized emotionally, rather than chronologically. Our first sight of Clark Kent on earth is as a wandering, bearded adult, and we come to understand his complex, conflicted state of mind by the way various events – the explosion of an oil rig, the heckling from a man in a bar, etc. – trigger flashbacks to key moments from childhood and adolescence. The tone is resolutely serious, with Amir Mokri’s gorgeous, ethereal cinematography – which borrows more from Terrence Malik than any work of commercial filmmaking – creating a highly emotional, introspective state. Clark is kept at a certain distance from the viewer throughout the film, because Superman is not someone we can ‘know’ through direct or simple means, but the structure and aesthetics constantly reinforce the nature of his internal conflict, and inform our understanding of how he moves through this world. It is a completely different approach to storytelling than any other comic-book movie has used, including Nolan’s Batman films, and I find it exhilarating to see a blockbuster as formally daring and ambitious as this.

Ultimately, this is all reflective of just how completely Man of Steel understands Clark Kent as a character. More than anything else, I am simply overjoyed to see a Superman film that finally treats the icon dynamically without resorting to drawing lines in the sand between Superman and Clark. While Quentin Tarantino would tell you otherwise – that speech in Kill Bill is 100% erroneous – Superman is unique from other heroes in that he does not have a split identity. Superman is Clark Kent, and Clark Kent is Superman, and if he puts on a front in certain situations to maintain some semblance of peace and order in his life, his own identity is sound, singular, and unified. Man of Steel, as an origin story, deals with duality not as an ongoing truth of the character, but a struggle he must overcome to reach his full potential. Clark initially believes his dual alien/human nature is unsustainable, his two fathers’ beliefs incompatible, but his arc is one of finding constancy in identity, and arriving at a point where he can feel completely comfortable in his own skin, whether that skin is dressed in a suit or in tights. This is not like Batman, where Bruce Wayne changes when he puts on the suit (or, more accurately, changes when he takes it off). Whenever Henry Cavill is on screen, he is playing one character, and one character only, no matter how many names that character may have.

Cavill is stupendous in the role, giving a performance so intrinsically rooted in physicality that I fear many will undervalue what great work he does. I love the particular vocal choices Cavill makes, projecting the exact balance of humble benevolence Superman needs to have, but unlike many characters, Superman cannot be defined by the things he says or how he says them. He has to be physical, and we have to understand how his singular physical presence influences his place in the world. This is the basis for Cavill’s work. From the general way he holds himself all the way on down to his slightest facial expressions, Clark’s body feels thoroughly lived-in. Cavill commands the character’s physicality to such a total, startling degree that one quickly stops seeing an actor, and simply sees Superman in his richest, most ideal form.

That physical foundation is important, because the film’s remarkable action sequences are predicated in the audience’s belief that, physically at least, Superman and his powers are not of this earth – that to us, he is effectively a God. Snyder has taken this notion and run further with it than I ever could have imagined, staging action on the largest, most ambitious scale possible. When Superman goes into battle with General Zod and his fellow Kryptonians, it is an all-out, no-holds-barred war. These beings are truly, overwhelmingly super-powered, and Snyder leaves absolutely nothing off the table in depicting their strength. No action is too big, no structure is sacred, and no limits are imposed on the destructive fallout of the battles. When Superman punches Zod halfway across Kansas, or one of Zod’s lieutenants smashes Superman with a fire-truck, the sense of scope created is practically limitless.

Yet the true brilliance of Snyder’s direction is that no matter how vast or apocalyptic the action becomes, its impact is never once lessened. We feel these blows, each and every one of them, in part because the special effects are nigh flawless – this is what CGI is for, showing us images we cannot possibly witness or emulate in the physical world – and more importantly because Snyder’s direction and choreography is sharp, clear, coherent, and remarkably naturalistic, if such a thing can be said of action on this scale. Snyder retains the grainy, filmic aesthetics of 300 and Watchmen, and here, his style is put to its best use yet, where the texture of the image creates a strong, omnipresent sense of tangibility. There may be an awful lot of digital workmanship on display in Man of Steel, but it does not look like digital filmmaking, a subtle but vastly important distinction.

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But if Snyder’s fully mature talent for action and visuals is something we could have at least partially anticipated coming in to Man of Steel, the emotional purity of the finished product is not. While Christopher Nolan did have a hand in shaping the film’s narrative structure, and David S. Goyer’s script is a wonderful piece of writing, Snyder is responsible for realizing it all in ways that have such extreme impact. I am particularly taken, for example, with the way he stages Superman and Zod’s final moments together. Without spoiling anything, I shall simply say that it is the most viscerally effective emotional beat of the film, a deeply painful and complex gut-punch disinterested in thrills, excitement, or mayhem; it aims instead to powerfully underline the characters’ respective arcs, and Clark’s journey in particular, and does so entirely through visual execution and choreography. The film is bursting with moments like this, where Snyder fully steps into his own as one of the few directors fully capable of blending spectacle with a profound human element. I always wanted to believe he had this in him – even when I panned Sucker Punch as viciously as I have ever dismissed a film – and I am overjoyed to see Snyder hit this, his biggest opportunity to date, so completely out of the park.

Were time immaterial, I could continue for several thousand more words describing everything I adore about Man of Steel. That I have not yet touched upon Amy Adams – whose Lois Lane stands among the most mature, three-dimensional character realizations in any comic-book movie to date – or Michael Shannon – who immediately takes his place in the film villain pantheon with a Zod who is at once deeply terrifying and remarkably sympathetic – is a minor travesty, and there are many more small but wonderfully observed performances – from Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, and others – that deserve attention. Hans Zimmer, too, is one of the central heroes of this film, delivering perhaps his greatest and most emotionally stirring solo work to date. John Williams defined Superman musically as much as any pop icon ever has been, and I think it is absolutely remarkable that I never once thought of Williams’ fanfare when listening to Zimmer’s compositions. It is possible, even, that I prefer the more subtly affecting nuance of Zimmer’s work.

In the end, though, all that really needs saying is that which I laid out at the start: That I have never seen anything quite like Man of Steel, and it is probable you never have either. I am immensely curious to see how audiences and other critics will respond to the film, given just how much it rewrites and expands upon the existing language of blockbuster cinema. But in my own estimation, I have no doubt of these three truths: That Man of Steel is far and away the best Superman film to date, easily one of the all-time great comic-book movies, and the single most impressive film to hit screens so far this year.

At once vaster in scope than any superhero movie yet produced, and as intimately, crushingly emotional as any other entry in the genre, Man of Steel lands with the precise, explosive weight of a true historical milestone.
  • 5

    Rating

   
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  • Alejandro Cordero

    Nice review!

  • Israel Njacinto

    yesssssss!

  • David M.B.

    I’m almost afraid to believe this review, and set my expectations too high . . . but whether or not I agree, it was extremely well thought-out, and I greatly admire your insights into the character of Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman. Certainly the most glowing review I’ve ever read of a film. Nice to hear the film affected at least one person in this way.

  • UltimaRex

    Yes, yes and furthermore yes.

  • JT

    Diane LANE, no?

  • Arion

    “Diane Keaton’s dynamite moments as Martha.” If it’s not too late to fix, it’s actually “Diane Lane.” But btw, this review almost made me tear. This sounds like the Superman movie everyone has been waiting for their whole lives. I am glad I already have tickets and reserve seats so I don’t have to wait in line. It sounds like this will be worth the extra price tag I paid to watch it on a leather recliner with my wife and friends. I’d hate to be shoulder to shoulder in a regular theater, because I might need room to jump and down!

    • Jonathan Lack

      Thanks Arion! Sorry for the mistake. I wrote this review at about 2 in the morning, so I’m just glad that’s the only glaring error.

      • Arion

        I can’t believe I caught it at 5am lol. Great piece! Keep it up!

  • Whitey

    Best review i’ve read so far and considering your experience and history with most films and the fact you let Zacks last movie SuckerPunch have it in no uncertain terms….you can’t be biased and have truely had a remarkable experience with MOS…..If I have even half that experience i could’nt be happier….most other reviews are very favourable but it’s almost like all of them really had to dig hard to find a fault…..which to me says it’s even better than what they are prepared to put on the line to write about…….thankyou for writing such great work & giving credit where it’s due

  • Chandler Nunnally

    This is a beautifully written review.

  • Spiderman616

    I really want to believe this review, but I still have doubts. From what I have heard visually and emotionally it is powerful. But I keep hearing that this is not Clark. And I can see how that would be. And I can hear the counters: “You just want goodie-two-shoes Superman/Clark”. But see, all the best stories of Clark and Superman have had the optimistic Supes, who sure faced adversity and challenges, but was hopeful. Superman: Birthright beautifully characterized a Clark for the modern world. The reviews Ive read and the trailer make it seem like Superman: Earth One had more personality… and it was on okay comic, but definitely not a good Superman comic. This sounds like its totally rewritten Clark’s personality. Not character, personality. I felt this way about The Amazing Spiderman as well, it was on okay film, but it didn’t keep the true essence of the character. Peter Parker didn’t feel like Peter Parker from the comics. He felt like he was forced to be a brooding badass/sexy nerd.

    Like in the trailer, the whole “this is not an S” and when he smiled while flying, those are Clark moments. Some expression’s, the sheepish ones ive seen in trailers like the Hardy’s one envokes the Clark and Superman I have known and read and looked up to for YEARS. It’s okay to modernize the setting and action, but don’t dismiss what made the character who he is. It’s fine to explore the psychological depths of a character, but you can make something realistic without draining all the life and whimsy that made Superman so awesome.

    I know it’s going to be amazing special effects and good emotion, but its starting to feel like the epicness is overriding the character.

    I respect the review and I am glad someone felt this way about it.

    But as a fan I have to say that from what I know (retaining full judgement until i see it), this is not the personality of the Superman I grew up reading and idolize. And that is what made the stories so good, it was his human aspect, but not only his only his fallibility and problems, but his quirks and goofiness and affability. He needs to remain a fully-realized character, which from what ive read it only seems to invoke his fallibility and problems.

    If you disagree and want to know where i am coming from read Superman: Birthright. As well as All-Star.

    • Jonathan Lack

      So you’re saying you don’t like what the movie is doing without seeing the actual movie? Seems like a weird choice.

      I’ve actually seen the movie, and please don’t worry – this is a VERY human-scale movie, and a very human-scale Clark. You will get plenty of great Clark moments. And while the scale of the action is epic, the emotional core of the film is personal, intimate, and thoughtful, as I said in the review. Give the film a chance.

  • Matthew H.

    Great review. The movie looks sensational. I keep hearing how stale Clark’s character is in the movie, but this review gives me hope that it will be a well rounded blockbuster. I think Hans Zimmer is a great composer as well, and his work always accommodates the modern action adventure quite nicely. Keep up the good work Mr. Lack. Cheers

  • Cyborg6971

    I have to say that this review is fantastic . The fact that you could separate the Donnor films from this is paramount and while you acknowledge it your not holding one higher due to nostalgia or what your expectation of the character could means to you. Your examples of why the film works on such a high level are explained and understandable by your going into this film with a clean slate. It’s refreshing and your knowledge of characters in the film are evident with how the movie is what you wanted and you’re simply thanking them for finally nailing this complex yet so resonant cultural icon. Which is exactly what I, and many others want.

    The bad reviews I’ve read are complaining about and comparing this film with one that’s almost 40 years old. Times have changed this is what you do with this character. Listen to the fans that made this first of a genre a super star and show him off. Superman is the father of all comic book heroes. It’s about time the world saw why.

    I can’t wait for the midnight showing and what will come next in the DC live action film library.

  • Jerzz Masterz

    I totally agree with this review, I watched it earlier.

  • Charlie Avinash Nicholas

    So far your review has been the most in depth that I’ve read and this
    shows your great appreciation of the character. A lot of the negative
    reviews that have come out are very brief in comparison to your review.
    Thank you so much for this review. Btw, did you see this movie in 2D or 3D?

    • Jonathan Lack

      Thanks Charlie! I saw the film in 3D. The effect is fine, there is no blurring or ghosting, a nice sense of depth, and most importantly, the grain structure of the film is not altered or lessened. It looks good, but I would say the 3D doesn’t really add anything to the experience. Certainly not worth 3 extra dollars. I personally plan on seeing it again this weekend in 2D just to get a better handle on the cinematography as it was originally composed. But if you happen to really love 3D, this experience is a good one.

      • Red

        Is it spectacular in IMAX at least?

        • Jonathan Lack

          They did not screen it for us in IMAX, but I’m sure it looks good that way. I would personally recommend finding an IMAX 2D showing, as the IMAX 3D process always looks bad to me.

          • Juan

            I watched it in IMAX 3D-the 3D was a bit annoying but the IMAX was definitely a thrill ride! Spectacular, especially with Hans Zimmer’s score blaring through the speakers.

  • Jason

    Hey Johnathan, what do you think is going on with most of the critics here? I mean even the ones who’s vote was + had to say something -. Do you feel that this film ( and I pray it does) transcends or shifts our ideas of what a superhero movie is? Or maybe these guys just aren’t in touch? Personally I feel dark with DC and cartoony with marvel. I like dark.

  • Jason

    Hey Johnathan, what do you think is going on with most of the critics here? I mean even the ones who’s vote was + had to say something -. Do you feel that this film ( and I pray it does) transcends or shifts our ideas of what a superhero movie is? Or maybe these guys just aren’t in touch? Personally I feel dark with DC and cartoony with marvel. I like dark.

    • Jonathan Lack

      Jason – I’ve been talking about this a lot on Twitter this week (@JonathanLack), and I think critics are having trouble processing it. The unspoken truth about many American critics is that they don’t like being challenged. They complain about Hollywoood complacency, but often complain about movies that try something new. Man of Steel is VERY different from everything else out there, and I honestly think a lot of critics don’t know how to process that, and therefore feel threatened. I don’t want to sound like a dick, and I can see legitimate reasons some people might have for disliking the movie, but for the most part, all the reaction I’ve seen from major critics is that they don’t want something new or different with Superman, and don’t want to accept something so radically different. It speaks volumes that critics who hate Man of Steel loved the dry, formulaic Superman Returns.

      Just my two cents, though.

  • Brian

    Excellent review. I’ve been extremely excited about the movie, though a bit worried once I saw the reviews. So it’s really nice to hear people like you and Drew McWeeney loved it. And reading some of the reviews, I feel like most of the critics are looking for something different from this than I am. Me personally, I found the original Superman overrated, and so I was excited to see that the trailer for this really looks to distinguish the character and give him more of a personality. Do you think the film succeeds in that regard?

    • Jonathan Lack

      Absolutely, Brian. I was just speaking with another critic I very much respect at a different screening tonight, and he basically explained that he disliked the movie for being too far away from what he considers Superman to be (he is a fan of the 1978 film and comics from that era). And I understand that. If you didn’t want Superman to change, Man of Steel isn’t for you, and I suppose that’s fair. But I personally believe Superman can be many different things, as he has been in comics and on television over the years. “Man of Steel,” to my mind, is a wonderfully moving, intelligent, insightful, and thrilling reinterpretation, and I think Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan can defend every single choice they made as being true to the essence of the character. That is why I love the film. I agree with you – this version of Superman, who is at once more God-like and emotionally closer to the viewer, is more engaging than previous filmed versions have been, at least for me. I think there are valid and invalid reasons for liking and disliking the movie, but if you want a version of Superman that distinguishes itself, this is the way to go, 100%.

      I loved Drew’s review too, by the way. Glad to see myself mentioned in the same sentence, as he is one of my favorite critics at the moment.

      • Denny

        This is the most logical and understandable review I read for MOS. I agree with you. Superman needs a change, and Snyder and his cohorts nailed it. We can’t just always look into the past. Certainly, we can’t just expect to see Donner’s & Reeves’ version of Superman forever, can we? Excepting changes is difficult these days. If that could happen to Star Trek where majority of critics accepted it well, why couldn’t it happen to Superman? It is pretty much a paradox….. I think maybe majority of negative critics of MOS reflected on how they wanted MOS to be another version of Donner’s & Reeves’ Superman. After all, satisfying critics is extremely difficult.

  • Yasn7

    Just saw it and completely agree with this review!

  • Nick Carlson

    I absolutely loved the movie, though I didn’t feel as strongly as this review, however I feel much MUCH MUCH MUCH more closely to this review than any of the ones calling it a cold, characterization-less, over CGI-ed piece of crap.
    It’s a gorgeous movie in both the glorious SFX as well as the organic shots.
    There are a few emotional scenes but, like Batman Begins to Dark Knight, I feel like we’ll more truly delve into Superman’s character in a sequel.

  • James

    The reviewer read my mind when he wrote this. The question isn’t whether this is the best superhero movie of all time, but whether it is the best movie of all time. My answer: YES

  • James

    The reviewer read my mind when he wrote this. The question isn’t whether this is the best superhero movie of all time, but whether it is the best movie of all time. My answer: YES

  • Rummy389

    This is one of the only reviewers who seem to have seen the same movie that I did. Easily the best Superman movie ever made. It kept me engaged from start to finish.

    Lol when the Army dude said “This man is not our enemy” I almost shed a tear. Can’t wait for Man of Steel 2!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1475242123 Wilson Kaiba Setio

    This movies rock!! The best every… and the beginning of the releases DC Movies. The green light is giving.

  • Gab Rage

    I sincerely thank you for this wonderful review. And I agree with every word you said.

  • Rosenthal

    Most praised review I’ve seen so far… and I’m happier for it. Hope I enjoy it as much as the writer did.

  • Alex Solether

    I read the review after seeing the movie but I have to say this is spot on, fantastically written, and exactly illustrates many of the thoughts I have about the movie but couldn’t quite articulate. Nicely done.

  • Ravi Shankar

    Wonderful review! It’s like reading my own words! I actually cried during the ending of the movie as I just couldn’t digest the movie as a whole and also it was so emotionally moving (that flashback scene with his dad in the end). 10/10 for sure.

  • Luis C Escajeda

    I hated that movie in the sci fi realm it adds nothing new, whats more it is stupid: 20, 000 years expanding around the galaxy and after all that they die out because they had to use the stupid core of their stupid planet, they can travel around the stars which Einstein almost said was nearly impossible, and yet they can not fucking scape their fucking planet, after 20, 000 years of developement. even in middle ages they did make developments, rather few advances but there were seeveral advances, so I mean they could just fucking move to another fucking star to get energy. and then the heroic shit this kevin kostner dies happyly fuck!!! because he wanted his son identity to remain secret? and even worse this superman allows his dad to die just cause daddy toldme not to save him am fucking very fucking obidient asshole I have been in a situation where my dad needed my help or would die, man you dont htink about it, you dont obey fucking no one you go and save yourt dad is stupid what is shown there and theres more but I will stop here stupid movie
    in the heroic arena is stupid

  • Chris

    I went into this film with modest expectations. I knew that I was in for a visual treat, but I was broadsided by the sheer emotional weight of the film. It’s at once an epic blockbuster and an intimate character piece. Visually I believe this film sets benchmarks for blockbuster cinema. I only hope that studios sit up and take notice that what truly drives this film isn’t the machinery of visual effects, but the organic beating heart at it’s core. I’ve seen precious few films that so effectively and completely meld these two aspects together. This film doesn’t feel like a traditional blockbuster and it certainly doesn’t feel like a mindless, soulless modern day blockbuster. it is visceral, visual, and emotional epic.