Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Man of Steel vs. Iron Man 3, two summertime superhero blockbusters that find their leading men called to action when enemies come out of the woodworks to shake them from a false sense of security.
Man of Steel marks the brand-new reboot of a very popular superhero story (Superman, if it wasn't clear). Iron Man 3 is the continuation of a well-established (and also very popular) franchise, but it also constitutes a reboot of sorts, as it finds its titular hero (Robert Downey Jr.) on the down and out, unable to eat or sleep, much less defeat super-villains and save innocent civilians. From what we can tell, he is snapped out of this lull by the appearance of an army of other Iron Men, all sporting slight variations on his high-tech suit. Chaos ensues: planes crash, homes explode, everything starts falling into the ocean. The uncanny resemblance between protagonist and antagonist makes for some psychological tension, but we can't help but remember that it's been done before (Spider-Man and Venom, anyone?).
Clark Kent's storyline in Man of Steel is structured as a general coming-of-age tale that culminates in some unspecified national crisis. The interest here is not in the specifics of the villain he's fighting, what power he'll prove, or even the scope of the conflict—it's in his character development from a conflicted child to a (Super)man increasingly resolved in his own purpose. To be fair, the conflict that plays out (i.e., "My father found out that if the world found out who I really was, they'd reject me") is not entirely novel—in fact, it's at the center of almost superhero movie ever. But the attention paid to Kent's childhood adds a dose of genuine vulnerability to a narrative that might otherwise come off as tired.
Advantage: Man of Steel
Robert Downey Jr. is a veteran in the genre. His performances in past iterations of Iron Man and The Avengers have elevated him to the kind of actor who doesn't really need to adapt to different roles; he's a character in his own right, and people will turn out in droves to see him appear in different costumes and accents (see also: Sherlock Holmes; its sequel). Every superhero movie tries convince you for just a second that there's a chance its hero might not beat the bad guys, but watching this trailer, we really believe it. In the end, he'll probably save the day, but not without some serious emotional trauma—just what was needed to add interest to Downey Jr.'s overconfident, larger-than-life persona.
Obviously we know less about this incarnation of Superman than we do about the Iron Man we've already seen through two big-screen character arcs and in a couple of Avengers cameos. The story laid out for him is definitely engrossing, but we're not sure whether Henry Cavill has the acting chops to milk it to its full potential. His narration towards the end is dishearteningly flat, even if he's reading from a well-written script. At some point in both trailers, each leading man finds himself sinking into the ocean amidst the debris of some fiery explosion, all as part of some extended metaphor about receding into defeat and the depths of psychological despair. But we feel no urgency or tension when Cavill is going under, no investment in his character. The toddler- and grade-school-aged little actors that play his younger self actually outdo him, as far as emotion and expression go. Unfortunately, we suspect adult Superman gets more talking parts.
Advantage: Iron Man 3
Granted, we know very little about either hero's love interest. Neither of them speak, not once, over the course of their full-length trailers. But we can always judge them by their doe eyes and their pouts. We've always thought that Gwyneth Paltrow, beautiful as she is, is a little too icy for the role of damsel in distress. She was believable as Tony Stark's ultra-professional, in-charge, and secretly in-love PA, but we just can't get behind this new, domestic chapter in her character's life.
We have considerably less to go off of to evaluate Amy Adams as Lois Lane—specifically, one shot. But it's one very expressive shot, and it reminds us what a great actress Adams is. And going strictly off past performances, we think that she'll be able to play the loyal lady-friend part with more depth and complexity than Paltrow, to whom the act just doesn't come as naturally.
Advantage: Man of Steel
Of course, the main attraction in both these films is not the nuance in their actors' performances, but the number of times those actors are thrown into the air by high-octane, CGI explosions, and how frighteningly real those explosions look. Iron Man 3 really delivers on that front. Three seconds don't pass in the trailer without something blowing up: a collection of Iron Man suits, Air Force One, Stark's by now semi-iconic seaside mansion. After Christopher Nolan's recently retired Batman trilogy and Marc Webb's recent Spider-Man startup, Iron Man might well have the biggest comic-book action budget on the market, and its pyrotechnics are nonpareil.
Man of Steel's trailer doesn't feature much action. We get a short montage of urban explosions—spaceships lighting cities on fire, skyscrapers crumbling down—but it feels like they're obligatory, as if to assure the audience that they'll get their fix. But again, the action at the end of the trailer looks to be secondary to the overarching bildungsroman that chronicles Clark Kent's self-actualization as a superhero. This isn't necessarily to the film's fault, but it doesn't satisfy industry standards for a fiery fray quite as well as Iron Man 3.
Advantage: Iron Man 3
We might counter, however, that Man of Steel has a much better action-flick director at its helm. Zack Snyder has 300 and Dawn of the Dead to his name, so he's helped set something of a gold standard for gore in Hollywood. Both titles are a little more surreal than Man of Steel promises to be, but Snyder also directed Watchmen, so he also knows his way around a good superhero movie.
Iron Man 3 is only Shane Black's second-ever directing credit. The first was in 2005 for another film starring Robert Downey Jr., Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so at least he's got experience with his star actor. Another point in his favor is that he also penned the screenplay for Iron Man 3, so he can probably adhere more faithfully to it than anyone else. Still, given his credentials (or lack thereof), Black is a total wildcard.
Advantage: Man of Steel
It's very rare that any action-film franchise can make it to its third installment without getting at least a little stale, and Iron Man 3 is no exception. It has its saving graces, but Man of Steel is fresh in more ways than one: not only is it a new story for us to invest in, but its treatment looks unconventionally subtle and ultimately pretty poignant.
Winner: Man of Steel