Man of Steel is yet more proof that Zack Snyder’s films make for amazing trailers; his visual acumen is as sharply honed as ever, but the human element ends up lost amongst the computer generated bombast. Which isn’t to say that Man of Steel is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination; the film gets just as much right in this reboot of the character as it gets wrong, with strong performances across the board and a director at the helm who creates beautiful epic imagery helping to balance out the bloated action set pieces and dialogue that repeatedly spells out the ideas and themes at work like living SparkNotes.
Superman’s origin is a known quantity at this point (perhaps the most well-known bit of American mythology, in fact) so kudos to writers David Goyer and Christopher Nolan for not making us wait until the final 15 minutes of the film to see our Man become Super. Even so, opening the film with an extended prologue set on a dying Krypton as our infant hero Kal-El is escorted into the stars by his enterprising father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) before General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his military coup can prevent it proved oddly unengaging. The lush setting and bonkers action (Crowe rides a flying space beast along with his Pin-Art-by-way-of-Apple robot companion to steal a partial skull from Krypton’s core for reasons) should immediately start firing the synapses in any self-respecting pulpy sci-fi nerd’s brain, but it makes the primary conflict of this film stark from the very beginning: This all looks, sounds and feels incredibly cool – so why don’t I care?
The film then catches up with a nomadic Clark Kent nee Kal-El (Henry Cavill, impossibly handsome) as he’s spent a good part of his early adulthood wandering the planet looking for answers as to why he fell from the sky into the laps of his adoptive parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). He discovers this origin right as intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) discovers him, and these dual discoveries intertwine their fates as General Zod and his batterymates return from their imprisonment looking to begin Krypton again either with or without the help of Clark/Kal-El. All of the performers I’ve listed above help elevate the material. Cavill, in particular, deserves heaps of praise for taking a character that often amounts to beige wallpaper in comic book form and breathing life and vitality into him without compromising the ideals that make Superman iconic. He captures the gentle and inquisitive sides of the character and also lands the big physical moments with equal aplomb – I won’t be able to confirm this 100 percent until I see the film on DVD, but I’m also pretty sure that each of his abs have their own set of tiny abs. Michael Shannon’s General Zod proves a worthy counterpart – Shannon doesn’t partake in many histrionics through the film but he simmers in nearly every scene with an anger and violence that is broiling right underneath the surface of his genetically bred soldier. He belongs to the indie film cognoscenti any longer, this role will show the rest of America what they’ve been missing. Costner, Adams and a bit part from Christopher Meloni are all also worthy of praise with Costner in particular doing a fine job of taking what amounts to thematic sermons and imbuing them with a folksy charm that make them go down smooth.
Part of the problem with Superman films in the past has been creating a problem vast enough to encompass the character’s seemingly unlimited powers; this usually has been dealt with through the excessive use of Kryptonite. However, this is as dramatically exciting as Bruce Wayne suffering from a severe peanut allergy and unsheathing an epi-pen from his utility belt in the middle of The Dark Knight so we’re all the better for the creative team behind Man of Steel deciding to leave that hoary slice of the Superman mythos behind. Even better, they finally answered the fanboy cries of, “Give him something to punch!” Cries that reached a fever pitch after 2006’s Superman Returns featured the character lifting progressively larger objects (a bit of set piece escalation that mirrors the excitement of Strongman competitions that air on ESPN3 at three in the morning) in lieu of having something tangible to do battle with. Us comic nerds should’ve been careful what we wished for; while this sequence certainly delivers epic action as it’s never been seen before on the big screen, it loses sight of its characters and what they stand for as it takes place.
It’s certainly safe to say you’ve never seen destruction wrought on such an epic level as you do in this picture, a throwdown where even blocked punches produce shockwaves that topple skyscrapers. But by the eighth instance of one of the characters tackling the other through a city office building, the charm begins to wear off. There’s a token attempt at creating some human drama in the midst of this chaos involving Laurence Fishburne’s character that only heightens the absurdity of this bloodless demolition derby; having the battle take place in such a heavily populated area during the middle of the day would have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, but the film’s steadfast avoidance of showing any people involved outside of “looking the sky awestruck” reaction shots give the impression that Superman and Zod are fighting in a ghost town. That the film then doubles back and hinges its finale on the safety of a few citizens suggests cognitive dissonance writ large, especially given that having had such moral decision-making in play throughout the bloated battle would’ve upped the dramatic stakes substantially.
There’s certainly something of value tucked in between the film’s CGI-laden beginning and ending, but the deafening pitch of these two bookends work towards drowning all of that mid-section goodwill out. The dialogue feels of a piece with Nolan’s wildly successful Batman series, in the sense that every character is talking about the themes and ideas behind the characters, foregrounding these ideas in ways that often prove an ill fit for the film. Snyder’s work is as kinetic and thrilling as ever, but if more focus was placed on character development in the film’s second act instead of backloading it with an endless supply of collapsing superstructures perhaps they could’ve made a motion picture worthy of the myth being retold here instead of something that is merely passable summer entertainment.