Man of Steel
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer (screenplay), David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan (story), Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster (creators)
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon and Diane Lane
Superman is the definitive example of the hero-as-outcast, of someone who knows their origins as well as they know how far out of reach those origins are. The entirety of Superman’s condition (and of countless other characters) can be summed up in those infamous final moments of The Searchers, where the hero, seeing that everyone is happy and the day is saved, turns back to the frontier destined to be alone forever.
In The Searchers, though, the protagonist matches every act of bravery with one of savagery, and the origins he so desperately knows are dying are those of the Confederacy. The Superman of the movies could never be like this, especially not in the age of Hollywood. What Zack Snyder shows us in Man of Steel is a man unburdened by complexity; a hero so vanilla that he is defined by both special effects and the natural attractiveness of the man playing him. No matter how smoothly polished his crime-fighting or how chiseled his body, though, he never feels real. As a result, neither do the “World is Ending!” stakes.
This is somewhat of a surprise given that Christopher Nolan, the man who turned the Batman mythology into a twisted, nourish cesspool of post-9/11 dread, is executive producer and shares story-writing credit. But it also wasn’t really a shock, because Snyder has made a career out of glossy bullshit, even when the source material is excellent (Watchmen).
Man of Steel is not a disaster, though. In fact it’s the most solid movie Snyder’s made to date. All of the stylistic excesses he’s indulged in in the past- slow motion, hallucination, flashback – at least feel like they belong sometimes, unlike in the abysmal Sucker Punch. The first 20 or so minutes on Superman’s home world Krypton are exhilarating because they don’t make the fatal sci-fi mistake of explaining every rule of a different world. His dad (Russell Crowe) and mom (Ayelet Zurer) beam him out into space on a course for Earth as their planet collapses in on itself.
From here it becomes an entirely different movie set in an equally well-drawn-out rural America. It’s here that the unnecessary flashbacks start kicking in, as Clark Kent (Cavill) is an adult outcast who sees things that trigger childhood memories. It’s admirable that srcreenwriter David S. Goyer tried to avoid the straightforward “Hero is inspired by a loved one’s death” device, but it still happens, even if it’s later in the movie.
Other than a few quieter scenes growing up in Kansas, though, Man of Steel rarely slows down for morality or life lessons. It’s as if it is deliberately trying to top last summer’s The Avengers with sheer, unabashed spectacle. Unlike that movie, the dialogue here is extremely weak in most of the talking scenes. Most of the performances are solid, with Amy Adams and Michael Shannon being stand-outs in what few ways they can.
Not even the great Shannon can elevate General Zod above a standard madman, though. There are a lot of unnecessary and asinine dialogue snippets thrown in about how Zod is working for the greater good of the group and evolution, while Superman operates on faith. The camera is more focused on capturing total destruction than it is on this idiotic philosophical musing, but I’m not sure if any of that is good or bad.
Whatever his villainous motives, Zod is leading the last remaining citizens of Krypton to track down Superman so they can start artificially growing back their people by draining him of his blood (Muahahaha!). They also plan to turn Earth into Krypton with gravity machines, wiping out the whole planet in the process. Or something.
The intricacies of the sci-fi plot, of which there are surprisingly many, are captured effectively but ultimately rendered insignificant by the relentless momentum of action scene payoff. It doesn’t seem like there’s a shot in the whole movie that isn’t filled to the brim with special effects and/or product placement. (It will be interesting to see how such a corporate entity will handle Superman’s arch nemesis, the evil businessman Lex Luther, in future installments.)
In a year where Michael Bay played it small, Snyder has gladly taken the reigns. He doesn’t have the panache for mindless action sequences like Bay does, though. It seems as if his films always try to be loftier than the mindless blockbuster fare that they are. There was more meaning in David Carradine’s three-minute monologue about Superman from Kill Bill than there is in this movie, though, no matter how much it wants to be grown up.