Those hoping for an epic Superman flick finally get their wish, but its many flaws can’t save the caped hero.
Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300) has more or less delivered the Superman film contemporary audiences have been waiting for, or expecting, depending on the view point. With a story by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, with Goyer penning the script, it has that Dark Knight aura that has taken hold over so many superheroes recently. In one respect, it couldn’t be further from the classic Richard Donner and Christopher Reeves original and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns as both took a lighter affair owing to, among other aspects, Reeves’ and Brandon Routh’s almost slapstick take on Clark Kent. But, Man of Steel also doesn’t really make an original case for itself.
Many were excited by Nolan, and his co-writer Goyer’s, involvement in the creation of the film because of their success with Batman but a large part of that success was due to the originality of their vision. What Nolan did was to show the world that he understood his material. The story of Batman is dark and gritty by nature. Bruce Wayne isn’t the cheeriest of guys. Unfortunately, once that vision was unleashed onto the world, everyone wanted to create their own “dark and gritty” version of known properties. What’s unfortunate about it is that everyone wanted to borrow a style that Nolan created to serve his story. In that sense, Man of Steel is a product of the times. That doesn’t mean that the film is a total disaster, because it isn’t. Man of Steel has some excellent aspects but a whole lot of misfires too.
Essentially an origin story, the film tells the tale of the birth of Kal-El, his upbringing as Clark Kent and his assimilation into Superman. It begins on a dying Krypton as Jur-El (Russell Crowe) warns of their impending doom, which falls on deaf ears and incurs the wrath of General Zod (Michael Shannon) who agrees with him, but differs on the solution to their extinction. It’s the most extensive view of Krypton most audiences will have ever seen and while impressive it lacks power mainly due to Zack Snyder’s gloss over story for maximum carnage, complete with Jur-El flying on an alien beast. Instead it includes vague dialogue, like Jur-El telling Zod “I will honor the man you used to be, not the monster that you have become.” But the audience never gets to see that man only the monster, effectively rendering Zod a one-dimensional character. He’s evil, sure, but the best villains are always the ones that are complicated. Zod is not complicated, he’s just programmed from birth to save Krypton, an interesting aspect that could have been better explored as a manifestation of Krypton’s ultimate weakness and downfall.
Like many epic blockbusters, it’s all too often preoccupied with getting through story as quickly as possible so it can get to the action. It’s not the worst offender but it does hamper much of the characterization for just about everyone and even Kent’s character building scenes are mostly through ultra-cheesy flashbacks growing up in Smallville with his parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). For reference, one scene involves a young Kent being bullied only to resist fighting back for the obvious reasons, and it’s glimpsed that he happens to be holding a book by Plato (cue huge eye roll). What makes a scene like that so ridiculous is that the tidbit of that specific book doesn’t add anything to the story. Instead it just illustrates how over the top and humorless Snyder’s direction can get.
Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is also a problematic character as the film predates Clark Kent’s stint as a reporter and has Lane independently coming into contact with Kent during a story she’s investigating on an unknown object lodged in an ice sheet in Antarctica. She is inexplicably forced into almost every major scene following her introduction, even if Adams does embody Lane much better than Kate Bosworth did in 2006. Her character just magnifies the loose story that Snyder and Goyer work around with big action sequences. All that’s known of Lane, even in the end, is that she’s a tough Pulitzer Prize winning reporter. Aside from that she’s a blank slate. However, there is one major aspect of Lane and Kent’s relationship that they do get right, but to mention it here would spoil the film.
But, honestly, the biggest victor is Henry Cavill who, despite not much to work with, dons the suit with aplomb. The real problem with Superman is that Clark Kent, his real secret identity, is much more interesting. Superman just has to look good and fight. OK, there’s more to him than that, but Cavill does infuse a sense of purpose beyond what Goyer and Snyder are able to give him. The real test, of course, is whether he can also play the bumbling and awkward Kent who — spoiler alert — doesn’t quite show up in the film. He hasn’t had time to figure out who he is, let alone find a full-time job as a reporter. Still, Cavill is the star of the film, in the literal and figurative sense, and he carries the film well. Or, at least as best as he can with the material that he’s given.
If this all sounds harsh, it may be. As stated earlier, it’s not a total disaster. It’s a great summer flick. The action sequences are engrossing and the effects are done well. But this is a film, and a film tells a story. It’s in that sense that it falls short of being the Superman film everyone has been waiting for. It sheds the lightness of Singer’s 2006 take and Goyer’s influence is immediately noticeable. Even Singer’s take was too much of a callback to Donner’s, but again it seems Superman is just borrowing someone else’s style, in this case that of which was already established by Goyer and Nolan. After the inevitable sequel it may be looked back upon as a perfect set up film, but even that notion is frustrating. Why is a set up film necessary? Can’t a full story be told without having to prepare audiences for a sequel? That may be the fault of the system as much as it is Goyer’s and Snyder’s.
Rating: 3 out of 5