MAN OF STEEL Review: Look! Up in the Sky! On Second Thought, Don’t Bother
The line in the Spider-Man mythos goes like this: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But Spider-Man isn’t Superman. Superman is the ultimate. Superman is the superhero’s superhero. Superman has been a symbol of America and Americana since his Action Comics debut in 1938. Superman has sold everything from comic books to war bonds, and his likeness – and all that comes with it – has been used to represent everything from breakfast cereal to the United States National Guard. Superman is more than a superhero, more than a superhero’s superhero; Superman is a cultural icon. As such, for him, with great power not only comes great responsibility, but also great expectations.
Filmmakers have failed to meet these expectations before. Most recently, there was much disappointment in writer/director Bryan Singer‘s Superman Returns (2006), a franchise reboot that seemed long overdue, particularly after the much-beloved Superman and Superman II (1978 and 1980, respectively) fell into disrepair with two additional dreadful sequels in 1983 and 1987.
Further increasing those expectations are the cinematic successes enjoyed by DC Comics’ rival, Marvel Comics, and its stable of Avengers- and X-Men-related titles, as well as an intramural rivalry with the Batman franchise and the recent financial and critical success that director Christopher Nolan enjoyed with the Dark Knight Trilogy. In fact, Warner Brothers went so far as to recruit Nolan to produce and co-write this current reboot, hoping, I am sure, to capture some of that Dark Knight mojo.
Unfortunately for the red-caped Kryptonian, the strategy failed. Rather than attempt to recapture what has made Superman Superman for 75 years, the filmmakers took the character down a darker, more brooding path (Dark Knight lite?), and in the process completely sucked the joy – and the life – out of the character.
In the hands of director Zack Snyder, Man of Steel relaunches with Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) welcoming into the world of Krypton their son, Kal-El, as their planet rests on the brink of destruction due to an unstable core. Krypton’s military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon), attempts to overthrow the government in an effort to save the planet the way he sees fit, but he and his devotees are stopped and banished to the Phantom Zone. Before Krypton implodes, Kal-El is sent by his parents to Earth, the planet most like Krypton, but a planet that will make Kal-El special.
His ship lands on the farm of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who name him Clark (Henry Cavill) and raise him as their own. As he grows, he develops super powers that Jonathan teaches him to control and hide from the public, lest Clark be seen as an outcast.
Zod, having been freed from the Phantom Zone with the implosion of Krypton, spends decades searching for Kal-El with the hope of rebuilding the Kryptonian race, but the cost for that rebuilding will be the planetary genocide of Earth. Clark, whose powers have been discovered by Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), intends to save the world that he has called home all his life.
It all sounds so very exciting, and yet the majority of the film runs the gamut between dull and joyless, with long stretches of atmosphere and pensiveness and more atmosphere between the occasional actions scenes, particularly early in the film when you need to engage the viewer as much as possible. This makes the creative effort something that is worried more about how it looks than about how it delivers. If it’s possible for a film to preen, Man of Steel does it.
The majority of Snyder’s shot selections are of the Les Miserables variety – shaky handheld efforts with an inordinate number of close-ups that grow increasingly annoying. One of the scenes I was most looking forward to – the one where young Clark saves his classmates from drowning on a bus sinking in a river – was ruined by too many close-up shots which prevented any sense of the greater peril the children were in. It’s a spectacular situation that would benefit from giving the audience the big picture, but the entire sequence comes off as nothing more than a series of shots that get the point across and nothing else.
This is a big movie telling a big story about big characters, not some cozy tearoom whodunit. Either Zack Snyder doesn’t understand scope in relation to the story, or he is carrying out Nolan’s vision of Batman-izing Superman: the Red and Blue Knight, if you will.
This approach would also lend to the choice the filmmakers made around Clark’s earthly backstory: that of conflicted hero. Unlike other Superman incarnations, who all rush in where angels fear to tread, this version recognizes the TMZ world we live in now – the one with blogs and camera phones and Twitter – and puts Jonathan Kent in the position of teaching Clark that no matter how right the motivation, the reaction to a man who is not really a man but an alien, could draw unwanted … even detrimental … attention to Clark and his family. Instinctively, Clark wants to help people and save people, but his Earth father stresses upon him constantly that there is a greater price to pay for doing so, even if the price paid for not doing so is the loss of life.
It’s an interesting approach, and one that I happen to like. Clark, once grown and out of the Kent house, finds a happy medium as a drifter who falsifies his identity and wanders the country doing odd jobs until circumstances that go beyond his control force him to save lives using his superhuman powers, possibly exposing who he is, thus forcing him to pack up and wander yet again. It’s this string of appearances that ultimately lead Lois to find Clark.
(Sure, it all sounds a lot like the old Bill Bixby TV show The Incredible Hulk, where Dr. Banner roams the countryside picking up spare work where he can find it until he turns into the big green guy, which forces him to wander again, all the while being pursued by a reporter … but I digress).
There is also something that I think is a terrible cheat in the film that smacks of a combination of laziness and a desire of the filmmakers to get their money’s worth out of a major star (I won’t spoil it). And yes, the rumors are true: the battle scene at the end of the film is ridiculously long to the point that had a good 15 minutes of that action been properly distributed throughout earlier parts of the film, it would have been a benefit to the greater effort and would have justified the 143-minute run time.
The actors and their roles are a combination of hit-and-miss. Cavill, who clearly exercises on a regular basis, is straight out of central casting for the role, but is far too suppressed by the lackluster material to show any kind of acting ability. Adams has the kind of pluck you want in a modern-day Lois Lane, although I struggle to be impressed by a woman who in one breath challenges military misogynists with a line about all of them (including herself) measuring their dicks, and in the next breath, when treated to questionable living conditions on a base, asks one of those same misogynists (Christopher Meloni) where she should go if she has to “tinkle.” Costner and Lane are wonderful, though, as the Kansan Kents. It’s hard to describe, and I’m sure part of it has to do with the roles they’ve played in their careers, but they just look like and feel like all-American midwestern folk, and Costner does particularly well as the father who has to tell his son to NOT help people.
As for the ladies of Krypton, Lara Lor-Van as Superman’s birthmother is flat, but at least her time in the film is brief, and Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), one of Zod’s trusted ranks, is enjoyable as a ruthless combatant. On the men’s side, Zod lacks depth, but he’s pretty menacing and his motivations are well-defined, but it’s Crowe who is the gem of the bunch, putting on an acting clinic with the small amount of screen time he has prior to the destruction of the planet.
In the end, I’m most curious about how history will view this chapter in Superman’s legacy. I think it will be more than a footnote, but I also think it will be regarded as another missed opportunity to make great once again that which was great once before.