Man of Steel
2013 - 143 minutes
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer
Starring: Henry Cavill, Lois Lane, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni, Laurence Fishburne
Perhaps director Zack Snyder – along with writer David S. Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan (whose “Dark Knight” tinged fingerprints are all over this film) – should’ve taken the advice of Martha Kent when she told her son Clark to make the world small. While their film visually soars, “Man of Steel” sinks like a lead balloon under the weight of an unnecessarily over-explained and grandiose plot that tries so hard to thrill but becomes a largely ineffectual mash of sound and fury.
There is so much promise contained within “Man of Steel” but it remains shrouded, unlike its mysterious hero who has a huge (and loud) coming out party.
The opening scenes on Krypton are wonderfully rendered on-screen and remind us of Superman’s alien origins. Technology is advanced beyond what we could comprehend on Earth, but feels natural and organic within this universe. The civilization has evolved to the point where childbirth is no longer natural; everyone is genetically engineered to fill a specific need in society – scientist, military leader, etc. Despite their ability to create cultural cogs, the planet is dying due to irrational decisions made by out-of-touch leaders.
Scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) had warned of the coming doom, but was ignored and now rushes to save his son Kal-El (the first naturally born Kryptonian in centuries), along with his entire race, by evacuating him from their world and stowing away in the craft the secret for creating lives as Krypton knows it.
I was hooked at this set-up and the possibilities, and its implications for the “villain” General Zod (the great Michael Shannon). Zod cannot be considered a villain in the traditional sense – he’s just doing what was (literally) made to do. After his military coup on Krypton fails to protect his beloved planet, Zod and his conspirators are banished do a “dead zone” in space to live out their days frozen in a black hole. The only issue with Zod’s motivation is that nothing interesting is done with it. It barely registers that he could be considered a somewhat sympathetic character until he actually says himself at the film’s climax he’s only performing his natural duty.
A cycle of telling and explaining is a problem throughout “Man of Steel” (perhaps worst in a wince-inducing piece of dialogue from an Army Colonel played by Christopher Meloni who directly addresses the camera and states of Superman, “this man is not our enemy”).
We’re first introduced to Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as a 33-year-old man drifting from place to place and job to job, trying to avoid detection after episodes of displaying his super-human abilities. Flashbacks throughout the film show Clark as a child and young man raised by Earthly parents Jonathan and Martha Kent – his father (Kevin Costner) engraining in him the belief that it would be dangerous for Clark to reveal his true nature until the world was ready.
Costner is extremely effective in limited time and we believe his dedication and morality. It’s a shame we’re only given bite-sized portions of Clark’s childhood as it contains some of the most interesting moments – the terror when a young boy discovers he can see through people and hear things from miles away or learns the truth of his being. This is the first time in a superhero movie where I wanted to be drawn more into the origin story rather than a convoluted present that only alludes to it.
Grown, drifter Clark arrives in the frozen Canadian landscape where the military are uncovering some type of craft they believe could be a Soviet submarine, but of course it is not. I was unclear whether Clark figured out he needed to go here to find his truth or it was a happy coincidence he got a job as a laborer on the site. Another coincidence has plucky reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) arrive to do a story on the military operation to recover the craft.
In a twist on traditional Superman lore, Lois is immediately introduced to Clark’s dual nature when she follows him into what turns out to be a Kryptonian ship from centuries before. When wounded, the super man saves her, his secret revealed. Lois must be an extremely talented reporter because in about 2.5 minutes of screen time we see her following leads to find this extraterrestrial was Clark Kent, raised in Kansas. Adams and Cavill go through the motions, but don’t have great screen chemistry.
Also revealed to Clark (by a projection of his Krypton father Jor-El) is a long, long history that involves Krypton exploring planets, including Earth, to expand their empire. Again, it all seems over-complicated and largely extraneous when a more concise history would’ve sufficed. Suddenly, Superman emerges from the craft in full red and blue regalia and cape, ready to test his powers. It feels like we hear a lot in this sequence, but miss some important bits that aren’t given to us.
In another coincidence, precisely when Clark learns his truth, General Zod’s ship appears in orbit over Earth – he and his minions unfrozen, and we can tell Zod is 33 years older because there’s grey in his goatee. I actually love the idea of Zod (an alien to Earth) arriving to ask the planet’s citizens to turn over the other alien hiding among them (Kal-El) and the possibilities that presents: the conflict, the uncovering of this trespasser, whether to give in to the demands of Zod, determining who and what can be trusted, etc, etc.
While the initial announcement from Zod announcing “you are not alone” is amazing, nothing exceedingly interesting is done with this huge premise, or Zod’s interest in physically remaking the Earth to repopulate it with the Krypon race. Again, awesome, but not fully fleshed out.
Superman quickly surrenders himself to the military and then we get a third act that involves lots of flying, punching, throwing, shooting and Metropolis buildings falling. It seems we’re getting a lot of that lately, evoking images of 9/11 that just aren’t thrilling or inspired. Any necessary plot explanation is done through holographic images of Jor-El tutoring Lois on the workings of Krypton tech and Zod relating his plan and duty to Superman in some sort of dream hologram world that I’m not sure how was created.
But that’s all just filler to get to the finale of things being turned to ash and Zod and Superman punching each other really, really hard. There’s a nice shot of a tanker truck with a “LexCorps” logo being tossed around in the fray. I hope the owner of that company doesn’t get too mad about that.
There’s no emotional investment here, and though Zod wears the permanent suffering of his people on his face, it’s tough work for the audience to connect this with Kal-El/Clark/Superman and his struggle with his own duality. Cavill is perfectly adequate in the role, with a slight brooding façade, but (again) his story is mostly told through dialogue revealing his human/Krypton identity – I didn’t truly believe he was in pain during his scream at the climactic battle’s end.
“Man of Steel” takes way too much time to explain things, blows up and extends plot points that could be handled more succinctly while glossing over details that could add color to the drab goings on. Standout performances by Shannon and Costner get lost in the ether, and we never feel the full impact of what is the most epic discovery in the history of Earth.
Entertaining in spots with some truly visionary action, “Man of Steel” doesn’t connect all the necessary dots to elevate itself to anything beyond a loud and mostly hollow blockbuster that talks a lot but doesn’t say much.
© 2013 by Blake Crane