Dir: Zack Snyder, 2013
On the faraway dying planet of Krypton, Jor-El and Lara dispatch their newborn son to Earth, along with the means to prolong their race, before Krypton is destroyed. Raised by foster parents who urge him to keep his identity secret, the boy adopts the name Clark Kent and through his lineage develops superpowers. Now fully-grown, Clark encounters the traitorous Kryptonian General Zod, who means to destroy Clark’s new home.
Upon completing his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan enlists Zack Snyder to do for Superman what Batman Begins did for the Caped Crusader. After a bombastic opening in which Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon snarl at each other with a backdrop of Star Wars prequels meet Apocalypse Now, Man of Steel leaps right into the life of a self-exiled Clark Kent. Most films, particularly origin stories, feature an overtly prominent character arc. For instance if your first projection of Superman is one where he’s in hiding, debating his own morality and struggling to find his place in the world, then the rational third-act standpoint for his character is fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Snyder explores this inner conflict and emphasises it in some notable scenes with Kevin Costner but it’s all too easy. The laborious progression into heroism is absent because this is not the story of Clark Kent nor even Superman. This is an account of Kal-El, the last son of Krypton.
For a film about a hero faster than a speeding bullet, Man of Steel’s narrative is painfully slow to the extent where a bullet sounds appetising. David S. Goyer’s screenplay nods its head to many films from The Matrix to Inception but I hesitate to anthropomorphise the script for fear of creating the misconception that there is any life in it. The first two-thirds of the film consist of several scenes linked together in as sanctimonious a fashion as the comic book world has ever seen. Topped off with a third act that is an overwhelming indulgence of SFX porn the likes that would transform Michael Bay into (even more of) a lecherous wretch. Man of Steel’s gruelling banality swells and swells until you’re being begged to poke holes in the film. Now some would call dwelling on the inconsistencies of such a film’s breed of fantasy-science nitpicking but when the story is a loud, muddled outburst of chainmail tentacles, magical fertility skulls and the destruction of every building ever constructed ever, you’ll permit me my pointing out of minor plot errors.
Possibly Man of Steel’s greatest shortcoming is its inability to promote empathy for its protagonist. On that note, let’s backtrack a little. Christopher Reeve donned the red cape because he had charm, confidence and a strong chin. Brandon Routh headlined Bryan Singer’s underrated Superman Returns because of his uncanny Christopher Reeve impersonation. With Henry Cavill, Snyder is clearly trying to replicate the brooding nature of Christian Bale’s Batman but shoots himself in the leg by presenting a comparison between the two. Ultimately, Batman has more to offer audiences and it can be boiled down to the simple, basic fact that he’s human. There are rare bully-related encounters where Cavill erupts and a vision of caged anger jolts an interest in the character but when overshadowed by the vacancy of Cavill’s performance and paired with the nomadic first act, Superman begins to look like Wolverine on Xanax. Prior to the finish, a female army captain comments that Superman is “kinda hot” in such a bizarrely offhand manner that it sounds as if Snyder is justifying his hiring of Cavill in the first place. Nice try Zack, but I wouldn’t advise seeking absolution from die-hard comic fans.
The other performances are either jaded or draw from shallow wells. Amy Adams’ stereotypical role of the passionate researcher in that of Lois Lane contributes nothing except that of the compulsory flailing damsel to be plucked up in mid-air by the rugged hero – I wonder what a superhero blockbuster without a love interest would be like. Shannon’s scenery-chewing, erratic portrayal of General Zod is formidable, if not for being drowned in an obnoxious demonstration of CGI gone wild. Returning to Man of Steel’s emotional core, Snyder is torn between two father figures and therefore giving neither of them any lasting impression. Crowe’s deceased Jor-El flaunts about the film, his presence there supplied via a Superman USB flash drive, and Costner’s Jonathan Kent delivers Uncle Ben speeches whose poignancy is drained by a cameraman who seems to have had one too many cups of coffee. Case in point, when your film’s dramatic summit is the clichéd sub-plot of freeing an arbitrary character from her prison of rubble in the final act, you’ve got a deeply serious problem.
Nolan and Goyer’s bleak re-envisioning of Superman falls flat due to a lack of the fundamental albeit discreet campiness that breathes life into the character. Pair that with a director who simply cannot draw from his actors and has a fetish for brash, uncontrollable action orgies, Man of Steel is a wasteful bastardisation of a comic book hero whose rugged side is yet to be shown with any tact and probably never will – unless you count Unbreakable.
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆