Man Of Steel: Zack Snyder’s Reboot Leaves Me Cold
Superman’s father mentions on multiple occasions in Man of Steel, the reboot of the Superman franchise, that Superman can potentially be a bridge between worlds, exemplifying the best of both human and Kryptonian characteristics. Man of Steel aspires to be a bridge between worlds as well, hoping to bring a flawed humanity to Superman that hasn’t existed before in cinematic renditions, while also delivering on the fun big-budget action that makes the little kid in all of us watch with wonder. Its humanity angle works beautifully, and there’s plenty of big-budget action… but its clunky seriousness denies us any fun, and its frantic overstuffed exposition doesn’t allow its main characters to develop. For every terrific new idea that works, there’s a played-out derivative angle dragging the film down. There’s plenty to admire in Man of Steel, but there isn’t much to love. Zack Snyder’s film has impressive scope, budget, and new ideas to bring to the table, but ultimately it can’t bear the weight of all of the things it wants to be.
Krypton is dying. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is chastising the high council for their drilling into the world and causing the apocalypse. General Zod (Michael Shannon) has other plans: he tries to stage a military coup. Jor-El steals the Codex, an artifact which contains the genetic material of all future incubated Kryptonian children, and he manages to shoot it with his newborn child, Kal-El, off to a new planet, safe from Zod. Zod and his fellow military soldiers are condemned to the Phantom Zone, shortly before Krypton’s destruction. Flash forward to present day, where Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) hops from town to town working odd jobs, before his super powers threaten to give him away and he’s forced to keep moving. When an alien anomaly is found up north, Clark discovers his origins… but so does intrepid reporter for the Daily Planet, Lois Lane (Amy Adams). When Zod escapes from the Phantom Zone and, seeking the Codex, heads for Earth, the world doesn’t know where this alien figure is… but they know that Lois Lane knows. With the entire world at stake, Clark must decide: should he fight Zod and risk lives? Or give himself up, hoping Zod will keep his word and leave Earth? (What do you think he does?)
The film is at its best when it slows down and shows us Clark’s humanity. Admittedly, I was skeptical that this would work from the trailers, as I’ve always sort of loved that Clark is this boy scout, free of most of the insecurities and neuroses that trouble humans. However, watching young Clark get bullied and be unable to fight back helps paint the character with shades of complexity we can relate to. These flashbacks, with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane beautifully earnest as his human parents, are wonderfully drawn, complete with Terrence Malick-lite Kansas imagery. An unspoken relationship with a former class bully, a conversation with a priest about his superpowers… these moments make the character feel re-vitalized.
“Big” is the operative word for the action, for better and worse. Snyder focuses on the gritty destructive power that a real Superman would have on his surroundings, and sure enough, buildings crumble and crumble to the point where a collapsing tower elicits a yawn. Is that a good thing, however? It not only creates some confusing geography to the action, where all we can really tell are buildings are falling, but there seems to be an ethical dilemma that Superman should be having. He’s obsessed with saving helpless people, yet during fights with the villainous Kryptonians, he’s more than happy to crush a whole building without checking once to see if anyone’s inside. The destructive reality of a Superman is only frightening if we are considering the collateral damage– and without question, millions and millions of people must have died during the runtime of the film, yet these countless lives lost not only aren’t dealt with, they aren’t even mentioned. Snyder creates an overwhelmingly serious tone in his film (the rare moments of humor are equal parts welcome and jarring), yet he wants us to revel in destruction and enjoy when buildings blow up. I struggled to grip with his desire to have it both ways.
Some of the action is on point: whenever Superman is forced into hand-to-hand combat, it’s intermittently enthralling. The stiller the camera is held and the longer the shots are allowed to linger, the more we feel the thrill of watching superhumans duke it out. However, when the editing quickens, the camera moves faster, and the CGI grows more abundant, it becomes trickier to follow and loses our interest– and I say this as a huge action aficionado. Even worse is a sequence in which Superman must fight a big tentacled machine. You simply can’t effectively follow Superman fighting two superhumans hand to hand with Superman flying around a stationary robot. It’s a big cluttered CGI mess that doesn’t work at all. Furthermore, I’m tired of superheroes not having to deal with adversaries face to face, instead having to destroy some big evil ray-emitting machine to win the battle. For all of this film’s new ideas, it uses some of the most rote ideas in the genre, right down to a few Darth Vaderesque screams of “NOOOOOOO!” when something bad happens. Certain genre cliches need to be put to pasture for life. Another to add to the list: when the villain hijacks every TV in the world to address everyone. In a film so deadly serious, such silliness is out of place.
Cavill is, somewhat expectedly, a blank slate: it requires a certain charm to suggest a world of life below Superman’s placid exterior, and Cavill isn’t given many opportunities to showcase this. Far more disappointing is Shannon’s lack of a character– one of the finest actors alive reduced to your typical genocidal maniac. We don’t get a sense of his relationships with any of his cohorts, and although clunky exposition (always abundant in origin films) tells us Jor-El and Zod were friends, we never see it and don’t buy it based on what we see. Most disappointing of all is the gender dynamic presented on screen. Not that comic book films traditionally break from the “man rescues damsel in distress” archetype, but here, every woman follows the orders of a man, nearly every woman requires rescue, and, in the most eyeroll-inducing moment, a military officer swoons about how “hot” Superman is. Yes, he is hot, but in a humorless film, did we need our source of humor coming from a distinguished soldier reduced to a teenage girl at the sight of a hunky man? Lois Lane absolutely has the potential to be an exciting proactive character, and Amy Adams has shown that type of pluck, but she isn’t given the material necessary here. The weak character development lets down the terrific casting.
In the end, there’s enough worthwhile here to create excitement about the franchise as it goes forward. Snyder is clearly committed to not letting Superman get too jokey or too taken for granted. Snyder loves dealing with forces of nature in his films, and we can certainly expect that in future inevitable installments. Cavill and Adams have the right stuff for their roles, even if they aren’t able to generate much chemistry here with the little they’re given. Perhaps a somewhat more grounded foe (Lex Luthor, anyone?) can remedy the feeling of non-stop repetitive barrage that eventually starting to wear this film down, and the moral dilemma of saving people vs. stopping a villain can be placed front and center in the future. They’ve made some interesting changes to how Superman is traditionally handled, changes which I admire. However, between the exposition, the cliches, the repetitive and overly busy action, the gender dynamic, the weak character development… there are simply too many notches against Man of Steel to consider it a full-blown success. You want to leave a Superman movie dreaming about how a man could fly. This Superman takes some nice leaps, but never stays off the ground.