Man of Steel is the reinvention of a classic superhero for this age of angst. The latest Superman incarnation is a weighty motif that picks up where the Dark Knight trilogy stopped and further pushes comic-book movies from men-in-tights cinema escapism to the dilemma of what it means to be super different.
But missing in this cerebral superhero adventure is the higher purpose of such entertainment, namely a grand sense of old-fashioned fun.
The film begins near the end of Krypton, the home world of Superman, aka Kal-El, re-imagined to look suspiciously like it belongs in one of the Star Wars prequels, as mining of the planet’s core has left the world unstable and weeks from destruction. Foremost scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is sounding the doomsday warning, but no one on Krypton’s governing council believes him.
He has an unlikely ally in General Zod (Michael Shannon), who uses the occasion to launch a government coup and seize control of Krypton; however, Jor-El rejects his invitation to join the rebellion. It’s a decision that will have dire consequences for many, including Zod, who’s captured along with his accomplices and banished to the phantom zone, an inter-dimensional prison. He later escapes and comes to Earth with revenge in mind against Jor-El’s son.
Before Krypton explodes, Jor-El and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) save their infant boy from sharing their fiery fate by rocketing him through space to Earth, a planet where he will look like a human, but is anything but. “He will be a god to them,” Jor-El tells Lara. And thus the film’s arching theme: How does a god live among ordinary people?
When we meet him, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is an adult and a sullen and chiseled paragon of self-discipline who walks among us but is not one of us. He can change the world for better or worse, but he remains a closeted superhero, a scraggly nomad drifting through life and helping strangers, then disappearing without a trace.
Provided only in flashback, Clark’s childhood and teen years are included as important pieces to the human complexities of the superhuman as we’ve never seen him: in self conflict.
Raised by a Kansas farmer and his wife, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), Clark is the ultimate outsider, who is raised to believe that humans are not ready for the revelation that we are not alone in the universe — let alone that this single alien is powerful enough to conquer our planet and enslave humanity.
Jonathan is so afraid of the world’s reaction to his adopted alien son, he chastises Clark whenever he reveals his incredible abilities by heroic acts, like saving fellow classmates from drowning in a sinking school bus. Jonathan is also willing to sacrifice himself to maintain his son’s secret identity, a noble gesture that haunts Clark into adulthood. And so Clark waits to out himself, until the arrival of Zod forces Superman’s appearance.
Screenwriter David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, and story credits to The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises), with a story assist by Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan, summons a man of steel as a man of uncertainty and in literal alienation. While not psychologically damaged like Bruce Wayne, Superman is far from the embodiment of self confidence to which we’ve grown accustomed.
Cavill plays the part accordingly; less toothy smile, ala Christopher Reeve, but far more interesting than Brandon Routh’s dullish performance. But an angst-ridden superhero grows weary.
The 1978 Superman starring Reeve bubbled over with fun as pure popcorn entertainment. Man of Steel never approaches that level of awe and wonder, though director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is careful never to replicate the plodding and lackluster Superman Returns.
Snyder’s Man of Steel exists as the studio antidote to that 2006 yawnfest, with a power-punched third act that never lets up. Instead, it pushes aside the drama and character development for a CGI gorge of destruction and sky battles as Clark Kent, now in Superman mode, fights to stop Zod and his followers from turning Earth into another Krypton. And thus a superhero film morphs into an alien invasion film, complete with zippy space crafts and advanced weaponry and machines.
Cumbersomely sandwiched into this story is Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Daily Planet. Lane is the first to uncover Kent’s secret identity, but chooses to keep it a secret at his request. She’s also later advised by a holographic Jor-El on how to help his son stop Zod and save Earth.
Cavill and Adams have better chemistry than Routh and Kate Bosworth as Lois in Superman Returns, but there’s no playfulness to their relationship as with Reeve and Margot Kidder. The fact that Lois knows Superman’s non-super identity is clearly an acknowledgement by Goyer of how silly that secret is, and that a brilliant investigative reporter would somehow be fooled by a pair of glasses, clumsy gait, and ordinary clothes.
And while that makes logical sense, it also robs the film of the Clark and Lois romance. There’s little to bind these two disparate souls, other than chance meetings and inevitable rescues. It’s understandable why Lois would fall for him, but what is it about her that captures Clark’s attention?
Hans Zimmer’s score is memorable and stirring, but never obtrusive, punctuating the big moments with violin swirls and percussion beats. His score mirrors Man of Steel as a start-from-scratch reinvention of the Superman franchise, unlike Superman Returns’ slavish adherence to Richard Donner’s Superman.
The casting is equally good: Crowe plays Marlon Brando well and Shannon makes for a menacing screen presence as did Terence Stamp, when comparing both Man of Steel actors to their counterparts in the first two Superman movies. But Zod is too much villain for what should be Superman’s movie. The maniacal leader’s arrival on Earth only serves to detract from his heroic nemesis, still in his infancy stages of superheroics.
The last half hour of Man of Steel might as well be Superman Unleashed, as his abilities are fully revealed to the world in visually impressive and inventive ways. Lacking in this film is the everyday, do-gooder heroism. One of the great moments of the 1978 Superman is the hero’s introduction to our world, as he saves Lois after a helicopter crash, stops a boat of escaping thieves, keeps a crippled Air Force One in flight, and even rescues a kitten trapped in a tree — all in one breathtaking sequence of strength and bravery.
Man of Steel opts to default to the inevitable sequel to chronicle such deeds. This is merely an introduction to the Superman to come, as if Batman Begins stopped just short of Wayne becoming Batman. Thus, Man of Steel is an expensive set-up piece that puts everything and everyone in the familiar positions, but moves no further. Until then, Superman, as we know him, is a hero grounded by a film that flies but never truly soars.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.