Ever since it was announced that a new Superman movie was in the works, fans seemed to immediately latch on to the project and even perceive it as something akin to the holy grail. Back in 2010 when it was revealed that Christopher Nolan would be “godfather-ing” the film, expectations soared, and then when it was revealed the film would be titled Man of Steel (not such a surprising move actually), it furthered people’s considerations that this would be the next Dark Knight. The early previews continued to show promise with last summer’s teaser trailer being compared cinematically with The Tree of Life as it carried a lush artistic vibe to it and didn’t even show any action sequence, and then there was the unveiling of a poster this fall, showcasing Superman in handcuffs, which really gave a provocative spin on such an iconic character. So now finally, after three years of speculation, Man of Steel has finally arrived in theaters, a movie that proudly wears its attempt to re-imagine Superman for a modern audience. It certainly is a re-imagination, and modern…but it just doesn’t feel like Superman either.
Superman’s origin story has been modified a bit to fit with the more science-fiction approach that the film takes to the mythos, and this is made clear right from the film’s start. The film begins by showing us the title character’s birth on his home planet of Krypton, which has outlawed natural birth, and has instead relied on science and cloning for reproduction for centuries. We discover that Superman’s (Henry Cavill) father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) believes that Krypton is under threat of imminent destruction due to the planet’s unstable core, which is only further complicated when General Zod (Michael Shannon) stages a coup on the government. Seeking to save the Kryptonian race, Jor-El sends his son to earth while encoding the race’s genetic coding into his DNA. After this introductory sequence, however, we flash-forward decades into the future to discover Superman (AKA Clark Kent AKA Kal-El) has gone on to live on Earth as an outcast. Fearful that he will be rejected for his inhuman abilities, the character has jumped from job to job his whole life, changing his identity several times. Through unexplained means, however, he eventually discovers a Kryptonian scout ship that was sent to him by his father, that fully elaborates on his past, but this ship is also soon discovered by reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Just as Superman is beginning to fully comprehend his abilities, however, General Zod reveals himself to have survived Krypton’s destruction, and has now come to Earth with a desire to wipe-out humanity indefinitely.
It all sounds great on paper, as it has all the makings for being an epic superhero movie that can also explore the human condition. So why then does Man of Steel feel so mediocre, and often stoic and emotionless? Well, I don’t want to point fingers at any one person, but I will say that for a while I was secretly feeling that picking Zack Snyder to direct this picture could prove to be its undoing. I personally feel that Snyder has had a spotty record at best in regards to his filmography, and in many ways he is a most infuriating style-over-substance director. I’ll admit that I found 300 and his Dawn of the Dead remake to be amusing diversions, but I don’t feel I’m alone in saying that his take on Watchmen was immensely disappointing. While faithful in regards to capturing the imagery of Alan Moore and David Gibbons brilliant comic book, the film strongly misunderstood the sensibility and beauty of the original story, and was so uneven in it’s tone that it would almost be an understatement to call the film unfocused. When his fourth feature came out, the abysmal Sucker Punch, I was on the verge of calling Snyder the new M. Night Shymalan. I almost feel that it was only more of a folly for me to expect that Snyder could deliver a better superhero tale this time around, as basically the same problems of the Watchmen film are all present here, only this time it’s faults are even more damning.
In recent interviews the film’s creators had been saying that Man of Steel is an attempt to humanize the character, and make him relatable to audiences. It’s a recurring motif throughout the film that Clark feels that he would not be accepted by these humans if they knew who he really was, and for most of the movie he is played as an outcast. Certainly not a bad idea for a comic book movie (even if X-Men is a better title for one to explore societal outcasts in), it’s just Man of Steel’s is handled in such a hap-hazard fashion that it’s difficult for it to elicit any sort of stark reaction. During the film’s first half, the film just jumps from set-piece to set-piece in a very sloppy manner, with little breathing room allowed to take it all in. The scenes we see of Clark Kent growing up whilst discovering his super powers and dealing with torment from bullies often feel trite and cliched, and it doesn’t help that the film rarely has any humor to it. While many people say that The Dark Knight was very bleak for a comic book movie, a lot of people also disregard that the film did have plenty of levity, and found an appropriate ratio for combining the fantastical elements with the realism. Man of Steel however, just feels plain, and more than a little bit self-serious.
Snyder just seems to be the type of director who is far more interested in spectacle and testosterone, rather than one who knows how to capture the nuance that would make the film’s dramatic ambitions really work. The film has plenty of forced scenes that scream for the audience to give the film their emotional investment but they all fall on deaf ears. A scene of Superman healing Lois Lane by cauterizing a wound with his heat vision, a flashback to Clark’s human father forbidding him from saving him from a twister attack, a latter moment when Superman screams after having just killed someone…none of it makes us feel any sort of sympathy for these characters. After Snyder seems to finish with the film’s “would-be” musings, he simply bombards us with an unending battle sequence that seems to have a sole purpose of out-doing The Avengers in terms of wanton destruction. It does, but just without an ounce of that film’s wit or creativity. We see buildings get destroyed, super powered baddies get violently pummeled, countless human soldiers become swiftly annihilated, all while intermittently General Zod will say some superfluous bullshit to let us know he’s a tawdry excuse for a villain. Even the stylistic choices seem iffy, as the technology of the Kryptonians seem more in line with Alien, than for anything in the DC Universe. Hell, at times this movie even felt like a live-action adaptation of Dragon Ball Z.
The talented cast is wasted for the most part as well. Henry Cavill does well with the material he’s giving, and doesn’t let his British accent slip once, but he ultimately comes off as mundane. Amy Adams has proven to be a powerful actress in recent years, and she does give some spunk to Lois Lane’s character, but once again there are scenes that feel rather out of place for the iconic love interest (a scene where she tells a pair of military offers to stop “measuring their dicks” comes to mind). Even Michael Shannon, an actor who I have time-and-time again called one of the very best working American screen actors, gives a disappointing performance here. Zod comes off as brash and exaggerated, and it would of been far more effective had they found a way to convey the character as creepy.
After Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns premiered back in 2006, many fans complained that the movie felt too dated and ordinary. While much of that criticism wasn’t unfounded, the movie still did come closer towards capturing the character’s status-quo and aesthetic better than Man of Steel does. It can be so befuddling that this character has really yet to receive an all-pleasing movie iteration, especially in a time when reboots on pop-culture icons (i.e. Star Trek, Batman, James Bond) have become so warmly received and successful. I suppose it’s difficult as by nature the character calls for plenty of special effects and huge budgets, which as we all know can prove detrimental towards any characterization and humanity a film’s script may try to convey. As it stands, Man of Steel is a very unfortunate misfire, especially as it has been revealed that it is intended for this film to make way for a shared movie universe for DC, as Marvel has been doing with their films. With a Man of Steel sequel already in the works, and the Justice League movie also underway, the Man of Steel’s indefinitely mixed reaction isn’t really starting this new projected movie series off with a bang…especially seeing that Zack Snyder is certain to be heavily involved with it.