1.5 stars out of 4.
Are truth, justice and the American way still relevant in 2013? This is the central question behind Man of Steel that of the singular most iconic superhero’s worth in this post-modern world. Can the inherent Kryptonian Boy Scout make a difference anymore? In this Christopher Nolan produced vision it comes at the cost of the character.
The film is an exasperatingly frustrating thing to sit through. Sure the story elements are upfront, but in fact they may be too upfront at the cost of seeming redundant. Superman (Henry Cavill) comes across as more of a reactionary figure being prodded along by the plot than Earth’s lone protector. Inherent are many problems which recall those of Watchmen, a film dedicated entirely to replicating a graphic novel to the point of inducing sleep in its audiences because the presentation was so completely overdone and lacked the story’s impact.
Whoever decided Zack Snyder was the appropriate choice to direct a Superman film should have their head examined. Watchmen was a film so far away from Superman in energy, tone, characterization, plotting, length and presentation that you couldn’t have done worse if you tried. The relative backlash against the ill-fated Superman Returns (Though it made nearly $400 million for the studio, it was deemed a failure) as a quasi-sequel to Superman I and II has led to an extremely dull and relatively witless sci-fi post-modern actioner.
And this is truly a dull picture. The film opens with Kal-el’s birth, supposedly the first live Kryptonian birth in centuries because Krypton is now suddenly a dystopic sci-fi nightmare. The opening shots of this new Superman film are extremely lingering close-ups of Lara in childbirth. Yes, because this is how we need to open a Superman film after seven years. To make a longer story short (and this runs somewhere around twenty minutes or so, presumably to cram in a few more action set pieces and give Russell Crowe time in action.) Krypton is about to implode due to over harvesting of resources, nobody ever believes Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, in a low-key role is a poor substitute for Terrence Stamp) comes on his bid for conquest, now under the guise of attempting to save the planet (which gets very tired very quickly) whilst in actuality placing himself as sole ruler. Jor-el manages to escape and places the infant Kal in a space pod, but only after spending time in another action sequence to steal a codex containing Kryptonian genetics to send with Kal in order to preserve Krypton or somehow or perhaps to serve the plot later….
In short, Kal is finally sent off into space, Zod and his insurrection are sent to the Phantom Zone but not before Zod declaring his vengeance against Kal-el (Does this really make any sense?) and finally if not mercifully Krypton explodes.
The pod lands on Earth, and instead of receiving any sort of conventional origin story either detailed or abbreviated, we are told in brief flashbacks whilst the young Clark Kent is drifting around the world in search of himself. (In one of many obvious and unnecessary elements stolen directly from Batman Begins, which in turn lifted from Batman: Year One.) For some reason the current trend of revealing a character’s childhood backstory in multiple short flashbacks throughout the course of the main narrative is continually re-used despite being absolutely disjointing and extremely ineffective. (Think of the abomination that was Speed Racer.) This sets up Clark’s childhood in Smallville, living as the child of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both horribly underused) and struggling to come to terms with his strange differences from everyone else.
After several sequences of his trying and dull nomadic episodes and their eventual payoff by revealing his superhuman abilities, Clark infiltrates a government expedition where we first meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and finds an abandoned Kryptonian scout ship. After rescuing Lois form the ship’s defenses, we are greeted by the obligatory scene in these films of the dead-father-hologram-explaining-who-Clark-Kent-really-is-and-what-he-is-supposed-to-do.
Lois recovers and sets out to track down this mystery man who she firmly believes is an alien. After a few days research, she actually manages to do this and arrives at the Kent farm, where Clark recounts his adoptive father’s death. Jonathan Kent’s death is another moment in Man of Steel that throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings in that it sets up a situation that is extremely contrived and also very easy for Clark to overcome while not revealing himself. Originally Kent dies of a heart attack and it is Clark’s inability to prevent his death that torments him with a sense of guilt and greater responsibility that forms a central touchstone of the character’s identity.
After more unnecessary exposition Zod announces his bid for world destruction unless Kal hands himself over. After some debate, Clark hands himself over to the military in the Superman guise, and we are finally told the plot that we already knew was coming thirty minutes in. It is now a Mano- e-Mano battle between Superman and Zod’s army, bent on the destruction of Earth in order to create a new Kryptonian world to rule.
Things blow up. Buildings crumble, a city becomes a veritable wasteland of debris, all while the human race watches dumbfounded. After a few minutes you cease to care as the images are so disjointed and monotonous that the audience is immediately distanced from the story once more. This is a film where the actors are clearly giving it their all, but are continually dragged down by the unyielding mass of junk around them. It is virtually impossible to tread water in this for longer than an hour. The film lasts nearly two and a half hours.
The most problematic element besides the cliff notes script is the camerawork that should have never been deemed releasable. There are incessant artificial snap zooms in and out of the frame that are so completely disorienting that you simply want to leave the auditorium. The action is so constant and dull that I found myself disconnected from the movie frequently, and struck more by things like the film grain visible. (The film was mercifully shot on 35mm, and the grain visible in the DI is very pleasant.) In contrast, the camerawork in the dialogue scenes is marred often by some truly horrid shakycam that absolutely wrecks the scenes in question.
The bland visuals do not help either. This film, like its modern brethren are shot in a very cold harsh light, and timed in the edit suite to be extremely harsh, devoid of any real color. It is an unpleasant film to look at. As for the sound mix, it was rather dull and all over the place. The Dolby 7.1 surround is too loud in the action at the expense of detail and too soft in the quiet moments, as was Dark Knight Rises.
Man of Steel is a picture that is no fun. I was interested in the characters, in what was going on with them and how they reacted to one another. The actors are really trying with what material they have, but are continually dragged down by the surrounding movie.
We all get it. The studio wanted a Dark Knight Superman. Supposedly, Superman is so out of place in 2013 that he isn’t allowed to exist anymore as he has since 1938, and must be heavily modified to suit modern tastes. Man of Steel is a film that stars Superman, but at the cost of mild-mannered Clark Kent. There is none of the Superman we have come to know and respect after 75 years. And yes, I know that this is supposedly an origin story. It is as lacking of the titular hero’s character as the Nolan Bat-films which feature so little of Batman’s identity that they can hardly be considered Batman films any longer.
And top all of this off by simply reusing the already tread plot elements of Superman I and II but dumbed down for a “best-of” condensation. Man of Steel had multitudes of paths to travel down, and yet for some reason it was decided to return to the same ground already tread by Richard Donner in the 1978 and 1980 films. It isn’t as if there aren’t decades of Superman stories to pull from.
What I missed most from Man of Steel was the humanity. There’s no life in the picture. There’s no spark, no vitality, no energy to really pull us into the story. Comics are all about imagination. Superman was the product of the Depression, a dream figure to inspire minds to escape their daily horrors. Despite having their flaws the reason why the the Donner films, in particular the first film, are still genuinely moving is because they have both spirit and properly motivated drama. Along with Batman (1989), Superman: The Movie began and created the pathway that all superhero films must tread. Man of Steel goes in the opposite direction. Ultimately the film is a frustrating experience along the lines of Superman Returns. It just happens to be for many of the opposite reasons.